Sundown Island, an Audubon Bird Sanctuary in Matagorda Bay off the coast of Port O’Connor, has been renamed “Chester Island” in honor of the late Chester Smith. Smith served as Warden of the island for 25 years, from 1986 until his death at the age of 90 in June of 2011. He was honored by Audubon Texas as an Outstanding Conservationist.
Chester Smith’s significant contribution to the Audubon Society’s mission “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats” can be experienced daily in Port O’Connor as Brown Pelicans float across the skies, swoop down to feed, or just rest on local piers. The Brown Pelican population was miniscule in this area when Chester Smith began his tenure as Warden of Sundown Island; less than ten pairs of these birds were nesting on the island then. As of 2011, more than 2,000 pairs now breed on Chester Island. Thanks to efforts by Chester Smith and dedicated volunteers like him working to protect the birds and the island, the Brown Pelican was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2009.
Known locally as “Bird Island,” this 70-acre island was created in 1962 from dredging where the Matagorda ship channel and the Intracoastal Waterway intersect. Chester Island is home to at least 18 species of birds, including one of the largest breeding colonies of Brown Pelicans on the Texas coast. Other birds that nest on Sundown Island include the Laughing Gull, Red-winged Blackbird, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, as well as herons, egrets, ibises, terns. Several other species visit the sanctuary during migration, such as the Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, American White Pelican, and the Magnificent Frigatebird.
The conservation effort on Chester Island continues as Tim Wilkinson, Chester Smith’s son-in-law, takes the reins as Warden. Wilkinson and his wife Peggy have several years experience working to assist Smith at this particular bird sanctuary. According to the Chester Island website, this important preserve is not entirely safe, as volunteers fight a number of threats, including erosion caused in part by boat traffic, fire ants infiltrating nests, and hurricane tides. Audubon Texas is investigating possible solutions to these environmental issues and welcome ideas and volunteers to aide in the effort to conserve this and other Texas Coastal Sanctuaries.