Safe on the Shore
Beach-nesting birds need our help to protect their young.
By Kacy L. Ray
The sun begins to peek out from the Gulf horizon, sending its first tendrils of morning warmth across the water and the sprawling sandy beaches of the Texas coast. Just above the high tide line and beyond the dunes, gulls and least terns shout greetings and warnings to one another.
It’s June, and least terns hide their small, speckled eggs and camouflaged chicks on the sandy beach, fending off gulls and other predators. Chicks emerge from their eggs wet but quickly dry to a soft, downy coat. Within hours, the least tern chicks scamper after their parents begging for food while nearby plovers learn to fend for themselves.
Wilson’s and snowy plovers stealthily lead their downy broods of flightless chicks through dunes, low-lying beach vegetation and an array of beachgoers and vehicles, searching for the perfect fiddler crab flat or ephemeral pool where their young can forage until they learn to fly. These secretive, sandy-colored plover broods have been known to travel several miles on foot to find safe places to forage.
As these birds work to raise their young, they face the dangerous weather elements typical of the Gulf Coast — hurricanes, tropical storms and flooding — as well as increasing human encroachment. Nesting bird populations are declining because of these natural dangers and the effects of coastal development and oil spills.
The birds are running out of places to raise their young safely, but we can help them if we know what to look for and what to do.
A Wilson's plover sits on its egg-filled nest, a simple scrape on the beach in a clump of vegetation.
Fences for the fragile
The American Bird Conservancy, the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program and the Houston Audubon Society (supported by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) work together to implement local programs in the Corpus Christi, Galveston and High Island coastal regions.
When critical nesting areas are identified, they’re protected with temporary signs and fencing. The sites are monitored throughout the breeding season to determine the success (or failure) of these birds’ breeding attempts.
Thanks to a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, some new sites in the Freeport-Matagorda region recently opened with the help of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. CenterPoint Energy is donating bollards (short vertical posts) to protect the dunes and the sensitive nesting habitat at Bryan Beach.
“It won’t impact beach driving,” says Susan Heath, avian conservation biologist for the observatory. “It’s win-win for birds and people.”
A black skimmer protects its chicks.
How do we know how birds are faring over time? Biologists monitor the reproductive output of the birds to gauge their welfare. Many of these birds return to the same sites year after year to raise their young. Scientists count them, determine the number of breeding pairs for comparison with previous years, and track the success or failure of some nests.
If nests are failing because predators have killed chicks or humans are disturbing them, land managers and biologists can respond by using electric fencing to keep out predators or increasing education at heavy traffic sites. Public awareness is the key to reducing human disturbance of beach-nesting birds.
Another piece of the reproductive puzzle is to determine how many chicks of each species are fledging, or making it to the point of flying. So family groups are followed — from a distance — until the young fledge, keeping track of their ages and development over time. Many plovers are banded with unique colors for identification.
As we learn more about the reproductive habits and success rate trends of these birds, we can determine more effective conservation measures to bolster their declining populations.
Black skimmer parents feed their young chick.
Protecting a Texas Treasure
In Galveston, Freeport and Matagorda, curious beachcombers now can safely observe the birds and chicks in critical nesting areas through spotting scopes and learn about their plight from posted signs. Humans, through local and national conservation groups, have taken on the duty of stewards.
“Through our partnership with ABC and Houston Audubon, we are able to better understand our environment and create unique experiences for visitors through environmental interpretation like nest site stewardship,” says Kelly de Schaun, executive director for the Galveston Island Park Board, which manages East Beach in Galveston. “Our partnership provides benefits for beachgoers and birds alike.”
Nest stewardship is essential to the birds’ survival. Ground-nesting birds are extremely vulnerable to predators such as gulls, coyotes and raccoons; they are also very sensitive to human activity on the beach. When predators or people flush adult birds from their nests, eggs and chicks are exposed and defenseless to this array of threats, so the scene often ends in death. People also can unknowingly step on nests and young birds because they blend in with the color of the sand.
Birds are an integral part of our coastal experience, a Texas treasure to be preserved for generations to come. The next time you’re on the beach or near a nesting island, don’t forget to pause for a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of these beautiful birds — from a safe distance.
A sign warns beachgoers of a bird nesting area.
How You Can Help
We can help these imperiled birds while on the beach or near islands where birds are nesting. The nesting season generally runs from February through August each year.
- Avoid posted nesting areas on the mainland and islands. A good rule is “Fish, swim and play from 50 yards away.”
- Keep children and pets away from nesting areas. Keep dogs on leashes so they don’t roam freely in nesting areas.
- Move away from nesting birds if they increase vocalization, fly off their nests or dive-bomb your head. These are all signs that your activity is disturbing the birds.
- Dispose of fishing tackle properly. Birds become entangled in old fishing line and lose legs or die.
- If you see someone destroying nests or disturbing a nesting area, contact TPWD at (800) 792-GAME (4263).
For more information, visit www.HelpGulfBirds.org.
Spotlight on Species
All of Texas’ beach-nesting birds are protected by state law and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They also carry varying conservation statuses under the U.S. watch list, a management instrument designed to promote conservation actions for declining bird species.
Wilson’s Plover (red list - declining population with limited geographic ranges and a high vulnerability to threats)
Snowy Plover (red list - declining population with limited geographic ranges and a high vulnerability to threats)
American Oystercatcher (red list - declining population with limited geographic ranges and a high vulnerability to threats)
Black Skimmer (yellow list - restricted ranges or declining numbers)
Least Tern (Bird of Conservation Concern)