Oystercatcher Diaries 2018: Field Week 7

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By Susan Heath

On Monday this week I had the pleasure of joining our Experiences Auction winners to check out the oystercatchers nesting in Tres Palacios and parts of Matagorda Bay. Maureen Wilde was the winning bidder on this auction item which included a day on the water checking out oystercatchers with local Bob Friedrichs, a gourmet dinner cooked by Chef Ruth Friedrichs and a night stay at The Peaceful Pelican Bed and Breakfast (donated by proprietor Paula Whitney).  Maureen gave this item to her husband Alan Wilde as a present and they invited John and Lynn Wright to join them on the adventure. So Bob took Alan, John and myself on a boat tour while the ladies enjoyed some local sightseeing. Sadly I was unable to join them for the gourmet dinner but I’m sure it was fabulous!

Anyway, it was quite windy but Bob’s boat handled the chop well and we were in protected water most of the day. Bob had checked on the pairs in this area couple of times already but we still found some surprises. There are four pairs in Tres Palacios and when we first checked them, two had nests and two did not. Our first surprise was the first pair had moved their territory to a different area and they had a nest! Both were unbanded so we caught one in the box. I believe it was the female. Here’s John with our prize.

photo by Alan Wilde

Our second surprise was that the next pair also had a nest. One of them was already banded but we didn’t realize it until I had already set up the box on the nest. Since it was already set up I figured we’d just see what would happen. In the past I haven’t been successful trying to trap an adult with the nest box when the other adult was trapped that way and that’s how this banded one had been trapped. They do talk to each other you know! Amazingly a bird went in the box though. We couldn’t tell if it was the banded one or the unbanded one and the box didn’t trip. What the heck?! We approached and the bird got up and walked out of the box without tripping it. Dang. I went up and discovered two things had gone wrong. The wind had blown the peg so it wasn’t in the center of the box anymore and the string that is attached from the peg to the back of the box which is what trips the thing had come unattached. Double failure! John handily fixed it but I figured we’d hassled them enough so we let them get back to their serious incubation work.

Bob thought the next pair had a chick but when we approached, they were both out on a reef feeding and there was a Peregrine Falcon on a kill along the shoreline. Bob said he’d seen the Peregrine there several times before.

photo by Alan Wilde

Uh oh. The coexistence of an oystercatcher chick and a Peregrine Falcon doesn’t seem too likely. Either the Peregrine would get the chick or the chick would starve because the adults would be unable to feed it. When we got too close the Peregrine took off and the oystercatchers chased it which caused the Peregrine to come around and take a pot shot at them. It could have easily taken one of them but it didn’t thank goodness. Once the Peregrine was gone one of the oystercatchers ran back up to the island and laid down like it was on a nest.

photo by Alan Wilde

So no chick but a new nest. We found the Peregrine kill to be a Ring-billed Gull. I bet that was a heck of a mid-air explosion. I dragged the remains out to the water where they would float away so the Peregrine wouldn’t come back for them.

We approached the last pair in Tres Palacios Bay expecting them to be incubating a nest but the nest was gone. Did it hatch? While we were puzzling over that an adult came flying in to the other side of the island calling vigorously. Ah ha! We motored around to the other side and saw a chick run up into the grass too quickly for Alan to get a photo.

From there we headed along the north shoreline of Matagorda Bay to Oyster Lake where there are a couple of pairs nesting. One of them was incubating but the other pair who had had a nest the last time Bob was out was on another island nearby. Sadly there were no chicks with them. One of them is banded (HP) and it looked he was limping so we setup the noose carpets. I figured if we caught HP, we could check out what was wrong with him and if we caught her we could band her. Win win!

photo by Alan Wilde

Well we caught her and for the first time ever I had hoped we catch the banded one. His wife is now A2A. Alan’s photos revealed a bit of fishing line caught on one toe of HP. Bob and I will go back next week to see if we can catch him and remove it.

