The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, November 10, 2000, Columns

The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory (GCBO) outside of Lake Jackson looks more like the bayous of the Deep South than some place in Texas. Stuck on a cut of land near the confluence of two major rivers and not far from the mouth of a third, the ecosystem around the nature preserve is a thick jungle of old growth timber and lush vegetation. Ideal territory for birds and wildlife.

"We're quite different than surrounding areas of the coast," says Cecilia Riley, executive director of the observatory. "The sanctuary is a thick, forested region instead of open plains." For thousands of migratory birds that pass along the coast twice a year, it is the last fueling stop before they make the 600-mile journey over the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. In the spring, the Texas coast is the first resting spot before the birds work their way to the northern United States and Canada.

It is not unusual for bird spotters to see nearly 300 species pass through the coastal area southwest of Houston during the migratory seasons. The winter migration usually peaks around the first week of October, and then the birds begin to return in late April and early May.

Many Midwestern birds come to the Texas coast to spend the winter months inflating the already immense native avian population. When Riley makes her weekly bird counts she often identifies nearly three dozen different species in an hour of walking around the sanctuary's 32 acres on the banks of Buffalo Camp Bayou.

The observatory is home to a variety of owls, three species of woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and a host of other species. Northern ducks, geese, chickadees, and others make their winter homes along the coast. An occasional bald or golden eagle is known to fish the waters around the preserve. Numerous shore birds, like osprey and egrets, make the 12-mile trip from the coast to the wooded area.

The towering trees are draped with curly Spanish moss that enhances the foreign feeling of this special place. The area was once part of Stephen F. Austin's original colony. Known as the Columbia Bottomlands or Austin's Woods, the mature forest offers ideal habitat for plants and animals. GCBO is one of several natural areas along the coast that are vital to the survival of migratory songbirds and a variety of other native wildlife.

Established through a partnership between the Houston Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy in 1993, the GCBO became an independent organization in the summer of 1997 when it moved to the preserve about 50 miles southwest of Houston. The group is an international organization with the mission to conserve bird habitat in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Conservation partners and their preserves are in several countries, including Cuba.

The property, about seven miles west of Lake Jackson, was once the recreation and picnic area for Dow Chemical employees. Donated by the chemical company, the site is important as a link between the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge 10 miles to the east, the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge 10 miles to the southwest, and Quintana Beach Park to the southeast.

The city of Lake Jackson's 377-acre wilderness park is across Buffalo Camp Bayou from the observatory. Riley calls the neighboring sanctuary "one of the prettiest and [most] lush areas in Texas." A mile-long trail through the park leads to the banks of the Brazos River and then along the muddy banks. "It is a very compact ecosystem," Riley says. "The forest goes to the marsh and then right to the beach. It's just beautiful."

For visitors to the GCBO there isn't a lot to do, yet. A primitive trail leads through the dense forest to the banks of the dammed creek that forms Buffalo Camp Bayou. A maintenance shed has been turned into an office for Riley and her assistant. Plans call for a research and interpretive center to be built at the site over the next three years.

Without further study, little is known about the habits and needs of the tiny birds that make the 18-hour journey across the Gulf of Mexico to their winter homes. Studies by the Audubon Society and others show that some species of birds have declined by as much as 70% in the past few decades. A major factor in this decline is loss of habitat, making feeding and resting sites along the Gulf Coast of vital importance.

The main attraction for visitors to the GCBO is the beauty of the spot and the diversity of the natural habitat. One of the valuable services that Riley and her assistants can provide to humans migrating from the cities is offering guidance to other natural areas. Within an hour's drive of the scenic bird observatory are 12 other sanctuaries, three which are not on most maps. "Most of the wildlife areas have driving loops as well as hiking trails," Riley says. "In most cases folks can spot some wonderful sights from the comfort of their car." She pointed out that the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge is one of the "coolest" natural places on the coast.

The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory is on FM 332 west of Lake Jackson. Their new green-and-white sign comes up quick around a bend in the road just before the bridge over Buffalo Camp Bayou. The preserve is open from 8:30am to 4:30pm Monday-Friday and weekends by appointment for group tours. For more information, call the observatory at 979/480-0999 or check out their Web site at

Upcoming events at the nature center include Arbor Day tree planting on Jan.13, Benefit Native Plant Sale on Feb.17, and Migration Celebration the first weekend of May with birding trips and tips, barbecue, and display booths.

Coming up this weekend ...

Gathering of the Scottish Clans in Salado features Highland dancing, music, athletic events, and other Celtic fun, Nov. 10-12. 254/947-5232.

Spinach Festival in Crystal City next to the Popeye statue downtown offers other food besides green leafy matter in this South Texas town, Nov. 10-12. 830/374-3161.

Market Day in Georgetown around the courthouse square has a variety of vendors selling everything from vegetables to antiques, Nov. 11. 512/868-8675.

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