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.
The current generation carries on Bradley's tradition, with one notable exception. They're not all men. Smith's success with the Sundown Island pelicans, in fact, was underpinned by the work of Emilie Payne, a legendarily tenacious warden. "She was the first person to really get out and help the pelicans," Smith tells me.
Back in the early 1970s one of the region's few remaining rookeries survived on a dredge spoil island in Corpus Christi Bay. It hosted a grand total of three nesting pairs. "They endured all kinds of disturbances back then," recalls Payne, a housewife who earned a biology degree while raising her family in Corpus Christi. "Fishermen, unleashed dogs, and boaters stopping to picnic. We even had flying students buzzing the island in their airplanes."
Payne ran her skiff out to the island on weekends and holidays for nearly 20 years. She posted signs asking people to keep a respectable distance during nesting season. She cleaned up oil spills. She helped rehabilitate the pelican's reputation among fishermen, who considered the bird a competitor.
Over time Payne saw the colony flourish. By the mid-1980s the pelican population had grown to more than 100 mated pairs. The birds began recolonizing former nesting grounds on nearby islands. "Emilie was the spearhead," recalls Pat Suter, head of the Sierra Club's Coastal Bend chapter. "She is one determined lady. Their recovery is due in large measure to her persistence."
By the time Payne stepped down from the job in the 1990s, the local pelican population topped 1,000. The birds kept expanding their territory, eventually finding Sundown Island--and their next protector, Chester Smith.
"I'm having a busy spring," Smith says. "I'm keeping an eye on this oil spill now," although in May the Gulf's prevailing Loop Current was sweeping the slick east toward Florida, away from Texas. "And I'm working with the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to shore up Sundown's erosion problems. But the birds are doing well. It's exciting to see them all come in at the height of the nesting season in the middle of May. Makes you feel like you've accomplished something."
Farther down the coast, near Corpus Christi, David Newstead watches over an ever-changing collection of islands. And by change, he means wholesale. Waves and strong currents continually erode some established islands, while the Army Corps of Engineers creates new ones. "We lose a lot more than we gain every year," Newstead tells me.
At 35, he is the youngest warden, but he's the senior biologist among the corps. A trim man with a crinkly smile, Newstead wears three hats. He's a staff scientist for waterbirds within the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, a local habitat restoration organization; an Audubon bird warden; and president of Audubon's Coastal Bend chapter. "We're lucky to share David's time and expertise with the Bays & Estuaries Program," says Bob Benson, executive director of Texas Audubon. "As their scientist, his charge is the flora and fauna of the entire bay system, but he's got such a strong natural affinity for birds that it works out well for all of us."
On a blustery April day, Benson and I join New-stead on his weekly rounds. We hop on his boat and head out of Aransas Pass, a fishing town, past rusty shrimp trawlers and tumbledown bait shacks with hand-painted signs. As we motor into the wide shallows of Redfish Bay, a popular recreational fishing spot, brown pelicans glide low off our starboard rail. We pass a handful of islands no bigger than one-car garages. Signs appear here and there: "DO NOT LAND OR ENTER. Island closed during bird nesting season, February-August."
Newstead spots a small flock of Forster's terns setting on an island. "That's a good sign," he says. "We've been watching this island closely. The problem here is keeping raccoons off the island." (They steal eggs.)
"How do you keep them off?" I ask.
"Havahart traps usually do the job," Newstead says. "Fire ants are often a problem, too. If you don't keep them controlled, they'll skeletonize a chick just as it's breaking out of the egg."
Newstead slows the boat as we approach Terminal Causeway Island, an Audubon-leased property fringed with black mangroves. "This one's starting to get cranked up," he says. "Five years ago there wasn't so much activity, but the birds are figuring out how to nest in the mangroves." Benson spots a handful of roseate spoonbills--it's tough to miss their fiery pink feathers--great blue herons, and cattle egrets nesting in the branchy shrubbery.
"Looks like we could use some signs out here," says Benson.
"It's a tough call," says Newstead. "We can't put signs on every island. At a certain point you've got to rely on people's common sense. Hopefully seeing those heron nests is enough to let people know what's going on here."