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About High Island
Today High Island is a small town of about 450 people on the Upper Texas Coast between Galveston and the Louisiana border. It’s usually a quiet town, but each year from March through to May, thousands of enthusiastic visitors from all over the world pour into the area to enjoy the huge numbers of migrating birds that pass through on their way north to their breeding grounds.

Winnie Burkett of the Houston Audubon Society has kindly allowed us to reproduce the excerpts below from their High Island brochure. For the complete brochure, including maps of the reserves, drop into their kiosk in Boy Scout Woods.

High Island was undoubtedly used by Indians for thousand of years. No archeological sites have been excavated on the island, but shell middens, pieces of black pottery and arrow points dating from as far back as 1200 A.D. have been found on Bolivar Peninsula and around Galveston Bay. These indicate the presence of hunter-gatherers who roamed the region collecting shellfish and hunting the abundant wildlife. Indians may have also visited the mineral springs that were a result of the minerals associated with the salt dome mixing with ground water, which used to exist on the “Island.”

According to the legend, the pirate Jean Lafitte and his crew sometimes had parties in the big grove of oak trees that covered the island when they cruised the coast in the early 1800’s. There are rumors that the pirates buried some of their treasure here. Although many have searched, no one has ever reported finding any trace of the pirates or their treasure.

One of the early settlers of High Island was Martin Dunman, who arrived in 1845. He had received a league of land (three square miles) that included part of High Island for his part in the Texas Revolution. Reportedly there was at least one house on High Island, which has been built by Charles Cronea, one of Lafitte’s cabin boys when Dunman arrived with his wife and two sons. A historical marker, erected in Cronea’s honor, can be found in the High Island cemetery.

The “Island’s” mineral springs played an important role in the local economy in the late 1800’s. The railroad ran excursions to the community so that people could visit the springs and the beach.

The town had a large, ornate hotel called The Seaview erected in 1895 by W.T. Cade. Built on the east side of the island, The Seaview faces the Gulf of Mexico. The hotel had a large ballroom and a mule drawn rail car that carried visitors to and from the beach several times a day. High Island’s time as a resort was ended by the 1900 hurricane. However, the hotel survived the hurricane and was a very active location for many years. It was abandoned during World War II and burned in 1947. Some hotel outbuildings still survive in a tangled lot surrounded by a tall chain-link fence.

High Island is the surface expression of a salt dome at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. A thick layer of ancient salt exists throughout southeast Texas about 30,000 feet below the surface. At some location, like High Island, a column of salt was squeezed upward toward the surface. This “dome,” therefore, is a salt cylinder some six miles tall and about a mile in diameter. As the salt dome rose, it brought massive amounts of salt and smaller amounts of other minerals close to the surface of the earth, where they sometimes mixed with ground water. The movement of the salt shattered and tipped overlying rock layers, and oil and gas in the rocks then traveled along the cracks in the rocks and “pooled” around the edges of the dome.

Oil exploration began on High Island in 1901, soon after the Spindletop discovery on a similar salt structure in the Beaumont area. Commercial production began in 1922. Exploration and production continue today and oil, natural gas and sulfur have all been extracted from sediments bent up by the dome. Most production has been found along the west, north and east sides of the “Island.”

Today High Island rises 32 feet above the surrounding marshes, providing soil conditions favorable to trees and shrubs. It forms a unique and important island of habitat for migrating birds.

Many species of birds, called neotropical migrants, nest in North America and spend the winter in Latin America.  Twice each year these birds migrate the long distances between wintering grounds and spring nesting locations.
Each spring millions of birds that wintered in Central and South America are driven north by the urge to establish breeding territories and select mates.  They first push north to the Yucatan Peninsula and the adjacent Mexican coast. Beginning in early March, migrants reach the tip of the peninsula and if the weather conditions are favorable, just after sunset, migrants leave Mexico and head north across the Gulf of Mexico.
The trip across the Gulf is 600 miles and with good weather takes about 18 hours. Arriving on the Texas coast midday, some of these birds stop on the coast; but most of the migrating birds will fly inland until nightfall.
During the spring migration period from early March to mid-May conditions occasionally exist where strong, turbulent north winds and rain trigger a phenomenon called "fallout." This usually happens when a strong, fast-moving cold front crosses the Texas coast and moves into the Gulf of Mexico during the middle of the day. The wind and rain slows the migrating birds down causing them to rapidly use up their reserves.
Thousands of extremely tired migrants are forced to seek shelter and food as soon as they reach the coast. At these times, good-quality habitat along the coast is vitally important to the survival of tens and thousands of birds.
During a typical fallout, HAS sanctuaries are used by the majority species of the neotropical migrants that nest in the forests of eastern North America .  Often, more individual species are found here than could be found in several thousand acres of prime Appalachian forests.
For birdwatchers, fallouts can provide an exceptional birdwatching experience, as the birds are very tired and hungry and seem oblivious of humans.  But for the birds it is an extremely stressful time, and birders must remember that it is important not to disturb the birds as they need to recuperate and continue their journey north.

