Audubon marks 100 years of coastal bird conservation in Texas and looks to challenges ahead.
I PADDLE INTO Nighthawk bay, in the Laguna Madre, before dawn on a moonless August night. The dark mirror of the water meshes perfectly with a night sky full of stars, reflecting them back on themselves. The sensation of being suspended in space is interrupted only by startled mullet that leave bright streaks, like meteors, as they bolt away through the bay’s phosphorescent algae.
I watch the vast and unbroken meadows of seagrass come alive at early light. Roseate spoonbills, invisible just minutes ago, now glow pink as they rake their specialized bills back and forth, methodically filtering out food from the water. A great blue heron squawks angrily, lifting away with a rattle of wings. A solitary black skimmer darts out of the way. Fish, shrimp and crabs ripple, jump and streak about in the clear shallows — some chasing breakfast and some being chased.
As the sun rises higher, gulls and terns soar effortlessly over the bay, calling to one another while scanning the water below. The green carpet of the seagrass meadow expands out from around my homebuilt pirogue. No one in sight, no signs of other humans anywhere, just me and the birds. Birds everywhere, and plenty of time to ponder their existence.
We are fortunate in Texas to have a front-row seat to the beauty and spectacle that birds provide. Over my 50 years as a biologist here, I’ve been lucky to see many fantastic avian sights.
As Audubon Texas celebrates 100 years of service and conservation — coinciding with Texas State Parks celebrating 100 years of serving both birds and people — I find myself reflecting on the conservation accomplishments and challenges for birds.
Our state’s 367 miles of coastline and 3,300 miles of bayfront play an important role for both resident and migrating birds.
Perhaps that’s why Audubon’s first conservation actions in Texas occurred on the coast in 1923 when it leased Green Island on the lower coast and the Vingt-et-un Islands in Galveston Bay.
Some 615 species — an astounding 2 billion birds or more — move through Texas during migration, more than any other state. Many of these birds can be found flying, diving, swimming, running along the beach or just resting on or near the shore amid their long flight.
Not all the birds we see are passing through — many live here year-round, mating, nesting and raising families.
These birds define and help shape our coastal landscapes, but their ability to thrive is threatened. The Harte Research Institute’s “Texas Coast Ecosystem Health Report Card for 2023” shows that colony-nesting water birds are vulnerable because of lost feeding habitat and eroding nesting islands. The story is the same for many other coastal bird species.
That should worry us all.
WHY IS THE TEXAS Gulf Coast home to such a rich diversity of bird species? The answer is the variety of habitats — estuarine and freshwater wetlands, mudflats, oyster reefs, seagrass meadows, shrubby woodlands, beaches and dunes. These habitats make our coast an important stopover for many of the Western Hemisphere’s migratory songbirds and a haven for resident and overwintering species of shorebirds and waterbirds.
Some of the most critical bird habitats are the 200 or so small “rookery” islands found in Texas bays and estuaries, prime nesting places for birds all along the Texas coast. Coastal conservationists agree that their importance cannot be overstated.
Green Island, in the lower Laguna Madre, is home to the world’s largest colony of reddish egrets, one of 26 species of colonial water birds found on the Texas coast. This large, charismatic, colonial nesting water bird species is known for its distinctive dance-like foraging behavior.
Another notable bird of Texas rookery islands is the once-endangered brown pelican. Despite an alarming historic low of 50 birds in 1964, a large colony (5,000 to 6,000 nesting pairs) now can be found during nesting season on restored Chester Island in Matagorda Bay.
Other rookery island inhabitants include the iconic and brightly colored roseate spoonbill and the black skimmer, a beach-nesting species that is vulnerable to rising tides. The diversity of habitats on these islands also attracts terns, gulls, ibises, herons and cormorants, the mix of species constantly changing depending on the time of year.
In addition to these island congregations, the Texas coast hosts one of the most significant migration events on the planet from March to May every year. During this time, 2 billion birds make starlit journeys from their wintering grounds in Central and South America to their breeding grounds in North America, guided by the celestial night sky, Earth’s magnetic fields and the natural landmarks that mark their flyway routes.
