Organizations work to maintain critical bird habitat
CHESTER ISLAND – Birds and sunflowers far outnumber people on Chester Island.In fact, only a few get a chance to visit because it is protected habitat for colonial water birds.
Fourteen Audubon Texas volunteers got that chance recently when counting breeding pairs for an annual study.
Then, they spotted royal terns nesting on a pristine strip of beach on the island’s northwest shore.
The beach exists thanks to an about $1 million project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It hired a company called Orion Marine to deepen the nearby Matagorda Ship Channel and Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
Orion Marine sucked up sediment and water and piped it about five miles to Chester Island.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for keeping the ship channel and waterway at 36 and 12 feet, respectively, so they are navigable, said Andrew Smith, the agency’s resident engineer in Corpus Christi.
An added benefit of that is the agency gets to nourish an island Mother Nature is constantly trying to reclaim.
Last year, the island was 65 acres. Now, it’s 86 acres, Smith said.
Audubon Texas, which manages the island for the General Land Office, is looking for a way to make Chester Island more resilient to erosion, though.
“What you worry about is a hurricane coming through and all of this could be gone,” volunteer Allan Berger said. “This is one of the major rookeries along the Texas Coast. There isn’t another one this size until Port Aransas.”
Audubon Texas Director of Conservation Iliana Pena said the goal is to get Chester Island 100 acres again.
“We’re so close,” she said.
Audubon Texas is still working from a study it conducted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014.
That study suggested placing a variety of structures on the island – including groins, breakwaters and jetties – to capture and create new beach.
“But something we’re not considering is a big wall,” Pena said.
She said that’s not conducive to fledglings, who are learning to use the shoreline to loaf, rest or find food.
The overall cost of adding these structures was estimated in 2014 to be $15 million.
Pena is hopeful, though, that Audubon Texas may qualify for some money through the Restore Act. The Act dedicates 80 percent of all administrative and civil penalties related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to projects that restore the Gulf Coast’s natural resources.
“Audubon and its partners are also currently researching where to build new islands in Matagorda Bay and San Antonio Bay,” she said.
May 19, the Audubon Texas volunteers split up into four groups to count the breeding pairs of birds on the island more efficiently. Twigs snapped between their boots, but they also performed their work carefully.
“You’ll see, as we’re going through here, we’re going to end up flushing the birds, which is not a good thing,” said Donna Anderson, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Usually, if we do that, there’s gulls in the air. They can come in and predate and take over the nest.”
The island’s namesake was also on their mind.When Chester Smith began as the island’s warden in 1986, the number of breeding pairs of brown pelicans were in the single digits.
They were affected then by the widespread use of the agricultural pesticide DDT.
“It affected the thickness of their eggs. They would crush them when they laid on them,” said Tim Wilkinson, Smith’s son-in-law.
Wilkinson and his wife, Peggy, took over managing the island after Smith died in 2011.
The brown pelican chicks resemble pterodactyls when they extend their unfeathered pouches and wings and squawk at passers-by.
“Ugly little critters, aren’t they?” Berger said, chuckling. “Only their mothers love them.”
But Smith loved them, too.
He’s thought to be a big reason why they’ve rebounded.
This year, there were an estimated 3,797 breeding pairs of brown pelicans on the island, according to Brent Ortego, a retired wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Volunteers laud Smith for his devotion to brown pelicans. He planted trees for them and other birds to nest in, protected them from predators and collected trash that washed up and could harm them.
A shed were Smith kept his tools still stands and holds a special place in the volunteers’ hearts.
“Oh, you need to see that,” Anderson said. “That’s Chester.”
“In some ways, it feels like he’s still around,” he said.
Pena said many may still remember when brown pelicans weren’t a common sight along the Texas Coast.
“Because of sites like this, they’re off the Endangered Species List and doing very well,” she said.