The Rookery At Smith Oaks Sanctuary, Texas

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We follow wildlife from Haines in Alaska, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and Lake Martin in Louisiana, to the Venice Rookery and Alligator Farm in Florida, but The Rookery at Smith Oaks Sanctuary is best for us. It’s close to us, only 95 miles east of downtown Houston, located on the Bolivar Peninsula, High Island, in Galveston County, Texas. It lies on the eastern side of Galveston Bay, inland from the Gulf of Mexico (GPS coordinates: latitude north 29.57445, longitude west 94.38980). There are different ways to get there, but the I-10 is fast. This salt dome raises the elevation of the area to around 38 feet, giving High Island the highest elevation of any point on the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, through the Yucatán Peninsula. There are more than 20,000 birdwatchers from over 40-plus countries yearly. The Rookery at Smith Oaks Sanctuary is particularly notable for its many bird nests. You need to buy a $5 daily or $25 ticket annually for all four sanctuaries.

The rookery weather is influenced greatly by the Gulf of Mexico. Temperatures during the birdwatching season range from mid-40ºF to over 90ºF, although there are four covered birdwatching decks, which are very helpful during these temperatures. Mosquito net or insect repellent is a must in the morning.

Photo Experience
Hurricane Ike impacted the rookery with a significant storm surge and winds of up to 110 mph in 2008. All trees in the rookery were wiped out, though bushes were left, and the birds still nested on the bushes the next year. That’s best for photography because it means clear, flattering backgrounds instead of disorderly trees and branches. The distance from the bank to the rookery/islands is about 75 feet, so for the most reach, the best lens focus length is about 500mm. My 600mm lens is a little longer, so when there’s multi-bird action, I need a second camera like my Nikon D7100 with 70-200mm lens. My favorite equipment and gear is my Nikon D3S with a 500mm lens and Gitzo tripod with Wimberley gimbal head.

Best Times
Depending on the weather, we’ve been to The Rookery at Smith Oaks since 2004. Every weekend and holiday, we arrive at the rookery before sunrise for the best backlight photos. I take an average of 1,000 shots daily. The Houston Audubon Society operates four bird sanctuaries in the area, so it’s a famous destination for birdwatchers worldwide, particularly from March 15 through May 15. Every year, from late January to July (the date when birds start to nest changes from year to year), there are thousands of nesting birds that build their houses there.

Contact: Houston Audubon,

Jobu Design Pro2 Gimbal

Essential Gear
A gimbal head is an ideal tripod solution for bird and wildlife photographers because the unique center-of-gravity design allows for fast pans and tilts to track quickly moving animals even at awkward angles. Gimbals are also durable enough to support long telephoto lenses, and the center of gravity will allow you to maneuver heavy lenses and attached cameras with minimal effort.