By Susan Heath
Decent weather finally! Taylor, Sarah and I headed out to East Matagorda Bay on Monday. When we got to the GIWW crossing at Sargent we saw a sign that said the new bridge is opening on April 8th! No more swing bridge. That’s hard to believe. I can’t wait to go over the spiral bridge next time!
We looked for A7A & unbanded where we saw them last time but they weren’t there and we didn’t find them on their old island either. Also no oystercatchers on Dressing Point which is disappointing. I can’t wait until that island gets restored! Hopefully fall 2022. At the Oyster Farm we found an unbanded bird looking very much like it was sitting on a nest.
But, I couldn’t find any eggs. There was no sign of LF, this bird’s mate. The action in East Matagorda Bay is definitely not very exciting! We moved on to Old Gulf Cut where we discovered that C7A & unbanded were not on their island so their nest must have failed. Bummer. Things got a little more exciting when we moved over to 25 & unbanded though. 25 was still incubating but I thought it should be hatched by now so Taylor went up to take a look and found that both eggs were pipping! Yay! The little chicks were peeping away inside. 25 was most anxious to get back to them so we headed out.
We didn’t find any other oystercatchers until we discovered A7A & unbanded on a small island where ER used to nest ages ago. He abandoned it several years ago because it is too low now but A7A & unbanded seemed pretty tied to this area and were chasing off gulls. I thought they might have a nest but they didn’t. Maybe next time.
We headed back to the boat ramp and made our last trip over the swing bridge on the way back to GCBO.
On Thursday, I headed out to West Galveston Bay with Alan Wilde, John Wright, and Clayton Leopold. Clayton is an exhibit specialist at Moody Gardens and has a lot of experience handling birds. I’ve been trying to get him out to help chase down chicks for weeks but the weather has just been playing havoc with the schedule. Finally our field day coincided with his day off and we made it happen!
There was an oystercatcher on a reef straight out from the boat ramp and I thought it would be one of the unbanded pair that’s been hanging around but instead it was X4. X4 was banded as a chick in 2011. It tried unsuccessfully to nest in Swan Lake for several years and then hung out on a small island in Jones Bay last year but never nested. It was alone so it clearly doesn’t have a mate.
We headed up to Swan Lake over calm waters for a change. 20 & unbanded were still incubating their nest but LR & unbanded had no more eggs. We only found this nest last week but we must have missed it for several weeks because they were acting like they had chicks to protect. We’ll watch and see what happens. K7 was up in the vegetation, a clear sign that he and his mate still have chicks.
They are very good at hiding their chicks so we may not see them until they fledge. It’s really hard to find them to band them when you don’t know how many there are and you don’t know where they are hiding! One year we tried several times to find them and never did. The week after, K7 & unbanded were hanging proudly on their island with two fledged chicks! They got us good that year.
39 & unbanded didn’t appear to be home but then they suddenly appeared from somewhere and I got suspicious so I checked out the area where they appeared from. A one egg nest! Ha! I wasn’t fooled by your antics. X3 & unbanded were still incubating their three eggs. So, with Swan Lake done we headed back across the bay. We got about halfway across when the railroad bridge started going down. Arg! I tried to race it but we couldn’t get there fast enough. Fortunately, the tide was low enough that we were able to go under and we didn’t have to wait for it to go up.
We headed to Struve Luci where there are two sets of banded chicks and one set of small chicks. L9 & unbanded had not laid a new nest but the skimmers are starting to get down to it!
Everybody was hanging out on the bay side of the island which was nice because we could get a better view of them from there. We checked out the unbanded pair and I saw a chick standing underneath one of the adults!
So cute! The adult walked away and the chick melted into the vegetation. My spy who lives in a house along the shoreline there, Kevin Somers, says they have two chicks so the other one must have just been hidden somewhere. Next door, 12 & unbanded’s chicks were hanging out near their parents.
I approached the island slowly to see what they would do. When we got reasonably close the adults flew. There was a bit of hesitation from the chicks and I was holding my breath to see what would happen. Then suddenly they both erupted into flight and headed after their parents! Yay! We all let out a cheer. It is such a joyous moment when we see them fly for the first time.
LT & JA’s chicks were along the shoreline but I wasn’t sure they could fly yet so I didn’t push them. We’ll try that next week when I’m pretty sure they should be developed enough.
Over on Jigsaw, YE & unbanded and LH & T6 were still both incubating three eggs. There aren’t many gulls or other birds there this year so I’m really hoping these pairs have a chance to fledge chicks. They haven’t been successful in a number of years.
We headed over to the Galveston shoreline and found JX & YK acting a bit suspicious. Clayton and I looked for a nest but didn’t find one where they had their first one. I noticed some scrapes farther down the island and found a one egg nest there. I guess they decided to move a bit. We moved on down the island and found another pair where 16 & unbanded had tried to nest a few years ago. I figured it would be them but then we noticed both birds were banded. Hum. They flew when we got close enough to read the bands so I had to wait for Alan’s photos to tell who it was. 16 & F9A! It appears 16’s unbanded mate had enough of not nesting and left and F9A decided to take her place. We banded F9A on the other side of the bay at Green’s Cut last year. She was never successful nesting there and we haven’t seen her in a while. Maybe she will get 16 off his duff and get him to move back to South Deer and make some babies!
