|About High Island
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.
THE HISTORY OF HIGH ISLAND
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
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 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’S UNIQUE GEOLOGY
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
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
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
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
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.
BOY SCOUT WOODS - LOUIS B. SMITH BIRD SANCTUARY
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.
POINTS OF SPECIAL INTEREST AT BOY SCOUT WOODS
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.
large oaks, hackberries and honey locust trees that form a canopy over
this wide deck are a favorite feeding area for migrating birds.
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
SMITH OAKS BIRD SANCTUARY
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
PONDS AT SMITH OAKS
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.
THE PUMP HOUSE
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.
EUBANKS WOODS BIRD SANCTUARY
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.
S.E. GAST RED BAY SANCTUARY
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