Oystercatcher Diaries 2021: Week of May 3, 2021


By Susan Heath

On Monday, Taylor, Sarah and I headed out to East Matagorda Bay to check on the birds. Taylor and Sarah had seen the pair that nests at the Oyster Farm on the beach a few days ago so we knew they didn’t have a nest. That allowed us to skip the trek across the bay and we were grateful for that because it was pretty windy. Our main goal was to get down to Old Gulf Cut and check on the pairs there. It was time to band 25 & unbanded’s chick too.

The tide was very high from the combination of river inflow from the rains and south wind keeping the water in the bay. Most of the reefs were underwater and I was fearful that the chick hadn’t survived. When we got there, we found no adults present so something did in fact happen to the chick. It could have gotten washed off the island or it could have starved to death if they weren’t able to find enough food to feed it. So sad. The other pair that nests there wasn’t home either so we saw no oystercatchers on the whole survey.

When we were done there, we headed to Surfside to launch the boat at the boat ramp closest to Drum Bay because it was time to band JK & unbanded’s chick(s). We had only seen one chick with them the last time we were out but we saw two the time before so we weren’t sure how many they had. With the tide so high and all the reefs underwater, it was hard for me to tell where the channels were. I almost made it out to JK & unbanded’s territory flawlessly but then at the last bit I ran the boat up on a reef pretty solid. Dang! It took the three of us pushing and grunting and tugging to get it off but we managed to do it. Girl power! Thank you Taylor and Sarah! After that it was smooth sailing and when we arrived, we saw JK & unbanded standing on a shell ridge with two big chicks. Yay!

There is a reef that runs the length of that island about 50 feet from the island and I hoped with the high tide I’d be able to get the boat over it so we could just drive right up there. Wishful thinking. We got stuck again and Taylor and Sarah had to wade over in thigh high water to get to where the chicks were. The chicks had run into the vegetation and they found one pretty easily but couldn’t find the other one. I managed to get the boat unstuck and motored over there and joined the hunt. We found it a few minutes later and got to work. They are now X1Y and Y2Y.

photo by Susan Heath

photo by Susan Heath

They were big and will probably be fledged by next week so its good we got out there today. From there we went over to check on K0 & unbanded’s nest since we were out there anyway. We found K0’s unbanded mate still incubating. Another big yay! That one should hatch soon.

When we took the boat out of the water we noticed a problem with the trailer. One side was much lower than the other and the fender was nearly rubbing on the tire. Oh boy. It’s always something with a boat! It looked like something was wrong with the leaf spring. We made it back to GCBO safely and I contacted my on the call boat mechanic (supreme volunteer Oron Atkins). He was finishing a turtle survey on Matagorda Peninsula but promised to come by later and look at it. The diagnosis was a broken leaf spring that needed to be replaced before hauling the boat again. Dang! I felt my survey to West Galveston Bay on Tuesday was in jeopardy but Oron and Martin saved the day by replacing it right then and there. My heroes! I can’t say enough about how great our volunteers are! Oron was tired and hungry from his day on the beach but still he stepped up to fix this problem so we could finish our surveys for the week. And what a boss Martin is to help him do it! We have a great team.

On Tuesday, Alan and I headed out to West Galveston Bay. We needed to band CA & Y2’s chick(s) in Jones Bay so we focused on that first because the weather forecast called for increasing chances of rain beginning about noon. We hadn’t actually seen these chicks so we didn’t know how many they had. We checked on FR & unbanded first and found they still only had one chick with them (X1X). That is not good news. Something must have happened to the other one. Dang it Fred! I was counting on your too keep those babies safe!

photo by Alan Wilde

When we arrived at CA & Y2’s territory we saw they had two chicks! Since it was only Alan and I that presented a challenge but we were up for it. Alan took care of securing the boat while I grabbed both dip nets and ran after the chicks. This is a small island so there wasn’t much room for them to run. One of the jumped in the water right away and I snagged it with one dip net. The other one turned around and ran back the other way so I followed it in hot pursuit. When it saw that I was still coming, it too jumped in the water and I snagged it with the other dip net. Phew. I kinda wish I had a video of that! Alan had just finished securing the boat when I nonchalantly walked back with both chicks in hand!

We banded them Y3Y and X3Y. They were pretty big and will probably be fledged by the next time we get out there so I was super glad my heroes had fixed the boat trailer and we were able to get out there.

photo by Alan Wilde

I tried to get them to lay down in the vegetation when I let them go but they were having none of that and they both ran down the reef and jumped in the water. Fortunately with the high tide we were able to maneuver the boat between them and any other land mass and they both swam back where they belong.

photo by Alan Wilde

When we were done with them we motored along Marker 52 to check on W5 & JC. We only found W5 and he was feeding on a reef. No sign of JC. With the threat of looming rain showers I didn’t want to linger to look for her so we moved on. JJ & P4 were out on a reef feeding so no nest there. Then we moved over to North Deer. I first went to YM & JH’s old territory since we’d seen JH feeding there last week. I was suspicious this pair’s nest hadn’t failed and they had a chick since we’d only seen one of the adults last week. Neither was in the old territory so we motored down to where they had their nest. At first we didn’t see anything but then I noticed an adult in the spartina. Bingo! There is no reason for them to be in the spartina except for when they are keeping a chick safe.

