Birding by Boat
Kayaks offer a quiet and stealthy way to view spectacular birds in the shallow waters along the Texas coast.
By Jim Blackburn
There is a magical moment at the start of a kayak trip when you sit down and launch into a new adventure. We use open cockpit, sit-on-top kayaks that are very stable. To get started, you straddle it, sit down and push off. After a stroke or two, the kayak glides forward, needing only a few inches of water in which to float. And I promise you this vessel will transform your view of the Texas coast.
The marshes, grassflats and tidal flats of the Texas coast are among the most wonderful birdwatching and fishing grounds that we have. Unfortunately, creating an intimate relationship with these areas can be difficult at best. Anyone who has spent any time walking or wading our coastal bays will have stories of shoes being sucked off one’s feet by the muck that seems to grab hold and pull, not to mention long walks often referred to as death marches. In a kayak, you’re above the muck.
When my wife, Garland Kerr, and I got our kayaks, I did not appreciate how vastly different our experience of the Texas coast would be. Up until that time, I was a dedicated wade fisherman and birdwatcher, but those two activities usually occurred at different places. Garland would join me for the birdwatching but not the fishing. And while I would watch birds while fishing, the labor of walking in the marsh and the shallow bays often diverted me from fully appreciating the beauty of the marsh.
From the beginning, kayaking opened up new vistas for us. Christmas Bay lies in Brazoria County between Freeport and San Luis Pass on the backside of Follets Island. It is easily accessible from the road at numerous locations, which is a key piece of information for kayakers. It was here that I fell in love with kayaking.
The kayak is quiet — very quiet — enabling a close-up view of nature. As we glide across the shallow water of the bay, bait fish skitter before us. Approaching the shoreline at eye level, we see the hermits and other crabs backing into the marsh grass that defines the shore. We come around a point and enter a backwater lake, the water only a few inches deep. In the marsh to our right are several white ibis with their beautiful red bills shaped like a scythe — long and efficient. We slow down and watch an ibis thrust its bill deep into the mud, plunging it back and forth like a ram, pulling it out to swallow a morsel, carefully glancing at us out of the corner of its eye, making sure we are as safe as we seem.
In the soft morning light, three roseate spoonbills fly across the blue sky, a swath of pink in a landscape of green marsh grass and blue sky. The spoonbills are heading for an area that seems to be alive with all types of bird life, and we turn around and follow them to what appears to be a bird convention. Here, a symphony of bird sounds welcomes us to the rookery, a bird city within the bay.
The rookery is on an area that is slightly higher than the marsh and bay around it, a spit of land with a number of small trees and shrubs at the center, tailing off to oyster shell at either end. As we approach the tip of the land, two regal-looking wading birds stand at attention, the chocolate-brown heads and neon-orange beaks signifying oystercatchers. Mating pairs of laughing gulls line the grass that emerges from the sandy landmass, their bills blood red with lust.
Suddenly several heads pop up from the short shrubs and taller grass. The head and neck are purplish, with a long white stripe with a chestnut/cinnamon fringe extending down the underside of the neck. These are tri-colored herons, coming together for the mating season. The air is pierced by ugly grunt-like sounds that seem strange coming from such beautiful birds. But then again, these are predatory fish eaters.
As the kayak glides along the edge of the rookery island, the birds nesting in the small trees come more clearly into focus. The great egrets — magnificent white birds that have green eye patches during breeding season — nest alongside the roseate spoonbills with their elegant coloration and inelegant spoon-shaped bills that are backlit by the morning sun. Quietly we witness the black cormorants and grey night herons maneuvering for space on the backside, staying away from the gigantic great blue heron that rises like a tower from the tallest tree.
During the spring migration, some unique opportunities open up for the dedicated kayaking birdwatcher. At various times between mid-March and mid-May, migrating neo-tropical songbirds fly across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula as well as up the coast from northern Mexico. On occasion, these birds get caught by bad weather, causing them to expend great amounts of energy to simply reach the mainland. Often during these times, a “fall-out” occurs when these small birds literally fall out of the sky onto the beaches and the coastal marsh.
Once, when fishing from my kayak in a meandering marsh channel, I experienced a minor fall-out. The wind was howling and a light mist was flying by as I stalked redfish in the shallows. Suddenly my attention was caught by a small brown and yellow bird that was struggling in the wind. As I watched, it simply fell out of the sky onto the Spartina patens marsh hay.
I slowly paddled over to where the bird was lying on the grass, its spread wings holding it atop the bunched grass. As I approached, the warbler’s eyes were riveted on me as its beak lay open. To me, it seemed to be gasping for air, and I left it alone. I fished on down the channel and then returned to where the warbler had fallen, but it was gone, having gathered the strength to continue the journey. I felt richer for having witnessed this event, for having the chance to gain insight into the reality of the migration. Without a kayak, I would simply have missed that experience.
