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Sneak Attack on High Island

A small group of volunteers whips this birding mecca back into shape in the aftermath of Hurricane Humberto.

By Karen Hastings

On a warm morning last October, Austin engineering assistant Laurie Foss was up before daylight, loading her pickup with handsaws, clippers, gloves, goggles, work boots and a cooler of fruit and other snacks. She and partner Shelia Hargis, a police crime analyst, were off on a rescue mission, their sights set on a small bubble of trees rising out of the coastal marshes east of Galveston Bay.

An old friend was in trouble. Calls for help had been going out via telephone and e-mail for several days, since the Texas Gulf Coast awoke to the damage done by Hurricane Humberto's September 13, 2007, sneak attack.

High Island - not an island at all, but an oasis of tree-covered habitat beloved by birds and birders around the world - had taken quite a hit. In sanctuaries owned by the Houston Audubon Society, the storm ripped century-old oaks from the ground. It obliterated trails and boardwalks with a tangle of fallen branches and stout grape vine. "The Cathedral," a tree-shaded deck where binocular-toting nature tourists once gathered to watch buntings, orioles, warblers and other migrating Neotropical birds, was suddenly open to the sky.

Foss and Hargis were 250 miles away when they heard High Island had been tempest-tossed, but it didn't take them long to formulate a plan. They cleared weekend schedules, packed their gear - including binoculars, of course - and joined a small band of High Island friends, coming to its aid.

"We heard about what had happened to High Island on Saturday morning, and we made a decision: What if we go help?" recalls Foss. "We've certainly enjoyed going there many times. We decided if we say we love the place, we should put that love into action."

Months later, thanks to many volunteers who "put their love into action," High Island is still afloat in its sea of marsh grass, and waves of colorful migrating birds are still expected for their annual spring show. Last year 6,100 birders from 48 states and 15 foreign countries signed the guest books at High Island sanctuaries. Refuge Manager Winnie Burkett, who has managed them for the Houston Audubon Society since 1993, expects this year to be the same.

Volunteers have worked most weekends, clearing trails, hauling debris, planting trees and yanking loads of invasive species trying to take advantage of the altered landscape. Those who knew the big old trees by heart may cringe at some of the changes, but newcomers - and certainly the birds - will still make their way to High Island for the same reasons as before.

"It's devastating and personally painful, but we do know it's gone on for millennia," says Burkett, who admits to shedding "quite a few tears" in the days after the hurricane's sneak attack. "Mother Nature repairs it and it will grow back. Mostly it's just an overwhelming amount of work. I want to say we couldn't do what we do without our volunteers. Our volunteers are exceptionally valuable to us."

Humberto certainly wasn't kind to High Island.

The fastest developing storm in U.S. history, Humberto was a nameless clump of rain clouds in the southern Gulf of Mexico when it first drew notice on Saturday, September 8, 2007. By lunchtime Wednesday, it had organized into a tropical depression, with 35 mph winds. By 2 p.m., Tropical Storm Humberto had earned its name with winds of 45 mph, and was churning 70 miles off the Upper Texas Coast.

High Islanders weren't particularly worried: A 38-foot rise puts this tiny community, found at the foot of the Bolivar Peninsula, on the highest Gulf Coast ground between Mobile, Alabama, and the Yucatan Peninsula. The sanctuaries had weathered Hurricane Rita in 2005 and were expecting mostly rain and downed branches from her little brother 'Beto. But when Humberto reached hurricane force and roared ashore in the early hours of Thursday, September 13, High Island was in its bull's-eye.

Burkett awoke that morning to frightening reports from the sanctuary caretaker. A long summer of rain had soaked the ground, and trees rooted in the shallow soil covering High Island's salt dome core were no match for the hurricane's 85 mph winds. At 143-acre Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary, four venerable live oaks had fallen near the picnic area, crushing a memorial bench and picnic table, and trails were blocked by fallen branches and another of the old oaks.

At 50-acre Louis B. Smith Bird Sanctuary, better known as Boy Scout Woods, the damage started just inside the front gate. Ruby-throated hummingbirds sampled pink lantana, turk's cap and firecracker bush, oblivious to a downed hackberry that now dominated the butterfly garden. An old water oak lay only a few feet from the front kiosk, a large crater where its exposed 10-foot root ball used to be. A mature catalpa was also down near the edge of the concrete block bathrooms, and another water oak split and fell just shy of the new equipment barn.

"We just lucked out right and left on buildings. Not on trees though," says a rueful Burkett. "We used to be all trees here, near the grandstand, and now we have all sky."

To understand the concerns humans have for High Island, and its place in the hearts of birders, you have to understand its geographically crucial role in the lives of migrating birds.

Ted Eubanks, who has been coming to High Island since before the sanctuaries were created, explains that this relatively tiny expanse of trees sits astride a migration freeway used by birds on their annual flight north from Central and South America to spring nesting sites. When seasonal storms force these tired, hungry, salt-crusted travelers to seek temporary refuge after an arduous trans-Gulf odyssey, High Island habitat is waiting.

"As far as you can look in either direction it's all marsh, except for this little pimple of woods at High Island," says Eubanks. "It is the one place that provides the sort of woodland habitat these types of Neotropical migrants are looking for. For that one moment in time, thousands of birds are critically dependent on this teeny fragment of habitat."

