Texas State Park managers are faced with unique situations on a daily basis. Some of it they are accustomed to like human conflict or run of the mill human/wildlife conflicts like snakes too close to campsites or raccoons raiding trash.
And then there is Martin Creek Lake State Park in Rusk County where park manager Nick Maloukis spent the summer dealing with Argentine ants attacking visitors and their equipment. Argentine ants have been in the U.S. since the 1890s and are known to exist in about 30 Texas counties from East Texas to the Panhandle.
Argentine ants are not as mean as fire ants because they don’t sting, but they can leave painful bites when swarming on human legs and arms. They are also known to invade electrical components on vehicles and trailers, at times causing damage.
This winter Maloukis’ attention has shifted from the ground to the air as vultures roosting in the park have attacked fishermen’s vehicles at the boat ramp. The first report came Dec. 4 when Tyler fisherman Keith Bradshaw had a rubber molding damaged on his truck while fishing on the lake, causing about $500 in damage. Unfortunately for Bradshaw and others whose vehicles are damaged by birds or something else on state property, Texas does not carry insurance. Those with claims can file them with the state, but they may or may not be repaid.
“From what we are able to determine is that there is a roost in the area near the boat ramp. Historically there have been roosts around the lake on our side of the lake and the plant side,” Maloukis explained.
Martin Creek Lake is a power plant lake operated by Luminant Energy. Its warm water makes it a popular winter fishery with bass fishermen. Talking to a former plant employee recently, he said the vultures have always been a problem at the facility. One of his jobs, with a federal permit, was to shoot nuisance birds roosting there.
TPWD’s Maloukis has had to quickly learn about the birds, beginning with they are a federally protected migratory species. This means any attempts to displace them have to be done following certain guidelines.
“They are migratory and they come and go. The numbers have increased very recently and that caught us all by surprise,” the park manager said. He added that the number that moved into the park was estimated to be about 150 birds, and that that number is not the largest flock to have descended on Martin Creek.
Maloukis said that while the birds annually move into the park, it is rare that they take up roost so close to traffic.
“Every lake has had (vulture problems). It is a common problem throughout the state of Texas. Just not everyone has heard about it,” Maloukis said.
After Bradshaw’s truck was damaged, park employees started handing out warning notices when visitors arrived at the front gate.
Because of a lack of staffing at state parks, Maloukis was not able to deploy anyone to chase off the birds. However, shortly after the first incident he had a park volunteer from the Rusk County judicial system that was assigned the detail one day.
Maloukis also contacted TPWD Wildlife biologists, who put him in contact with Texas AgriLife Extension Service and ultimately Texas Wildlife Services for advice.
Eventually, a TWS technician was sent out to the lake on several occasions using fireworks to scare the birds away from the boat ramp area. A recent survey of the area indicated that has worked, but it is always possible that more birds could move in.
“We have been fortunate and successful in chasing these birds off,” Maloukis said. He added, however, more could take their place.
Right now he is looking for deterrents to keep more vultures from taking up residence around the ramp. He has gotten lots of advice such as using plastic owls and also shiny objects - old CDs or Mylar. Both seem more hopeful than practical.
Maloukis is pretty certain if it is not vultures, he will soon be facing issues with other wildlife.
“We deal with wildlife all the time, interaction between nature and people. It is always something, but this is my first time to deal with vultures,” the park manager said.
Maloukis said keeping the unwanted vultures moving is not going to be an easy task, but that the staff at Martin Creek is determined to do all it can to keep vehicles from being damaged so visitors can have a good outing.