But to truly encounter the migration, Garland and I and our friends, Jack and Sue, simply paddle to it. The Bolivar Flats are merely a ferry ride across from the City of Galveston, on the Bolivar Peninsula. This fabulous shorebird area was formed by the east-to-west longshore current of the Gulf of Mexico intersecting the north jetty that protects the Houston Ship Channel. Where this natural force meets the man-made obstacle, the long-shore current slows and the sediment that is being carried along the shore drops out. Over the years, a large shallow area known as the Bolivar Flats has formed.
The Bolivar Flats is a world-class spot for birdwatching that has been preserved by the efforts of the Houston Audubon Society. The easiest entry point for kayaks is from the base of the north jetty. The flats extend north along the shoreline and east toward the Gulf, interrupted by peninsulas of salt marsh and mud flats extending in from the northeast. A spring kayak trip requires attention to both northers and tides because the flats are shallow and strong north winds can blow the water off the flats, an excellent result for feeding birds but a major problem for the kayaker.
Our group launches across a shallow wetland fringe and enters the flats. The wind is blowing strong from the southeast and we paddle directly into it. The water is so shallow that our paddling strokes are more horizontal than vertical, catching relatively little water. The tide is coming in and the birds are following the water toward the shoreline. The four of us stay quietly back from the birds, trying not to disturb the thousands that are alternately feeding and loafing on the shore. But we esperience no problems with seeing birds. They are everywhere.
A reddish egret is easy to distinguish, doing its feeding dance in the shallow water. This darkish bird with its reddish brown neck and pink bill is fascinating to watch as it fishes the shallows — wings extended, jumping from side to side. Behind it, a dozen white pelicans loaf on the muddy shoreline.
Today, the showstoppers on the flats are the avocets. Avocets are mid-sized wading birds that stand about 14 inches tall, larger than the smallish plovers and sandpipers running along the shore yet definitely smaller than the egrets and herons. Avocets are easily identified by their black and white body coloration and their light brown heads with a long, upturned bill, They are delicate birds that are delightful to watch.
A group of about 200 avocets are loafing behind a small marsh island that blocks the wind. As we watch, a black and white wing comes up and then goes back down, like a student in class, asking to be recognized. A flight of 20 comes in over our heads making a soft twittering sound as they swing into the wind and land before us, quickly tucking their upturned bills under their wings and settling in.
Suddenly we see a large cloud of birds rise from the shoreline where thousands of avocets are lined up against the water’s edge. As we paddle in that direction, the birds come into focus, thousands standing together wing to wing, a black and white and brown border between the dark mud, the green grass and the blue sky. Behind them are thousands more small waders and a few larger birds. The sight is breathtaking — so many migrants gathered together, waiting for the right time to depart for the far north to breed and return next season. I am truly grateful to see this sight that bears testament to the spirit and power of nature.
As we paddle back, a flight of brown pelicans weaves across the sky before us. When I moved to Houston in the 1970s, there were no brown pelicans on the Texas coast. Whenever I see these magnificent fishing birds, I give thanks that we humans have undone some of the harm that we have done and are doing to the natural system. And as I spend more time in my kayak, I realize how much more we need to do to protect this wonderful heritage that we have here on the Texas coast so that this experience will be available for the generations who follow us.
For me, kayaking the coast is a spiritual act, an act of communion with other living things. I am convinced that we will not protect the coast unless the people of the coast know and understand our resources and the wonder and greatness that we have before us. If we don’t use these resources, we will not value them.
Kayaks are the easiest and most entertaining way to enter our great coastal outdoors. They are safe, easy and fun. When birdwatching from a kayak, respect the birds. Stay far enough away to keep from flushing them. Nesting birds need to protect their eggs. Loafing birds need a peaceful rest. If you simply take the time to observe, you will be rewarded in more than one way.
There are numerous places from the Louisiana border to the Rio Grande where road access exists to excellent places for kayaking. TPWD has created a wonderful kayak trail at Lighthouse Lakes near Port Aransas as well as on Christmas Bay and Armand Bayou in the Houston area <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/paddlingtrail>. Other great places for kayaking include Matagorda, the Port Aransas-Rockport area, Corpus Christi and Nueces Bays and the Lower Laguna. The access is generally better on the backside of barrier islands and peninsulas than from the mainland side.
It is possible to rent kayaks in most coastal towns. If you are heading to a new area, study maps to find good access points. Contact the local chamber of commerce to get the names of area outfitters who can fix you up with kayaks, paddles and safety gear, not to mention tips on good places to launch. Always wear a life jacket. Take water and dry bags for cameras, binoculars and bird books. Get a rod holder for your fishing rod. And bring the family for a bona-fide Texas coastal experience that just might change your view of outdoor recreation.