Oystercatcher Diaries 2021: Week of May 17, 2021


By Susan Heath

On Sunday the weather forecast for Monday looked abysmal and I was certain we weren’t going to be able to make it out to the Brazoria Bays but magically Monday morning the chance of rain had significantly diminished and the wind was only blowing 12 mph (to start!). Woohoo! Taylor, Sarah and I saddled up and headed out with Taylor at the helm because I still have stitches in my hand.

We headed out from the boat ramp on Bastrop Bayou at Demi John and went to the West Bay Mooring Facility which is in the west end of West Galveston Bay. We haven’t been there in three weeks and boy howdy things have changed! The Royal, Sandwich, and Caspian Terns all have eggs now and the White Ibis have lots of babies.

photo by Taylor Bennett

It was way past time for the oystercatcher nest there to be hatched and we saw one bird along the shoreline but not the other one.

photo by Taylor Bennett

We poked around a bit trying to determine if they had a chick and the other adult appeared from somewhere. I believe they had a chick or two hidden along the shoreline but we didn’t find one. We’ll check on them again in a couple of weeks when the chick(s) will be bigger and hopefully we can see them.

We headed back across West Galveston Bay and made a brief stop at Alligator Point Island. Per usual we saw no oystercatchers until we landed and then one appeared as if by magic. The terns are nesting there too so we couldn’t really search for an oystercatcher nest. While we were there, the other oystercatcher appeared from somewhere and they both stood at the west end of the island watching us. I watched them as we motored away and they made no move to get back to a nest or a chick so I don’t think they have anything going on.

I didn’t want to Cross Christmas Bay into the wind so we headed down the GIWW until we got to the cut into Drum Bay that is right by K0 & unbanded’s territory. At first we didn’t see them but then Sarah and I both spotted them up on the shell ridge a little way down from where the nest had been. I thought I saw a small chick but we were bouncing pretty good and I only had one arm to hold my binoculars so I wasn’t sure. Sarah spotted a chick run into the vegetation though. Yay! I sure hope that chick makes it. There are lots of mammalian predators there but if the tide stays high that area will remain somewhat of an island and hopefully keep it safe.

Taylor maneuvered us through the intricate reef system between Drum Bay and Christmas Bay with a little coaching from me and we went to check on JK & unbanded. We banded their chicks on May 3rd and they were pretty big so I expected them to be fledged today. Indeed they must be because the entire family was absent! I am sure we will see them on the beach or back in their territory again before the chicks depart parental care so we’ll just have to wait for that to happen to verify that both of them fledged.

We headed across Christmas Bay with the wind at our backs and checked for the pairs in Bastrop Bay but neither of them was there so we headed back to the boat ramp. Taylor finished her first survey driving the boat and she did great! Another boat driver in the making!

The weather forecast for the rest of the week was a bit ominous and it didn’t look like our trip to West Galveston Bay on Friday would happen but on Thursday the forecast was a bit better wind wise and by Friday morning the wind was down to 10 mph and the chance of rain had dropped to 15%. Amazing. Alan is recovering from skin cancer surgery on his ear and can’t be in the sun and Amanda wasn’t feeling well so I recruited Clayton Leopold who went with me a few weeks ago and his friend Jeff Sexton who was in town from Austin to go with me. There were several chicks to band and I figured I could use their young legs! I the stitches out in my hand so I was good to go with driving the boat again.

We headed up towards Swan Lake first and went to check on 20 & unbanded. Last time we checked on them they had a chick and this was one that needed to be banded but when we arrived there was only one adult present and it was not the least bit concerned about us being there. Not a good sign. We looked around for a chick anyway but found none. Dang. The tide had come up really high because of all the river inflow from rain and the south wind keeping the water in the bays but I don’t think this entire island went under. No telling what happened to it.

We moved on to LR & unbanded. Neither seemed to incubating their nest but they were not happy about us being there and after a little searching we found this cute little baby.

photo by Susan Heath

It was doing a good job of hiding (or at least thinking it was hiding) so we didn’t touch it and left it alone. The adults were quite happy when we left. We headed into Swan Lake proper and found K7 & unbanded standing in the same spot where they’ve been the last time few times we checked on them. No chicks present so I guess I’ll finally have to accept that their nest failed. 39 & unbanded were not home so next up was X3 & unbanded who also had a chick that needed to be banded.

