The Oystercatcher Diaries 2014: Week 6

By Susan Heath

Week six was full of ups and downs as many of the weeks to come will be. Another cold front pushed through last Sunday and on Monday the wind was whipping and it was very cold. We did some observations from shore hoping the wind would die down but it never did. Despite the fact that it was overcast and dreary, we had to wear our sunglasses to do observations or the wind made our eyes water so bad we couldn’t see. I felt sorry for the oystercatchers sitting on their nests. They just had to sit there and take it to protect their eggs. At 12 and unbanded’s territory we saw both adults up in the vegetation, a sure sign that they were protecting chicks. We watched a while and eventually spotted all three chicks being fed. We did observations on three nests but it took until 2:00 to get them done because at each nest, one of the adults walked out of view and we had to start over. We threw in the towel after that.

On Thursday, we found three new nests, two in Drum Bay and one in Bastrop Bay. The nest we found there last week was being incubated so all is well. At the first new nest we found, an unbanded bird was incubating so we set up the box on the nest and caught the adult. We put bands AR on it so that pair is now K0 and AR. They have a particularly bad territory and I doubt their nest will succeed. It is pretty low and prone to overwash but even if it hatches there is a large Laughing Gull nesting colony there. Although the Laughing Gulls aren’t nesting yet, we counted over 200 of them hanging around so those adults have their work cut out for them protecting the chicks if the nest hatches.

Here’s AR in the box.

box trap with AMOY resized

Here’s me holding AR. Yes, it was cold!

Sue with AR2 resized

In Bastrop Bay, one of the oystercatcher nesting islands has a Black Skimmer colony on it each year. They haven’t arrived yet but in preparation we put up a large sign today warning people to stay back. We had several signs stolen from this area last year and I called and talked to the game warden about it. Conveniently when we got back to the boat ramp there just happened to be a game warden there so I told him about the new sign and reminded him of the problems we had last year. He remembered it well and said he would keep his eye out for trouble out there.

sign on Bastrop Island cabin island close resized

Friday was a long day. It was really foggy early so we went around and did some observations from land. We watched 12 and unbanded tending their chicks but we only saw one chick this time. We watched for about 45 minutes and but only one chick was getting fed so it seems clear that something happened to the other two chicks. No telling what. There aren’t many Laughing Gulls around there. The Forster’s Terns are back in force and beginning to set up shop for nesting there. I also noted at least one pair of Gull-billed Terns doing an aerial display and calling. Here’s a video of the adults with the chick.

And here’s one of the chick being brooded by one of the adults.

http://youtu.be/fZss1ttsBoM

The oystercatcher pair next to 12 and mate, K6 & JA, were out on the shell and K6 was picking up shells and tossing them aside while she searched for the perfect shells for their new scrape. This is the pair that laid the first nest we found (on Feb. 10) that failed. It was pretty entertaining to watch her being so selective. Here’s a link to a video of her.

http://youtu.be/Xb30837__co

When the fog lifted we headed out to check all the pairs in the area. We found eight new nests and three of the existing ones had hatched. We noted three chicks at one, one chick at one, and two chicks at another. The chicks are so vulnerable at this stage that we avoid going up to the island unless it is absolutely necessary so we have to rely on observations from afar to tell how many chicks there are. At one of the nests, the adults were frantically chasing away Laughing Gulls and grackles. The other two nests don’t have a problem with Laughing Gulls so those adults were calmer. We found another nest had failed and the reason was not apparent, but I have my suspicions. The nest was on hard packed shell so there weren’t any tracks or anything to give us clues. This nest was on a large island where last year we suspected the eggs from two nests were predated by a rattlesnake. The first time we found a big rattler curled up sleeping about 20 feet from where the eggs had been and the second time one was curled up only about a foot from the nest hiding in a piece of an old dock. I didn’t notice the snake because I was focused on the nest and I came very close to getting bitten. My mistake Mr. Rattlesnake! Anyway, we will never know for sure what happened to the nest for sure but if they nest again I’ll put up a camera so we can see.

Speaking of cameras – I was able to purchase equipment to put together two video camera set ups for this season and we set one up on a nest on Jigsaw Island where the same pair has laid three nests each of the last three years and yet I’ve never seen them with a chick. There is a large Laughing Gull colony here and it one of my main goals this year to capture an image of Laughing Gull taking an egg or small chick so we have proof that it is happening. Here’s a photo of the battery box hidden in the vegetation.

Video camera battery box resized

Here’s the actual camera camouflaged in a bucket.

Video camera set up on nest resized

Current stats: 25 active nests, 3 failed nests, 4 nests with chicks.

On Saturday the fog was very thick in Galveston Bay and a large tanker collided with a barge near the Texas City Dike punching a hole in one of the barges tanks causing 160,000 gallons of heavy oil to spill into the Bay. The Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest in the country, is still closed to all traffic in and out of the port due the mess (it’s now Monday). Five miles from the spill site are four oystercatcher nests in Swan Lake and ten miles in the other direction are four more nests at the Texas City Prairie Preserve. All around this area, shorebirds, terns, herons, and egrets are in the beginning stages of nesting and the spill has threatened migrating birds using the famed Bolivar Flats. The timing couldn’t have been much worse.

Our grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for this project requires a 1:1 match. If you would like to make a donation to help us meet our match goal, click on the donate now button and designate your donation to the oystercatchers. We appreciate your support!

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