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 If you go: Birding in Texas

A spring fling in the Big Thicket

Email|Print| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / March 5, 2006

GALVESTON, Texas -- In that horrid period known as March in New England, when, like a drunken dinner guest, winter refuses to leave, we long for relief. For those who can't stand Florida and don't like to be stuck on tiny Caribbean islands, the perfect place to meet the leading edge of spring is East Texas.

We had long wanted to make a Texas bird trip, since the spring migrants arrive there long before they reach Massachusetts. Big Bend National Park is a legendary migratory bird trap, but it's huge and we weren't sure how we would get around and find the birds.

Then we learned about Featherfest, an annual four-day bird-watching event on Galveston Island, and that sounded perfect. On top of that, we learned that April is also the peak time for Texas wildflowers, and since my wife, Julianne, is a wildflower aficionado, last spring we decided to make a joint bird-and-flower pilgrimage to the Texas Hill Country and the Gulf Coast. Friends, a couple with Texas links, joined us, and added the brilliant idea of making it a triangular trip: Hill Country for the wildflowers, far east to the Big Thicket National Preserve, and finally south to Galveston for Featherfest.

We flew to Austin via Dallas, and stayed at a neat place called Habitat Suites. It's an economically priced ''green" suite hotel, with all manner of energy efficiencies, plus full buffet breakfast and happy hour with wine each night. It's a bit away from downtown, quiet, and the staff was friendly.

We visited the elegant stone state capitol, built in 1888 and greatly enlarged and modernized in the early 1990s. There's an excellent tour (and a fine cafe), and we were interested to see that the statues of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, heroes of the Texas Republic, are exactly life-size, so we could see how short big men really were in days of yore.

In the capitol rotunda, several stories tall, portraits of all Texas governors are hung. When a governer leaves office, his or her portrait goes in the first space to the right of the entry, and all the others are moved over one space. There are many empty spaces in the upper levels between the floor and the dome and plenty of room for future governors. President George W. Bush is the most recent former governer, therefore closest to the main entry. Right beside him is former governor Ann Richards. We admired the bipartisanship reflected in the fact that they will always be side by side, smiling brightly like the best of friends.

We have often lamented that Massachusetts doesn't have what many states have: a state history museum. Texas, for example, has the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Bullock was a well-liked lieutenant governor (it's a powerful office in Texas). Opened in 2001, the museum is wonderfully designed and presented. On several floors, it tells the stories of the indigenous people, the arrival of Spanish explorers, the American settlement led by Moses Austin and his son Stephen, the war for independence, cattle and cowboys, and oil.

We were here to see flowers, too, so we went to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in southwest Austin. One of the most beloved first ladies, Mrs. Johnson had made natural beauty her signature, and in 1995 the National Wildflower Research Center, which she had cofounded with actress Helen Hayes in 1982, was renamed for her. The grounds include 16 gardens exhibiting Southwest habitats and countless plants, shrubs, and trees.

Though our Austin suite had a kitchen, which was fine for breakfast, we wanted real Texas food. Our first choice was Threadgill's, a landmark similar to our Union Oyster House, and a favorite of Janis Joplin early in her career.

Our Texas friends, long resident in the Bay State, were craving down-home open-pit barbecue, and we turned up a Hill Country favorite -- Salt Lick BBQ -- in Dripping Springs, southwest of Austin. It was 50 miles round-trip, but the countryside was pretty and a spiritual pilgrimage is always worth the mileage. When we saw the tour buses lined up, we knew it was the real thing.

After Austin, we lit out for the Big Thicket National Preserve. Along the 270-mile drive from Austin, we were dazzled by the carpets of Texas bluebonnets, Drummond phlox, and Indian paintbrush all along the highways, and we were delighted to learn that the bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis, is closely related to the lupine found all over Maine in June.

Our friends were on the lookout for hard-to-find seeds for Southern-type crops seldom grown in the Bay State, so we stopped in a little town called Columbus, off Interstate 10. While they pored over jars of Clemson's spineless okra seeds at Colorado Feed Co., Julianne wandered in a nearby field thick with bluebonnets, clearly taken by the sheer beauty of it all. The proprietor of the store, whose name was Bruno, was so impressed that we had come all the way from Massachusetts to buy his seeds that he refused to accept payment. Late last summer, our friends sent him a picture of themselves, posing proudly in a stand of okra in Plymouth County.

