To the casual tourist arriving at the visitors’ center of the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge east of Houston, Texas on Galveston Bay, everything seems quite serene and natural. You might notice that the building is new, almost luxurious as wildlife centers go. The adjoining boardwalk trail into the cypress swamp is in perfect repair.
But there is reason everything looks so pristine. The visitors center and the boardwalk are new, a tiny piece of the massive restoration needed at the refuge after its devastation by Hurricane Ike. The storm came ashore with 110-mph winds and a 20-foot surge on September 13, 2008. It destroyed virtually every structure in the refuge and laid waste to a vital haven for wildlife.
Photographs by Jeanne Rostaing.
Anahuac was established in 1963 and is a 34,000-acre preserve on the upper Texas gulf coast. It is home to 300 species of birds and other animals including alligators, bobcats, river otters, turtles, and snakes… all thriving again here as the area recovers.
In the fall and spring bird watchers from all over the country converge on the area to spot migrating songbirds as well as a dazzling avian who’s who list: pelicans, 27 species of ducks, geese, egrets, herons, spoonbills, hawks etc. etc.
No doubt those familiar with Anahuac see longterm changes from the storm, but to a group of New York City Audubon Society birders, it was a peaceful and beautiful place to begin a recent eight-day Texas excursion.
We chatted with volunteers in the visitors’ center, picked up maps, browsed the impressive array of nature guides, and then strolled the 1,300-foot boardwalk through the cypress swamp to Lake Anahuac.
The trail was quiet, its shade dotted with the bright colors of early blooming wildflowers. The native Texas lantana displayed its distinctive bi-color blooms. Pale pink Showy Evening primroses carpeted the ground. And although we spent time gazing down at the murky swamp water, there were no alligators to be seen… that came later in another part of the refuge.
The trail ends on a pier amid Bald cypress trees, their trunks surrounded by water and cypress “knees,” the woody extensions of their roots which grow above the surface of the water and provide the roots with oxygen.
Spanish moss hung from their branches and caught the breezes coming off the lake. Although the cypress is a native tree, this landscape seemed exotic, almost foreign to our easterner eyes.
Most of our birding was done from the windows of our van as we drove the Shoveler Pond Auto-Tour loop. Particularly gregarious was the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, who regarded us calmly from his perch on a roadside fence.
A Swainson’s hawk looked like a sculpture sitting on a fence post until he flew away. Later we spotted an alligator near a boardwalk along the loop. Because the refuge is so vast, you can see many different types of topography from bayous to prairies. It would take many days to even get a small sample of everything that is offered here.
Planning a trip to Texas? We have more things for you to do. For another of Jeanne’s favorite excursions, see Texas Treasure: Where to Find the Bluebonnets.