Audubon Texas Coastal Team mobilizes post-Harvey for the sake of historic bird islands

Audubon Texas Coastal Team assesses extent of island damage from Hurricane Harvey and prepares for lengthy restoration/recovery

Pelicans at Chester Island by Peggy Wilkinson

By Desiree Loggins and Sarah Bayley

Last month, the Audubon Texas Coastal Team assessed the extent of island damage from Hurricane Harvey to key islands along the Texas coast. Audubon Texas owns, leases, or collaboratively manages important rookery islands along the coast. These islands are vitally important for many colonial waterbirds, since they serve as primary nesting sites for breeding during the spring and summer months. 
The preliminary post-storm assessment revealed changes to the shoreline, approximate height of the storm surge, extent of erosion on vegetation and hazardous waste and debris. Changes like how much land has been lost, and how much plant cover is missing due to being uprooted or washed away, could affect the number of species that will be able to nest on the habitat in the future. The massive volumes of water from Harvey had washed shells and rocks deep onto the land. Without restoration, the shell deposits will prevent ground-nesting birds from returning next year, and decreases the shelter available for various species on the island.
Overall, the storm had negatively affected birds by severely eroding rookery islands across the coast, devastating inland habitats by knocking down trees and destabilizing our estuaries, and left beaches and marshes overrun with hazardous waste and debris. Restoring health to these ecosystems will not only help bird populations recover, but it will also help keep our communities safer and more protected against future storms. Given the severity and variety of Harvey’s ongoing impacts, the methods of recovery are great and complex.
Coastal Community Science Restoration Begins
Audubon, volunteers, and partners strive to maintain stability and sanctuary for birds on North Deer Island and Chester Island after the Texas coast is pummeled by Hurricane Harvey
Upon reflection of the scope of work that lies ahead, restoration efforts have begun and the Audubon Texas coastal team has organized a series of initial volunteer workdays during the months of November and December. The team and dedicated volunteers are hitting the ground running to focus on critical restoration projects at two important rookery islands – North Deer Island and Chester (Sundown) Island. It is critical that these islands are restored prior to the breeding season that occurs in the spring.
Observations from the first series of workdays in November
North Deer Island is the most productive colonial water bird island in Galveston Bay, making it an Important Bird Area. Salt marsh covers two-thirds of the 144-acre island providing a particularly pungent experience on a warm Texas day, and excellent ground nesting space for birds. Audubon Texas and Houston Audubon Society co-own this waterbird haven together and so collaborate on restoration and management. On an uncharacteristically cold and wind battered day, the two groups set out on boats to clean-up trash and scatter ant bait to control fire ant populations. The latter activity is important for conservation, as fire ants are a hardy exotic species that swarm nests and kill fledgling birds. Fortunately, for all workday participants, the cold weather made for dormant fire ant mounds, keeping the fearsome biters from the soft skin hiding behind sturdy work boots. However, a confident poke would jostle the colony, working them into an intimidating frenzy. Those on trash duty also had a hazard to lookout for – rattlesnakes, curled up and silently waiting for the cold spell to pass.  
Chester (Sundown) Island
By the next day, the weather was much calmer during our visit to Chester Island where Harvey’s impact was more visible. Ten percent of the island was lost to the storm, signage notifying warning trespassers away from nests were missing, native trees on the coastline (good for nesting) were blown away or destroyed, and Audubon Warden Tim Wilkinson reported finding pelicans with broken wings who had not escaped the strong winds. 
Additionally, there was the ever-present plastic bottle piles skirting the shoreline and tangled in gnarled tree roots.  Despite this, the group was in high spirits, even chatting casually about the various damages from past storms, “Remember Ike? And Rita wow! I lost my house then”. These Texans had withstood a lot and would not be deterred by Harvey.  At one point Chester Island had only 10 nesting pairs of Pelican, but recent 2017 surveys have counted 3,797 individuals.
Those who work for the environment are not often pegged as optimistic, but Chester Island has a rich and dynamic conservation history, so everyone present on the workday was confident that restoration on this day would be effective and lasting. The day ended when the last of the 30 plants were in the ground and every free hand contained an industrial sized garbage bag filled with bottles, Styrofoam, flip flop bottoms, bits of fishing equipment and fragments of car bumpers. New signs were up all around the island broadcasting to the public “Caution: Nesting Birds Ahead. Violators will be prosecuted”. The boats were loaded up with the garbage bags, Audubon staff, volunteers, and friends from the American Bird Conservancy as we headed back home to plan for the next week of coastal protection. 
Since 1923 Audubon Texas’s Coastal Conservation program has been an active force for conservation on over 600 miles of Texas coastline, managing a string of island sanctuaries that shelter massive breeding colonies of waterbirds like the Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, and the beloved formerly endangered Brown Pelican. 
Moreover, since this work began, Audubon Texas Coastal program has been bracing for and recovering from a slew of natural and human disturbances including hurricanes, tropical storms, erosion from container ship wake, plastic washing ashore carried by currents, invasive species like fire ants, and surprisingly adept raccoons who swim to coastal islands and feast on eggs. Keeping an island ecosystem healthy and productive is no easy task, but as always Audubon Texas is up to the job. Supported by a team of experienced staff and volunteers, established partners, and buoyed by an energetic appreciation for birds and the invention of waterproofing, we bounce back from Hurricane Harvey and ensure come spring, sanctuary greets our birds once more. 

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