By Susan Heath
On Sunday March 30, I went to The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Mad Island Marsh Preserve to help with songbird banding. While there, I saw a group of 10 oystercatchers! I figured these were young birds that aren’t ready to breed yet because the adult pairs are on territory by now. I scoped them out and I found two banded birds, UC and UW. I knew immediately that both were birds banded as chicks because we band all chicks with bands that start with U, W, X, or Y. When I got home I checked it out and found that UC was hatched in 2012 at the Texas City Prairie Preserve, another TNC preserve. UW was hatched in 2013 on an island in West Galveston Bay. He/she was one of a brood of three that all fledged. This kind of resighting information gets me really excited because it lets us know that the birds we banded as chicks are doing fine and where they are hanging out now.
On Monday we were greeted with a warm clear day! No fog and it wasn’t cold. Very nice. It was windy though which made for a rough ride. The bad news, three more nests failed and all for unknown reasons. Two of them were nests we just found on Friday. The other one was a week and a half old. They didn’t look overwashed so the best guess is predation of some sort. But on the flip side, all the nests that had chicks the Friday before still appeared to have them. In addition, two more nests hatched. We saw one chick at one but weren’t able to see the chicks at the other. We also found two new nests from pairs that haven’t tried a nest yet this season. We had an interesting encounter today which brings up the subject of human disturbance. We were tied up to a dock doing some observations when a boat with five people, two surfboards, and a rubber dinghy passed by. We were puzzled by the surfboards and the dinghy until they pulled up at the end of the island right in the middle of the Black Skimmer colony and proceeded to set up a camera shoot complete with a bikini clad model. They were about 10 feet from the sign that clearly states it is a bird nesting island from February through August. The red arrow in the photo shows where the sign is but its facing the other way so you are seeing the back of it.
They were lucky the skimmers didn’t have nests yet. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of a skimmer trying to incubate eggs! When we were done with our observations we went and chatted with them, pointed out the sign that they so blithely ignored, and tried to talk to them about the birds. They didn’t express any interest in the birds but they did at least leave. Human disturbance is a huge issue for bay island nesting birds and this demonstrates why. Most people have no idea that (a) the birds are nesting, and that (b) their presence there puts the eggs and young chicks at risk.
On Thursday we found further washing out of one of the islands. I’m not sure how long this island is going to be a viable nesting location for oystercatchers. Here’s a photo showing the extensive erosion of the area where the oystercatchers usually nest.
I have been talking to some Fish & Wildlife and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department people about nesting habitat enhancement for oystercatchers on some of these smaller islands. From the looks of this, it can’t happen soon enough. We also found a new nest that day but it is in a horrible location. It is so low that I doubt it will last even a week. Here’s a photo showing the location.
This must be a young pair that doesn’t have much experience. The older pairs seem to know that a nest this low will never work.
Friday was nearly a no go. A cold front pushed through and although south winds were predicted in the am switching to north winds and building through the day, the north winds arrived by 8:00 and were very strong. We fought the wind for 2 ½ hours and then gave it up. It’s just dangerous out there when the wind is so strong. One of the nests that had a video camera on it hatched and I was looking forward to seeing the video but much to my dismay the videos were all black indicating some sort of disconnect between the camera and the DVR. I was disappointed in not seeing the chicks but also because in four years of observations, I have never seen this pair with even a small chick and they usually try three times every year. I want to find out what’s going on with them but I’ll have to try again on their next nest when I figure out the problem with the video equipment.
Current stats: 16 nests being incubated, 14 failed nests, 7 nests with chicks
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