Migratory bird program providing habitat in light of oil spill

  • Crossroads counties targeted by the program

    Calhoun

    Colorado

    Jackson

    Matagorda

    Wharton

    Aransas

    Lavaca

    Refugio

    Victoria

PORT O'CONNOR - Clay Wiatrek's 250 acres between Port O'Connor and Port Lavaca isn't the most lively of places.

But soon it'll be a haven for water fowl and other birds making their southern migration for the winter.

In light of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the United States Department of Agriculture established a program in hopes of improving habitat for birds flying south this winter down the Central Flyway, parts of which include oil-drenched marshlands in Louisiana.

Wiatrek was the first to sign up.

"Initially, I didn't know what it was about," he said. "Reality set in that this is something historic. It's a pretty special thing to be able to do something to mitigate the habitat that's been lost there in Louisiana."

Migratory birds that typically use the land now covered in oil as habitat will have improved areas in Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri on which to stay and find food during the winter.

The department is working with farmers, ranchers and other landowners to help enhance parts of their land and make it suitable for the migratory birds.

So far the program has amassed about 70 contracts on 33,500 acres through $3.5 million in federal funds. And with potentially 200 more contracts the leading agency, the National Resources Conservation Services, is looking at, more funds could be on the way.

"Initially, we received three-quarters of a million dollars," said Russel Castro, a wildlife biologist with the agency. "That went in three days."

Landowners in 14 counties along the Texas coast have signed up for the program. Most of them farm rice, Castro said. This is because they are equipped for flooding. With the turn of a wheel, the water level at Wiatrek's property rises.

Wiatrek will be maintaining water levels from six to 18 inches throughout his contract, which ends April 1.

Species on his land include blue wing teals, blackbellied tree ducks, fulvous tree ducks and mottled ducks. But as more birds make their way down the flyway, Wiatrek's land should see more species.

Without the funds he is receiving from the federal government, Wiatrek would not be able to flood his land, a critical aspect of providing habitat for the migrating birds.

He describes himself as a water fowl enthusiast. His passion for wildlife evolved out of his lifelong passion for hunting and fishing.

"I've always enjoyed water fowl," he said. "It feels good to be able to do something under these circumstances. It's nice to be able to help."

The presence of water fowl in marshlands can indicate good health in an ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem is important to the health of the economy. Eco-tourism in South Texas is huge, Castro said.

Castro said Wiatrek wasn't the only enthusiastic landowner to sign up for this initiative.

"Landowners truly are conservationists at heart," he said. "They make their living off the land. This truly was a time when they came together, and those that participated came to us and said, 'I know I want to participate because it's the right thing to do.'"