We went up to check and Alan discovered this.

photo by Susan Heath

Yay! I thought this nest had failed. The chick was smaller than I expected though so at first I decided not to band it, but then changed my mind and we banded it X3U. The adults seem to be taking pretty good care of it so hopefully it will make it.

photo by Alan Wilde

Next we checked the breakwater for J6 & UF. Only J6 was there and he was laying down as if on a nest. Did they lay another one up there? Sure enough I found one egg. Maybe they will have better luck with this one.

photo by Susan Heath

We went around the backside of North Deer to check on C1A & unbanded but they were not home. We only saw one adult and one chick in E6A & unbanded’s territory. The other adult and chick were probably there but there were too many pelicans hanging around to see the area well.

From there we moved over to South Deer where we found one adult with one chick on a reef near F1A & E2A’s territory. Alan spotted the other chick up on the island but we didn’t see the second adult. I’m sure it was there somewhere! Y7 & unbanded were hanging along the shoreline again making me suspicious that their chick survived after all. I went up and looked around but I didn’t find anything. We’ll just have to keep watching.

A5A & unbanded were not home but we got a little excitement when we got around to where A1A & unbanded have been hanging out. We saw one of them along the shoreline but not the other one. We moved in for a closer look and just as the boat touched the shoreline, A1A erupted out of the vegetation and I found a two egg nest there. Hooray! We’ve been waiting for them to lay eggs forever!

photo by Susan Heath

Then we headed over to the Sportsman Docks where we found only one bird. I couldn’t read the band so I’ll have to wait for Alan’s photos to see who it was. A4A & unbanded were on the breakwater at Gangs Bayou so their nest definitely failed. Caracaras? I have no idea!

We motored back up to 8 Mile Road and found four youngsters hanging there but not 16. Then we saw a bird foraging along the shoreline and I thought that would be 16 but it was unbanded. Perhaps F9A lured him across the bay! We didn’t check there this week so we’ll find out next week.

We found only one bird in JX & YK’s territory which usually means there’s a nest but we found no nest and no second bird. Interesting. There’s more to this story so keep reading. We moved on to Jigsaw where we discovered that YE & unbanded had laid a new two egg nest right in the middle of a patch of yellow flowers. High marks for aesthetics!

photo by Susan Heath

LH & T6 were still going nuts so I assume they still have a chick. I poked around a little bit since I was up there anyway checking out the nest but I didn’t find a chick. They are good at hiding them and I didn’t want to stress them out more than we already had so we left and headed for Struve Luci.

L9 & unbanded were still hanging out on the grassy area on Galveston Island. I guess the skimmers are just too much for them now. LT & JA and their chicks were not home again and the unbanded pair was hanging out in the middle of their territory but we didn’t see their chick. Reports from Kevin are that it is fine so I guess it was just hiding from us. Alan noticed an adult hanging out in a strange location in the vegetation. Who is that?

photo by Alan Wilde

We moved in closer and discovered it was YK! So now we know why JX was alone in his territory. YK must be trying to set up a territory there or steal a territory or run someone’s mate off. When the other adults discovered her, they ran her off and we saw her later on a dock. Good luck YK. JX already tried that and failed!

12 & unbanded were hanging with only one of their chicks. We didn’t see the other chick but it is big now so was probably out on its own exploring. HM & X7 flew out and circled us and then landed on a dock. One of them had been standing on the end of the rock wall before they flew though which made me suspicious so we went over to check things out. From the boat we could see they had a new nest with two eggs! Yay! I hope they have better luck with this one.

photo by Alan Wilde

We don’t go onshore there because there are so many mammalian predators and we don’t want to leave a scent trail to the nest. Go HM & X7!

It was noon by then and the skies were still clear. I checked the weather forecast and the chance of rain had disappeared almost entirely! I had planned to skip Swan Lake but since it wasn’t going to rain we headed up there. 20 & unbanded were standing on a shell ridge and Alan spotted one small chick with them. It ran over the ridge before I saw it but we motored around to the other side of the island and we saw it there with one of the adults. They had two chicks last week so hopefully the other one was there somewhere.

I wasn’t sure what was happening with LR & unbanded but we discovered they had a new nest with two eggs so now we know for sure that their previous nest failed. I fear the coyotes are getting the eggs.

photo by Susan Heath

For the first time in a while there weren’t any fishermen in our way in Swan Lake so we made a foray to look for 11 & unbanded. We haven’t seen them in a while but this week we found them along the far shoreline of the lake. Neither looked like it was on a nest so we left them be. This area is also rife with coyotes so we’ll just watch from afar until we’re sure what’s happening.

K7 & unbanded were once again standing on their island without any chicks. I think I’m about ready to accept that their nest actually failed. They are so sneaky I wouldn’t put it past them to be standing there next week with a fledged chick though! 39 & unbanded were hanging in their territory for a change but we didn’t find a nest.

The last pair to check was X3 & unbanded. We didn’t see them at first and all was quiet so I feared the worst but then suddenly both adults erupted out of the vegetation. Yay! They must have their chick hiding in there somewhere. We didn’t see it but from their behavior I’m sure it was there somewhere. Only a couple more weeks and it will fledge. They haven’t fledged a chick in quite a while so I really hope this one makes it!

We headed back to the boat ramp after a satisfying day on the water with five new nests and three more chicks banded. On Wednesday, Alan and his wife Maureen headed to Belize for a week and I had surgery on my hand to remove a skin cancer. Somehow this doesn’t seem quite equitable, but I’m really glad that skin cancer is gone and I’m sure Alan and Maureen are enjoying a well deserved vacation in the tropics. Don’t forget your sunscreen!

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: 6 nests being incubated, 26 failed nests, 7 nests with unfledged chicks, 0 nest with undetermined status, 10 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.