In the Spring the cacophony of sound that surrounds the High Island Rookery can be deafening. Just what is a Rookery? Think of it as a giant baby nursery for several species of birds. Cormorants, Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Herons arrive each Spring from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. Driven by instinct to procreate, they begin the arduous task of building nests, laying their eggs and then waiting for the pipping to begin. As each new chick emerges from its shell and makes its way into the world, the parents begin hunting for food to feed the hungry begging mouths of their offspring. Featherless, flightless and totally dependent on Mom and Dad, they must eat, grow feathers and practice all the skills that will enable them to successfully fledge at the proper moment in time.
One of my favorite rookeries is located on High Island. High Island is so named because it is the highest point of land on the Bolivar Peninsula, a small barrier beach that borders the Gulf of Mexico. A huge salt dome rose from the earth to form this piece of land that is approximately 38 feet above sea level. A predator-free island is located in Clay Bottom Pond, which was originally created to help supply drinking water for the employees of the growing oil industry. Surrounded by marshy water, the birds find it to be an ideal location for building nests and raising their young. See more history of High Island at: http://www.houstonaudubon.org/default.aspx/MenuItemID/757/MenuGroup/High+Island.htm
Once sites are selected in the trees and large shrubs on the island, the building begins. Each limb of the available trees is laden with nests, stacked one above the other. Picture a condominium for birds. Some wooden platforms have been built that are several layers high which are probably considered prime real estate in the bird world. (Take a moment here and think about where you might want your nest to be in a tree….on the top with blue sky above or on the bottom where bird droppings might fall upon you). The birds begin gathering sticks and fashioning their nests to their satisfaction.There is much stick stealing that occurs on the island as nest-building season begins. It appears frantic as everyone tries to “keep up with the Jones” in building a bigger and better nest. Once nest-building is completed, everyone gets busy laying their eggs followed by the boring job of incubation. They must be kept warm and turned periodically to keep the developing embryo from adhering to the inside of the egg-shell. It is an important job and all birds seem to instinctively know how to do these tasks. And of course, if one parent leaves the nest to forage for food, then the other parent usually steps in to take on the incubating duties. The ultimate goal is one that carries a heavy burden of responsibility….survival of their species on our planet.
The spectacular show bursts into full glory when the eggs start hatching. The noise factor increases with the added voices of babies begging for food. Incoming and outgoing flights of the parents increase as they continually are fishing for food to fill their offspring’s bellies. As the young mature and their feathers begin to appear, they are unruly teenagers and some of their spiky feathers give new meaning to the term “bad hair day”. As they grow, food demands increase and the babies begin doing other things like inspecting their environment, spying on other birds and nests, pulling at small sticks and “flappercizing”. They practice flapping their wings and working on building the muscles in preparation for their first flight. A fall from the nest or an aborted first flight that lands a chick in the water surrounding the Rookery could mean death since there are alligators lurking just waiting for a tasty appetizer to come close to their waiting jaws.
I have stood for hours watching the activity surrounding the Rookery. I have snapped thousands of pictures trying to capture that which cannot be captured. It simply must be witnessed to be believed. So if you happen to get the opportunity to visit High Island,Texas, be sure to make time to visit the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
No happy bird searching here. If you visit the Rookery, it’s Happy Bird Watching guaranteed!
PS: Don’t forget your bug spray!!!!