Oystercatcher Diaries 2019: Field Week 18

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By Susan Heath

I’m beginning to get a complex about the weather. This season has just been awful with wind and now rain. I wasn’t able to go to Drum Bay on Tuesday to check on the chick there because there were heavy thunderstorms all day. I rescheduled that for Friday in combination with East Matagorda Bay which would mean a long day but what else can you do?

On Wednesday Alan Wilde, Linda Davis, and I headed out to West Galveston Bay to check on the three remaining nests and the two unfledged chicks there. I had high hopes that the wind wouldn’t be blowing a gale but I didn’t get my wish. It wasn’t 18 mph at least but it was up to 16 and that is almost as bad. We made it work though! I needed to do an intertidal reef survey but once again the tide was too high to do it so we decided to head up to Swan Lake first thing in case the wind picked up as the day wore on.

I had gotten an email from long time GCBO supporter Lisa McGonigle that she’d seen a pair of birds on the only remaining dock at Virginia Point (Hurricane Ike destroyed the rest of them) so after we went under the railroad bridge we headed over there. This is an area we don’t usually check but we were rewarded with seeing C2A and E0A on the dock! So now we know where they hang out when their island along the Tiki Channel is under water which has been a common occurrence this year.

photo by Alan Wilde

We found X4 feeding on the island there where it has been most every time we’ve checked lately. 20 & unbanded were roosting on their island so we left them to it and headed up to check on LR & unbanded. The last time we were out, we discovered they had a one egg nest and I was anxious to see if it was still active. They put it in a pretty low area so I didn’t have high hopes but you never know. When we arrived, we found them both standing up on the island ridge nowhere near where the nest had been though so it must have overwashed. Drat.

We headed into Swan Lake and found K7 & unbanded on their island but they flew off to the breakwater when we disturbed them. Interestingly R5 was with an unbanded bird on a mudflat across from his old territory that was taken over by L5. It will be interesting to see who owns that territory when the breeding season rolls around again. Maybe R5 will make a play for it again.

photo by Alan Wilde

We headed back down to West Galveston Bay and the wind made for a bumpy ride AGAIN. I’m sick of this! We checked out the skimmers on Struve Luci. They are doing well with about 700 birds there and large chicks beginning to appear. I will start banding some of them soon.

photo by Alan Wilde

The oystercatchers were all there hanging around taking it easy. L9 & unbanded still had their chick U5Y with them. I expect it’ll be off on its own pretty soon.

photo by Alan Wilde

From there we went to Jigsaw to check on T5 & T6’s nest. I was overjoyed to see that one of them was still incubating but when I went to check egg number to see if they had laid another egg I found only one egg instead of two. Something happened to the other egg. Dang! The chances of one egg making it are not good but I have faith in them. They don’t give up! The other pairs there were just loafing about but the Royal and Sandwich Terns are doing really well with lots of chicks.

photo by Alan Wilde

We checked on 16 & unbanded but they weren’t anywhere to be found. We were heading down towards Gangs Bayou when I noticed an oystercatcher on one of the docks near 8 Mile Road. This is not the area where we usually find them on the docks but there it was. It was 13 & unbanded’s chick from last year – W2Y. Since 13 disappeared over the nonbreeding season, I guess W2Y represents his last offspring. Sad to see you go 13 but glad you left some youngsters behind. Good to see it’s doing well.

photo by Alan Wilde

It noticed us watching and flew off to another dock and joined three other oystercatchers that we didn’t see because they were up near the base of the dock. Among them was XC a 2013 chick from Struve Luci that we haven’t seen breeding anywhere. There weren’t any other oystercatchers on any of the other docks so we checked out Gangs Bayou.

Most of the pairs were on the breakwater but there was an unbanded bird up on the island so we went to make sure there was no nest. Sadly there wasn’t so we headed to South Deer. Both KK and LL were in their territories alone. Perhaps the ladies were off for a morning together. Y7 & unbanded were loafing along the shoreline and XA & unbanded weren’t home. JN & UW were back in their territory for the first time in a long time and HL & unbanded were also loafing about. Are you catching a theme here folks? The birds are done!

On North Deer C1A & unbanded were there without their chick again so it is definitely kicked out of the house! YM & JH were still there with their chick U5X which still isn’t fledged. It’s looking pretty good though so hopefully soon.

photo by Alan Wilde

We checked out Marker 52 but didn’t see JJ & P4. Surely there were just off foraging somewhere. Did I mention the tide is STILL high! Y5 & unbanded and H0 & JC were both in their territories.

Then it was time to see if 28 & AP’s nest was still active. I looked through my binoculars when we were pretty far away and didn’t see a bird incubating so I figured it had failed. Sure enough we found them standing together at the other end of their small island.

photo by Alan Wilde

Bummer. There are still tern chicks everywhere there so maybe they just couldn’t make it work with them there or maybe the high wind and thunderstorms of the last few days got the nest. The birds just can’t get a break this year.

