Bird Photography on High Island and Galveston Island, Texas Gulf Coast

Bird Photography on High Island and Galveston Island, Texas Gulf Coast

My friend Ed and I got to spend a few days doing some bird photography on the famous High Island in Texas, and nearby Galveston Island. Neither of us had been there before, but it was on our “bucket list” of bird photography destinations. We hadn’t been able to do much preparation, but fortunately the areas are incredibly friendly and easy to sort out for both birders and bird photographers. After only a few days of course we’re no experts, but can pass along our observations on how to make the most of your trip and a few favorite photos.


Indigo Bunting, Boy Scout Woods parking, High Island, TX
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Getting to High Island and Galveston Island

Both islands are east of Houston, and easily reached by car. There are bridges to both islands, and a free public car ferry connecting them. Plan on about an hour (more on a busy day) for the time to wait for and take the ferry. It’s a pleasant trip, though. We drove from Austin, which is about 4 hours away.

Where to Stay

Winnie is the closest town to High Island, and has a few chain hotels. Comfort Inn was our pick, and worked out well. There are clearly some rental houses on High Island itself, which would be ideal if you have the time and plan far enough in advance. Galveston Island is a major beach destination and has dozens of hotels of all kinds, so plenty of options.

Where to photograph birds

As we all know, your mileage may vary when it comes to finding and photographing birds, but here are some of the places we found most productive. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on each, as once you have their names you can look them up and get oodles of information and maps either online or from the Houston Audubon.

Great Egret and chicks, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island

High Island: Smith Oaks Rookery that is part of the Audubon Sanctuary

This was probably our single most productive location, despite the hurricane damage that has messed up a lot of the backgrounds. Spoonbills and Egrets abound, along with a few Alligators and plenty of Coots. Egret chicks had hatched when we were there (April 16-17), but not the Spoonbill chicks yet.

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island

High Island: Boy Scout Woods that is part of the Audubon Sanctuary

We didn’t really photograph much here, as it is a shaded woods and the water drips weren’t very busy, but it is where you can pay your entrance fee and get lots of good information from the volunteers on duty. There is a blind you can rent a spot in, but from a quick look I’m not sure how much we would have seen on the days we visited. Entry to all of the Audubon refuges on High Island is $8/day or $30 for an annual patch.

However, there are some great impromptu photo locations near the Woods. In our case we found a bottlebrush across the street that was a subject of interest for a posse of birders and photographers already. We got lots of excellent looks at Indigo Bunting, Tennessee Warbler, and several Oriole species, among others.

High Island: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

This is a classic NWR, with multiple auto routes and viewing platforms. It is large, and as always birds may not be close to the car, but there was good action here. We didn’t have nearly enough time to explore all of it though. It is about 20 minutes off the main road between Winnie and High Island.

Neotropic Cormorant, Anuhuac NWR, Texas

High Island: Bolivar Flats

At the end of High Island in an area known as the Bolivar Peninsula there is an awesome concentration of shorebirds you can work from the beach. We saw a variety of terns, gulls, heron, and sandpipers. The end of the beach is a sanctuary with a fenced off nesting area, but we didn’t see any active nests. There is a $10 fee to park on the beach, which is good for the year for a number of places on the Peninsula.

Dunlin in Flight, Bolivar Flats, Texas

Galveston: Apffel Park and East Beach

The Park has beaches and lagoons with a variety of shorebirds. East Beach is a drive-on beach (there may be a fee) but it was one of our favorites because there were quite a few Skimmers resting there, mixed in with a flock of terns and gulls. We didn’t get to see them skim, and we also stayed way back so as not to disturb them, but it was still cool to see them.

Galveston: Army Core of Engineers Woods

We got here near dusk with heavy cloud cover, so the photography was trouble, but there were quite a few Orioles packed into this small preserve at the East end of the island.

Female Orchard Oriole, Galveston Island, Texas

Galvestaon: Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve

This is an amazing 9 acres! It includes water drips in the woods where we saw a Swainson’s Thrush, Common Yellowthroat, and a few Warblers. But it also has a boardwalk through a marshy area where we saw plenty of ducks, shorebirds, and even a Sora. Finally, there are some berry and other bushes where we saw Indigo Buntings, Catbirds, and Orioles.

Swainson't Thrush, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston, Texas
Unlike the carefully-crafted perches and backgrounds at the ranches we rent for our bird photo workshops,
public parks like this one often have unfortunate perches like the ceramic water bowl in this image

Galveston Island State Park

On a calmer day with better light, GISP could probably be quite productive. Even Clapper Rails are often spotted. But it was cool, windy, and cloudy when we were there, so the water was not all that photogenic and there weren’t a lot of birds that were easy to photograph.

Blue-winged Teal, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston, Texas

Lots of other options, and more images

There are certainly plenty of other options that we didn’t get a chance to explore, and that might be better, especially at other times of the year. Hopefully this list will at least give you a starting point. Of course, there's still time to join us this

The images in this article are just a few of our highlights. There are quite a few more in this slideshow, which also links to our full gallery of photos from the trip: