TEXAS CITY — A group at College the Mainland is teaming up with Audubon Texas to plant native vegetation on islands used by nesting birds in Galveston Bay.

Birds such as brown pelicans, snowy egrets and great blue herons use islands, known as rookery islands, to make their nests. 

Some islands, such as North Deer Island, are covered with natural vegetation. Others, such as newer islands created with dredge spoils, lack the plants the birds can benefit from, said Sheena Abernathy, a biology professor at the college. 

Students in her class and members of the college’s biology club are putting their books down and getting their hands dirty by helping collect and grow the plants needed for the project

“It’s all been kind of experimental,” Abernathy said. 

She and her students have gone to North Deer Island to make a list of native plants found there. They then took cuttings of the same kinds of plants at the Texas City Prairie Preserve. The plants will mature in the greenhouse at the college then will be planted on one of the islands this fall, she said.

“We’re trying to replicate the natural environment by growing ... plants that are native to that area,” she said. 

Abernathy and her students are growing prickly pear cactus, baccharis, lantana and sea oxeye daisy.

The group transplanted some of the greenhouse plants on Marker 52, a dredge spoil island near North Deer Island, last fall. The group will go again this fall “when all the birds are done nesting,” Abernathy said.

The protected islands are great habitat for the birds because they provide a safe space away from many potential predators, said Kari Howard, a coastal program associate with Audubon Texas. 

While predators such as raccoons and rattlesnakes can swim to the islands west of the causeway, the birds and their nests are still safer than if they nested on Galveston Island where dogs, cats and coyotes could be a threat, she said. 

But if there is not enough habitat on the islands, the birds could end up moving to less ideal areas. 

“We’re trying to build these complexes of several different types of habitats so we can pack as many birds on these little sanctuaries,” Howard said. 

Audubon Texas manages 178 rookery islands on the Texas Coast, Howard said. Some are smaller than a quarter acre. Others are up to two acres. There are five primary rookery islands west of the causeway the group monitors weekly. 

Howard said she hoped the joint project with College of the Mainland would become part of a larger education and volunteer project that will enlist residents to help monitor and maintain islands and wetlands around the bay. 

Kristin LaValle, a member of the biology club at the college, said working on the project is a way to preserve the environment for various species of birds. 

“You don’t realize how losing one species could damage the ecosystem of the rest,” she said. 

Biology club President Kathryn Day said she hoped the effort would help preserve the unique habitat for future generations. 

“If I have kids I want them to see that — and not in a book,” Day said. 

Types of birds found on the rookery islands 

Brown pelican, snowy egrets, reddish egrets, great blue heron, great egret, roseate spoonbills and Neotropical cormorants. 

Contact reporter Christopher Smith Gonzalez at 409-683-5314 or chris.gonzalez@galvnews.com

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