The Big Thicket National Preserve, north of Beaumont, is a 97,000-acre complex of forests and swamps with an extraordinary diversity of plants and habitats. It is classified by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area, and is where one of the futile attempts was made to find the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct, but reportedly sighted last year in a similar setting, the Big Woods of Arkansas. The visitor's center is located on Highway 287 in Kountze, which we forgot to ask how to pronounce.

One could spend many days trekking the trails and learning the biology of the Big Thicket, but we settled for three: the Kirby Nature Trail, the Turkey Creek Trail, and the Pitcher Plant Trail, where the pitcher plants were in bloom, happily consuming luckless ants and flies. One could easily see why men hid out in these mysterious woods back in the 1860s to avoid service in the Confederate Army.

The next day, we did a half-day canoe trip on Village Creek, which is comparable in size to the Concord River, in nearby Silsbee, and explored dark and spooky side creeks full of bald cypresses and birdsong. Kountze is so small that when we asked the clerk at the excellent new Super 8 Motel for local restaurant recommendations, she looked at us blankly. Fortunately, the canoe rental man had a dinner suggestion: West Texas Style B-B-Cue in Silsbee. Even though it's in East Texas, the owner drives to the Hill Country to bring back loads of mesquite wood, to give the meat a West Texas tang. It was savory, and as an added treat, the staff proved to be Red Sox fans.

After days of eating beef and barbecue, we were eager for salt air and seafood, so we headed south toward Galveston. It's about a two-hour drive from Kountze on Interstate 10, then Highway 124 south to High Island, then west to the Port Bolivar ferry, which is free, across Galveston Bay.

Galveston is a port city of 60,000 on a two-mile-wide, 32-mile barrier island. After the devastating 1900 hurricane, which killed more than 6,000 people, a seven-mile, 17-foot-high dike was built on the gulf side, so wide that Seawall Boulevard runs along the top. The grade of the city was also raised several feet, which required jacking up existing buildings. The Strand, a restored business area once known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, reminded us of the Old Port in Portland, Maine.

Seafood restaurants are plentiful, and locals are accustomed to being asked for suggestions. Gaido's, on Seawall Boulevard, was recommended, as was the Captain's Table, in the West End. We liked Landry's, also on Seawall. As we feasted on grouper, red snapper, and gulf shrimp, the inland barbecue pits seemed far away.

Featherfest (galvestonfeatherfest.com) coincides with the beginning of the spring migration, when thousands of birds make the 600-mile hop across the Gulf of Mexico from Yucatan. This is a great event for the beginning or intermediate birder, as well as the expert (which we are not). The 2006 event runs March 30 to April 2. There were numerous half- or full-day guided trips to the myriad hotspots on or near Galveston: Pelican Island, High Island, Lafitte's Nature Preserve, Bolivar Flats, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, to name only a few.

We added several birds to our life list -- the Hooded warbler, Upland sandpiper, reddish egret, crested caracara, and the white-tailed kite -- but the most unusual was a bird that used to be common in Texas: Attwater's prairie chicken.

Attwater's, a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, is one of the rarest birds in North America, with no more than 100 creatures left. There are nine or 10 pairs in Texas City, just west of Galveston. To see them, we got up at 4 a.m. and rode in a van to the Texas City Prairie Preserve, where we sneaked quietly into a blind before daylight.

The blind was a long box with tiny windows, and as daylight came, we looked out through binoculars at the lek -- the mowed field where the male chickens do their strutting and showing-off for the females. The lek seemed like 100 yards away, so that even with the scopes, all we saw were tiny gray dancing lumps. Still, we could say we saw them -- sort of -- and anyway, what would we give to see an Ivory-billed woodpecker, at any range?

Our trip complete, we flew home from Houston, less than an hour's drive from Galveston, with a strong sense that with all we had seen and done, it was still only a little piece of the Lone Star State. When we had left home, there was a pile of dirty snow by the driveway. But when we returned, it was only a miserable memory, overlaid with happier ones. It was spring in New England, at last.

Contact David Mehegan at mehegan@globe.com.

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