Harvey erodes sanctuary but not volunteers' spirit (w/video)

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Nov. 13, 2017 at 9:45 p.m.
Updated Nov. 14, 2017 at 10:29 a.m.

Kristen Vale, the coastal program coordinator for the American Birding Conservatory, plants tree seedlings on Chester Island.

Kristen Vale, the coastal program coordinator for the American Birding Conservatory, plants tree seedlings on Chester Island.   Jessica Priest for The Victoria Advocate

CHESTER ISLAND - It's one step forward and two steps back at a bird sanctuary off the coast of Port O'Connor.

But descendants of Chester Smith, who played a big role in preventing the extinction of the brown pelican there, know that comes with the territory.

"You know, he stayed in Port O'Connor for (Tropical Storm) Allison," his daughter, Peggy Wilkinson, said. "He said, 'Oh, it's no big thing."

There was no convincing the late warden of the island otherwise.

And his optimism in the face of disaster lives on as volunteers returned last week to see what Hurricane Harvey had left birds who desperately need the island.

And what Harvey had left was trash - lots of it - and less beach.

Specifically, the Category 4 hurricane chipped off eight acres of the island.

This comes after the Army Corps of Engineers added 21 when it deepened the Matagorda Ship Channel last fall.

With every piece of trash Brigid Berger picked up, she thought of lives saved and lost.

"They say of necropsies of turtles, like if they find a dead or an injured turtle, there's 90 percent that have plastic in them, so it's sad, and it makes me really sad to see the triangle bites in this plastic," she said with a frown.

The volunteers also righted signs warning fisherman to stay away and planted 40 salt- and drought-tolerant native plants.

They pushed vented plastic tubes into the soil around the plants, which are just seedlings now, to protect them from the wind and from predators.

"They can get really big. They just need this extra help to get started," said Victoria Vasquez, the Coastal Conservation Program Manager for Audubon Texas.

Audubon Texas manages the island, which hosts thousands of nesting colonial water birds, not just brown pelicans, come February. Some like to build their nests in the native plants.

Vasquez brought with her Desiree Loggins, the regional network manager for the National Audubon Society, who soaked the plants with fresh water the Wilkinsons brought from their Port O'Connor home. Loggins had never been to the Lone Star State but plans to return when volunteers count the birds.

She wants to see her first roseate spoonbill.

"You need to come back," Volunteer Allan Berger said to Loggins. "I don't have enough fingers to count them on."


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