Finding a quiet, secluded spot to raise chicks can be tough for a beach-nesting bird like the Royal Tern, especially as much of our coastlines are crowded with people, buildings, boats, and other things that make up coastal life for us humans. Rookery islands like Chester Island, located 3 miles off the coast of Port O’Connor, Texas, provide a safe space for birds to nest with fewer human disruptions or animal predators.
“Small islands are important to birds along the coast of Texas,” says Alexis Baldera, coastal program manager for Audubon Texas, because many species of North America’s long-distance migrating birds depend on the Texas coast at some point in their lifetime.
However, these islands are disappearing due to sea-level rise, erosion, and tropical storms. “We’re losing a little bit of ground every day,” says Baldera. “When there are fewer places for birds to rest and nest, we’re going to have fewer birds—not just in Texas but around the world.”
Chester Island is one of 200 islands that dot the Texas coast from Galveston to South Padre. These largely undeveloped islands are an oasis for birds facing a long migration across the Gulf of Mexico, a place to rest and fuel up for their journey. That’s why Audubon Texas manages a majority of these islands and has developed an innovative new plan to slow the erosion.
In 1986, when Chester Smith became the new coastal warden of what was then a 200-acre island in Matagorda Bay, only five pairs of Brown Pelicans were nesting there. Their populations were still wounded by the effects of the pesticide DDT. Today, the island is home to more than 3,000 pairs of Brown Pelicans, plus other iconic species like Roseate Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets, totaling 20,000 nesting pairs each year. After decades of faithful conservation Smith passed away in 2011, and since then the island has been named in his honor, with his son-in-law Tim Wilkinson now watching over the island.
“I take a lot of pride in doing this job,” says Wilkinson, coastal warden for Chester Island Bird Sanctuary at Audubon Texas. “I guess you could say it’s kind of like the family business.”
The island is actually human-made, created with sediment dredged from the nearby Matagorda Ship Channel. Every year around the U.S., massive amounts of sediment are dredged from ports, harbors, and waterways to keep them navigable for boats and ships. The byproduct of dredging is loads of rich sediment dug up from the water bottom, a hot commodity for places like Chester Island that are losing ground by the day. Audubon Texas has developed a plan with several partners to put this leftover dredged sediment to good use by restoring existing islands and even adding five entirely new islands to the Texas mid-coast.
To achieve this, a barge will lower a suction dredge to the bottom of Matagorda Bay to loosen the sediment and pump it to the surface. A pipeline transports the sediment, where it's deposited on a new or existing island. Construction equipment brought to the islands help shape the added soil. Finally, technicians plant vegetation on the new parcels of land to minimize erosion and create new habitat.
Audubon Texas recently received the Conservation Wrangler Award from Texan by Nature to support this monumental task. Together, Audubon Texas and Texan by Nature are helping their fellow Texans understand the importance of a healthy Matagorda Bay to support the state’s ecotourism industries, protect our communities, and provide places to enjoy the outdoors.
Joni Carswell, executive director of Texan by Nature, says Audubon's work in Matagorda Bay “represents some of the very best Texan-led projects that have a positive impact to people, prosperity, and natural resources in our state.”
The birds that nest on Chester Island—and the rich Matagorda Bay ecosystem where it sits—are a vital part of Texas’s coastal identity. Each winter, tourists flock to the mid-coast to catch a glimpse of migrant species like the Whooping Crane foraging in coastal bays and estuaries, contributing to the $1.8 billion Texas wildlife viewing economy.
Protecting and restoring islands like this around the country is an essential component in the fight against climate change. Like a speed bump, islands slow down wind and waves on the coast, buffering nearby towns from incoming storm surge and sea-level rise. Islands also serve as carbon sinks, storing climate change-causing carbon pollution in their plants and soils.
“The bottom line,” says Baldera, “is that the birds need these islands, and we need these islands.”