SWA Group Designers Treat Visitors to Bird’s-Eye View at Audubon Nature Tourism Spot in Texas

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The new Kathrine G. McGovern Canopy Walkway, a 700-foot-long elevated boardwalk that’s up to 20-feet off the ground in places will suspend bird lovers within the low-, mid-, and high-level tree canopy environments inhabited by various bird species.

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“The tree-top path reveals views of the lakes and rookeries on man-made islands, where birds are abundant year-round,” says Beard. “There they can nest in relative safety from predators, providing a truly unique educational platform for children and people new to birding.”

Industrial history and the environment are indelibly linked in High Island, Texas. Amidst a flat coastal plain just a few miles east of Galveston, a thirty-foot-high salt dome lends a surreal cast to all-but-abandoned oil derricks lining its perimeter. Despite appearances, the area holds a special appeal: in this post-industrial context, fresh water ponds welcome many migrating bird species making first landfall there after flights from the far-off Yucatan shore.

Four years ago, SWA Houston began working with Houston Audubon on a master plan to help the non-profit realize its goals of conservation, preservation, and creating bird habitat on High Island. The team came up with strategies to tie together various field stations and sanctuaries to mutually benefit birds and the public. Visitors will soon be invited to witness the spectacle at the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary, with a bird’s-eye-view of one the busiest birding destinations in the U.S. (high season is March through mid-May). The new Kathrine G. McGovern Canopy Walkway, a 700-foot-long elevated boardwalk that’s up to 20-feet off the ground in places will suspend bird lovers within the low-, mid-, and high-level tree canopy environments inhabited by various bird species. A trail system below will be accessed from the walkway by two flights of stairs.

Natalia Beard, the SWA principal leading the effort, is pleased to point out her client’s special requirements that will make the walkway unique. “Camouflage was an important consideration in our design,” she explains. “The client asked that it not ‘stand out’ so we were careful not to disturb the birds and other wildlife. Designed to preserve and emphasize the existing heritage oak trees, the boardwalk is carefully woven among them and its materials allow for it to blend in with the surrounding vegetation.” There’s no metal decking because its reverberations are too loud for the birds. Support structures will need to be resilient to withstand the salt air and also hurricanes. Built-in ledges for photographers’ cameras and artist-created informational signage will add educational interest and functionality. “The tree-top path reveals views of the lakes and rookeries on man-made islands, where birds are abundant year-round,” says Beard. “There they can nest in relative safety from predators, providing a truly unique educational platform for children and people new to birding.”

Beard’s architectural counterpart on the project echoes her enthusiasm: Says principal Troy Schaum, of Houston-based SCHAUM/SHIEH, “The architecture is designed to be durable given the harsh climate. It will also help to create an identity for the location that makes the sanctuaries more inviting for the uninitiated that trek to this special Gulf Coast spot.” SCHAUM/SHIEH is converting an old brick pump house on the property into a visitor center and also adding restrooms to the location.

The walkway is due to be complete and welcome its first visitors in time for the spring 2020 high birding season.

About SWA
For 62 years, SWA has been creating a more livable world through its thoughtful landscape architecture and urban design practice. The firm currently works from eight studios and has amassed over 800 awards. For more information and/or imagery, contact Communications Manager Julie Eakin at jeakin(at)swagroup(dot)com; 212-734-6646.

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