Oystercatcher Diaries 2018: Field Week 17

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By Susan Heath

On Wednesday I checked out West Galveston Bay with Alan Wilde, Stennie Meadours and Stennie’s sister Pasty Gillham. It was a beautiful day with just the right amount of wind. Not too much but enough to keep us cool. We headed up to Swan Lake to get it done in case the wind picked up later. We found that the Zimmerman Point pair may be working on a new nest. They didn’t have any eggs but there was a really fine scrape where we saw a bird standing.

photo by Alan Wilde

The Malone pair was still incubating their nest and since the unbanded bird was incubating we tried the box again. This time they wouldn’t go anywhere near it which is expected since we tried it once before and caught the banded one. They don’t fall for that twice! In Swan Lake it appeared that K7 & unbanded’s nest had failed. They were standing along the water’s edge and didn’t react to us when we approached which is pretty unusual for them. K7 is a real terror and this is about as chill as I have ever seen him!

photo by Alan Wilde

Around the corner, 39 & unbanded were spending the day foraging along their shoreline. I guess there’s not much to do if you don’t ever lay a nest! Come on 39, what gives? Sadly R5 & X3 were also out on a reef so their nest must have failed too. We found L5 on the breakwater alone. Did his new bride already leave him or is she on a nest somewhere? We looked around but didn’t find one. We went back and tried the noose carpets on 39 & unbanded hoping to snag the unbanded one but they weren’t having any of that and wouldn’t land near the carpets though they dive bombed the decoys a number of times. It’s pretty late to trap them that way anyway so we gave up and went back down to West Galveston Bay. On the way we checked out the breakwater along the shoreline the runs down to Virginia Point. We found our old buddy YK hanging out on a reef where we saw him last year a lot. He was alone so I fear he has no mate.

photo by Alan Wilde

On Struve Luci we were thrilled to discover that 12 & unbanded have not one but TWO chicks! Woohoo! We tried to get some photos but they kept hiding. More on that later. HM, X7 & their chick U0U were out on a reef feeding together. Such a happy little family!

photo by  Alan Wilde

LT & JA were still incubating their nest and L8 & L9 and their unbanded chick were out on a reef feeding together too. The chick was engaging in some oystercatcher yoga.

photo by Alan Wilde

We headed over to Jigsaw to check on the three nests there. The two we could see were still incubating (T5 & T6 and YE & unbanded). We found WW along the shoreline so I’m hoping his mate LH was incubating. The Royal Tern nests had mostly hatched the adults were along the shoreline with their chicks giving us a better view of the ridge line of the island but we still couldn’t see that third oystercatcher nest. They put it in a good spot! We headed back over to Struve and Alan managed to snap a photo of one of 12 & unbanded’s chicks. I’m glad they are good at hiding! That’s good for their survival.

photo by Alan Wilde

Then we went over to check on 16 & unbanded along the Galveston shoreline. We found the adults on a reef a long way from where the nest had been and we thought that spelled doom for the chick. One of the adults was laying down and when we got close it stood up and the chick popped up too! Wow. They walked that chick ¼ mile from where the nest had been and somehow got it to swim out to a reef where it is much more safe than where it was! Great job 16 & unbanded.

photo by Alan Wilde

Down at Gangs Bayou there wasn’t much happening. The unbanded pair looked like they might be thinking about laying some eggs but they didn’t have any yet. We didn’t see A1A & unbanded. A4A & unbanded and their chick W2W were sleeping on a reef. Only one of A5A & unbanded was present so we thought the other one might be on a nest but we couldn’t find one anywhere and the other bird never appeared.

We found the usual gang on Confederate Reef. On South Deer KK & unbanded and their unbanded chick were out on their reef and for the first time they didn’t go nuts when we approached. I guess KK & unbanded are feeling confident in the chicks flying abilities now so they don’t feel so protective.

photo by Alan Wilde

LL & unbanded and both their chicks U3U and U4W were also feeding on a reef together. So many happy families!

photo by Alan Wilde

We found Y7 & unbanded around the corner from where they usually are on a tiny patch of beach. We searched for a bit and finally saw their chick hunkered down next to a spartina patch.

photo by  Alan Wilde

After much searching through our binoculars from the boat, we spotted 13 & unbanded in a patch of spartina which was good news. They have a chick! We got a little closer and I managed to spot it hiding behind one of the adults. We left them alone so we didn’t cause any stress to them or the chick and moved on. JN & UW and their chick W2X weren’t home but we found HL & L4 with their chick W3U out on their reef too. W3U is still not very happy with us for the pretty jewelry we put on it and it flew off when we passed by with its parents in hot pursuit. I’m still wondering what it’s like to have a teenager that can fly! We headed over to North Deer and found no oystercatchers! They were all off somewhere feeding while the tide was low no doubt. There were lots of spoonbill chicks though.

photo by Alan Wilde

Much to my chagrin UF had returned and was with J6 on their tiny island. You may wonder why I disparage her so much. Well J6 and his former mate P4 were very good at fledging chicks and they fledged one almost every year while they were together. A couple of years ago UF came along and ran off P4 (she is now paired with JJ next door) and since then the new couple (J6 & UF) has not fledged one chick! In fact they’ve laid very few nests. UF needs to learn from her elders and start early in the season. That’s how P4 managed to fledge a chick from that tiny island every year. Ok off my soap box. Speaking of JJ & P4, they were happily incubating their nest.

