One hundred years ago, Audubon leased its first island from the state of Texas in an effort to provide sanctuary for wading birds, like herons and egrets, that were being targeted by hunters for their feathers. After a century of active stewardship, the Texas Gulf Coast now has the largest colonies of Reddish Egret—colonies that are also home to thousands of Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and other spectacular wading birds.
Want to know what it’s like to be on a rookery island along the Texas Gulf Coast? Keep reading and we’ll take you on a tour of Green Island, one of the 175 coastal islands leased by Audubon Texas and home to the world’s largest Reddish Egret nesting colony.
On a bright late May morning in South Texas, it’s 90 degrees and the dew point is awful. My colleagues and I are bouncing across a hypersaline lagoon in a small fiberglass boat, Waylon Jennings cranked to 11 and he’s singing something about Bob Wills. We’re surrounded by wildlife—mullet and red fish in the water, ibis and whistling ducks in the air—and it’s impossible to keep count as they stream by in their dozens. Audubon coastal warden Brian Beller, at the helm of the boat, points out distant landmarks and animals. Emerging from the haze is our destination: Green Island, one of the most important wading bird nesting islands along the Texas Gulf Coast, and one of the 175 islands that Audubon Texas leases.
Green Island is one of the few naturally occurring islands in the Laguna Madre, which is otherwise dotted by islands constructed from the dredge spoils of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway shipping channel. Because of its natural history—far from land, abundantly covered in vicious plants and biting insects—hunters and predators typically kept their distance, preferring to hunt easier prey under more felicitous conditions. This general inhospitality is why, a century ago, wardens flagged Green Island for official protection and stewardship: It was the last refuge of Reddish Egrets in the entire state.
“Green Island was one of the first pieces of land that Audubon Texas leased from the Texas General Land Office,” says Alexis Baldera, coastal program senior manager. “Birds, and especially colonial waterbirds, had been overhunted for their feathers, their eggs, their meat. Audubon Texas came in with its Coastal Warden program to provide an extra presence on the coast to protect the nesting birds.”
But Green Island is more than just a 35-acre piece of rock and dirt and vegetation, emerging from the lagoon. It’s a presence. As you step onto the land, you’re immediately aware of the punishing heat and the sounds of thousands of birds squabbling. Walking into a tunnel that disappears into the scrub along a single slim trail that Audubon Texas warden Beller has to re-cut every spring, you’re enveloped with the smell and you note that every single plant is covered in thorns that grasp at sleeves and pants and, if you’re unwise, unprotected skin. Ticks, mosquitoes, biting flies, and chiggers hide among these plants and take their share of flesh. At least the sun isn’t quite so bad in here.
The birds assort vertically by size: The larger Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons take space on the shrub tops; lower down within the dense, thorny scrub are Reddish Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Black-crowned Night-Herons; deep and low in the bushes are Snowy Egrets, tiny and frilled. To peer into the undergrowth is to see dozens of nests in every direction, each with two or three tiny beaked dinosaurs looking back at you. We do not linger because these precious chicks need their parents’ protection—from the heat and sun, from predators—and the parents will not come back to the nest until we’re off the singletrack trail and into the single observational blind, or back on the boat dock.
Egrets and herons aren’t the only nesting birds on the island. Along the sandy flats on one side, a pack of Glossy Ibis raise their chicks. At least one pair of Clapper Rail has also successfully nested because we spot an adult and a fuzzy black chick running around some mangrove roots. And a pair of Crested Caracara have set up a nest on the far side of the island; great for them because they use the nestling herons as an all-you-can-grab buffet for their own growing babies, but definitely not delightful for either the herons or for Beller, the warden. Still, Beller leaves the caracara nest alone because it’s a protected species and you can’t really fault the birds for picking a good spot.
Beller does, however, remove other predators from the island. It doesn’t happen very often—one of the reasons why the herons and egrets have used this island for decades—but coyotes, bobcats, and raccoons have been known to swim their way to Green Island, and Beller makes sure to check for their presence on each of his infrequent trips to the island.
Beller’s work is the latest chapter in a century of care spent to keep Green Island a viable wading bird nesting colony. Since 1923, a succession of wardens, including one family who lived on the island full-time in a now-ramshackle two-room hut, has maintained Green Island’s nesting habitat. Being a warden is a physically strenuous job, and wardens must contend with intense heat, grueling hours managing unruly vegetation, and the occasional major construction to rebuild a wind-damaged boat dock—and all of this work has to be done on the schedule of the birds. Whatever is best for the birds is how the job gets done. But the payoff is huge: That work is the reason why there are any Reddish Egrets in Texas at all.
These days, the main threats to the egrets are not from hunting pressure, but from climate change and sea-level rise. Beller notes that Hurricane Hanna swept through and damaged some of the island—including destroying the now-rebuilt observation tower blind that monitors use when they’re surveying the nesting colonies. Baldera says that models show Green Island will lose more than 15 acres—about half of what Green Island has today—to the rising waters, but the island itself will survive with careful stewardship. To learn more about how climate change will affect important islands along the Texas Gulf Coast, head over to this interactive storymap.
For his part, Beller has noted that the most-successful rookery islands, like Green Island, he has found in Laguna Madre share a particular mix of plants. I asked him about a prickly shrub with distinctive orange berries that the birds seemed to preferentially use as nesting substrate. Was this plant one of the secrets to Green Island’s success as a nesting colony?
“That plant with the orange berries that you’re talking about, that’s granjeno,” says Beller. “Almost all of the [dredge spoil] islands out here have mesquite or cactus, but they don’t have granjeno. And that seems to be the preferred plant for the birds.”
Dredge spoils and other artificial islands will be one of many ways to keep vital bird habitat intact along the Texas coast, and Beller has started seeding the other Audubon-leased islands in Laguna Madre with granjeno to make their vegetation diversity look more like Green Island. If those fearsome shrubs should take hold, perhaps they can serve as a foothold for more rookeries. This habitat management, and the many other actions that Audubon Texas and its coastal managers and wardens take to protect birds and the places they need, can help ensure that Texas will always have an abundance of wading birds, shorebirds, pelicans, and migratory birds along its coasts.
After many hours spent in Laguna Madre in the presence of egrets, it was time to head back. Beller feels that we had stayed just long enough to get the footage we needed, but we hadn't yet caused enough disturbance to negatively affect any of the nests, and he was eager to preserve that tranquility for his feathered charges. As we passed hulking tankers, laden with unknown cargo, lined up to enter the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, we talk about what the next year, five years, or 30 years would bring. Baldera says that she, Beller, and their colleagues will continue to survey Green Island every breeding season, hoping to see increases in nesting success and bird numbers. Beller says that he's considering refurbishing the dilapidated 1950's-era shack on the island so that it can be something of a home base to surveyors and biologists visiting the island for study. Both acknowledge that sea-level rise will pose a challenge, but that it's a challenge they are ready to meet, head-on.
A hundred years ago, when the last Reddish Egrets were barely holding on, protecting them might have felt similarly challenging. But Audubon Texas was ready to do the work back then, and it's ready to renew that commitment now.