For the Birds
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
HIGH ISLAND, TEXAS
Little more than an hour from Houston by car, east along the coast, sits High Island. It’s not high and it’s not an island. What it is, is a rest stop on the great annual spring migration of birds from South to North America (er, fall migration if you’re Antipodean). In April and May every year, this small town of 500 souls is a riot of color and sound as it hosts a bazillion migratory birds, give or take, on their long journey north.
If you’re a bird it’ll take you about 18 hours to fly across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatán Peninsula. That’s a popular route but it’s long and tiring. Reaching the northern shore, High Island is a lonely bit of treed topography on the flat coastal saltgrass plain. It is a bird magnet. In season it is one of the top ornithological attractions in Texas if not across the entire Gulf Coast. Sølvi and I are not birders but thought it might be interesting to take a look. So we loaded up the big lenses and jumped in the car.
The first thing we learned once we got there is that if you’re a birdwatcher, big lens has an entirely different meaning than for us lowly street photographers. We were completely outgunned. Everyone else had bazooka-sized lenses, and heavy duty tripods else how could you hope to lift and hold the durn things? Nonetheless we thought we’d see if we could capture an interesting image or two.
The other thing we learned is that birders speak a whole different language. We had people coming up to us spouting ornithologish and could only shake our heads sadly and ask if they spoke English. Or Norwegian or French, or some other language from our solar system.
So what was the result? I think we did OK for a first try, even with our puny lenses. It was a target-rich environment. We went for the big birds, and they were everywhere.
The prize for best-dressed had to go to the Roseate Spoonbills. They’re done up in pink during the mating season, and could compete with flamingos in their finery. We also saw a ton of herons, egrets and cormorants. Little birds, in our ignorance, were ignored. I don’t know, that’s maybe a failing in our upbringing.
There’s a large freshwater pond at High Island with an island in the middle of it. The island is a noisy crowded rookery for the big birds. The pond is home to a population of happy alligators, who provide an important symbiotic benefit. They keep away the raccoons and coyotes that otherwise would feast on the eggs and young ‘uns. We learned from one of the birders who spoke a bit of English that in exchange, the alligators each get about three fledglings a day. We saw one taken and there seemed to be no ruckus or complaint, even from the victim. It was just a calm fatalism. What’s the point, I guess, of trying to argue with a mute leather-skinned beast that’s 100 times your weight class? Still, it seemed a tough deal to accept.
Sølvi and I stayed at the rookery for a few hours. We took photos of many different birds, in flight and nesting with their chicks, but it was the pink, orange-tailed beauties that captured most of our attention. Their size and bright colors, the goofy spoon-billed faces, and the intricate architecture of their wings and feathers were a real joy to see.
So what is it about High Island that attracts all these colorful characters? Not only the avian variety, legend has it that the pirate Jean Lafitte and his crew used to hide out and party under the oaks there back in the day when they sailed the Gulf and Caribbean and needed an out of the way place to lay low for a bit. None of their treasure has yet to be found at High Island but gold of another sort has – black gold. Discovered in 1922, the oil field is about played out now but how to explain this unusual place?
For that we must turn to geology. Underground there’s a large salt diapir that’s slowly risen up from miles deep to almost reach the surface, piercing and pushing aside the rocks on either side. In doing so it’s bulged up the surface about 25’ or more above the surrounding, flat coastal plain to create a local high spot. Here’s roughly what that looks like, in a cut-away cross-section view . . .
Under the pressure and heat of burial, and given lots of time, natural salt can flow. Think of it like a half-filled pot of steaming oatmeal - light and lubricious. Then on top gently sprinkle thin layers of heavier sand and silt. Little by little keep adding more dirt, all the while preserving the moisture and slipperiness of the underlying cereal. There’d unavoidably be spots where the load was a little uneven and eventually you’d get to a point where the weight of the dirt (sediment overburden) against the less-dense underlying oatmeal (salt) would initiate movement. An area with heavier overburden would sink down a little more, and an adjacent area start to bulge up.
Give yourself 165 million years and you’re likely to get a diapir or two of breakfast cereal creating a small dome in your pot. On top of that topographical high you get trees instead of saltgrass, attracting migrating birds and absconding pirates. And oil. It’s amazing what gravity and buoyancy alone can accomplish, given time.
The alligator-filled moat with its unholy arrangement protecting/devouring little babies wasn’t there at the time of Lafitte, though. That came later, with the town, as a water reservoir.
Click this camera icon to link to some favorite photos of ours from High Island . . .