That is usually where Bob ends his monitoring but he said he’d seen another pair a little farther on so we went to check. We found one bird feeding along the shoreline and didn’t see the other one anywhere. I knew it had to be on a nest somewhere so I got off the boat and searched the shoreline from the top of a berm where I could see better. Sure enough I spotted it on a nest far down the beach.

photo by Alan Wilde

We set up the box and caught the female. She is now A3A and Bob has a new nest to monitor!

It was still early and I’ve wanted to check out a pair of oystercatchers that I see every time I visit TNC’s Mad Island Marsh Preserve. They are always hanging out on some reefs just off the shoreline but I’ve never had a boat to go out and see where they nest. It was farther than I thought it would be (thanks Bob!). On the way we discovered another pair with a nest and one of them was banded! Since I haven’t been in this area before I was really curious where this bird (LJ) was banded but I had to wait until I got home to look it up. Turns out it was banded by Lianne Koczur who worked on the project as a graduate student in 2012 and 2013. She banded it in 2012 right where we found it! There haven’t been any resightings of that bird so I guess it doesn’t wander too far from home.

photo by Alan Wilde

When we finally got down to Mad Island the pair there zoomed past us and took a left down the GIWW and we never saw them again. Drat. Now I still don’t know where they nest. We headed back and tried to sneak up on the pair with the chick so we could see if they had more than one. We still only saw one but Alan’s photos revealed they actually have two and possibly three!

photo by Alan Wilde

On the way to the boat ramp we found a flock of at least 300 Red-breasted Mergansers. Very cool! It was a great day with great friends. Thanks very much to Bob, Ruth, and Paula for putting together a great Experiences Auction item and for Maureen for bidding on it!

Early Wednesday morning we had a line of massive thunderstorms pass through but right on schedule they cleared out and Alan I were able to head out to West Galveston Bay only 30 minutes later than normal. The pair by the boat ramp was still incubating when we passed by. We headed up to Swan Lake and found that both the pairs we check on the way had new nests. 20 & unb had three eggs and LR & unbanded had one egg. In Swan Lake proper, K7 & unbanded were still keeping their chicks hidden from us. No surprise there. We’ll be lucky to see them before they fledge! 39 & unbanded were hanging out on the shelly area in their territory so I thought they might have a nest but they didn’t. While I was checking on them I looked over at R5 & X3’s territory and saw one of them up in the vegetation. Ah ha! I’ve been wondering if they would ever lay eggs. They are just getting started with one egg.

photo by Susan Heath

From a distance we saw poor L5 still hanging out on the breakwater alone but as if to tell us that he has better things to do, when we went over to read his bands he had flown to a reef and was feeding away.

photo by Alan Wilde

On the way back to West Galveston Bay we went by 20 & unbanded’s territory and found that the unbanded bird was incubating so we set up the box and backed off. After 23 minutes a bird went and got trapped. When I approached to remove it I was quite disappointed to see that it was 20! Second time in two weeks that we’ve caught the wrong bird!

In West Galveston Bay, two sets of chicks went missing, both on Struve Luci. The pair on the east end were not on the island – one was on a reef feeding and the other one was on a rock wall along Galveston Island. I have no idea what happened to their chicks but they were definitely gone. Their neighbors 12 & unbanded’s chick was nowhere to be seen either. It could have been hiding (I’m hoping). We will keep watching to see what happens. JA was guarding a single egg in the vegetation while her mate LT was hanging around nearby.

photo by Alan Wilde

It appeared that L8 & L9 had also lost their chicks. Theirs are likely the result of Laughing Gull predation. Sad. On Jigsaw all three pairs have nests now and all were incubating.

photo by Alan Wilde

Along the Galveston Island shore, 16 & unbanded were both out on a reef again so their second nest failed too. Down by Gangs Bayou, A1A was incubating away. We set up the box on the nest on the island and after a 30 minute wait we captured the male. He is now A4A. I promise to leave you alone now A4A!

photo by Susan Heath

Much to our surprise there was another nest a short distance away from A4A’s. We hadn’t realized there was another pair there! They were both unbanded so we tried the box on that nest too but they just wouldn’t go for it.

