Trip Itinerary: A Birdy Weekend at High Island

By Stuart Nelson

Orchard Oriole (Cameron Kirkpatrick @TheTexasBirder)

Get those picnics packed, binoculars polished, and hiking shoes laced up tight – spring migration is upon us! This special time of year, lasting roughly from March through May, and peaking in late April, brings over a billion birds through Texas, many of which stop along the Upper Texas Coast (UTC) to rest after an exhausting journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed, the UTC offers some of the finest birding in the world, so if you’re considering getting out there to experience this popular pastime for yourself, now is the time to do it.

Of the 17 sanctuaries that Houston Audubon manages, the four located in the small Texas town of High Island are perhaps the most famous and well-trafficked. Spring migration offers a chance to observe over 200 species of birds in High Island alone!

But with so much to see, where should one begin? It is useful to have a game plan in mind before you go, so I’ve put together this sample 2-day itinerary. It is meant to provide new visitors with a rough outline to make their first experience a success. Feel free to mix it up or follow this guide as it is written. Most importantly, remember – at the end of the day, it is best to allow your curiosity to lead. Go with the flow!

Keep in mind that while most birds can be seen all day long, many species are most active from early to mid-morning when it is cool. There is often a “lull” midday before things pick up a bit in the late afternoon as they feed before roosting. Therefore, sunrise and sunset times are important to be aware of.


March 15 – 7:31 am
April 15 – 6:55 am
May 15 – 6:29 am


March 15 – 7:30 pm
April 15 – 7:48 pm
May 15 – 8:07 pm


  • For the purposes of this guide, I will go with the April times. Keep in mind that Houston Audubon Sanctuaries are open sunrise to sunset 365 days a year.
  • I refer to the trail numbers present in Smith Oaks and Boy Scout Woods Sanctuaries, so be sure to bring a map, which can be obtained at the kiosks at the sanctuary entrances. You can also CLICK HERE to find them.
  • For High Island in particular, afternoons can be more active than mornings depending on the right weather conditions. Migrants traveling across the Gulf of Mexico arrive in the mid-to-late afternoon, so activity can increase dramatically and suddenly in what is referred to as a “Fall Out.” Typically, a cold front with north winds accompanied by rain or scattered showers will force birds to land in High Island for food and water after an exhausting journey. On the other hand, a strong south wind will carry birds further inland, making activity a little more sparse throughout the sanctuaries.
  • The most important thing is to allow the birds to guide you rather than your pre-determined schedule. If you happen across lots of activity or a great mixed flock, stick it out!

Day 1: Smith Oaks, Eubanks Woods, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

6:55am – Sunrise

If you are intrepid, arrive 30 minutes before sunrise and listen to the dawn chorus. Birding by ear can be challenging, but if you get the hang of it, it can be very rewarding. (Try using the Merlin Bird ID app to identify calls and songs)

8:00 – Arrive at Smith Oaks

If you aren’t up at the crack of dawn, a good time to arrive at the entrance to Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary is around 8:00am. Spend a few minutes scanning the trees around the parking lot and Pump House Pavilion while your party gets their gear in order, uses the restroom, and fills up their water bottles. You never know what you’ll see to start the day!

8:15 – Southwestern Groves

Spend the first part of the morning exploring the southwestern part of the sanctuary, west of point 13. This area consists of a network of interwoven trails that feature incredible stands of mixed trees and a couple of productive drips (a term for small hoses that “drip” water to attract birds). There is no set way through – just let your senses guide you and remember to take your time and be patient. There are some massive, historic trees here, marked with informational plaques, so keep your eyes peeled for those, too.

9:30 – Smith Pond and the Canopy Walkway

After a while, begin making your way back to point 13 and then north to point 10. Take a left towards point 9 and follow the trail around Smith Pond. When you reach point 7, take the low road to the right towards point 11 and on to point 3, where you’ll have access to the canopy walkway. The Katherine G. McGovern Canopy Walkway offers an unparalleled vantage point from which to view birds that are normally high overhead. Linger here, and be sure to enjoy views of the beloved and incomparable rookeries, where you can see and hear thousands of nesting egrets, herons, and more.

10:30 – Grackle Pond

From the canopy walkway, head towards point 32, making a clockwise loop around Grackle Pond. This is an oft-neglected part of the sanctuary, but I have had some of my most memorable warbler encounters here. Be sure to pay attention to the ground as well as the trees for thrushes, ground-dwelling warblers, and other skulking birds.

11:45 – Lunch Break

Once you finish the loop around Grackle Pond, take a moment back at the parking lot to use the facilities and clean up before lunch. I recommend either bringing a picnic to enjoy on a shady picnic table near the parking area, or heading up to the town of Winnie, which is about a 15-minute drive. There are plenty of options there for all palates – you’ll need some fuel for the afternoon!

1:00pm (or before Winnie, if you choose to eat there) – Eubanks Woods

Before leaving High Island, I recommend doing a scan of Eubanks Woods, which is less than a 1-minute drive from Smith Oaks. There is a short loop there, where you’ll have as good a chance as any to add a couple of species for the day. Who knows – maybe there’ll even be a rarity lurking!

Summer Tanager (Cameron Kirkpatrick @TheTexasBirder)
Entrance to McGovern Canopy Walkway (Jonnu Singleton/SWA Group)
Great Egrets at the Rookery (Jonnu Singleton/SWA Group)

1:00pm – Fields on the Way to Anahuac

The next main destination to check out is the vast and beautiful Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, which is not to be missed if you’re in the area. From High Island, head north on 124 and turn left on Whites Ranch Road (1985). From Winnie, head south on 124 and right on Whites Ranch Road. Be sure (unless you’re the driver) to pay keen attention to the fields on either side of the road, which can be outstanding habitat for migrating shorebirds of all varieties.