We headed back over to North Deer to check on the unbanded pair and their chick U5W. When we arrived, we saw only one adult and no chick. That chick is famous for hiding but it hasn’t hidden the last few times we’ve checked it out which I took as a sign that it was feeling more confident and perhaps able to fly. We hung around a bit and the unbanded bird took off and we didn’t see where it went. The chick never appeared so we went down to check on W5 (not home) but Alan snapped a couple great photos of an adult Reddish Egret with two chicks.

photo by Alan Wilde

And also a Magnificent Frigatebird sitting on a piling.

photo by Alan Wilde

We went back to the unbanded pair’s territory but still no chick. I think it must have fledged! We motored around and checked the breakwater that runs the length of the backside of the island but they weren’t there either. I feel pretty confident that the chick can finally fly and they took it off to find good food. We’ll keep checking in case they come back. I would really like to see that chick take off and fly since we’ve been watching and waiting for so long.

We went and checked on ET & A8A (not home) and XE & unbanded which are farther down the GIWW. XE & unbanded were not happy with us when we arrived but they had no nest so we left them alone. Back up in Jones Bay, we found CA on the Tiki Spoil breakwater but not his mate Y2. Around the corner XJ was hanging out. That bird is not paired but we’ve been seeing it around the bay a lot so maybe it is shopping for a mate.

Finally we checked on FR & unbanded. They were both there but FR flew again as usual when we approached. He is still mad at us for accidentally catching him with the noose carpets when we were trying to catch his mate. Oops. Sorry Fred. Will you ever forgive us?

So we ended the day on that note and headed back to the boat ramp. All that is left is T5 & T6’s nest and the one unfledged chick. Sad to say the season is almost over.

On Friday morning I headed out to Drum Bay with Martin Hagne, our Executive Director. Martin has a lot of boat experience but he hasn’t driven ours so he wanted to get in some practice. First we had an issue with the boat battery and then the new boat ramp I wanted to try out didn’t pan out so we ended up at the Swan Lake boat ramp in Surfside. I don’t like to use this one because it’s silted in and it’s hard to get the boat off the trailer but we managed it and headed to Drum Bay. It was a joyous occasion because the water looked like this:

photo by Susan Heath

I haven’t seen water that calm in ages. We could go fast and our teeth weren’t rattling! Woohoo! Our first stop was to check and see if K0 & LE still had a chick. We arrived at the site to find no oystercatchers. Dang. We searched around a bit to see if they had just wandered to another area but no luck. Something must have happened to the chick and the adults left. Shoot! I was really hoping that one would make it.

We headed over to the reefs to do a reef survey but checked another island where JK & unbanded used to nest on the way. They weren’t there as they haven’t been every time I’ve checked for them this year. I started counting pelicans and gulls and terns on the reefs and suddenly three oystercatchers flew in calling and making all sorts of racket. What the heck is your problem guys and where did you come from anyway?! I had to do a double take when I realized it was JK & unbanded with a fledged chick. What! I took some photos just to verify. Where did they nest? I have no idea. The weather was so crappy every time we were out there that I didn’t do much exploring so I missed the nest and subsequently the chick. What a happy surprise!

photo by Susan Heath

We then headed across Christmas Bay to go count the reefs in Bastrop Bay but suddenly it looked like the water was covered with snow. Uh what? I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me but Martin slowed down and we could see that the water was covered with small fish that were all dead. Ugh! Later we learned they were probably Menhaden. When I say covered, I mean covered.

photo by Susan Heath

photo by Susan Heath

I asked Martin to stop so I could take some photos and that’s when he noticed there was a shark surface feeding on the dead fish. We never got a really good look at it but I snapped a bunch of photos of the dorsal fin. That isn’t a dolphin!

photo by Susan Heath

Eventually we drifted too close and it went under and didn’t resurface. I called the fish kill into TPWD but they already knew about it so we continued on our way. There was only one oystercatcher in Bastrop Bay, J0. Wonder where his mate was? She wasn’t on their nesting island but maybe they have a nest in some crazy place too! I just can’t keep up with these birds.

We headed back to the boat ramp, loaded the boat, stopped for gas, and then made our way to the boat ramp in Sargent for our afternoon in East Matagorda Bay. It was 1:00 by the time we got the boat in the water again and I was ready to be done! It was Friday and I’m on vacation most of next week for 4th of July. Let’s get this done!

There still wasn’t much wind so we were able to fly down the GIWW to the first oystercatcher spot. We found A7A by himself but no nest. Then we headed down to Old Gulf Cut to check on the skimmers. I was afraid they’d been overwashed again and had abandoned the area but we found 90 birds spread between the two islands there. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t gotten overwashed so I checked for nests and only found five with one egg each. Seems they did get overwashed but are starting all over again. These poor birds just keep trying and trying!

We headed to the Oyster Farm where we happily found more skimmers. They haven’t been there this year at all and I assumed the nesting Great Blue Herons had scared them off from nesting there. Who wants to nest near a large predator like that? The heron chicks look like they will fledge soon so maybe that threat is over and the skimmers can get down to business. That would be great!

photo by Susan Heath

There was only one unbanded oystercatcher in that area so nothing to check on there. That was everything we needed to check so we headed back to the boat ramp. Done in two hours – a new record! Of course we didn’t check out Dressing Point the colonial waterbird island so it wasn’t really a complete tour. I’ll take it though. I made it home by 5:00 which I rarely do during the nesting season.

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, 66 failed nests, 1 nests with unfledged chicks, 1 nest with undetermined status, 5 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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