Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary at High Island, designed by SWA Group and SCHAUM/SHIEH, is a case study in the amplification of a complex habitat.
Once you put Winnie in the rearview mirror, driving south on Texas State Highway 124, the pine trees peter out and the landscape becomes a flat saltmarsh, nothing but grasses, cows, and the occasional rusting pump jack, stretching as far as the eye can see. A line of telephone poles registers the straightness of the road, the one constant reminder of scale on this interminable plain, which otherwise seems to merge with the sky, where towering cumulonimbus clouds hover, indistinct and unreal behind a misty veil of hot, humid air.
In this context, it’s easy to understand why the salt dome known as High Island, at a mere 38 ft above sea level, was given its name. Cresting the concrete ribbon of the High Island Bridge, it heaves into view, a green, forested mound, like the back of a giant tortoise sticking out of the mud. It is said to be the highest point on the Gulf Coast between the Yucatan and Mobile, Alabama. According to the “Handbook of Texas,” Native Americans (probably the Karankawa) called it Doe Island. One can imagine deer being attracted to this spot, the sole place where it is possible to find shade, shelter, and freshwater springs for miles around. It also offers safety from the flood waters, whether storm surge or torrential rain, that can transform this hillock on the edge of the sea into an actual island, a safe haven for air-breathing lifeforms from all over the Bolivar Peninsula.
These characteristics have also made High Island a popular pitstop for migratory colonial waterbirds, who, after flying for two or three days over the Gulf from Central America, are looking for a place to rest up, wash the salt off their wings, and eat some bugs before pushing on to their summer feeding grounds in the upper Midwest and Canada. This makes it an ideal destination for birdwatchers, and, indeed, avian enthusiasts from all over the world make pilgrimages to this place. Houston Audubon, in fact, operates three bird sanctuaries there: Boy Scout Woods, Eubank Woods, and Smith Oaks.
Other characteristics of High Island have attracted yet another sort of habitué. Salt domes are geological features created when a thick bed of underlying evaporite minerals under great pressure behaves like a liquid and bubbles up through the overlying strata of rock, forming pillars that are often thousands of feet high. The pillars of impervious salt form reservoirs around their edges where hydrocarbons in other strata pool, making them favorite spots of exploration for oil and gas companies. (Spindletop, which is less than 50 miles away, is also a salt dome.) Today, the ring road that girds High Island is called Oilfield Road, but it’s just a memorial. The oil and gas have been slurped up and burnt off into the atmosphere, the derricks and wellheads are long gone, and the companies have moved their operations elsewhere.
In fact, much of the land that makes up Audubon’s Smith Oaks Sanctuary, which totals nearly 178 acres, was donated by Amoco Petroleum in 1994. But the sanctuary is named after George and Charlotte Smith, who acquired the property in 1879 and planted many of the oak trees there. George Smith engaged in a variety of agricultural activities, and even operated a sugar mill and cotton gin on the site. More famously, however, he dug several water wells around the property (one of which produced natural gas), bottled the effluence, and sold it up and down the Texas Gulf Coast as “High Island Mineral Springs Water,” promising it would cure a variety of diseases, from liver trouble and asthma to baldness and zits.
High Island well water may not have been the panacea Smith advertised, but it did perform a sort of miracle. Over the years, two freshwater reservoirs were dug on the Smith Oaks property — Smith Pond and Clay Bottom Pond — to provide drinking water to the unincorporated town of High Island and industrial water for the mining of sulfur, which forms in the caprocks of salt domes. They also attracted wildlife, including alligators, turtles, and, of course, migratory colonial waterbirds.
But the freshwater wasn’t enough to make the birds stay for long. They are called “colonial” because they form nesting colonies while breeding, based on the notion of safety in numbers. And yet, in spite of its seemingly appealing conditions, the birds were not nesting on High Island. The locals, it seems, used them, as well as the alligators and turtles, for target practice. The birds didn’t like it, so they didn’t stick around. When Audubon acquired the property, they prohibited hunting. They also constructed islands in the ponds to create better real estate options for nesting — an alligator-filled moat really helps to keep away racoons, coyotes, and other terrestrial predators. Within a year of this change, 50 heron nests were counted. Two years after that, 332 bird couples nested there. Nowadays, more than a thousand bird families — Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Yellow Slippers, Cowbirds, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, White Ibises, Neotropic Cormorants, Snake Birds, and Black-crowned Night Herons — choose High Island to have their babies.
The success of these simple modifications to the landscape got Houston Audubon thinking about what else could be done to improve the habitat, both for birds and the humans who look at them. Serious birdwatchers have a sort of pride in their willingness to endure uncomfortable conditions to catch a glimpse of their feathered friends, like clambering through a spider-infested swamp, but the same can’t necessarily be said of SOBs (spouses of birders), the mobility challenged, or your more effete urban dweller, who may like looking at birds well enough but isn’t willing to suffer to see them. And so Audubon engaged the Houston office of SWA Group for recommendations and design services. Natalia Beard, the principal in charge, also brought on architecture practice SCHAUM/SHIEH to give the project an alluring pop sensibility.
The design team’s main intervention is minimally invasive, maximally impactful: a boardwalk, lifted into the tree canopy on weathering steel pipes, that branches out from the parking lot to overlooks of the rookeries in the two ponds. This lifted walkway is easy to traverse, puts the visitor at eye level with the birds, and is elevated away from the alligators, snakes, and most of the mosquitos, which can be so thick that it’s impossible to breathe without inhaling them. To reduce the impact on the ground, the V-shaped pipe columns come down to a single footing, which rests on helical piles that were screwed into the soil so as not to disturb the birds with any piledriving. (A blind was also erected during construction to spare the nesting sites from unsightly activities.) Southern yellow pine boards, which are affordable and locally grown, make up the deck.
The project restored a historic 1920s pump house on site, which was built back when infrastructure was monumentally done. This one is brick and reinforced concrete, a rough but charming building. It was cleaned and stabilized, and skylights were poked in the roof. In a future phase, it may be enclosed with mosquito netting and used for receptions, or something. SCHAUM/SHIEH also designed a bathroom building, a modified gable structure of concrete block, wood, and standing seam metal. Painted green, its form was inspired by the way a tree looks when being blown back by hurricane winds.
While the construction was underway, Audubon made use of the opportunity to remove many of the invasive plant species at Smith Oaks. Plants like Chinese privet and tallow trees, which were popular in nurseries in the 1950s, flourish here. They were popular, and are now virulent, because local bugs don’t eat them, so they can outcompete native species. But the birds eat bugs. Without the bugs, the birds wouldn’t hang out here. And so, to support and amplify the bird population, bug food had to be provided too. It’s a good reminder of the intricacies of the ecologies that surround us every day.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.