Oystercatcher Diaries 2019: Field Week 12

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By Susan Heath

It was quite a week folks! On Monday John Wright escorted Alan and I and our Experiences Auction winners Jean Booth, Sandy Parker, and Liz Garney around West Galveston Bay in his very nice boat. The weather was beautiful for this excursion and I was very glad we had postponed from the original date which was the previous Wednesday when the wind had been blowing 18 – 20 mph. As everyone in the Houston area is aware, last weekend we had tremendous thunderstorms with hail and I was a little worried about the birds so I was anxious to get out there and check on everyone.

We headed out from John’s house towards Swan Lake. We haven’t been up there in a few weeks because the wind has just been too bad to make the crossing. On the way we found C2A & E0A still hanging out on their scrap of an island along the Tiki Channel. Surely if they had somewhere else to go they would so I guess this means they don’t. It’s very sad to see them keep laying eggs and the eggs keep getting washed away by high tides.

photo by Alan Wilde

Along the shoreline of Virginia Point there is a small island just offshore between two sections of breakwater. We’ve been seeing a bird foraging there frequently so we went by today and found X3 there. X3? What the heck is she doing there? X3 was paired with R5 in Swan Lake for many years but this year L5 & unbanded managed to take over that territory and R5 & X3 were set adrift. They’ve been seen on the Texas City Dike a couple of times but not on a nesting territory that we’ve seen. Now X3 turns up down by Virginia Point. I’m not sure what’s happening there.

photo by Alan Wilde

The only action in that part of the bay was for LR & unbanded. They were guarding a one egg nest. In Swan Lake proper we found that K7 & unbanded’s nest had failed and they were not present. Nor were any of the other oystercatchers up there! We saw only one unbanded bird in the entire area. Perhaps they have all given up with all the bad weather and high tides lately. We headed back to West Galveston Bay but the railroad bridge was down so we had to float around in the bay for a bit until the train went by and they raised the bridge again.

Then it was time to head to Struve Luci and band L9 & unbanded’s chicks. It’s always hard when there is more than one chick and this was even trickier because of the Black Skimmers nesting nearby. Skimmers are more sensitive than most of the other nesting waterbirds and you have to be careful around them. I wanted to get in, grab the chicks, and get back out with minimum disturbance. Of course it didn’t happen that way. Both chicks hid and we could only find one of them. We moved the boat away to band it and I let it go on the reef where it could run back to its parents.

photo by Alan Wilde

We checked all the other pairs there and found that 12 & unbanded had overwashed as expected. None of the other pairs have a nest but we found LT & JA with their fledged chick U5U on a dock.

photo by Alan Wilde

L9 & unbanded’s other chick didn’t appear so we went on our way to Jigsaw. Sadly the nest I was so proud of, T5 & T6’s, had overwashed and the entire area where it was had changed. The logs and palm leaves we had put out were gone. Such a bummer! YE & unbanded’s nest was gone too so we headed over to check on 16 & unbanded. We only saw one of them and search as we might, we couldn’t find the other one. Perhaps they have a nest somewhere that can’t be seen from the boat. We’ll keep an eye on them.

At Gangs Bayou, A4A & unbanded were still up in the vegetation so they must still have chicks. It’ll be time to band them on Wednesday and I would really like to know how many they have. I may not get my wish though.

photo by Alan Wilde

JX & unbanded’s nest had failed too. Seems like the strong thunderstorms and hail wiped out the nests that had survived the high winds the previously Wednesday. These birds just can’t get a break!

Nothing was happening with any of the pairs on South Deer and it appeared that Y7 & unbanded’s chick from last Thursday was predated by the gulls. They were hanging out on the shoreline with nothing following them. We did see a whole herd of Diamondback Terrapins hauled up on the shore there enjoying the sunshine.

photo by Alan Wilde

It had been several hours since we left Struve Luci so we went back over there to make sure the L9 & unbanded family was reunited. We saw both chicks hanging out with the adults. I decided to give it one more go since I could focus on just chasing the unbanded one. I had Jean Booth stand in a spot that kept it from running down the island and hiding wherever it was that we couldn’t find it last time and I was able to run it down pretty easily. Unfortunately while I was chasing the unbanded one, the banded chick jumped in the water and swam over to some docks along the shoreline. The adults flew over and stood on the dock near where the chick was in the water. We banded the one we had and then went over to see if we could get the first one to swim back to the island as I didn’t want to let the one we had in hand go on the island without the adults being there. I also wanted to make sure the one that swam made it back to the island safely. It had managed to get itself cornered under a dock and I was able to scoop it up with the dip net so that we had both of them in hand. Phew. We snapped a couple quick photos and then took them both back to the island and let them go together.

photo by Susan Heath

I was VERY glad to have that over with, to know everybody was safe and sound, and to have both of them banded. We headed over to the other side of the bay then to check on the chicks we banded last time. Happily all were safe and sound!

photo by Alan Wilde

photo by Alan Wilde

H0 & JC’s nest had failed just like all the other ones and the other birds there didn’t have anything going on. We went by and said hello to FR(ed) & unbanded and then headed to Alan and Maureen’s house for some yummy eats and great conversation! My volunteers are the best!

