Boaters, Anglers Encouraged to Stay Clear of Coastal Waterbird Rookeries

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May 12, 2020 (AUSTIN) — With peak boating season around the corner, Texans recreating on the coast are likely to spot iconic coastal birds like brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, black skimmers and reddish egrets nesting in dense colonies, called rookeries, which can consist of thousands of birds and a multitude of other species on barrier islands and smaller islands in Texas bays. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is encouraging Texas boaters and anglers to watch out for these nesting birds while on the coast, so they aren’t disturbed during this sensitive time.

“With too many disturbances, an entire colony of thousands of birds may abandon an island and give up on breeding for the year.  Over time, this can potentially lead to drastic population declines,” says Trey Barron, a Diversity Biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “When approached too closely by boaters or people wading nearby, birds are frightened off their nests, leaving eggs and chicks exposed to rapidly overheat in the summer sun and allowing opportunistic predators like gulls and grackles to quickly swoop in and feed on them.”

Colonial nesting waterbirds, whose nests, eggs and chicks are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and by Texas Parks and Wildlife Code, typically nest from late February through August. The islands in which the birds nest are often tiny, including spoil islands, and may only appear as large sandbars. This puts them at a greater risk of encountering people as recreational use by coastal anglers, boaters, birdwatchers, and wildlife photographers, among others, is highest. Of the 25 or so species considered to be colonial nesting waterbirds in Texas, over half are experiencing major population declines.

These birds, and their habitats, are valuable to Texas. Black skimmers, the species featured as the logo for the TPWD Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail signage, have experienced a severe decline, approximately 70%, since record-keeping began with Texas waterbird surveys in 1973.  Similarly, the reddish egret, a state threatened species, attracts birders from all over the world. More reddish egrets nest in Texas than almost anywhere else in the world.

“The black skimmer might be the next bobwhite, a bird which was once widespread in Texas but has disappeared from nearly 83% of its U.S. range,” says Cliff Shackelford, a Nongame and Rare Species Biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Many people now miss hearing the bobwhite’s sweet whistle, and soon saltwater anglers and boaters may miss the graceful waterbird that skims the surface in search of a meal.

The Texas Colonial Waterbird Society, a large partnership of federal and state agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations, recommends that people fish, swim and play from 50 yards away from rookery islands to minimize unintentional and potentially illegal disturbance. While the nesting islands are often attractive spots for kayakers and other boaters, it’s important for humans, and their pets, to keep a safe and respectable distance.

“The habitats that waterbirds use are the same habitats in which we, including myself, enjoy fishing, hunting and photographing wildlife,” Barron said.  “We just have to remember to give them their space, especially during the nesting season, and pick up after ourselves.  If you’re out on the water, look for the yellow signs that identify rookery islands and keep your distance.  We can all enjoy the same places as long as we do it responsibly.”

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