By Susan Heath
If I could put another title on this week’s addition it would be “Things are starting to get interesting”. On Monday I was accompanied by Amanda Hackney (Blackcat GIS) for the first trip of the season to East Matagorda Bay. In years past the birds out there have started nesting later than the ones in West Galveston Bay so I didn’t make an effort to get out there in February. Perhaps that was a mistake as you will see. Before we could head out to the bay we had to go buy a new battery for the boat though. The old one was, well, old and getting weak and though I had charged it the day before, it wouldn’t charge all the way and I was afraid we’d get stranded. So off to O’Reilly we went and we were soon on our way.
After a brief construction delay at the Sargent swing bridge (if you want to drive over that thing again you better hurry as the new bridge is going up quickly) we got the boat in the water and headed out. It was warm and not very windy. Two of my favorite things! Eagle eye Amanda spotted an oystercatcher along the GIWW just before we got to Chinquapin. That’s when I realized I’d forgotten to bring my camera. Dang. Amanda was on it though as she had hers so we figured out it was EF. I haven’t been out there in so long that I couldn’t remember where that bird belonged.
On the Chinquapin Islands we found A7A & unbanded hanging out on what we used to call the donut island. The donut has eroded away and now it is just a small hump of shell. Sad. They didn’t have anything going on so we headed out to Dressing Point where we were greeted by a large mass of white pelicans. The Great Blue Herons had already set up shop in the middle of the island. As we cruised around the island I spotted an oystercatcher on a nest! Yes! We checked it out and were able to see that EF (he had apparently flown over from the GIWW) & M4 had three eggs. Sweet! I hope they can keep their chicks safe from all those hungry heron and egret mouths.
We moved on to the Oyster Farm but there weren’t any oystercatchers there. Last year a Great Blue Heron decided to nest on the ground on one of these islands and the presence of the herons (parents and young) through the nesting season caused the oystercatchers to abandon the area and the Black Skimmers to fail because the herons started eating the skimmer chicks as soon as they hatched. Sure enough there was a Great Blue Heron hanging out where they nested last year. I guess there won’t be any oystercatchers there again this year.
We motored all the way down the bay to the west end to check on LC & R9 but they weren’t home so we headed back to Old Gulf Cut. We found 25 & unbanded with a three egg nest too! I guess these birds got the memo to start early after the disaster last year with so many high tides. On the island on the other side of the channel we found an unbanded pair also with a three egg nest.
Wow! But, what happened to 17? He has nested on this island since at least 2012. Another casualty of winter I guess. The bird on the nest tried to hide behind a plant but we got you!
Since both these birds were unbanded, we set up the box and managed to catch the male who is now C7A. He wasn’t too happy with us!
I thought that would be the last of the pairs but on the way back along the GIWW we discovered that ER & unbanded had one egg on a remnant island along the GIWW. It’s in a bad spot and I fear they don’t have a chance but you never know. They really don’t have much to work with so I guess they are doing what they can.
Alan and his wife Maureen decided to escape to Big Bend during the spring break hoards on Galveston Island so for my trip to West Galveston Bay on Wednesday I was accompanied by David Heinicke, newly retired from Brazos Bend State Park and Felice Yarbrough and Megan Porter from the Fish and Wildlife Service Houston Community Partnerships office.
It was foggy when we got to the boat ramp but it appeared to be clearing so we headed out. I had intended to go to Swan Lake first since we didn’t get up there last week but the fog nixed that idea so we started in Jones Bay. The first surprise was finding X4 with an unbanded bird on one of the small islands there that has been abandoned since P3 disappeared last year and FR moved over to Marker 52. It will be interesting to see if they try to nest there. This Peregrine apparently can’t read or maybe it can!
Fred (FR) was going absolutely bananas when we motored by his territory to go check on another pair. He came flying by us calling us all sorts of names and simply would not leave us alone. He is usually pretty hyper but this was overdrive even for him. His mate remained on the island and I noticed that when we left the area to check the other pair, she ran back up onto the high part of the island and when we came back, she ran back down to the reef again. Hum. Something was up. I thought they probably had a new nest but when we went to look we hadn’t gotten 10 steps before I saw a chick hiding on the top of the shell berm! Freddy you dog! Your nest didn’t fail after all and you totally faked us out last week. We snapped a couple photos from afar (this time I remembered to bring my long lens camera) and then I spotted another chick trying to hide in a piece of a palm. There were only two eggs so 100% success so far. Way to go! We got out of there so Fred could calm down. I get it now Fred. Sorry we bothered you!
