My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Secrets of the Skillern Unit

The Skillern Unit is not yet on most birders' rader.  Instead they come to Old Anahuac and visit The Willows, The Butterfly Garden, Shoveler Pond, and the Hackberry Trail. A few look for the seaside sparrows down by the boat launch site on the bay. Some have learned about the great new place, made by the geese, down the road to Frozen Point, where wintering birds could be seen from the road to the levy of Oyster Creek.

Morning on East Bayou

But if one drives another seven miles east, a different set of  habitats appear. The unit adjoins East Bayou and thus has a little riparian area. And it is the area that was farmed for rice before Ike, and now farming has again started which brought in waders, including whimbrels this spring, along with up to 500 fulvous whistling ducks and perhaps 75 to 100 black-bellied whistling ducks. Only two weeks ago, I spotted the last of out winter ducks, a lone male blue-winged teal who was hanging out with a fulvous whistling duck. And it has a huge permanent pond - currently the only water on the refuge, aside from that in canals or the bay.

There are two new handicapp-accessible paths there -one to an East Bayou Overlook where you can get good views of the fields in the evenings.  But the piece de resistance - and my favorite place on the refuge - is the new handicapp-accessible trail to the rookery overlook. "Rookery, you gasp.  I never knew there was such a thing at Anahuac NWR. "  I was surprised to find, that in the four years I hadn't visited Anahuac, a permanent pond had been installed with islands which were planted to attract wading birds.  Hurricane Ike destroyed most of the rookery and lots of the riparian trees but some are still left. (And hopefully, replacing the rookey trees and enhancing the riparian area will be a future Friends of Anahuac project.) A few neotropical cormorants are nesting in the stubs of the trees.  Hundreds of cormorants  and great egrets are using the same area for roosting so I love to go there late in the evening to watch cormorants, herons, and fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks fly in. And I think a pair of Anhingas are also nesting there. Some cattle egrets are also using the area as a roost. There is usually a flock or two of both white-faced and white ibis to enjoy. A pair of purple gallinules can often be spotted just before the overlook and another one sometimes sits on the same clump of cattail at sunset. Morehens and red-winged blackbirds calls remind me that this is marsh habitat. Boattailed grackles call and skulk to and from their nests in the cattails. This is the only place I find little blue herons. And as the sun sets, common nighthawks peet their fluttering, diving, climbing path through the sky. Two yellow-crowned night herons begin fishing near dusk and can sometimes be found on early morning visits.

Purple gallinule

A yellow-crowned night heron is still fishing in the early morning

White-faced ibis and black-necked stilt

HIDE shrieked the mother then the three little ones hid

And this is now the best place to see alligators. Just walk down the east side of the bayou and stop at the fishing piers. There are also a few alligators in the pond.  I laughed when I saw an alligater make a huge splash and saw a frog jump in a four foot arc above the alligator's head a few evenings ago. Alligator 0, Frog 1.

Alligators come over looking for fisherman that give them handouts

In migration, this was one of the best places to see warblers and vireos. Currently yellow-billed cuckoos, orchid orioles, green herons, scissor-tailed flycatchers and Eastern kingbirds are breeding there. Last winter and this spring I enjoyed many pie-billed greebs, bald eagles, several species of ducks, great flyups of snow geese, flyovers of greater white-fronted geese, and one wonderful flyover of sandhill cranes. Two vermillion flycatchers spent the winter there.

An Eastern kingbird and a yellow-billed cuckoo share a perch

A recently fledgedd green heron

This fall, the wet fields should again attract shorebirds to the fields and the grass path along the bayou will again have migrants and wintering orange-crowned  and yellow-rumped warblers.

So be sure to check out this place when you want to come birding. You can also put in a canoe or kayak from the first pier or  fish from the piers and the bridge. And by the way, if the wind is blowing hard, be sure to listen to the song of the bridge. It plays several tones, all pleasing.  And there are usually a few wildflowers to enjoy.

A beautiful stand of guara

 This is also a good place to look for dragonflies.  A few posed for pictures.

Eastern pond hawk

Four-spotted pennant

Tree skeletons against the evening sky

Full moon over East Bayou