Coast Guard

Coast Guard

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. 

By Bruce Barcott/Photography by Randal Ford
Published: July-August 2010

There's little love in his voice. He's seen the damage coyotes can cause. "I shot one a while back and opened it up to see what it had been eating," he says. "I found 27 birds in its stomach. Twenty-seven! And these were birds that had been nesting in the islands." Shooting is a control method of last resort, and over the years Overstreet has exhausted other strategies. "They're too smart for traps," he says. "Raccoons will walk into traps, but a coyote won't come near them." The government won't allow him to use poison. So Overstreet is forced to guard the birds at gunpoint.

When we reach Green Island, Overstreet ties up the boat and leads me down a rickety dock that seems in imminent danger of collapse. This is disrepair by design. Along with predators, people pose a major threat to successful nesting on the coastal islands. Curious boaters, day-trippers, and fishermen are the usual culprits. A big warning sign helps people keep their distance during nesting season, and a broken-down dock deters them from coming ashore.

We pass over a mat of sargassum covering the beach and make our way up a trail into a thornscrub thicket. The ground cover is typically Texas: dry soil, agave, and prickly pear cactus under tough mesquite and spiny hackberry trees.

It's a perfect nursery. I follow Overstreet up a set of stairs into a bird blind in the overstory. As we peer through cutout windows, the treetop world comes alive with colors so beautiful they put a little ache in your heart. On the eastern edge of the thornscrub, a clutch of roseate spoonbills prepare their nests. Here and there, great blue herons construct their sturdy thick-branched aeries. "The white ibis you see over there, they're spending the night but not nesting yet," says Overstreet. And everywhere--on every hackberry tree, at least--are reddish egrets. Their matted and shaggy cinnamon neck feathers look like the slicked-back hair of surfers after a hard session, and they yak away in their optimistic grunts.

Overstreet surveys the scene with a clinical eye. "We're not into full nesting yet," he observes. "In a few weeks they'll all come in. Then when they hatch, we'll have somewhere near 8,000 birds here."

Then he turns away to go scour the island for coyote tracks. There was a low tide last night, and Overstreet wants to make sure none of the varmints waded across. As long as he's the warden, nothing's going to threaten his birds.

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Chester Smith

Sadly, Chester died this summer. I had the honor and pleasure to be his guest on Sundown Island on several occasions. He was an amazing man. The results of his years of work for Sundown and the birds can be seen every time a brown pelican flies overhead.

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