It’s that time again. Our herons and egrets are beautiful this time of year as they gain their breeding plumage and try to raise their chicks. Right now most of them are on eggs or are feeding young chicks and they need our help. No, we can’t help them sit on their eggs or feed their babies, but we can leave them alone so they can do it themselves. Every year these birds make a valiant effort to raise their young on islands in our bays where we humans love to fish, swim, and play. And every year it is a struggle for them to make it.
Herons and egrets are members of a group of birds known as colonial waterbirds because they nest in large colonies. Colonial waterbirds include pelicans, cormorants, gulls, terns, herons, egrets, ibises and spoonbills. In Texas we have over 20 species of colonial waterbirds. Some nest directly on the ground and some nest in small shrubs but they all nest on islands and are subject to daily disturbance from human uses. Most of us don’t realize we are disturbing the birds, but if the birds all fly up when you approach an island or they start flying around dive bombing you, you can be sure they are trying to give you the message that you’ve gotten too close and they feel threatened.
So what’s the big deal about getting to close? Well, when you approach an island with nesting birds, it causes the parent birds to leave their nest which wastes valuable energy on the part of the parent and leaves their eggs and young exposed. Swarms of Laughing Gulls, Great-tailed Grackles, and other birds sit and wait for an unprotected nest so they can feast on the protein rich eggs and young and when you scare the parent away these predators move in quickly. Heat stress is also a major problem because when the parent bird leaves the nest, the eggs and young are exposed to the direct sun. In Texas, the sun is so intense, especially during the summer, that eggs can cook killing the chick inside from even a few minutes of direct sun exposure. Additionally, when shrub nesting birds suddenly fly from their nest, they can knock eggs from the nest which then fall to the ground and break. Anyone in a boat or in the water near an island can disturb these birds if they approach too closely, usually within 50 yards.
It’s May and many of these birds have been at it for quite some time. Nesting season for colonial waterbirds is from February through August. So when you’re out enjoying our beautiful bays this summer, remember to give the birds a break and “Fish, swim, and play from 50 yards away”.