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Birds no longer flock to beach flattened by Ike

One of North America's renowned bird migration and bird watching areas is strangely silent. The reason: Hurricane Ike.
Ike No Birds
Jimmie Stone of Gilchrist, Texas, stands Thursday on the site where her home was until Hurricane Ike destroyed it. Ike also chased away the birds she and others cherished.David J. Phillip / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of North America's renowned bird migration and bird watching areas is strangely silent.

Blame Hurricane Ike.

"We had red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, a bunch of migrating birds," recalled Ernest Stone, 75, leaning on his cane and surveying debris on the cratered moonscape that used to be the family beach house on Bolivar Peninsula.

"I haven't seen a pigeon in a while," he said. "Seagulls. You could always go out and throw a piece of bread and the seagulls would come."

Not now.

"Nothing," his wife, Jimmie, said. "Zero."

The same could be said for their home and beachfront community of Gilchrist, where little is standing three weeks after Ike roared ashore with 110 mph winds, a 12-foot storm surge and waves up to 26 feet. The few palm trees or patches of grass, nearly unrecognizable amid the shells and dried mud, have turned a lifeless yellow brown, killed by sea water.

For people surrounded by devastation with months of rebuilding ahead of them, the birds represent yet another piece of normalcy lost.

"Pelicans and seagulls," Veronica Felty, 46, said, looking out over the gulf waters that wiped out her place. "Birds — 40 to 50 in a row — flying. They were endless. They were beautiful. Pelicans so thick...

"You wonder if they knew to leave."

No bugs, fresh water for birds
Bolivar Peninsula is part of what's known as the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, with nearby High Island a prime bird watching spot and traditional rest stop for migrating birds heading north in the spring and south in the fall.

High Island, at 32 feet over sea level, is the highest spot on the gulf coastline for 700 miles between Mobile Bay, Ala., and the Rio Grande, and attracts thousands of bird-watchers a year.

"Now is when birds would normally be stopping at High Island to top off with bugs before heading south," said Ian Tizard, director of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center at Texas A&M University. "High Island has been stripped of leaves, and a lot of the trees are dying."

While the loss is tough for bird watchers, Tizard said it might not be so bad for many of the birds: "From a migrating bird's point of view, it's probably not a big deal to fly a few miles on until they find a batch of trees that looks better."

Tizard said he believes things will get better in the spring.

Just like humans, the birds need three basics that Ike took away: cover, food and water.

"There's no fresh water," said Texas Parks & Wildlife biologist Cliff Shackleford, who said a good rain would ease the island's woes. "That surge killed everything and dumped salt water into everything, probably for miles.

"It doesn't mean they all died, but we don't really know. The birds ... need to drink, they need to bathe and salt water just doesn't do it."

Vegetation gone or covered in salt
Any protection the birds would seek was wiped out when the trees and most structures were obliterated.

"Look at the vegetation," Brent Ortega, one of Shackleford's colleagues, said. "Either there isn't any, or it's covered with salt. Plant material is dying, insects and seeds are not there any more. The habitat's changed and the birds have got to live. They probably moved somewhere else because it's not very suitable."

Jimmie Stone, 67, looked at a pile of palm trees that used to border their driveway.

"We had three on each side," she said. "We had a huge tree in the yard. We had a bird feeder..."

Instead, chunks of broken concrete — their former driveway, the home foundation, the patio — tip at angles where waves lifted them and cast them aside. A dead pigeon sat on the side of Texas Highway 87. A few lonesome pelicans roosted on the remains of a pier jutting into the Gulf of Mexico.

Otherwise, there weren't many places for a bird to roost.

"I've got plenty of structure, but it's not mine," Ernest Stone said matter-of-factly, looking at the rubble of his neighbors' homes littering his property.

His mobile home ended up across the highway. The only recognizable parts of it are the wheels, upside down and twisted amid other debris.