Audubon Texas: Coastal Conservation

Chester Island- Audubon Texas

Texan by Nature (TxN) selected the Audubon Texas Rookery Island Conservation project as a 2021 Conservation Wrangler for its positive impacts on people, prosperity, and natural resources. Audubon Texas’ coastal conservation initiatives strive to maintain and restore existing ecosystems while also looking ahead to create new critical breeding habitat for birds in Matagorda Bay.

Through the Conservation Wrangler program, TxN is working with Audubon Texas to create more rookery islands in Matagorda Bay by beneficially using dredged sediment and measuring the environmental impacts and return on conservation from this type of restorative habitat creation. Texan by Nature is helping Audubon Texas to amplify messaging surrounding this project, educate Texans about the use of natural infrastructure along the coast, and get the Matagorda Bay community involved in ecotourism through birding.

Driven by a culture of coastal conservation

Audubon Texas, the state field office of the National Audubon Society, has been active on the Texas coast protecting wildlife, conserving habitat, and inspiring environmental stewardship through outreach and education since 1923. Today, Audubon Texas works with strategic partners to manage 177 islands along the Texas coast, including 12 islands within the Matagorda and San Antonio Bay systems. These islands provide nesting habitat to 27 species of waterbirds. Audubon’s coastal management program has even been recognized through the Governors’ Blue Ribbon Committee on Environmental Excellence.

The Texas Coast is lined by bar-built estuaries and barrier islands formed over thousands of years as sand and sediment moved between marine environments and land. During the creation of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) the Army Corps of Engineers created additional islands with the dredged channel material. More than 200 islands dot the Texas Coast in estuaries stretching from Galveston Bay on the Upper Texas Coast to the Laguna Madre on the Lower Texas Coast. They range in size from small areas of sand and mud flats to larger islands that support diverse vegetation and submerged and emergent habitats, including seagrasses, wetlands, oyster reefs, upland grasses and forbs, and  shrubs and small trees. Over time, these dredge material islands have become the primary habitat for nesting waterbirds along the Texas coast. Their sandy edges provide habitat for beach nesting birds, and shrubs and trees provide habitat for tree nesting birds.

The state leases coastal islands to Audubon Texas to conserve their value as bird sanctuaries. The coastal rookery islands managed by Audubon are not for human recreation; they are areas protected for coastal waterbirds to nest and roost and in some cases to provide habitat for threatened and endangered species. Reducing disturbance from terrestrial predators and human activity is one of the most effective ways to give the birds the space they need to successfully lay and hatch their eggs. Some of the islands, like Sundown Island (also called Chester Island), have continued to receive dredge material which has supported growing bird populations. Other islands have been lost or are eroding, and this has caused an overall loss of available nesting habitat. In order to rebuild the habitat that birds have come to depend on, Audubon has identified the need to build new dredge material islands in the mid-Texas coast.

Meet the focal species that Audubon Texas is working to protect on the coast:

Brown Pelican                                                                Reddish Egret 

Roseate Spoonbill                                                          Least Tern   

Black Skimmer                                                               American Oystercatcher

Island stewardship is a major factor in conservation success

The Brown Pelican is one species that has made a tremendous comeback along the Texas coast. From its initial listing on the endangered species list in the early 1970s- when it had been hunted and poisoned to near extinction- the population has rebounded to more than 650,000 Pelicans along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. The first step in the Pelican’s comeback was the 1972 ban on DDT, the widely used pesticide that thinned the birds’ eggshells, causing them to shatter during incubation. Even after DDT had dissipated in the food chain, though, Pelicans needed safe shoreline nesting ground. That’s where Audubon coastal wardens like Chester Smith stepped in to help. 

Smith carefully managed the island and its avian inhabitants, working to plant native trees and shrubs, control fire ant populations, and even patrolled the island to ensure that no one scared away the nesting birds. In November of 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officially removed the Brown Pelican from the endangered species list, thanks to the diligent work of Audubon coastal warden Chester Smith and many others like him.

Audubon coastal warden Chester Smith holds a Brown Pelican egg

Audubon’s stewardship work continues today. Current coastal conservation efforts strive to maintain and restore existing bird habitats while also looking ahead to create new critical breeding habitat for birds in Matagorda Bay. Audubon Texas’s habitat stewardship includes monitoring nesting islands during the breeding season by performing formal breeding bird counts, conducting nest and hatchling counts, and reporting on nesting bird behavior. This long-term monitoring data supports the planning and implementation of meaningful habitat management through reducing disturbance, planting native plants, and reducing habitat erosion. Additionally, Audubon Texas is working to create new habitat by identifying suitable sites, designing lasting rookery islands, and advocating for new rookery islands in the bay. Our priorities to create new habitat and steward existing habitats work in tandem to achieve our goal of expanding high quality habitat within Matagorda Bay to provide wide-ranging benefits for coastal bird populations.

What is Coastal Dredging? 

Dredging is the removal of sediments and debris, including sand, silt, and gravel from the bottom of lakes, rivers, estuaries, shipping channels, and other waterways. It is a routine maintenance activity often used to keep waterways and ports navigable for boats and ships because sedimentation (the natural process of sand and silt deposition) gradually fills channels and harbors. Many of the coastal islands in Texas were created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the dredging of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. 

Several hundred million cubic meters of sediment are dredged each year from U.S. ports, harbors and waterways and can be used to support ecosystem projects, such as rebuilding eroding beaches and the restoration of wildlife habitats. Seeing this need in Matagorda Bay, Audubon Texas and partners at state and federal agencies, Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries, The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M developed a plan to beneficially use dredge material to create new rookery habitat.

Recently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expanded Chester Island by several acres using  dredged sediments  in 2019 and 2020. Audubon Texas also completed a feasibility study in 2020. Informed by expert input, modeling and site conditions, Audubon identified and designed islands at five sites in Matagorda Bay appropriate for new rookery islands. Audubon Texas aims to build off these early island designs to develop innovative approaches to coastal conservation and track the benefits of island creation.

Why should we prioritize coastal conservation in Texas?

In addition to the benefits coastal islands provide to the waterbirds that nest on them, island habitats provide a suite of additional ecosystem services. Coastal islands provide stopover habitat to migratory songbirds and shorebirds. Many of the islands have wetlands on them that store carbon, filter nutrients, and provide habitat for a variety of animals. Due to their proximity to shore, coastal bird islands have the potential to mitigate storm surge impacts to coastal habitats and communities. When we prioritize conservation of bird habitats we are also prioritizing broader benefits and overall ecosystem resilience. 

Audubon’s creation of rookery islands along the Gulf coast benefits the environment, wildlife, and Texans. The increase in available nesting habitat brings a greater abundance and diversity of coastal waterbird species to the Matagorda bay area. This spike in wildlife provides more ecotourism opportunities, leading to the creation of more jobs, better community involvement, and more accessible outdoor education.

Learn more about Audubon Texas’ coastal conservation programs here: https://tx.audubon.org/conservation/coastal-conservation0 

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