Chester Smith Photo: Peggy Wilkinson


Stories of Chester Island

Chester Smith was known to be a trustworthy person who loved the outdoors and had a “get it done” attitude. After the first interview in early 1986, a match was made and Chester became the first Audubon Coastal Warden of Sundown Island.

By Peggy Wilkinson, Coastal Warden, Audubon Texas

As construction of the Matagorda Ship Channel began back in 1962 to allow ocean-going vessels to travel from the Gulf of Mexico into Matagorda Bay, a small island began to form from the sand and mud dredged up from the bay bottom. It didn’t take long for the new island, three miles off the coast of Port O’Connor, Texas, to be discovered by waterbirds and for ground nesters like gulls and terns to start nesting on the sand. As time went on, grass and small brush grew on the island and tree nesters began to nest there, too. The birds seemed thrilled about this new island – most likely due to it being a safe site far enough from other land that very few mammal predators could access.

In 1975, the National Audubon Society noticed the birds being drawn to the island, then named Sundown Island, and took action to lease the island from the Texas General Land Office. Jesse Grantham, Texas Director of Bird Conservation and Texas Sanctuaries Manager, was on assignment to find a warden who would not only steward the birds, but also monitor and maintain the island. A Port O’Connor resident came highly recommended by the local hardware store owner. Chester Smith was known to be a trustworthy person who loved the outdoors and had a “get it done” attitude. After the first interview in early 1986, a match was made and Chester became the first Audubon Coastal Warden of Sundown Island.

Chester was on a mission to bring back one of his favorite bird species, the Brown Pelican. In the 1940’s, the Brown Pelican population declined due to negative impacts of the pesticide DDT getting into their food chain. When the pelicans ate contaminated fish, it resulted in egg-shell thinning. Before the embryo had a chance to develop, the thin egg shell would break under the weight of the parents. As a result, the Brown Pelican was unable to reproduce effectively, and their numbers in Texas dropped to less than 100 birds in the late 1960’s, and fewer than 10 breeding pairs. Fortunately, the use of DDT was banned in 1972 – but the damage had been done. The Brown Pelican had become endangered and sightings in the Matagorda Bay area were rare.

Chester teamed up with Ray Little, who was the Audubon Coastal Warden for the Corpus Christi area, where the Brown Pelican population had first begun recovering, and attempted to reintroduce them to the Matagorda Bay area. Chester and Ray gathered a few chicks and transported them to Sundown Island. Chester built a pen using wood and chicken wire, and put the chicks inside. He also put a bucket of seawater with small fish in it for them to eat. Every morning, Chester would go out to the island with his cast net, catch some fish, and restock the bucket. It worked! The chicks survived and thrived, and Chester became a full-time cast-netting parent for a few weeks. Then, he started leaving the top to the enclosure open, and putting the bucket outside to coax the growing chicks outside the pen. Before long, they discovered the fresh minnows swimming just off of the beach, and no longer needed the bucket. And that’s how the Brown Pelican got its start on Sundown Island. Today, they are seen in great numbers all around Matagorda Bay and Port O’Connor!

Chester was recognized for his efforts to save the Brown Pelican with several awards and honors. Through good policy and the efforts of many other conservationists like Chester, the recovery of the Brown Pelican was very successful up and down the Texas Coast, and across the U.S. Due to this dramatic recovery, the Brown Pelican was removed in 2009 from the U.S. Endangered Species List. This is where my DNA comes in… Chester was my father. My husband, Tim, and I were Chester’s volunteer assistants for many years, and later became the wardens after Chester’s death in 2011. Chester was so proud of his involvement with Audubon that he was buried in his Audubon coveralls and hat with the red Audubon patch. Sundown Island was renamed to Chester Island Bird Sanctuary in his honor. 

Some 60 years after Sundown Island was first formed, 18 species of waterbirds arrive each spring to take up residence on the island to build nests and raise their chicks. This low-lying, 70-acre bird island near Port O’Connor has become one of the top 3 largest rookeries along the Texas Coast for colonial waterbirds. In May 2023, the Texas Waterbird Survey recorded more than 22,000 nesting pairs of colonial waterbirds on Chester Island - including more than 2,300 nesting pairs of Brown Pelicans. The August/September 2023 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine features an article about Audubon Texas marking 100 years of coastal conservation in Texas, and looking to challenges ahead. Photos in the article are from Chester Island, and feature several of our partners and volunteers!

Note: If you fish around the island, please DO NOT walk on the island. There are eggs on the beach and many young fledglings hanging out on the shore line. We kindly ask you to stay out at least 50 yards from shore – whether in your boat or wading. And please, no walking or fishing on the concrete mat where many young birds spend their days. The rookery island is protected by federal law, and we ask you to help us keep Chester’s Birds safe.

May 2023 Chester Island Survey Results (by species and # nesting pairs)

Brown Pelican - 2,305

Dbl.-cr. Cormorant - 16

N. Cormorant - 92

Great Blue Heron - 302

Great Eret - 971

Snowy Egret - 380

Tricolored Heron - 2,112

Reddish Egret - 180

Cattle Egret - 214

B-c Night-Heron - 107

White Ibis - 1,294

Roseate Spoonbill - 246

Laughing Gull - 4,464

Royal Tern - 6690

Sandwich Tern - 2,592

Black Skimmer - 58

Cr. Caracara - 1

American Avocet - 3

American Oystercatcher - 1

TOTALS - 22,012

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