Speaking of South Deer, we headed there next to band F1A & E2A’s chicks. On the way we checked out Y7 & unbanded who’s nest we found last week. They weren’t incubating so we went in closer and I checked it out. No eggs but they were acting very protective so I looked around and found a small chick hiding!
We missed that nest for a bunch of weeks if it already hatched! The weather had kept us from getting close to this area for a couple of weeks and it appears Y7 & unbanded were incubating away that whole time. There were a lot of Laughing Gulls in the area and I didn’t want one of them to get the chick while I was walking back to the boat and before the adults came back so I found a piece of cardboard and made a lean to over the chick before I headed back to the boat. The White Ibis are beginning to nest and they are looking quite fancy.
Then we headed to F1A & E2A’s territory. We didn’t see them at first but Clayton spotted them behind some vegetation. Both chicks were there and ran to hide when we approached. Clayton found one and I found the other one. Phew. An easy one. John banded them Y0Y and X4X and after some photos we let them go on the shoreline. They ran up into the vegetation to hide again so no swimming was involved. Yes!
Since we’d already checked on Y7 & unbanded, we headed around to the other side of the island to see about A5A & unbanded. They were still hanging out in the vegetation so their chicks must still be ok. We found two youngsters on Confederate reef but no other oystercatchers on the docks. Perhaps the gang has broken up! At Gangs Bayou there was no sign of A1A & unbanded but A4A & unbanded were still incubating. That nest should hatch soon. There hasn’t been any sign of the caracaras that were causing so many issues on this side of the bay so maybe this pair has a chance to fledge a chick for a change.
We headed across the bay and again found no Brown Boobies on the shell marker signs. Bummer. I keep hoping they will turn up but it’s not looking good. We headed up the GIWW and went to North Deer to check on YM & JH. I’ll be danged if their nest didn’t hatch too! Another one that we missed for several weeks. We spotted one small chick along the shoreline but maybe there are more!
Then it was time to check on J6 & UF. We found UF still incubating one egg. I had hoped she would had laid more but she hadn’t and the one that was there was cracked and smelly. Dang. I didn’t really think this nest had a chance but I was still hoping. The sad part of the J6 & UF story is that if they’d laid a nest on their original island when they laid their first nest, they could have fledged chicks by now because we haven’t had a tide high enough this year to go over their island. Most years we do though and I guess they got tired of trying there and failing. This is proof that oystercatchers can’t predict the weather any better than humans can!
We went around the corner to check on C1A & unbanded and E6A & unbanded. C1A & unbanded came first but I bypassed them because I wanted to surprise E6A & unbanded in hopes of determining whether they had chicks or not. If they did, it was time to band them. It’s very shallow in front of E6A & unbanded’s territory but the tide was in our favor and I was able to zoom back there quickly. The adults were indeed surprised and took off calling and making a ruckus. We didn’t see any chicks but the adults had been right along the shoreline next to a big patch of spartina away from all the other birds there. That indicated to me that there might be chicks hiding up there so Clayton and I headed up and guess what we found? Two big chicks! Yes! That made me extremely happy. This pair hasn’t been able to fledge a chick in many years and now it looks like they will fledge two. John banded them Y1Y and X2Y. I had told John he needed to band at least 10 birds under my supervision before I’d submit him for a subpermit to band birds they catch with fishing line entanglements. These two chicks were birds number 10 and 11 for him so he was quite happy!
We let them go and they ran back up and hid again so all was well. I had told Clayton I needed him to help me run down chicks and the two sets we had today were easy so I’m going to have to get him out there again when we have a runner so he can get his exercise!
JJ & P4 weren’t home and neither were W5 & JC which wasn’t good because the latter should have chicks. We eventually found W5 alone on a reef so I thought maybe JC was hiding somewhere with chicks but later we found them both on the reef so their chicks didn’t make it. Dang.
One of FR & unbanded’s chicks was out on a reef surrounded by water so I figured it must be able to fly else how did it get out there? I was wrong. We approached and it tried to fly but it only got about 20 feet and landed in the water. Oh bother. What were you doing out on that reef by yourself little guy? The other chick was up on the island with the adults so we used the boat to coax the swimmer back to the island and left them alone. FR was most displeased with us, but that is nothing new! We’ll get to see them fly next week.
CA & Y2’s nest had hatched and they wanted nothing to do with us watching them so we left them to their business. There are a lot of Caspian Terns nesting there now and we wondered if the terns posed a threat to the oystercatcher chicks.
I really don’t know but I guess we’ll find out over the next few weeks. The terns are keeping the gulls away so that’s good. E1A & unbanded were on a small island that is much too low for nesting so clearly they haven’t laid a nest anywhere. That was the last pair so we headed back to the boat ramp. The weather was beautiful all day, it wasn’t hot, and there wasn’t a lot of wind. It was one of those days that everyone pictures when they think about a day on the bay. We don’t get those often!
If you like oystercatchers and you want to support this project, you can make a donation (thank you!) on our website here. And how could anyone not like oystercatchers!
Current Stats for upper Texas coast from Dickinson Bay to East Matagorda Bay: 9 nests being incubated, 14 failed nests, 13 nests with unfledged chicks, 0 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 hand