Desperate times for migrating birds mean exhilarating opportunities for birders. Birds that will fan out to breed and nest across the vastness of North America are concentrated, for a few key weeks in the spring, at this one, very popular birdwatching location. "Sometimes it's hard to imagine that the five species of birds you're looking at on one limb of one tree ... ultimately will occupy hundreds of thousands of miles of breeding habitat across Alaska to the Maritimes - the entire expanse of North America," Eubanks says. "To me, it's miraculous."

On a Saturday in mid-October, only a month after the storm, the natural sounds of Boy Scout Woods are masked by the whine of chainsaws, the thud of axes and the laughter of volunteers.

A collection of rakes leans against weathered bleachers near the front entrance, while a pile of gloves and bug spray await the arrival of more workers. In the spring, these bleachers are usually crowded with birders watching the wildlife gathered at nearby Purkey's Pond.

Joanna Friesen, a retired university dance professor and a regular at High Island, strides out of the woods in search of a Weed Wrench, a hefty orange metal implement used to pry unwanted shrubs like Chinese privet up by their roots. Birds appreciate privet's late-winter berries, but this fast-growing invader will quickly overwhelm tree seedlings and other desirable plants if not kept in check. After a brief lesson - set, step, pull - Friesen disappears back into the brush.

Deeper in, one crew is clearing and rerouting a trail that now dead-ends in a tangle of downed yaupon branches. Elsewhere, other crews also are sawing broken limbs and hauling debris into piles. Retired architect Peggy Boston, in a red plaid shirt and ragged jeans, wields big clippers, while retired physician Mike Stelling handles a chainsaw. Octogenarian Aaron Stoley says he's been coming to monthly High Island work days for "a long, long time." In all, a dozen or more regulars and newcomers are sweating in the October sunshine.

Tom Reuland, a space shuttle design engineer, spends his first visit to High Island "hacking down bushes and cutting lots of tree branches" with all the others. "I was saddened to hear it was damaged by the hurricane," says Reuland, who describes himself as a novice birder. "I thought it would be nice to help restore it."

Burkett says she learned from her Hurricane Rita experience: This time, she called in a professional tree service that first weekend, attacking fallen trees and limbs no amateurs could handle. Since then, volunteers have labored to get the sanctuaries in shape for spring. "We worked at getting the trails open first, and then we got to work on the habitat," says Burkett, pointing to strips of plastic surveyor tape on young trees nearly hidden by deadfall and privet shoots. "You can see there are a lot of trees in here. We're just making sure they survive."

From the beginning, High Island's sanctuaries have been a labor of love.

An avid birder who's now in the business of helping communities develop nature tourism, Eubanks first began birding High Island in the early 1970s. He recalls the shock back then of arriving at one particular wooded lot on the Bolivar Peninsula and finding it stripped "down to the sand" for test drilling. "A number of us, three or four, began to become concerned that, if we didn't find a way to secure at least some of these coastal properties, we could very well end up losing them," he says.

Eubanks bought three small High Island lots and got to know his neighbors in this small former oil company community of houses, a few churches and not much else. In 1980, he received a call from landowner Louis Smith, who was looking to sell four acres of what was known as Boy Scout Woods, after a long-gone camp. Somehow, the fledgling Houston Audubon Society scraped together the money to make what was then a huge leap of faith.

It took several years to pay off the debt, with annual auctions of donated goods, bake sales and other small fundraising efforts. Supporters sometimes sat by the front gate of Boy Scout Woods with a tin can, collecting donations from visiting Dallas, Austin and San Antonio birders. The sanctuary grew with addition of the Eubanks lots, and with 42 acres donated by Amoco Production Company.

Later, the owners of the Smith family homestead, with its heart of mature oaks, persimmons, pecans and pear trees, also agreed to sell. The Houston Audubon Society partnered with several groups, including the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Amoco, to acquire and restore adjacent fields, woods, wetlands and ponds. The refuge now includes a man-made lake planted with native bald cypress, and Heron Island, where thousands of grunting cormorants, great and snowy egrets, little blue and tricolored herons, and crowd-pleasing roseate spoonbills roost and build nests.

Other High Island refuges include the smaller Gast Red Bay Sanctuary and the Eubanks Woods Bird Sanctuary, both named for past Houston Audubon Society leaders who helped create the sanctuary system.

Back in Austin, Hargis and Foss look back on their rescue trip with satisfaction.

"When we first got there (to Smith Oaks,) you couldn't go more than 10 feet along the path, it was so obstructed," says Foss. "The highlight was going back Monday morning to the path that we had worked on all Sunday afternoon and seeing that we had cleared it. If I hadn't known that the hurricane had come through, I wouldn't have believed it."

Both women said they were proud to work alongside the many Houston Audubon Society volunteers they met that weekend. "We were certainly not alone," Foss says. "They are an amazingly dedicated group."

Many of the volunteers said their initial dismay turned into optimism when they saw how High Island's friends rallied to help in the storm's aftermath. "The passion and devotion of the volunteers to just roll up their sleeves and get started is just amazing," said one. "They created a miracle here. The story - it's very hopeful."

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