On South Deer all was well. KK & unbanded were still acting like they had chicks. LL & unbanded’s nest had hatched and they were acting similarly. Y7 & unbanded and 13 & unbanded both had new nests. It’s about time they got with the program! JN & UW’s nest had hatched too and they were up in the vegetation with Laughing Gulls all around. Hopefully they can keep the gulls away from the chicks.

photo by Alan Wilde

HL & L4 also had a new nest (their second) but it wasn’t clear if they were incubating it. Hope so.

In the Marker 52/North Deer area, everyone was incubating that should have been. JJ & P4 had a new nest with only one egg. They didn’t want to vacate when we approached to check it out but P4 finally abandoned the nest when we were very near. There was a Brown Pelican standing right by the nest and when P4 got up, the Brown Pelican reached down like it was going to grab the egg! Wow. I didn’t realize Brown Pelicans would eat eggs. I yelled and clapped my hands and the pelican flew off. We will keep that in mind when checking nests by Brown Pelicans from now on! The only change there was that FR & unbanded’s nest had overwashed. It’s not surprising since the only place they have to nest is so low but I still feel for the poor guy. His women are always leaving him and his eggs are always washed away.

On Friday, I headed out to East Matagorda Bay with Pete and Peggy Romfh. There was a stiff north wind and we had to fight with it all day. We didn’t do anything more than check on all the pairs. I haven’t been out to check on these birds in two weeks so I wasn’t sure what we would find. ER & unbanded were not home when we passed by their island. We worked out way out to Dressing Point and didn’t see EF & M4 and their chick anywhere. I thought maybe they were on the opposite end of the island to stay out of the wind but we didn’t see them their either. I’m hoping they were just up in the vegetation where we couldn’t see them. The newly minted LF and mate were not around and their island was almost under water so their nest definitely overwashed.

At the Oyster Farm both pairs were present but neither had a nest. The wind was pushing us into the islands there and I made the mistake of going up to check if KT & unbanded had a nest (they didn’t).

photo by Pete Romfh

We had a heck of a time getting the boat back out. Rookie mistake. KM & unbanded looked like they were working on a scrape though. With the wind at our back it was a decent ride over to Old Gulf Cut and we got some pleasant news there. 17 & unbanded’s nest had hatched and one of them was huddled up behind a log with a chick staying out of the wind. Yeah!

25 & unbanded were hanging out on the reef they call home. From there we had a long ride back up the GIWW to Sargent heading into the wind. Not my favorite thing. ER & unbanded were back on their island when we passed by. Good to see them. I was quite glad to get the boat back on the trailer and be done for the week.

photo by Pete Romfh

We are adopting out pairs of birds again this year as fund raiser for this project. We greatly appreciate all who have adopted pairs in the past! If you aren’t familiar with the program – you can adopt a pair of oystercatchers for a $100 donation and I will update you monthly on their progress throughout the breeding season. Most pairs are from West Galveston Bay, but there is a pair from Dickinson Bay and a pair from Swan Lake too. If you want a pair from East Matagorda Bay let me know.

Current Stats for upper Texas coast from Dickinson Bay to East Matagorda Bay: 20 nests being incubated, 8 failed nests, 3 nests with unfledged chicks, 4 nests with undetermined status, 0 chicks fledged

This project is supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and several private donors. If you would like to contribute you can call our office for information on how to do so (979-480-0999). All donations are tax deductible and GREATLY appreciated.

Note: All trapping and banding for this project is in accordance with federal and state permits issued to Susan Heath, GCBO Director of Conservation Research. Bird handling by volunteers is only permitted in the presence of Susan Heath and volunteers are trained in proper bird handling techniques.

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