The Texas coast serves as a vital stopover point, providing essential resources such as food, water and shelter for these weary avian travelers. The migration phenomenon repeats in the fall in the opposite direction. The cycle has been going on for millennia. If not for the actions of a few conservationists, it would be much diminished today.
THE HISTORY OF coastal bird conservation in Texas stretches back more than 100 years. It began with a slaughter.
By the late 1800s, 5 million birds of 50 species were killed annually for the fashion trades, according to estimates by the American Ornithologists’ Union. Brilliant white snowy egret plumes and pink roseate spoonbill feathers adorned fashionable women’s hats, status symbols of a burgeoning upper class.
The recognition of water bird declines spurred the creation of the first Audubon Society in our state. At only 15 and 23, Cecile Seixas and Estelle Hertford founded the first Audubon Society in Galveston in 1899. Tragically, Seixas lost her life (along with 8,000 others on Galveston Island) in the Great Storm of 1900, but the pair’s work laid the foundation of the Texas conservation community that still exists today.
By 1900, species such as the snowy egret were no longer abundant along the Texas coast. After its founding in 1905, the National Audubon Society and supporters helped to bring about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Signed into law in 1918, the bird treaty is among the oldest wildlife protection laws in the U.S. In the years since its enactment, the legislation has saved millions, if not billions, of birds.
This year we celebrate the centennial of that first Audubon conservation action in 1923, the island leases on the lower coast and in Galveston Bay. Today, Audubon’s 175 current rookery island leases have made it possible for generations of Audubon coastal wardens and partners like the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, Houston Audubon Society and Galveston Bay Foundation to steward and restore these important gems of bird habitat. They protect nesting habitat from disturbance by predators and people and oversee restoration projects to maintain the islands, continually buffeted by erosion, storm surge and sea level rise.
One hundred years of conservation have resulted in stable and increasing populations of many species of water birds and waterfowl found in Texas. Due to migration, the conservation actions that we take in Texas benefit the entire Western Hemisphere. Texas coastal habitats are the “Welcome to Texas” and “Come Back Soon” signs for bird species as they arrive in and depart from our state.
PLENTY OF WORK remains to be done. Rookery island conservation is a priority, with a focus on restoring and stewarding the islands. A partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers makes it possible to use dredged sediments from shipping channel maintenance projects to rebuild islands that lose elevation and shoreline to coastal erosion.
Dredged sediments, a one-time waste product turned island restoration material, are tested to ensure their safety and are used alongside other materials and natural resources such as oyster reefs and vegetation to reduce the impacts of wind and waves and elevate rookery islands above high tide levels.
New restoration techniques include the deployment of floating nesting platforms that provide protected habitat for beach- and shell-nesting shorebird species. The platforms, constructed to safely withstand large waves and strong winds during storm events, show promise in other parts of the U.S. and could be used in Texas in the years to come.
With care, we can share our coast with birds as we recreate in Texas bays and estuaries. Research tells us that human disturbance of rookery islands increases predation risk for nesting shorebirds and water birds. When boating on a Texas bay during the summer, look for yellow posted signs and be on the lookout for an Audubon coastal warden. Keep dogs on a leash when at the beach and limit kite flying near nests. Off-leash pets and kites flying over a nesting colony of birds can imitate natural predators and have negative effects. Remember to “recreate and play from 50 yards away” by observing protective fencing, posted signs and unmarked nesting sites that can sometimes be difficult to see.
During the winter, when the nests are empty, wardens, partners and volunteers can be found removing plastic waste and marine debris, eradicating invasive species, replanting native vegetation and replacing signage. These stewardship actions ensure that the islands are a welcome place for their avian residents when spring heralds their return.
Audubon’s 100th anniversary is a perfect time to take stock of our past and plan for our future challenges. We share a common thread that connects us to one another and to the world. Birds are one of our most visible reminders of Texas’ connections across the Americas.
While more than 100 years of bird conservation in Texas have resulted in wins for birds, the need for action and care continues and is more important than ever. With the world changing quickly around them, birds need our help to access the resources they need to survive and thrive. Birds tell us how well we care for our coast, and it just so happens that the same habitats that benefit birds sustain us as well.
Birds everywhere. That seems a worthy goal for us all.
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