"This is why we exist," says Audubon Texas Coastal Warden Dennis Jones, gesturing toward an island in Galveston Bay stacked deep with rowdy Brown Pelicans. Prickly pear cactuses and small, scrubby trees offer nesting platforms to the ponderous birds, and they’re crowding in to every available space. Wildly noisy Laughing Gulls ring the island, while Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets claim the tallest trees.
Around our boat, White Ibises, Reddish Egrets, Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Neotropic Cormorants, and Royal Terns shuttle back and forth. It’s even more colorful and fantastical than it sounds—a head-spinning abundance and variety of birds. Look there. Wait, look at that! Oh, oh, over there!
And it’s just the beginning of a long and busy nesting season on the islands of Galveston Bay. Dennis and Victoria Vazquez, Audubon Texas coastal conservation program manager, have brought Executive Director Suzanne Langley and me out on an informal early-season survey as they prepare for months of formal counts and protection work. The birds will nest in waves over the spring and summer. The Brown Pelicans and big wading birds are busy now, but the sleek Black Skimmers, Dennis says, “aren’t even thinking about making babies yet.”
You can feel, hear—even smell—life simmering furiously out here on the edge, where the land is shaped by the sea and both, now, are shaped by humanity's mighty hand.
It’s risky business, life out here. Erosion and sea level rise gnaw at these nurseries, and sometimes people get too close. And paradise can quickly turn to something else when a storm overwhelms a small island. Or when deadly oil spreads through the warm, productive waters.
Oil from 2010’s deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster reached Galveston Bay, and four years later a shipping accident discharged 168,000 gallons of oil here. I know what oil spills look like on the Gulf Coast; I saw Roseate Spoonbill chicks and baby Royal Terns coated with oil in their Louisiana nurseries in 2010. I saw Laughing Gulls drowning and Brown Pelicans preening frantically, futilely, trying the only way they knew to clean toxic oil from their feathers. And I saw people working hard to save these creatures and rebuild their homes.
That’s what Dennis meant: To protect these birds and these places, to see them thrive, is why Audubon exists. For decades, Audubon and Houston Audubon have protected islands in Galveston Bay and up and down the Texas coast. These birds have been hunted to the brink; they’ve been poisoned nearly to oblivion; the sand underneath them shifts by the hour.
But because people fight for them, they keep coming back. Dennis is old enough to remember something I am not, quite: How few Brown Pelicans once survived in Texas. He reflects on those days. The Brown Pelican’s recovery is one of American conservation’s great success stories.
Today, the giant birds come lumbering in to their chosen nest sites with unwieldy branches gripped improbably in their huge, pouched bills. They jostle and flop and waggle, but in the end, it’s hard to dispute their mastery of their craft.
Two hours later and 18 miles down the bay, Roseate Spoonbills fill the blue sky and the mangrove trees before us. The birds' pinks and scarlets are vivid enough provoke sudden synesthesia—as though you could taste the hues, or feel them in your gut. Then there’s the naked green-and-black head, the bright orange tail, and the zany, paddle-shaped bill, and because all that just isn’t enough, a stringy little puff of rose-red feathers on the breast, like a cravat or a corsage. If this is madness, I don’t want to be sane.
Great Egrets are nesting here too, their nuptial plumes rippling in the wind, and so are many other species. Forster’s Terns zip overhead, somehow still able to make a racket while firmly grasping tiny silver fish. In the distance, big flocks of American White Pelicans and American Avocets roost on a sandbar. They’ll be heading north soon to nest in wetlands on the Great Plains, far from this place.
I ask Suzanne what she thinks of the scene.
“How can you not be inspired?” she says, her eyes bright.
It’s evening now, and I’m alone on Galveston Island, thinking over the day.
Only, not alone. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, newly returned from Central America, keep watch over the green and gold prairie, calling sharply, attacking any insects within striking range. I’ve always felt a special kinship with the scissor-tails, so it’s wonderful to see and hear them. They are the emblem of my birth state, Oklahoma, and I feel I was born under their sign.
Sedge Wrens stutter charmingly in the rank shrubs and grasses, always out of sight. A Nelson’s Sparrow perches up though, and Willets scream with demented zeal over the salt marsh.
Just as the orange sun drops in the west, the full moon rises in the east, so huge, so brilliant, so present that I feel my knees wobble with the awe of it.
There, between the setting sun and the rising moon, a White-tailed Kite hovers high above the marsh, pale, angular, powerful, free. My mind wants to call it a spirit, but it, like me, is a child of this earth, bound to this air, these waters, and all the other life around us.
The sun is gone, and the moon is ascendant. Clapper Rails oink, and whistling-ducks squeal. Ibises, spoonbills, and pelicans—likely all fledged from a nursery island tended by Audubon staff and volunteers—head to roost through darkening skies.
David Ringer is the chief network officer for Audubon. During the 2010 BP oil disaster, he served as Audubon’s front-line PR manager in Louisiana.
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