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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.

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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.”

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A black skimmer protects its chicks.

Measuring success

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.

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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.

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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)
Some beach-nesting birds congregate in large, noisy colonies, but this plover chooses to be alone. This solitary nester blends in well with its beach surroundings. If you get too close to the bird’s nest or young, it will feign injury, called a “broken wing display,” to lure you (or predators) away. Wilson’s plovers are ultra-secretive compared to other plovers; you’ll be lucky to catch a glimpse of their broods running through grasses in search of fiddler crabs, their preferred food.


Snowy Plover (red list - declining population with limited geographic ranges and a high vulnerability to threats)
This pale-colored solitary nester can be difficult to spot because it closely matches the color of sand — a nice perk when you nest on the open, sandy ground. Like Wilson’s plovers, the snowy plover will also do broken-wing displays if a threat is too close for comfort. Snowy plovers will mate with different individuals up to three times a season, meaning they can have up to three non-concurrent broods (families) each year.


American Oystercatcher (red list - declining population with limited geographic ranges and a high vulnerability to threats)
The charismatic American oystercatcher sports a long, carrot-like bill, perfect for prying open shellfish. This solitary nester will not stand for intruders, as evidenced by its high-pitched queep that escalates into a trilling crescendo if you get too close. You can keep track of a day in the life of this unique bird by following the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory’s blog, the Oystercatcher Diaries, at gulfcoastbirdobservatory.wordpress.com.


Black Skimmer (yellow list - restricted ranges or declining numbers)
Another charismatic and elegant colonial beach-nester, this bird skims the water with its bill open, fishing for prey. Unfortunately, this species has faced a steeper decline than others in Texas. “There is long-term breeding season survey data indicating that the Texas population of black skimmers has declined as much as 70 percent since the 1970s,” says Owen Fitzsimmons of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program. “This is very alarming, especially since the downward trend is showing no real signs of leveling off.”


Least Tern (Bird of Conservation Concern)
These small yet boisterous terns have no problem telling anyone to get out of their nesting colony. Their preferred method of defense is cooperative in nature — they gang up on intruders (called “mobbing”) with behaviors such as vocalizing loudly, dive-bombing and defecating. You won’t have any trouble knowing when you’re too close to their nesting area.

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