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Galveston’s Wetlands: A Birding Paradise Amid Coastal Marshes

Wetlands in Galveston, Texas

Water is life – It’s a simple premise that links all the stories in this wetlands issue. If you live here, you know it. If you are visiting, you also know it. It’s why you are here. It’s also why so many birds are here at all times of the year. Mixing freshwater from the Trinity River with the salty Gulf water across the Galveston Bay estuary complex drives a thriving, dynamic, and highly productive food web. Saltmarsh ecosystems serve as the nursery for all taxonomic levels, from invertebrates to mammals. Birds, including gulls, terns, cormorants, pelicans, herons, and egrets, use the marshes as a foraging area, taking advantage of all the tiny shrimp, crabs, and various fish species that live in this nursery habitat. Others, like ducks, rails, and some shorebirds, use the marsh as a nursery to raise their young. Raptors, flycatchers, swallows, sparrows, and blackbirds enjoy the rich insect diversity, grass seeds, and mammals the marsh supports.

If I were to recommend 2 or 3 locations where people might get a good appreciation for what our coastal saltmarshes offer for birders, I would likely steer folks towards Galveston Island State Park (bayside), East End Lagoon Nature Preserve, and maybe my personal favorite, a drive down 8-Mile Road and Sportsman’s Road. You can’t beat the experience of walking the Clapper Rail Trail through knee-high Saltmarsh Cordgrass, crossing the boardwalk over Butterowe Bayou, and standing beside our Lost Bird Project Eskimo Curlew. Eastern Willets whistle their discontent at encroachment into their territory by you, or more likely, another Willet. Galveston Island State Park showcases over 2,000 acres of native intertidal salt marsh, dune-swale, coastal prairie, and dune-beach habitat to more visitors than any other State Park in Texas. Get your annual park pass and use it as often as you like here in our Island gem.

East End Lagoon Nature Preserve is a nearly 700-acre swath of salt marsh and coastal prairie habitat at the very east end of Galveston Island. An easy way to appreciate the birds is viewing them from the raised vantage point of Seawall along the northern 1.5 miles as you approach Boddeker Road. A large culvert intertidally influences the large lagoon under the rocky barrier at the ship channel. Stop at the parking lot at the historic Fort San Jacinto point and take a few minutes to appreciate the nautical significance of where you’re standing. Two miles to your north is Fort Travis on Bolivar Peninsula, sharing the protection of Galveston, Texas City, and Houston in the previous century. Four miles northwest is the end of the Texas City Dike, splitting navigation to the east towards Houston and to the west into the port of Texas City. Scan the shoreline and waters of the channel for the myriad gulls and terns feeding to find the rarer species that seem to aggregate here at the junction of land and water. The winter months seem to offer the best diversity, but some pelagic visitors during the summer months also surprise avian gawkers. Look overhead for the graceful Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring effortlessly above their marine highway. Drive east on Boddeker Road, and look at the birds using the shorelines around the main lagoon as you cross the small inlet bridge.

If I have an hour to spend in nature nourishment, I almost always drive 8-mile Road and Sportsman’s Road with windows open and binoculars in my lap. It’s just over 2 miles from the beach to the now fenced-off rocky point jutting into West Galveston Bay, and almost all of it is natural habitat. You can appreciate the geologic formations known as the dune and swale complex, which cross many small fingers of water extending east and west away from the road.

(In a bubble or box next to this section: "72 different species of birds recorded within 45 minutes here!")

At the eastern edge of Sea Isle is the Houston Audubon Dos Vacas Muertes Sanctuary at the end of Seabird Drive. Only a couple of vehicles can park along the narrow road as you reach the sanctuary gate. This small oak motte is the primary attraction for migrating songbirds in the spring. Still, the surrounding habitat is coastal prairie fringed in intertidal salt marsh for year-round birding enjoyment. As you meander around the pond on boardwalks over the freshwater marsh areas, notice how the species composition for both plants and animals shifts to the salt pan and salt marsh you encounter emerging out the north side of the sanctuary. If you don’t want to brave the mosquitoes and marsh mud, you can access the western side of this habitat by driving north on San Jacinto Drive, then jog right or left on Concho Key to get a great view over the marsh complex.

Jamaica Beach is bordered by expansive natural marsh habitat on both the east and west sides. On Bob Smith Drive, you can get views of an example of an eroded, subsiding marsh to the west and the more protected Lorenz Family Jamaica Beach Bird & Fish Estuary within the developed area. On the northeast side of Jamaica Beach along Jolly Roger Road, you have excellent views of the neighboring Galveston Island State Park. The restoration efforts include shoreline protection to dampen wave wash and sediment rejuvenation plots within the protected marsh areas.

Traveling east from Galveston across the Bolivar Ferry, you can access some excellent marsh habitat in the Houston Audubon sanctuaries at the western end of the peninsula. Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary encompasses over 1100 acres of contiguous habitat bordered by Highway 87, the Gulf of Mexico, and the North Jetty and Beacon Bayou. This sanctuary is designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network because it hosts significant numbers of wintering shorebirds. You can experience the western portion of this habitat by parking at the 17th Street bait camp and walking out on the North Jetty. Here, you’ll appreciate the abundance of life within the rich sediment the jetty has accumulated over time. Seasonal fluctuations in tide cycles and hurricane events redistribute the sediments and rejuvenate the entire ecosystem. This sanctuary has a live link camera feed courtesy of Winnie Burkett from her house accessed through the Houston Audubon website at (Bolivar Flats Bird Cam | Sanctuaries | Houston Audubon ).

On the opposite side of Highway 87 is Houston Audubon’s Horseshoe Marsh Sanctuary. It is bordered by Highway 87, Loop 108, and 7th Street, encompassing over 650 acres of tidal lagoon, marsh, and coastal prairie ecosystem. A mowed path and boardwalk were added in the past few years, and this sanctuary is now accessible through a lot on the southeast side of Broadway/Loop 187 between 23rd and 24th streets. The boardwalk showcases a freshwater marsh habitat on the northeastern side and the adjacent brackish saltmarsh to the southwestern side.

The vast majority of our island's 7 million annual visitors come to appreciate the sandy Gulf shores along the southern edge. Suppose you value peaceful serenity and a serious connection with nature. In that case, I will encourage you to visit the other shoreline along the bay and lose yourself in the sea of Spartina as the orange sun dips over the horizon.


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