On Wednesday Alan and I took out Nancy Brown from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and her SCA intern Felice Yarborough out to do some filming for some children’s hospital programming in Houston. It was really cool to be part of this project! Since LR & unbanded had the only nest out there at this point, we headed up towards Swan Lake so Nancy and Felice could see a nest. There was still only one egg but it’s only been two days. Maybe they will lay some more. We headed back to West Galveston Bay and went over to Struve Luci.

LT & JA and their chick U5U put on quite a show for Nancy and Felice and it really couldn’t have gone better if I’d scripted it.

photo by Alan Wilde

The family was foraging on a low part of the island and we anchored the boat a little way from them and watched. The kept foraging and U5U even took a bath!

photo by Alan Wilde

LT was keeping an eye on us though! Nancy recorded some interview film there with Felice and I. I kept stumbling over my words but they assured me they’d edit it and it would be fine. Let’s hope! I don’t want to disappoint the kids, especially sick ones.

photo by Alan Wilde

We checked on Jigsaw but there was nothing new happening there so we headed over to check on 16 & unbanded. They were back where all their nests have been so perhaps they are thinking of trying again. Then we headed down with the intention of banding A4A & unbanded’s chicks on the Gangs Bayou Island which is the one behind the breakwater. When we got there though we didn’t see any adults up in the vegetation where they’ve been ever since their nest hatched. I took the boat behind the breakwater and over where we could look more closely. Still no adults. Oh no! We were just there two days ago and all was well. We anchored the boat and walked around to their territory but there were no adults and no chicks and no sign of what happened. My only guess is that a coyote got on the island and got the chick(s) and the adults decided to abandon the island for a while. Their neighbors JX & unbanded weren’t there either which lends a little support to this theory but we’ll never know for sure what happened. Dang!

That kind of put a damper on the day but we continued on. There wasn’t much happening on South Deer and crazy KK was alone again.

photo by Alan Wilde

There was happier news on North Deer as all the chicks were still ok.

photo by Alan Wilde

photo by Alan Wilde

I really wanted to set up the noose carpets and try to trap a bird so Nancy and Felice could see the territorial display of the adults and hold a bird but we couldn’t find a pair with at least one unbanded in a spot where the wind wasn’t blowing us onto the island too strongly. I finally decided to try it on FR & unbanded but when we got to their island they weren’t there!  On a nearby island there were some cute Caspian Tern chicks though.

photo by Alan Wilde

We went down the GIWW to try it on XE & unbanded but they weren’t there either. The high tide and strong winds are displacing the birds. We went back to FR & unbanded’s island because it’s on the way back to the boat and this time they were there. Woohoo!

Alan and I set up the nooses and then we had to go chase the birds back from the Tiki Spoil breakwater where they had flown when we were on the island. It took some doing but we finally got one of them to go back. Usually they won’t react to the decoys if there is only one of them but when I looked with my binoculars, it looked like one of them was doing the dance alone so we raced over there. By the time we got there it was already caught so after all that Nancy and Felice didn’t get to see the dance anyway! They did get to hold a bird though. Sadly we caught FR(ed) rather than his unbanded mate so now he’s a video star!

photo by Alan Wilde

With that we headed back to the boat ramp happy to get out of the wind.

On Friday I went to check on the birds in East Matagorda Bay with Alan, GCBO board member Jackie Hicks and U of H student Kori Lugar. Kori is going to do some oystercatcher observations this summer to fulfil the research requirement for her undergraduate degree and this was to be her first oystercatcher encounter. Unfortunately the tide was really high and the wind was really whipping and we didn’t see much. Of eight pairs that nest there, we only saw one bird! C3A was standing guard on its island. The Great Blue Heron nest was still going strong.

When we got to Old Gulf Cut the islands were both underwater.

photo by Susan Heath

photo by Susan Heath

Poor birds. It’s a tough year this year.

This project is supported solely by donations and small grants. If you’d just like to make a donation (thank you!) you can do so on our website here.

Current Stats for upper Texas coast from Dickinson Bay to East Matagorda Bay: 1 nest being incubated, 60 failed nests, 4 nests with unfledged chicks, 1 nest with undetermined status, 2 chicks fledged

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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