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Brown pelicans have a toehold again in the bays - August 31, 2010

brown pelican chicks

Brown pelicans have a toehold again in the bays

Many agree: a magnificent bird is the pelican. As the limerick goes, his beak actually can hold more than his belly can. About two gallons more! Dave Brinker told me so. And few know more than he does about pelicans, although his daughter Laurel knows a lot, too.

The year was 1987. Biologist Dave Brinker discovered the first pelican nest in Maryland. It was big news. The location, kept secret at first, was the first verified record of pelicans breeding in Maryland, and the furthest northern point for brown pelicans ever, along not just the eastern seaboard but the entire continent.

So, where was this secret spot? Worcester County. A little island called South Point Spoils located in the Chincoteague Bay.

Why was this important? Well, pelicans are magnificent. They were also endangered at the time. Populations were rebounding on the East Coast, where they were delisted in 1985; however, the birds were still listed as a federally endangered species until November 2009. The nest that Brinker discovered was evidence that East Coast birds were expanding their range. That was good news. Newly-elected Governor William Donald Schaefer requested a special peek while vacationing that summer in Ocean City. Not an "official" visit, but a quiet trip to the island to see the magnificent bird for himself. It must have been a treat.

At its peak in 1989, the South Point Spoils colony included 26 nesting pairs. The brown pelican colony at South Point Spoils was active from 1987 through 1995. But during the last two years, there were only four pairs there. Then, brown pelicans disappeared from the coastal bays.

Colonies in the Chesapeake Bay exploded as the birds discovered suitable islands free from mammalian predators and an abundance of menhaden on which to feed.

Dave Brinker, John Weske, and a team of volunteers continue to study the pelicans, monitoring both the coastal bays and the Chesapeake for activity. And they keep themselves busy banding. The easiest way to track birds and learn about their habits, their range, their migratory paths, and more, is to band them, carefully affixing a tiny, coded, metal or plastic band around their legs. In the 23 years since they were first discovered in Maryland, Brinker and his team, now largely made up of volunteers, have banded 23,502 brown pelicans.

So, what have they discovered? The founder stock for the pelicans that nest in Maryland originated from four colonies along the coast of North Carolina, as far south as Cape Fear. Young birds from North Carolina pushed north to expand their range. The birds that now nest in Maryland keep coming back. For the most part, they return to the same islands, year after year, to nest and raise their young.

As the temperatures begin to cool, they migrate south, down the East Coast through the Carolinas and Georgia, ending up as far south as Florida and Cuba. As banded birds are seen, spotters report the codes found on their individual leg bands. Some are color-coded, making them easier to spot. Some birds are found dead, injured during migration, many caught up in fishing lines and nets.

The oldest known brown pelican was 27 years, 10 months old when it was caught. It was captured and released. So it's probable that wild brown pelicans could live to be 30 years old or more.

Until this year, Brinker and his team were able to band approximately 95 percent of the pelicans that hatched out each year. This year, the numbers were so great that they just could not get to them all.

Banding pelicans is not easy task. The parent birds are very big. They usually fly off the nest as banders approach, but the young are quite capable of intimidating new volunteers. They have massive beaks which snap at you, they squawk really loud, they regurgitate partially-digested, warm, fishy-soup (which is very stinky), and, if you're lucky, they poop on you, too. But the experience is absolutely incredible. And the volunteers that assist with the project come back year after year, privileged to be part of the team.

This summer, we have great news to report about brown pelicans in the coastal bays: they're back! After a 10-year absence, a few nesting pairs returned to Chincoteague Bay in 2005, not on South Point Spoils but a bit further south. Then they disappeared again. But in 2008 the colony reestablished and has been active each year since.

This year, the colony surpassed all records for pelicans in our coastal bays. As of the census conducted last week, 59 pairs were present, 39 pelican chicks had been banded, eight nestlings were too small to band, and a few nests still had eggs.

Brinker worries that "given the age of the chicks, the youngest ones will not fledge until late October. These late chicks will face some serious challenges, especially if we have any big storms between now and then. If some do not migrate, then there may be laggards in the coastal bays into November and December when things start to get relatively cold, at least from the perspective of young pelicans."

But, he continues, "this is the largest brown pelican nesting effort that we have ever seen in the Maryland Coastal Bays." This is exciting news.


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