Brazoria, Texas

The Gulf Coast

It’s a place of contrasts. “Is it pretty?” people ask. “It depends where you’re standing and which way you’re looking,” comes the response from a long-time resident. There’s no better summary of the topography. Industrial chemical plants comprised of steel pipes, metal towers, smokestacks, fences, and lights dominate the landscape north of the Intracoastal waterway. This is also the land of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, where migrants stop to fuel up before or after their 800-mile nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

The wide, flat beaches of Surfside Beach, Texas, are empty this time of year. It’s eerily quiet. The locals (800 on Follett’s Island, colloquially referred to as Surfside) are shockingly friendly, encouraging me to buy a place and join their community! I’m used to the residents in the tourist communities near my home who are likelier to say, “Enjoy! Now go home. We’re full”.

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge

The San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge has some enticing trails, the Bobcat Woods Trail and Scissor-tailed Trail, but when I stop the car, mosquitoes swarm. I’m not prepared to venture out in that today. Later, when I mentioned to locals that I’d try again on a windy 55° day when the weather should temper the mosquitoes, they just laughed. Thankfully,  there was plenty to see from the car on the Cocklebur Slough Auto Tour.

A pair of Crested Caracaras, North America’s largest falcons, stroll down the road as if they rule the place. Maybe they do. They fly off as my car rolls closer.

Pied-billed grebes dabble near the shore. These squat, chunky, infantile, adorable grebes are the cutest charismatic ducks around! A surprising number of Northern Shovelers are out in the marsh with a single pair of white-fronted geese (a novel bird species for me!).

A hefty alligator eyes me dully from the other side of the road.A flock of little blue herons defines “flighty” as they flush in response to my vehicle crawling along the gravel path. A single, slightly larger reddish heron is in their midst.

In contrast, the snowy and cattle egrets couldn’t care less about my presence.

The road is pock-marked with coyote scat. They state their presence with their sign, staking their claim while secretly eyeing me from the veil of the woods. Northern harriers are common, gliding low, hunting over the meadows. Kestrels survey from their perches on highwires.

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge
Northern Harrier

I’ve covered all of the accessible roads here and looped back to a different way out. I bump down a dusty gravel road with cattle guards reminiscent of Point Reyes National Seashore. In San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, like Point Reyes, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, and too many other public wildlife “refuges,” cattle graze our public lands, degrading the landscape and displacing the wild.

I drove east along a levee road at the Brazos River through the Dow and BASF chemical plant compounds. The Dow Oyster Creek complex encompasses 7,000 acres (eleven square miles), contains more than 1,900 buildings and 3,200 acres of waterways, and employs 7,000 people. It is the largest industrial complex in the western hemisphere.

Barges are moving along the Intracoastal waterway and into the sloughs. Brazoria Texas

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge

I find my way to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Flocks of meadowlarks sing along the entrance road. A unique-looking hawk is perched on the roadside and takes wing as I approach. I would later identify her as a light-morph Harlan’s Red-Tailed Hawk. Harlan's Red-Tailed HawkRed-tailed hawk’s plumage can vary from nearly completely white to almost black below. In the eastern US, they are lighter colored, with lightly marked underwings, a dark bellyband, and a red tail with little or no banding. In the west, there are light and dark-morph colorations with variations in between. The light-morph is red (rufous) on the underside, with streaked underwings and belly, a dark throat, and often some black bands on a red tail. The dark-morph is brown on the underside or with rufous-brown chest, wings, and tail.Harlan's Red-Tailed HawkThe Harlan’s red-tailed hawk is the most variable of the subspecies, from ghostly white to completely black below. They are best identified by their unique tails, which have white, gray, brown, or black mottling or an almost completely red tail. A few dark adults have black & white banded tails, completely lacking the namesake red tail. Light-morph Harlan’s are snow white below and otherwise resemble the eastern red-tailed hawks, except for the strikingly banded tail as seen in this image.

In synchronicity with these incongruous color variations of the “red-tailed” hawk, the Harlan’s red-tailed hawk is named after American ornithologist Harry Church Oberholser. That’s right—a red-tailed hawk with a white tail named Harlan, after a guy named Harry. Perfectly fitting.

I stopped to watch a belted kingfisher try to reorient a fish she’d speared. She has to knock it free and flip it headfirst in her bill before she can swallow it whole. She bashes it against the sign. The wing gusts against her face, making her task increasingly difficult. After a few tries, she relocates.

The marshes here hold some of the same wading birds I saw earlier, along with a few coots.


A loggerhead shrike chooses a windy perch and hunkers low to stay put.Brazoria Texas A few days later, I’m at another birding spot in “gale force winds.” I drove right up to the slough’s edge and stayed in my car, using it both as a blind and a shelter from the wind. The roseate spoonbills, a uniquely pink bird for this continent, are wading along rhythmically sweeping their namesake bills side to side, feeling for small crustaceans, aquatic insects, and small fish.

A swashbuckling reddish egret is chasing fish. I’d thought that all the herons and egrets were stealthy stalkers. This guy is all over the place, but it seems to work for him.

The wind makes flight a bit of a challenge for the birds, but it’s an asset for photographing birds in flight. They leap into the air to take wing, but it takes them a moment to get any forward motion. In this moment, they are essentially flying without moving. I had fun practicing one of the most difficult aspects of wildlife photography, even if I didn’t have much success.

An impressive diversity of bird species is hunkering down in the wind here today. I would return another day but not find a single bird.

Hudson Woods

Another afternoon, I drove up to Hudson Woods, part of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge system along Oyster Creek. Once again, my hiking sandals probably weren’t the best footwear choice. There are wide mowed, well-kept paths. I figure if I stick to those, I’ll be okay.

But then I see dozens of applesnail shells off the trail. I’ll have to walk down a narrow, grassy path. I reconsider, study the ground, yet go forth. The shells are all empty. The raccoons seem to be eating themselves sick on these meaty, invasive snails.

Thankfully, the trail widens again shortly. It is rutted and upturned from rooting wild boars. There are no signs of snakes, fire ants, or animals except for the roosting turkey vultures and a lone cormorant. It is a respite of nature and a relaxing wander.

The Beach

On Follet’s Island, just west of Galveston, you can buy a beach pass to drive on the beach and tailgate. In the summer and on holiday weekends, if you’re not on the island by 10 am, “you’re not getting on.” It’s sunny, windy, and in the 60s on this January day. There are no vehicles and only a rare other person. Surfside BeachIt’s a beautiful place to walk, breathe in the salty, humid air, marvel at shells, relocate a Salty Marsh Moth caterpillar to the vegetation in the dunes, and bask in the warm winter sunshine. The beach was such a relaxing experience that it warranted its own blog.

There are so many unexpected delights here – if you know where to stand and which direction to look.

A place of contrasts

If you’re interested in purchasing or licensing any images you see here, please email me at SNewenham at, and I’ll make it happen.

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5 Replies to “Brazoria, Texas”

  1. This is amazing and it definitely has me looking at this side of our world, a bit differently. Thank you Dr. Sheila 🙂

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