By Larry Bozka
Not far from the nation’s fourth largest city, nesting shorebirds have been given a home of their own.
Less than 20 yards away, a dozen mature brown pelicans eye our drifting boat as it inches closer. The wizened old “eagle-heads” are sentries.
My partner engages the trolling motor and the boat abruptly stops its drift. I lift my camera, peer through the 400mm telephoto and realize that I need a shorter lens. Rarely does a wildlife photographer face the problem of being too close to his subjects. It’s a glorious problem.
In less than 15 minutes I burn three rolls of film. Then we slowly circle Evia Island, marveling not only at its sheer numbers of birds but also the variety. Brown pelicans, an endangered species on the comeback, are the island’s most prominent residents, but there are also black skimmers, royal terns, sandwich terns, least terns and oystercatchers.
“How many birds?” my buddy asks.
“No way to say exactly, but I’d guess a couple thousand. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yep,” he responds, never averting his gaze.
Finally he puts down his binoculars. “No one would believe this is Galveston Bay.”
“Nope,” I answer. “They probably wouldn’t.”
Unless you have been to Evia Island, it is difficult to imagine that such a place exists so close to Texas’ largest population center.
Evia Island rests about two miles due west of Seiver’s Cut on East Galveston Bay. Now three years old, the steep, six-acre outcropping is living proof of the movie adage, “Build it and they will come.”
The Port of Houston Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Beneficial Uses Group (BUG, of which the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is a member) worked collectively to create Evia Island, using material dredged from the Houston-Galveston Navigational Channels expansion project. The agencies also sponsored a contest, won by 11-year-old elementary school student Ally Levy of Pearland, to name the island.
Last August the science-loving youngster visited the island with her family and friends. “When I found out that the Spanish explorer Jose de Evia really discovered Galveston Island but named it after his boss, Bernardo de Galvez, I thought Evia should get some credit,” Levy says. “I’m glad the birds have a safe home here.”
Evia Island’s avian residents are indeed safe from human intrusion. Plenty of signs are posted around the island to remind people to stay off, but those same “No Landing” signs have invited landings of an entirely different order.
“Evia Island was built 8 feet above water level in order to offset continued groundwater subsidence as well as flooding problems during storms,” explains TPWD habitat assessment biologist Andy Sipocz. “We built the signs 6 feet high.
“We soon discovered that 14 feet is more than enough elevation for perching birds of prey,” Sipocz continues. “So, we’re either going to remove the existing signs or put up specially designed, low-profile replacements.”
Last spring, migrating peregrine falcons and other raptors found easy pickings on the chicks of the ground-nesting birds. “The falcons moved on to their northern nesting areas in mid-May,” Sipocz says. “Although Evia Island is a one-mile swim from the nearest land, we also lost some of the first hatch to river otters.” Fortunately, shorebirds usually nest a second time when the first hatch is lost. “This year’s second hatch was very successful,” Sipocz notes.
With guidance from the Houston Audubon Society, trees and shrubs of various types have been planted. “There is a native shrub called desert olive, a spike-thorned species of tree colloquially known as ‘Hercules Club’ and lantana,” Sipocz says. As these trees and bushes grow, Evia Island likely will host birds that do not nest on the ground, among them black-crested night herons, great blue herons, tricolor herons and roseate spoonbills.
“The Port of Houston Authority was extremely cooperative in making this part of the BUG project a reality,” Sipocz says. “It’s a solid piece of evidence that, working together, we can meld the needs of industry with those of the environment.”