THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Before the rest of the country enjoys a summer filled with songbirds flitting about their yards, the weary flocks make a migratory pit stop just south of Houston. More than 300 bird species rest along a string of boggy and often overlooked refuges on the Gulf Coast that can make for an enthralling day trip this time of year.
“I didn’t realize bird watching was so popular until I got down here,” says Bill Woods, who’s volunteered at the visitor center at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge with his wife Shirley since late January.
Just down the road, the annual Migration Celebration is taking place this weekend at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, featuring marsh buggy rides, guided tours and kayak trips. Spring visitors watch for species like the swarms of warblers that collide with rough weather on their way north drop and from the sky in “fallouts” to rest.
During the winter, 100,000 noisy snow geese pack the wetlands like it's a Super 8 next to a little league championship.
If you go, be sure to bring bug spray and keep in mind that these places were set aside for animals, not people. You won’t find much by way of lodging or dining directly around the refuges, although they provide an excellent excuse to spend a weekend at Surfside Beach just down the road.
Woods greets about 200 visitors a week at the Brazoria refuge on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., filling them in on the scenic drives and spots where the alligators are hanging out that week.
Unfortunately, the visitor center’s hours will become less frequent after next weekend when the Missouri native head home, but the refuge itself is open during daylight hours all year.
Several deserted miles from 288, the entrance to this 68-square-mile mix of salt and fresh water habitat can feel desolate. Once inside, though, the main visitor area offers an impressive range of ways to experience the refuge. Wheelchair-accessible viewing platforms, audio driving tours and short walks present plenty of choices for a quick trip or an all-day visit. I opted for a hike near the visitors center, where a guided trail led me past ruts gouged by feral hogs whose ancestors ran away during the war of Texas independence.
Northern cardinals flashed red in the trees before I can train my camera their direction. Back in the car, sedate gators are easy to pick out along the sloughs, and visitors stop frequently to capture flocks of ibis and flamingo-colored spoonbills on film. People who expect bird watching to involve a lot of staring through binoculars aimed at the trees will find a trip here more like a full-fledged safari, with a new species gathered at every turn in the road.
At one point, being the thoughtful young male that I am, I climbed around a gate and a warning sign to snap a picture of a lake. Instantly, two dozen herons leapt into flight and I heard what sounded like someone pushing a refrigerator into the water beside me.
After a couple hurried shots I decided not to push my luck with the still unseen alligator and tiptoed back, convinced yet again that East Texas is a lot wilder than most people think.