For more than 80 years Audubon Texas’s coastal wardens have been safeguarding the magnificent birds that live, breed, and nest on 80 islands on the Texas Gulf Coast. If the recent oil spill reaches them, they’re apt to confront it with the same guile and grit that has helped bring back the iconic brown pelican.
When Chester Smith hired on as warden of Sundown Island 24 years ago at the age of 65, a handful of endangered brown pelicans had just begun nesting on the tiny isle in Matagorda Bay, between Galveston and Corpus Christi, on the Gulf Coast of Texas. “At that time almost all the brown pelicans had been killed off by DDT thinning their eggshells,” he recalls. That year Smith counted fewer than 10 pairs nesting on Sundown, a 60-acre island made of dredge spoils from the nearby Matagorda Ship Channel.
Over the next quarter century Smith tended the island and its birds like a one-man lifeguard, policeman, and master gardener. “I patrolled it and done my best to ask people not to get out on the island, because they’d scare the birds off their nests and the young ones wouldn’t hatch,” says Smith, a lean, gregarious retired oil refinery worker. “I learned how to keep the fire ants under control. We planted native trees and brush. And over the years we figured out how to keep the island from washing away.”
Today, at 89, Smith can watch the fruits of his labor fly in low “brown bomber” squadrons over Matagorda Bay every day. Last year he counted 1,600 nesting pairs of brown pelicans on Sundown Island. “I see them now up around Galveston; they’re nesting on South Deer Island and North Deer Island,” Smith says. “You even see them in the Houston area! That’s something. And most of them, you can trace ’em back to Sundown Island.”
Thanks to the work of Smith and others like him, the brown pelican recently joined the bald eagle as one of the conservation movement’s signature achievements. In November 2009 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officially removed the bird from the endangered species list. From its initial listing 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 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 wardens like Smith and Audubon Texas’s Coastal Sanctuary Program stepped into the breach.
The oil spill reminded the world that the Gulf Coast, especially Texas—which as Audubon went to press had been spared the effects of the spill—contains some of the world’s most important nesting sites and migratory stopover habitat. Every spring tens of thousands of reddish egrets, great blue herons, brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, Forster’s terns, black skimmers, and royal terns fledge their next generation on more than 150 small islands between the mainland and large barrier islands. Audubon Texas leases 80 of those tiny islands from the state and manages them as bird sanctuaries.
The Coastal Sanctuary Program constitutes one of the nation’s oldest and most successful conservation partnerships. Six of the managed sites have been designated Globally Important Bird Areas by Audubon and BirdLife International. Last year the program won the USFWS 2009 Recovery Champion award in recognition of its critical role in the brown pelican’s recovery.
Since 1923 the patrol has kept watch. Today Smith is one of six Texas Audubon coastal wardens who protect the birds—and keep the islands, which are constantly scoured by waves and currents, from washing away. In a sense the pelicans, egrets, herons, and spoonbills are paying rent—and the wardens are the building supers. “The wardens let us know what’s going on out there,” says John Huffman, Texas Coastal Program coordinator for the USFWS’s southwest region. “They’re the eyes and ears of the whole conservation community.”
Other states, notably Florida and North Carolina, also employ bird wardens. But during a recent journey through Texas’s Coastal Bend country, the thornscrub and prairie grass shoreline that stretches roughly from Galveston to the Mexican border, I discovered that Texas Audubon wardens are a little different. They’re tough, irascible, and just a touch on the eccentric side. As they patrol the shallow bays and saltwater marshes of the western Gulf Coast, they carry a little extra Texas in their step.
Today’s bird wardens trace their lineage back to the late 19th century, when the plume trade drove many of America’s most magnificent birds to the brink of extinction. The fashion for feather-decorated hats fueled a commercial slaughter similar to that suffered by the Great Plains bison. In the early 1900s Congress and many states passed legislation defending birds, but without funding for enforcement, poachers largely ignored the laws. In response, local Audubon societies began hiring hunters and boatmen as bird wardens—an idea that in 1903 led President Theodore Roosevelt to create the first federal bird refuge on Florida’s Pelican Island, the forerunner of today’s National Wildlife Refuge System.
Those early wardens were tough hombres. One job description called for someone “well acquainted with local conditions, a strong, fearless man and one fully alive to the value of bird protection.” The most celebrated founding warden, a poacher-turned-protector named Guy Bradley, was murdered in 1905 when he confronted a gang of egret poachers in the Everglades.