There isn’t much to recommend Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. The slender spit of sand that extends from High Island to Port Bolivar, Bolivar is not quite third world but is trying to be. Bolivar, if at all, is known for hurricanes and a crab festival.
And birds. Sandwiched between spent oilfields, beer joints, and the storm-ravaged remains of vacated housing developments, there are birds. Not just a few. Lots. The birds mitigate what is otherwise a depauperate landscape. Softening Bolivar’s hard edges are the migrants of High Island, the shorebirds of Bolivar Flats, and the gulls and terns of Rollover Pass. Birds and birders apparently are willing to ignore filth and squalor.
I first birded Bolivar in 1973. My wife-at-the-time’s sister had married a welder from High Island, in itself an accomplishment. (High Island still has fewer than 500 inhabitants). The town had one restaurant, one fleabag hotel (the bring-your-own-sheets kind), one convenience store, and a bar, the Ruddy Turnstone, known more for its Saturday night brawls than its culinary offerings. (In fact, my then-brother-in-law had his arm broken there during an argument with a roughneck wielding a pipe wrench.) I soon learned that birders visited High Island, although no one in town had any idea why. Most of the locals thought birders were simply weird, if they thought at all.
Bolivar’s saving grace, however, is birds. The birds’ saving grace is the Houston Audubon Society and Bill Graber. You can learn about Audubon on the web; I won’t try to explain here. However, I would like to say a few words about Bolivar Bill.
Bill Graber is a physician from Beaumont. Bill is a Robert Penn Warrenish character with a southern drawl, an impish smile, and an unassuming manner who lives in Beaumont on Audubon Place. Bill is a birder, and once served on the board of ABA.
But there is another side of Bill, Bill the Bolivar bird counter. This past December Bill conducted his 50th consecutive Bolivar Peninsula Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Bill started the CBC in 1962, at the age of 29. He has compiled every count since its inception. Bill is dogged, and Bill loves Bolivar birds.
I have joined in Bill’s count on a number of occasions. I remember one when a strong coastal front dropped the temperatures into the 30s and the incessant rains soaked us through the skin. As is tradition we gathered for lunch at the Gulfway Motel in High Island. (This tradition only applies in the years when the Gulfway has an owner. In the off years the group gathers at Al-T’s in Winnie, a local joint that specializes in mud bugs, boudain, and fried gator. Thankfully there is no poule d’eau gumbo to garnish this Cajun trifecta.) One look at my party (Jim Morgan, David Dauphin, and me) and my dad, who also did the count with my mother, decided that we needed his bottle of vodka worse than he did. I must say that I enjoyed that afternoon as much as any CBC, monsoon and all.
I digress. What makes the Bolivar CBC special is Bill. He has a rare graciousness and charm, a southern trait that he has in common with other local birders such as George Clayton (George could extend the word “warbler” into a complete sentence of its own) and Vic Emanuel (who defines the word gracious). For fifty years Bill has shared his warmth with Bolivar and its birders, and both have benefited immensely.
Consider when Bill started the count. The Bolivar CBC began the year after Category 5 Hurricane Carla devastated the Texas coast. The storm surge submerged Bolivar, leaving High Island true to its name. The brown pelican and peregrine falcon had largely disappeared from the upper Texas coast, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, warning of the effects of DDT, had been published only a few months before. The Endangered Species Act, with the brown pelican and peregrine falcon among the first birds to be listed, would not be enacted until a decade later.
The Bolvar CBC, at one level, is a chronology of conservation successes. The brown pelican has recovered along the Texas coast. In November 1963, Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall announced that 31 whooping cranes, including 7 young, had been counted on their Texas wintering grounds. By 2011 the Aransas-Wood Buffalo (AWBP) whooping crane population had risen to 279. The High Island sanctuaries have been established by Houston Audubon. Refuges such as McFaddin and Anahuac (established in 1963) now protect tens of thousands of acres of habitat in the region.
Recently Bill has been quoted saying that he considers a brown pelican in 1977 to be his most memorable sighting on the count. No brown pelican had been seen since the start of the CBC. That single bird heralded a new era, one in which thousands of these pelicans now ply our coastal waters.
Bill retired from compiling the count after this last one. I, for one, am heartsick. Even though I have not participated in a number of years, there is something reassuring about those CBCs that come around each year with familiar birds and familiar faces. I cannot imagine Bill stepping away from birding, and I hope that we bump into each other again in Scout’s Woods this spring. Until then, when I can thank him in person, I will express my admiration and appreciation for Bill here. Thanks, Dr. Graber. You are a class act, a gracious host, a fine birder and conservationist, and Bolivar and those of us who bird it are forever in your debt.