2:30 – Arrive at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

There are a couple of entrances to Anahuac NWR, but you are looking for the Main Entrance, about 10.5 miles from where you turned off 124. Enter the gates and drive down to the visitor’s center, where you can learn about the refuge as well as obtain a map. There is often good birding right there from the center, so keep your eyes peeled.

2:45 – Shoveler Pond Loop

The first place I recommend checking out is Shoveler Pond Loop, to the west of the visitor’s center. This loop offers amazing views of the wetland habitat that Anahuac is famous for. Drive slowly and pull over when you see something that catches your eye.

3:45 – The Willows

When you’ve had enough of Shoveler Pond, the rest of your time at Anahuac can be spent popping by several smaller areas that are nonetheless excellent hotspots. Try doing a short walk on the Butterfly Willows Trail, adjacent to the visitor’s center, being sure to listen for calling rails.

4:30 – Salt Cedars

The next stop you might consider is the salt cedar grove, otherwise known as the Jackson Woodlot, on the left side of the road as you drive south from the visitor center. There is a bird blind at the north end of the lot, with a drip and some large trees that often house a variety of colorful passerines including tanager, warbler, and vireo varieties. Be patient here.

5:30 – Frozen Point

To round out the day, try continuing down to Frozen Point for a view of East Bay. On the way, be sure to scan the fields for harriers, kites, and other raptors hunting over the fields. You might even catch an owl! Also, pay attention to the trees and shrubs immediately next to the water, as there are often interesting species to be found in them. You can bring some evening snacks, a tasty beverage, and wait to watch the sun set, or just stay until you’re tuckered out. There’s more birding to be had tomorrow!

7:48pm – Sunset

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Mick Thompson)
Crested Caracara (Greg Lavaty)

Day 2: SE Gast Red Bay, Boy Scout Woods, and Bolivar Flats

6:55am – Sunrise

7:15 – Arrive at S.E. Gast Red Bay Sanctuary

Start the day at S.E. Gast Red Bay, located at 1432 Kane Ln. This is a great place to start the day because there is only one loop there, and you can take your time as the birds wake up and begin feeding for the morning. It is likely to be less busy than Boy Scout Woods, so you’ll be able to warm up in peace, get the coffee flowin’, and take advantage of the open space while the sun rises.

8:15 – Arrive at Boy Scout Woods Sanctuary

When you’re ready, head to Boy Scout Woods where you’ll be for the rest of the morning. I think of Boy Scout Woods as having four main zones – the loop around Purkey’s Pond, which contains the bleachers and the famous Cathedral; the west side of the sanctuary, which includes Prothonotary Pond and a network of trails; the boardwalk and the more open areas of the sanctuary to the south; and finally, the eastern trail loop. Frankly, it is your choice in terms of how you’d like to approach the morning, but I like to break it up into two sections.

8:30 – Bleachers, the Cathedral, and the Eastern Loop

When you arrive, linger awhile at the bleachers, getting a sense of the pulse of the day. If birds are active at the drip, hang out awhile. If not, move along to the Cathedral, at point 4 on the map. Stick around here and practice slow birding. When you’re ready, head east through points 26 and 27, going around the loop.

10:00 – Western Groves and Boardwalk

When you finish with the eastern loop, head back to the bleachers by way of point 6. Use the restroom, have a drink of water, and most importantly collect some intel. Be mindful of your voice as you ask around – what have others been seeing? There are usually very friendly birders and volunteers willing to help out, especially if they know you are new to birding. When you’re ready to move on, walk to point 22, stop by Prothonotary Pond, head to point 16, then 14, and take the boardwalk loop around. Head north from point 10 back to the Cathedral. Before you leave, ask yourself if there are any areas you want to revisit. If you walk fast, you can access most areas of the sanctuary within a few minutes for that last look. Before you leave Boy Scout Woods, hang at the bleachers and reflect on what was hopefully a great morning of birding.

11:30 – Drive to Crystal Beach for Lunch

As you did yesterday, feel free to enjoy a picnic lunch at Boy Scout Woods. If you’d rather eat at an establishment, head to Crystal Beach, where there are a variety of restaurants to choose from. I highly encourage finding a place to get some good ol’ Texas crawfish, as the season doesn’t last forever! My favorite spot is Huli Hut, which used to just be a bright red trailer with an attached wooden patio, but now has added an indoor bar and grill.

S.E. Gast Red Bay Sanctuary
Prothonotary Warbler (Cameron Kirkpatrick @TheTexasBirder)
Boy Scout Woods Bird Sanctuary

1:30pm – Rettilon Road

When you finish lunch, continue west along highway 87, and turn left onto Rettilon Road. Be sure to immediately start scanning either side of the road where you’ll find excellent wetland habitat. Keep going and once you hit the beach, turn right to head west.

Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

1:45pm – Arrive at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

The rest of the day can be spent exploring the beach habitat here on Bolivar Peninsula, culminating at the extreme west end of the beach at the world-famous Bolivar Flats – one of the finest shorebird habitats there is. To get there, keep driving west down the beach until you arrive at the wooden pylons. Be sure you have a parking sticker (which can be purchased locally for $10) and then walk due west down the beach until you can’t go further. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see tens of thousands of shorebirds feeding on the mudflats. It’s truly a sight to behold.

Stay as long as you’d like at the flats, until you’re ready to wrap up the day. You can go west and take the ferry to the Galveston side of the bay, or go east, back towards High Island. It may be worth checking out one of the High Island sanctuaries again if you still have the energy to keep birding. Or, return to Crystal Beach for a tasty beverage while you reflect on an amazing couple of days.

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