Green Island...Lower Laguna Madre Sanctuary Home to World's Largest Colony of Reddish Egrets

"I ascended a gentle incline until I stood on the upper level, which must have been about twenty feet above the water's surface. As I raised from a crouch, I could see over practically the entire thicket, and the view was simply astounding. It was literally alive with egrets, simply thousands of them," wrote J.R. Pemberton in a 1922 essay written for the Condor.

Pemberton was one of the first ornithologists to visit Green Island, a 35 acre thickly wooded site in the Lower Laguna Madre just east of the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado. On his initial visit to the island in 1921 he estimated there were 4,000 reddish egrets nesting on the remote site. The island continues to host the world's largest colony of reddish egrets, although 86 years later the colony has dwindled to approximately 800 adult birds.

A recent trip to Green Island with Audubon warden Leroy Overstreet was a mere 15 minute run from our launch near Arroyo City. This brief excursion was far different than the lengthy sailing trip undertaken by Pemberton to the secluded island known as "Isla Verde."

"The Mexican fishermen of Point Isabel upon learning that I was interested in bird life told me that I should visit Green Island, which they said was a breeding ground for all the species of water birds found thereabouts," Pemberton wrote. He hired a couple of fishermen, and they sailed for the island.

"In pitch black darkness about three in the morning we started with a good fast boat, a brisk fair wind, plenty of provisions and water. " The 30 mile trip took five hours, and after spending the day exploring the island they camped out before returning to Point Isabel the following day.

It is peak nesting season on Green Island, and the site teems with colonial waterbirds. Joining the reddish egrets are hundreds of roseate spoonbills, ibis, great blue herons and other species.

"After a complete circuit of the island I essayed to enter the brush and get a more intimate acquaintance with these birds," Pemberton wrote. "Here I got a severe surprise for it practically could not be done."

The interior of Green Island is almost impenetrable with mesquite, Spanish dagger, cactus and other thorny plants. However, several trails have been cut thru the thick brush, and a camouflaged observation platform provides a vista of the island.

Pemberton's memorable trip confirming the existence of such a vital nesting island was of tremendous importance as plume hunters had devastated the nation's population of wading birds. During the late 1800's and early 1900's the graceful birds were killed by the hundreds of thousands and shipped to the East Coast for the millinery trade.

Fashionable women of the time coveted the elegant feathers and used many varieties to decorate their hats. Ornithologist Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History reported that on the streets of Manhattan in 1886 three quarters of the women's hats were adorned with feathers.

He was able to identify some 40 species including terns, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, warblers, orioles and tanagers. But the most poplar plumes by far were those of the herons, especially the snowy and great egrets. Arrangements of their flowing white nuptial plumes became so valuable that the birds were almost hunted to extinction.

Plume hunters were paid $32 an ounce for the feathers, nearly twice the price of gold at that time. One London auction house reportedly sold 1,608 packets of heron plumes in a single year. A package reportedly consisted of 48,240 ounces of feathers representing nearly 200,000 birds killed.

The preferred manner for harvesting the birds was to ambush them on nesting islands along the Gulf coast where they congregated. Plume hunters destroyed heron populations in Florida and Texas killing adult birds on the nest and leaving young to die and eggs to rot.

Many people became concerned with the slaughter, and it was just over a century ago that President Theodore Roosevelt set aside tiny Pelican Island on Florida's east coast as a refuge for birds. What has since become the National Wildlife Refuge system now includes some 540 refuges spanning more than 95 million acres nationwide.

Even before the Presidents' action, concerned groups of citizens had begun forming conservation groups called Audubon Societies, and by 1899 fifteen states had similar organization that shared a common goal, "To discourage the buying and wearing for ornamental purposes of the feathers of any wild birds except ducks and game birds, and to otherwise further the protection of native birds." In 1905 the National Association of Audubon was formed.

It was not until 1918 with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that non game birds such as herons began receiving federal protection, but law enforcement efforts of that era were minimal.

Remote "Isla Verde, the key to preservation for the reddish egret, had miraculously escaped the ravages of plume hunters. In 1923 following Pemberton's trip, and an earlier visit by T. Gilbert Pearson, the crucial nesting colony was leased to the Audubon Association for protection. Today the National Audubon Society manages nesting sanctuaries all along the Texas coast encompassing more than 13,000 acres and protects between 50,000 and 75,000 nesting pairs representing more than 25 species of colonial waterbirds.

"Reddish egrets like many herons were hit very hard by the plume trade at the turn of the century," said Dr. Clay Green, of Texas State University in San Marcos. "But it seems like it has taken them even longer to get back on their feet. Dredging and the ship channels in South Texas have certainly had an effect. They have altered the hydrology of the tidal flats."

Reddish egrets are specialized hunters that rely primarily on sheephead minnows and are dependent on coastal flats where their prey is found. They are listed as a threatened species by the state of Texas and are a "species of concern" to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Dr. Green is conducting an intensive monitoring of the reddish egrets nesting on Green Island and a statewide study and census is being conducted.

There are estimated to be 7,000 reddish egrets worldwide with populations in Florida, Texas, Mexico and the Caribbean. "The bulk of reddish egrets are in South Texas, and Green Island is as important today as it was historically."

The current threat to reddish egrets and other colonial water birds are not shotgun wielding plume hunters but massive coastal development. Loss of habitat and diminished freshwater inflows are of primary concern.

All the nesting islands in the Laguna Madre are protected by law and most are posted, warning people not to trespass. Fishermen are encouraged to give the islands a wide berth When birds are scared from their nest, the abandoned eggs can be quickly damaged by the sun or predated by grackles. Recent airboat activity associated with oil exploration in the bay has steered clear of Green Island and other sanctuaries, and all indications are this should be a successful year for nesting.

Although Green Island is off limits to casual visitors, the sanctuary's resident birds are enjoyed by all who ply the waters of the Laguna Madre. For generations anglers have marveled at the sight of roseate spoonbills soaring past them on sunrise flights or admired the antics of reddish egrets stalking the shallow waters of the bay.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore