Odd Birds

Audubon's Society

Orioles, dowitchers, Sam Houston, and chances for backyard birdwatching

By Michael Berryhill March 14, 2013

 “A heavy gale blew all night,” he wrote, “and this morning the thermometer in the cabin is 63 degrees. Thousands of birds, arrested by the storm in their migration northward are seen hovering around...and hiding in the grass, and some are struggling in the water, completely exhausted.”

Such sudden northers hamper birds but delight birdwatchers. This month and early next, thousands of birders, many from Europe and Asia, will flock to the Houston Audubon Society’s High Island refuge to see warblers, tanagers, orioles, buntings, and thrushes resting from their 600-mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico from Yucatán. Birders will troll the nearby federal refuge in Anahuac for bitterns, rails, gallinules, and ducks, then head to Bolivar Flats for some of the same shorebirds that Audubon admired: ruddy turnstones, oystercatchers and what he called the red-breasted snipe, now known as the short-billed dowitcher.

But if the April wind blows hard from the north, Houstonians won’t have to travel to the coast to see migratory birds. During a fall-out, they are every bit as likely to see a Baltimore oriole drop into their own backyards.

For further information on birding sites during April and May, visit houstonaudubon.org or call 713-932-1639.

After collecting hundreds of specimens around Galveston (taking them with a shotgun, then preserving the skins), Audubon and his companions rowed a gig up the swollen waters of Buffalo Bayou to the new capital of Texas. Here, amid roofless, half-finished houses and tents that sat in ankle-deep water, he met the town’s namesake. 

“We first caught sight of President Houston as he walked from one of the grog-shops, where he had been to prevent the further sale of ardent spirits to the Indians,” Audubon wrote. Houston was “upward of six feet high and strong in proportion. But I observed a scowl in the expression of his eye that was forbidding and disagreeable.” Nevertheless, the president apparently received Audubon warmly, “dressed in a fancy velvet coat and trousers trimmed with broad gold lace.” Houston offered his visitor a grog, and the two men drank to the success of the republic, little more than a year old.

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