For more than 80 years Audubon Texas's coastal wardens have been safeguarding the magnificent birds that live, breed, and nest on 80 islands on the Texas Gulf Coast. If the recent oil spill reaches them, they're apt to confront it with the same guile and grit that has helped bring back the iconic brown pelican.
Saving and protecting these nesting oases is becoming more critical as larger islands--especially barrier islands that have traditionally served as nesting grounds--succumb to development. Dallas, Houston, and Austin were among the country's fastest-growing cities in 2009. Many newcomers crave shorefront property and marine recreation. When beaches and estuaries turn into housing developments and quiet bays become popular weekend fishing spots, birds start to disappear. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin's Marine Science Institute recently found that between 1979 and 2007, the average number of people on the beach on Mustang Island, the barrier island off Corpus Christi, grew fivefold, from 19 to about 95. In that same time, 10 of 28 bird species suffered significant population losses. Forster's terns, gull-billed terns, and black skimmers declined between 53 percent and 88 percent. Double-crested cormorant populations fell by 82 percent.
For many of Mustang Island's birds, it wasn't just habitat loss but the increased presence of humans that led to their disappearance. When people recreate on beaches and shoreline, they don't always stroll quietly. They run. They shout. They throw Frisbees. Perhaps most alarming, in birds' eyes, they let their dogs roam freely. Shorebirds don't just need habitat. They need habitat with minimal human disturbance. "That human disturbance is often innocent, but it stems from ignorance," says Benson. "[Newcomers] aren't familiar with the nesting islands and the general rules of the water down here. They see a tiny little island and they think picnic spot, not bird rookery."
As nesting space continues to come at a higher premium, some Texas wardens have turned to business savvy and deal-making creativity to protect and expand nesting grounds. "There's a nice diverse rookery over in Nueces Bay," north of Corpus Christi, Newstead says. "But the material on the island is too claylike for ground nesting birds like gull-billed terns and black skimmers. And black skimmers are especially tough in terms of nesting encouragement. They're real skittish. They'll sit at a site for a month before they'll lay an egg."
Wardens have used sand-filled tubes, concrete rubble, and crushed shells to shore up islands. Through the grapevine, Newstead heard about a local seafood company that paid to have its oyster shells hauled to the dump. Then he found a glass crusher. "You chuck a five-gallon bucket of oyster shells into the hopper, and out comes the crushed material," he says, smiling. Earlier this year he and some volunteers laid down four tons of crushed shells, "a nice, rough substrate," on the unnamed island. "If it works, we'll have helped bring back those terns and skimmers, two of the most imperiled species on the coast."
Like other wardens, Newstead is trying to anticipate the impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill on his region. "It could affect us like a hurricane," he says. "In the past we've seen birds relocate to our area after a hurricane has wiped out their nesting habitat elsewhere. We could see that here. A whole bunch of new birds showing up on our island means we've got to have room for them. That makes the management of our islands all the more critical, and gets us thinking about how we might be able to bring more habitat and new or reclaimed islands into play."
My final stop is Arroyo City, a sleepy fishing town about 35 miles north of the Mexican border. That's where I meet up with Leroy Overstreet. The 85-year-old may be the most colorful warden in the system.
"I'm an outdoor person," he tells me as he fires up his outboard motor and pushes away from a county dock. Overstreet is a thin strip of rawhide in rubber boots, blue jeans, and a baseball cap. A half-smile crosses his face. "The day I can't get outside, I feel like kicking dirt in my face just to get a feel for it."
A former ranch hand, rodeo cowboy, and mechanical engineer, Overstreet is equally experienced in the fine art of bar fighting (in his younger days), the complexities of U.S. patent law (he holds five patents for farm implements), and the rude business of varmint eradication (coyotes, beware).
"The nesting season's running a little behind this year on account of this cold weather," he says, steering the boat up a channel toward Lower Laguna Madre. "But there are plenty of birds to see on Green Island."
That's where we're headed. A 114-acre refuge located between the mainland coast and South Padre Island, Green Island shines as the jewel in the crown of the Coastal Sanctuary Program. It was Audubon's first leased island back in 1923, when it housed one of the last extant nesting colonies of reddish egrets, one of the birds hit hardest by the plume trade.
Today 18 species of colonial-nesting waterbirds roost, nest, rest, and feed on its sandy shores and in its thick tangle of shrubs and trees. Reddish egrets, still the rarest North American herons, remain the island's superstars. In a typical year 800 pairs of the spectacularly plumed birds--more than one-fifth of the species' worldwide breeding population--return to Green Island to nest.
It's Overstreet's job to keep them safe. That's where a keen tracker's eye comes in handy. "Coyote," he says, spotting a shaggy canine skulking in the brush along the side of a canal. They are the bane of the nesting birds. "I see way too many of 'em," Overstreet tells me. "A lot of my job is keeping coyotes from eating birds."