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Just Me and My 50,000 Friends

by Hank Arnold, drone operator and bird enthusiast / Chester Island

Taken a few pictures.

Met a few friends.

Seen a few things...To me, that summarizes the entire birding experience.

Chester Island has always been one of our favorite birding locations for both me and my wife, Diane. I have been blessed the past few years with the opportunity to assist with flying, counting, and documenting operations at the island, but those are all, in the end, working tasks. They are always difficult for me because I’m in this wondrous place surrounded by beautiful birds…but I’m working. Recently I took my first day off in some time. Just me, my camera, and a few birds.

It’s just me and my 50,000 friends. I’m surrounded by the continuing cycles of life going on around me, holding in my hands what could well be the best combination of camera and lens for that environment.When the boat drops me off there are a few moments of distress among the residents, but all quickly settle back down to rookery life. The excitement of the day was the sighting on the way over of Frigate Birds working the upwind side of the island. This aerial mugging shows the action headed away from me, and adventure for the future. My focus was to possibly document whether or not we had any Black Skimmer chicks on the island. Black Skimmers have not nested on Chester Island for some time, so for me it was a labor of love.

The Skimmers were very jumpy, probably because of the Frigates overhead, so I couldn’t get very close. My usual method is to set quietly in my chair for several minutes while they get used to me, then slowly move forward a few feet at a time, then repeat, repeat, repeat. Yesterday though, they started hooting me early on. At one point a Skimmer Caretaker dived at me squawking Skimmer offenses, so I picked up and left. I did see two chicks at one time though, which is a great start down the road back to an annual colony.

We counted more than 13,000 terns this year with the drone for the Texas Colonial Waterbird Survey with each pair having at least one chick. Some were enjoying a good scoot across the sand, celebrating their newfound mobility and freedom. Some trying to figure out what the new long things attached to their shoulders are. Not being a tern expert, I’ll admit to being a little clueless about variations in size, feathers, and leg colors…but I do know the business of life on a tern beach is about air freight for seafood, and lots of it. I question whether a young chick is going to be able to swallow their bounty, but I’m sure the anxious chick will try. An environmental professional I know is studying what terns eat, and I did my best to help with 49 different images for him. That’s getting pretty close to enough different species of fish (and shrimp) to start a whole new category of birding: seafood ID. Always a great day, with extra credit to be able to spend it with Diane. Thank you to Tim and Peggy Wilkinson for taking us out.

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