photo by  Alan Wilde

23 & WY and their chick W0Y were not at home, but H0 & JC were incubating their nest as well.

photo by Alan Wilde

We couldn’t see 28 & AP from that side of the island, but the pelican trees are blooming!

photo by Alan Wilde

We went back to North Deer to check on the final pair there. We can’t get very close to them so we’ve been watching from afar. Today they didn’t appear to be incubating anymore and we didn’t see them anywhere. They could have failed or they could have taken the chicks somewhere that we can’t see from the boat. It’s too shallow to get in there and get close and there are lots of pelicans and terns with young chicks still anyway so best to stay away. We’ll keep watching and see if they turn up with a chick.

Down the GIWW, ET & A8A were still incubating their nest which is basically on a reef. It will be incredible if they fledge a chick from there but it could happen if we don’t get any high tides for a while. From there we headed into Jones Bay where it was clear that CA & Y2’s nest had hatched and they had at least one chick. They went bananas when we got close so we backed way off and just watched and eventually I saw a small chick in the brush behind them. Alan managed a fuzzy photo showing the chick off to the right.

photo by Alan Wilde

From there we could spy on 28 & AP and we saw that they still have two chicks!

photo by Alan Wilde

Same for P3 & unbanded. I will be very happy if all these young chicks make it!

photo by Alan Wilde

There weren’t any other oystercatchers in Jones Bay so we headed back to the boat ramp dreaming of lots of fledged chicks in West Galveston Bay!

On Friday I headed out to East Matagorda Bay with Martin Hagne our Executive Director and his girlfriend and excellent GCBO volunteer Denise Stephens. It was a great wind day just like Wednesday. Just enough to keep us cool but not so much it was a problem. We found ER & unbanded still with chick on their small island along the GIWW.

photo by Susan Heath

They are super vigilant about keeping it hidden so it was difficult to get a photo. A6A & KN were in the same spot they were in last week and looking like they may have a new nest but I couldn’t find one. We saw some birds way out on a reef there so we went to investigate. It was A7A with an unbanded bird. What happened to YC? If you remember last week, YC was trying to oust A6A & KN from their territory. I guess that didn’t go well! YC was alone last week and we didn’t see A7A. Now she turns up with another male in a different location. These oystercatchers are hard to keep track of! We headed back towards the GIWW to go to Old Gulf Cut and found this Magnificent Frigatebird setting on the shell marker sign that for me marks a deep cut that we can pass through to get back to the GIWW. I was afraid it would fly when we got close so we just drifted by it and it never flew!

photo by Susan Heath

What a magnificent beast that is! At Old Gulf Cut we found that 17 & unbanded and their chick were not home today. 25 & unbanded and their three chicks were all feeding together at one end of the island but before I could get a nice family portrait the chicks scattered. This was the best I could do.

photo by Susan Heath

We went in search of LC & R9 and their chick that we banded two weeks ago. We found only LC. I am still holding out hope that the chick made it and it was off with R9 somewhere. It should be old enough to fly now. We headed back down the bay and found KM & unbanded with two chicks still.

photo by Susan Heath

KT & unbanded still had their three as well. KT is looking a bit like the pied piper here!

photo by Susan Heath

I can’t believe there are two pairs of birds with three chicks out there. We haven’t had a pair fledge three chicks in quite a few years and when it did happen, it was only one pair. It is a phenomenal feat for them to pull off three chicks. These birds are superstars!

We went to Dressing Point to show Denise all the birds nesting there and lo and behold we spotted another pair of oystercatchers on a nest! My photos revealed it was EF & M4, the pair who nested there earlier in the season and failed. Because there are so many nesting birds there, I can’t go up and check nests so we will just monitor them from afar and see how they do.

photo by  Susan Heath

Earlier in the week I received an email from some of the turtle patrollers that they had seen two pairs of unbanded oystercatchers, one with a nest, along Matagorda Peninsula which is what separates East Matagorda Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Although oystercatchers nest on beaches all along the Atlantic Coast we have never found a nest on a beach here in Texas so this was big news! I looked on Google Earth and it appeared that the peninsula was skinny enough there that we could walk over from the bay and try to trap the bird if we could get the boat to shore there. So after Dressing Point we headed that way. It was not to be though because it was way too shallow to get the boat where we needed it to be. I’ll have to drive the truck down the peninsula if I want to try to band one of them. While we were there though an unbanded pair of birds flew over from the direction of the beach and landed on one of the reefs nearby. This must have been the pair without the nest. We set up the noose carpets hoping to catch one of them but they showed no interest in pursuing the decoys so we had to give up. All in all a great day though. All chicks present and accounted for.

I am going to Oregon on vacation next week so I won’t be monitoring the oystercatchers but instead will be looking at other waterbirds like American Dippers. Can’t wait! So no oystercatcher diaries next week but we’ll be back out there the following week to band a lot of chicks!

Current Stats for upper Texas coast from Dickinson Bay to East Matagorda Bay: 10 nests being incubated, 48 failed nests, 11 nests with unfledged chicks, 1 nests with undetermined status, 12 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 do that on our website by clicking here! 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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