October 4, 2008

Birds Around Texas Coast Scarce Due To Ike

The coastal devastation from Hurricane Ike has caused one of North America's renowned bird migration and watching areas to become strangely silent.

Ernest Stone, 75, surveyed the debris on the cratered moonscape that used to be the family beach house on Bolivar Peninsula.

"We had red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, a bunch of migrating birds," he recalled

"I haven't seen a pigeon in a while," he said. "Seagulls. You could always go out and throw a piece of bread and the seagulls would come."

But no longer, it seems.

"Nothing," his wife, Jimmie, said. "Zero."

In the beachfront community of Gilchrist, where little is standing three weeks after Ike roared ashore with 110 mph winds, a 12-foot storm surge and waves up to 26 feet, only a few palm trees or patches of grass amid the shells and dried mud, have turned a lifeless yellow brown, killed by sea water.

The missing birds represent yet another piece of normalcy lost for people surrounded by devastation with months of rebuilding ahead of them.

"Pelicans and seagulls," Veronica Felty, 46, said, looking out over the gulf waters that wiped out her place. "Birds - 40 to 50 in a row - flying. They were endless. They were beautiful. Pelicans so thick...

"You wonder if they knew to leave."

Bolivar Peninsula is part of what's known as the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, with nearby High Island a prime bird watching spot and traditional rest stop for migrating birds heading north in the spring and south in the fall.

High Island attracts thousands of bird-watchers a year, at 32 feet over sea level, it is the highest spot on the gulf coastline for 700 miles between Mobile Bay, Ala., and the Rio Grande.

Ian Tizard, director of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center at Texas A&M University, said now is when birds would normally be stopping at High Island to top off with bugs before heading south. "High Island has been stripped of leaves, and a lot of the trees are dying."

Tizard said it might not be so bad for many of the birds as it is for bird-watchers: "From a migrating bird's point of view, it's probably not a big deal to fly a few miles on until they find a batch of trees that looks better."

Tizard said just like humans, the birds need three basics that Ike took away: cover, food and water. He believes things will get better in the spring.

Texas Parks & Wildlife biologist Cliff Shackleford said a good rain would ease the peninsula's woes. "That surge killed everything and dumped salt water into everything, probably for miles.

"It doesn't mean they all died, but we don't really know. The birds ... need to drink, they need to bathe and salt water just doesn't do it."

When the trees and most structures were obliterated, any protection the birds would seek was wiped out.

Brent Ortega, one of Shackleford's colleagues, said the lack of vegetation was a major concern. "Either there isn't any, or it's covered with salt. Plant material is dying, insects and seeds are not there any more. The habitat's changed and the birds have got to live. They probably moved somewhere else because it's not very suitable."

Jimmie Stone, 67, looked at a pile of palm trees that used to border their driveway.

"We had three on each side," she said. "We had a huge tree in the yard. We had a bird feeder..."

Now, not much is left besides a dead pigeon on the side of Texas Highway 87. A few lonesome pelicans roosted on the remains of a pier jutting into the Gulf of Mexico.

Otherwise, there weren't many places for a bird to roost.