Nothing was happening with the other two pairs on Marker 52 though JJ & P4 have a very nice scrape. J6 & UF were still incubating their three eggs on their tiny island and YM & JH had increased their egg count to three on North Deer. We went down the GIWW to try to trap an unbanded pair that had replaced XE & unbanded. We found them but they were on a shell peninsula not suitable for nesting and appeared completely unconcerned with our approach. We set up the noose carpets anyway but they showed no interest and flew to the other side of the GIWW and then went off into Greens Lake which is an area I haven’t been in because it’s usually too shallow and there aren’t any reefs. We managed to make out way in there and found them on a tiny and very low island. They got very upset when we discovered their hidey hole. Oh boy. That isn’t going to go well guys. You’d do better on the higher island along the GIWW. Now that we know where they are, we’ll check on the periodically.
The fog was finally gone and we headed over to check the other pairs on North Deer. C1A did not disappoint! He was incubating two eggs in the midst of the Brown Pelicans that are already everywhere.
Nothing was happening at Gangs Bayou but that moment will stand out in time for me because that’s when someone’s phone alerted us to the fact that the City of Houston decided to cancel the already underway Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show because of COVID-19. I’ve been watching the news. I am informed. I felt a little panic when then stock market went wonky three times. But that is the moment it all became real for me. The rodeo is a BIG deal around here. I mean HUGE. Buckle up folks. We may be in for some tough times. Ok back to the oystercatchers but y’all stay safe out there!
Suddenly South Deer is full of pairs but none of them are the pairs that were there last year. How is it possible that six pairs of oystercatchers all disappeared at the same time? We had seen most of them on the reefs until about mid-January. Now they are all gone without a trace. This one has me stumped for sure.
Last week we discovered an unbanded pair in crazy KK’s old territory and they were still there this week with a very nice scrape prepared. We set up the noose carpets and caught them both right away! I suspect they are younger birds because they both waked right into the carpets without a second thought. Say hello to F1A & E2A and also my excellent banding team for the day!
In Lyle Lovett’s (LL) territory we found A5A guarding a single egg. Lyle I will miss you! That’s the thing with these new three character bands. You just can’t get any good names out of them! In Y7’s territory we found W4W & unbanded bird hanging out. Hunh? W4W is only two years old. Not old enough to breed. We did have a two year old (X5) guard that same territory in 2013 so perhaps W1W is starting early. Then we found 16 & unbanded in XA’s old territory standing along the water’s edge. We didn’t find any more new pairs on South Deer but there are two unoccupied territories so it wouldn’t surprise me if we did in the future.
Nothing was happening on Jigsaw so we proceeded to Struve where we knew there was at least one set of chicks (LT & JA). We saw both the adults feeding along the water’s edge but they weren’t giving away any of their secrets. I’m sure they had the chicks hidden in the vegetation. Next door L9 & unbanded had a new two egg nest now that JX has left the area and isn’t harassing them anymore. I thought KR & unbanded had a nest but when we checked it was only a scrape. Since we were right next to 12 & unbanded’s territory we made a quick foray to see if we could verify they had chicks. Sure enough we found two chicks hiding in the vegetation.
Alan had gone over last week to try to spy on 12 & unbanded from shore to verify they had chicks but didn’t have any luck with that. He did see one of HM & X7 sitting down like it was on a nest on the rock wall that extends out from Galveston Island though. Their territory on Struve is so low that it isn’t suitable for nesting anymore so I figured they’d find another location. They’ve tried nesting there before without success. I’m pretty sure a mammal has taken the eggs each time. We motored up close to the wall and could see three eggs so we didn’t get out of the boat and risk leaving a scent trail to the nest. Here’s hoping they can keep it safe until the eggs get a chance to hatch.
With all that done, we headed up to Swan Lake but we didn’t find any more nests. A couple of the pairs up there have nice scrapes and K7 was acting sketchy but we didn’t find a nest. I’m sure there will be some action up there soon.
We are once again adopting out oystercatcher pairs to support this project. If you adopt a pair, you will receive an adoption certificate for your birds and I will update you monthly on their progress throughout the breeding season. All adoption funds will be used to fund our work for the oystercatchers. 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: 11 nests being incubated, 1 failed nest, 3 nests with unfledged chicks, 0 nests with undetermined status, 0 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.