Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary
Smith Oaks Sanctuary is open year-round, 7 AM -7 PM. (except during spring migration when the Old Mexico Rd entrance is open dawn to dusk). The Winnie Street Entrance is thru a pedestrian turnstile gate, year-round. Visitors should use the pedestrian turnstile -- the trail swing gate which is next to the turnstile is only open for work vehicle access. The Winnie Street entrance does not allow for bus turnaround; buses or large vehicles will need to drive in and back out. The Old Mexico Rd Entrance is open daily February 15 – June 15, weekends in September and October (7 AM – 7 PM), and by advance arrangement.
Parking is available year-round at the Winnie St. entrance and from March 15 – May 15 at the Old Mexico Rd. entrance. See the Google map below for parking locations.
Visit Texas eBird to find out what's being reported. Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary is an eBird hotspot.
Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary is 177 acres of fields, woods, wetlands and ponds. Sixty-four acres were purchased by Houston Audubon with the help of Houston Audubon members, friends, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The remaining 110 acres were donated to Houston Audubon by Amoco Production Company. The Rookery in the middle of Claybottom Pond has become a favored roosting and nesting place for thousands of waterbirds. The sanctuary is open to the public sunrise to sunset year round. The High Island sanctuaries are fee sites. The fee helps defray the costs of maintenance, utilities and improvements for the entire Houston Audubon sanctuary system. A day pass costs $8, or for $30 a patch may be purchased which gives you an unlimited number of admissions to all High Island sanctuaries for one year.
Ponds at Smith Oaks
Smith Pond was dug to hold the water supply for the High Island community. Claybottom Pond was dug to increase the water supply available to the town and to provide water for the sulfur plant that was east of the pond. The “dock” that is on the east side of the pond held the pumps to pump water to the sulfur plant. On the levy on the northwest side of the pond are old cement pipes that were part of the system that pumped water into the pond. Water came from the Neches River the same river that currently provides water for the Bolivar Peninsula. The pond was never totally excavated and the smaller ponds, Grackle Pond and the Frog Pond may have been dug to supply clay for plugging wells.
Sanctuary Water Features
In 2007, with the help of many volunteers, Don Verser donated time and materials to renovate a drip at the old homestead area of Smith Oaks which had been built by Boy Scouts in the mid 1990s. The first several months of the project included privet and ligustrum clearing, followed by installation of new shrubs and understory trees. The new water feature has already started to attract birds to this historically significant part of High Island. Around the corner from Don’s Drip is Norma’s Niche another drip that attracts birds using the Old Homestead area.
Behind the pump house you will find Katrina’s Corner with a drip and some comfortable benches. This site was developed as a memorial to Katrina Ladwig a long-time supporter of Houston Audubon.
Property donated by Amoco had many uses during the years of petroleum production. The brick building was built in the 1920s and housed large pumps that pumped oil from the oil field into pipe lines. The field to the east of the brick building once held large oil storage tanks which were dismantled in 1993. Prairie restoration on this site has erased all traces of the storage facility.
The Smith Oaks Sanctuary began with purchase by Houston Audubon of an undivided interest in the 11.3-acre George and Charlotte Smith (not related to Louis Smith) homestead property in 1987, followed by a major donation of 110.9 acres by Amoco Petroleum in 1994, then purchases by Houston Audubon of the 20.6-acre "Tank Farm" Tract in 1995 and 34.53-acre Wiggins Tract in 2003. The Smith Oaks Sanctuary is now made up of 177.33 acres of oak mottes, ponds, wetlands, and coastal prairie, and a rookery in the middle of Claybottom Pond that provides roosting and nesting for thousands of waterbirds.
Smith Oaks was named for George and Charlotte Smith, who acquired the property in 1879 from Charlotte's parents, John and Mary Ann Brown. Records show that the couple began improvements on the land that year, building houses, fences and ditches, and the planting oak hedges. It is unclear who planted the oldest oaks on the property, as John Brown is also reported to have planted some oaks.
George Smith owned cattle and raised peaches, pears, oranges, strawberries, cabbage, sugar cane, cotton and tobacco. He also operated a sugar mill and cotton gin on the property. However, he was most famous for his mineral water enterprise. Smith dug several water wells on his property and reported that he has 21 "distinct" waters. The deepest well, dug in 1882, was 32 feet deep and also produced gas, which Smith viewed as an inconvenience, since there was no market for it. Smith received a trademark and bottled and sold his "High Island Mineral Springs Water" along the Texas Gulf Coast. He claimed that the water would "...cure Brights disease, liver and kidney troubles, Catarrh-the cause of consumption, Asthma, Hay Fever, restore hair on bald heads, and remove Dandruff on the Scalp and all the Pimples and Blotches from the face." The ruins of one of these wells can still be seen in the woods across from the map shelter at the Winnie Street Entrance.
The Smiths' home, dismantled in 1985, stood on the property for over 100 years. The site of their house is easily identified, as the garden paths, flower beds and ornamental plants they planted in their yard are still obvious.