I wasn’t paying close enough attention to where the adults where when we approached and they flushed from somewhere in the vegetation along the shoreline. We landed and started searching, but this area is highly vegetated and I didn’t think we had much of a chance of finding the chick without knowing where the adults had been but we had to give it a go. Clayton found a dead Red-breasted Merganser that was tangled in fishing line. So sad. I took some photos but you can’t see the line very well. It’s around the neck.

photo by Susan Heath

We were about to give up when Clayton found the chick hiding under a bush right by the dead merganser. All of us had walked by there multiple times and not seen it! We banded it X1U and Clayton put it back where he found it hiding.

photo by Susan Heath

We headed back down to West Galveston Bay and had to go under the railroad bridge while it was down. I’m sure glad we figured out we can fit under that thing most of the time. We checked Struve Luci and found that all the skimmer nests had overwashed and the birds were quite spooky and flying all over the place. Dang again! Last week there were over 100 nests there. Now they have to start over.

The unbanded pair was still there with their chick which must be able to fly by now but I didn’t push it because the skimmers were already so touchy. 12 & unbanded were there with only one of their chicks. One of HM & X7 flew out and circled the boat when we headed towards the rock wall but I didn’t see one fly off the nest and sure enough the eggs were gone. I suspect the same mammal that got the first egg came back and got the second one. I took a photo of their scrape from the boat. It’s very neat and tidy and they had to carry all those small rocks from somewhere because the rock wall is made from big rocks. That’s a lot of work!

photo by Susan Heath

LT & JA were on a dock with one of their chicks and L9 & unbanded were on a dock for a change instead of the grassy area they’ve been hanging out lately so we headed to Jigsaw. I figured this was my best chance to show Jeff a nest since there aren’t many active right now so we walked up to check out YE & unbanded’s eggs. Still two. Should hatch in another week or so. We saw LH & T6’s chick that we banded last week run into the vegetation so it hasn’t fledged yet. I figured we’d try to find it and see how the primaries were growing in but instead I found T6 (the female) laying dead on the ground! Oh no!

photo by Susan Heath

She wasn’t predated in any way so I don’t know what happened. She was quite old as I banded her as an adult in 2011 so perhaps her time just ran out. LH (the male) was still there and still acting protective of the chick but I worry that he won’t be able to keep it fed by himself. Jeff found the chick and I weighed it again. It had lost 20 grams from last week which is not a good sign. The primaries were more grown in but it still needs another week before it will fledge. I sure hope LH can keep it alive and it will fledge. That would be very sad if he can’t. T6 has been in the same territory since I banded her 10 years ago. I will miss her!

We headed over to the shoreline of Galveston and found YK hanging along the shell berm. No sign of JX. She was acting a little sketchy but it was already 11:00 and the skies were beginning to darken so I didn’t go check for a nest. If they have one, we’ll find it next week. At the end of 8 Mile Road we found six oystercatchers and one of them was 16. I guess he didn’t get lured across the bay by F9A after all and is still hanging out with the youngsters. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but at least we know where he is.

We headed to South Deer and found that Y7 & unbanded only had one egg left. Dang gulls. A5A & unbanded were still incubating their two though. A1A & unbanded also only had one egg left but theirs might have hatched. We briefly looked around but didn’t find any chicks. That doesn’t mean anything though. They are good at hiding! Clayton noticed a small Diamondback Terrapin and grabbed it before it swam away so we could check it out. I’ve never found a small one before. It was about the size of my palm. So neat!

photo by Susan Heath

photo by Susan Heath

We headed over to Sportsman Road but there weren’t any birds on the docks and also none on the Gangs Bayou breakwater. It was starting to rain so I tried to speed things up a bit. We raced across the bay and didn’t find any boobies on the shell marker signs. F9A was alone on her island at Greens Cut. We headed up the GIWW to North Deer and found YM & JH with their chick hanging along the shoreline. That chick should be able to fly now but we didn’t move in to see because now the wind had picked up and we really needed to be done!

One of J6 & UF was standing hunched over like it was over the eggs on the breakwater so we left it to its business and moved on. JJ & P4 were standing along the shoreline and not on a nest anymore so the gulls or the pelicans likely got their eggs. They don’t stand much of a chance there but they keep trying. W5 & JC were also standing along the shoreline so we motored on by.

FR & unbanded were on their island with no chicks so they clearly sent their chicks on their way for the year. Hopefully we’ll see them around the area so we know they are doing well. CA & Y2 were not home so hopefully that means their chicks fledged and they took them somewhere to feed since the tide was so high and food was not very available near their island. We will check on them again next week to see if they are back. We motored back to the boat ramp with the rain drops feeling like little daggers on our skin. Not so fun! We made it though and another survey was complete.

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: 5 nests being incubated, 29 failed nests, 5 nests with unfledged chicks, 0 nest with undetermined status, 15 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.