This includes a total of 48 acres of woods, coastal prairie and wetlands.  Seven acres were purchased by HAS with the help of members and friends, 42 acres were donated by Amoco Production Company, and 0.3 acres were donated by Ted Eubanks.

In 1981 HAS purchased the first 4.5 acres of oak/hackberry woods from Louis B. Smith, who had purchased the woods from Amoco Production Company and had added many kinds of fruit and nut trees.  The sanctuary property was officially named the Louis B. Smith Bird Sanctuary in 1982.

The property was known as Boy Scout Woods before HAS purchased it because of the scout camp that existed on the property, and the sanctuary is still known by that name.


Each spring thousands of birdwatchers from all over the world come to sit in the grandstands overlooking Purkey’s Pond, eager to see the many species of migrating birds that come to drink and/ or bathe.

The large oaks, hackberries and honey locust trees that form a canopy over this wide deck are a favorite feeding area for migrating birds.

When HAS received Boy Scout Woods from Amoco Production Company in 1993, Prothonotary Pond’s primary vegetation was Chinese Tallow trees, an invasive exotic that provides little useful food for wildlife.  One of HAS’s habitat improvement projects has been the conversion of Prothonotary Pond from a tallow pond to one surrounded by native Bald Cypress. 

Smith Oaks is 143 acres of field, woods, wetlands and ponds.  Thirty-three acres were purchased by HAS wit the help of HAS members, friends, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.   The remaining 110 acres were donated to the HAS by Amoco Production Company.
Smith Oaks was named for George and Charlotte Smith, who acquired the property in 1879 from Charlotte's parents, John and Mary Ann Brown.   Records show that the couple began improvements on the land that year, building houses, fences and ditches, and planting oaks trees and hedges.
It is unclear who planted the oldest oaks on the property, as John Brown is also reported to have planted some oaks.
George Smith owned cattle and raised peaches, pears, oranges, strawberries, cabbage, sugar cane, cotton and tobacco.   He also operated a sugar mill and cotton gin on the property.  However, he was most famous for his mineral water enterprise.
Smith dug several water wells on his property and reported that he has 21 "distinct" waters.  The deepest well, dug in 1882, was 32 feet and also produced gas, which Smith viewed as an inconvenience, as there was no market for it.
Smith received a trademark and bottled and sold his "High Island Mineral Springs Water" along the Texas Gulf Coast.   He claimed that the water would "...cure Brights disease, liver and kidney troubles, Catarrh-the cause of consumption, Asthma, Hay Fever, restore hair on bald heads, and remove Dandruff on the Scalp and all the Pimples and Blotches from the face."   The ruins of one of these walls can still be seen in the woods across from the map shelter at Entrance II.
The Smith's home, dismantled in 1985, stood on the property for over 100 years. The site of their house is easily identified, as the garden paths, flower beds and ornamental plants they planted in their yard are still obvious.

Smith Pond was dug to hold the water supply for the High Island community.  Clay Bottom Pond was dug to increase the water supply available to the town and to provide water for the sulfur plant that was east of the pond.  Both ponds are favorite fishing places for local fisherman.

The U-shaped island in the middle of Clay Bottom Pond has become a favored roosting and meeting place for thousands of waterbirds.   In the spring and summer herons, egrets, cormorants and spoonbills build their nests and raise their chicks on the predator-free island.  Visitors to the sanctuary are able to get a good, close look at the home life of these beautiful birds throughout the breeding season.
All year long the island is also used as a night roost by the same species of birds that nest here.  They appreciate having a safe place to spend the night that is close to the marshes where they feed.   The most spectacular time of day to visit the rookery is the last hour before dark when the birds are coming in for the night.
Property donated by Amoco had many uses during the years of petroleum production uses.  The brick building was built in the 1920’s and housed large pumps that pumped oil from the oil field into pipe lines.  The field to the east of the brick building once held large oil storage tanks which were dismantled in 1993.  Prairie restoration on this site has erased all traces of the storage facility.

These 9.5 acres of woods and wetlands were purchased by HAS with funds from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.  The sanctuary was named in honor of Ted Eubanks, past president Houston Audubon, who was instrumental in starting HAS's High Island sanctuary system.

These 8.8 acres of woods and former pasture are being turned into woods.  This property was donated to HAS by Amoco Production Company.  It is named in honor of Steve Gast, who led the High Island Initiative which resulted in Amoco’s donation of property to HAS.