Pelican patrol tracks birds' mid-Atlantic comeback


Ocean City -- They've only recently set up housekeeping in Maryland, but already they have a lot of important friends.

Brown pelicans, once seriously endangered by pesticides, are nesting on South Point Spoils in Sinepuxent Bay off Ocean City's coast. The four breeding pairs that call the island home are pioneers of a sort: The small, undeveloped island is the northernmost point on the Atlantic Coast where the pelicans are known to nest, and state environmental workers are monitoring the birds closely.

"They're probably one of the most sensitive species we have," says Dave Brinker, colonial water bird project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Because the birds are at the top of the food chain and eat a lot of fish, toxins and poisons that may be in the bay show up quickly in the pelican population, he says.

Last week, Mr. Brinker banded the three pelicans born so far this year on South Point Spoils and 22 pelicans born on Shanks Island in the Chesapeake Bay, just south of Smith Island. The island, part of the Smith Island archipelago, is over the Virginia line, but Mr. Brinker has assumed responsibility for the pelican colony with the blessing of Virginia biologists.

Although the birds, only 6 weeks old, are too young to fly, banding them is no piece of cake. Scientific strides notwithstanding, the birds are not wildly enthusiastic about getting their ankle bracelets.

On this evening, the first pelican Mr. Brinker wants to band isn't cooperating. Squawking indignantly, it takes refuge in a low tree on South Point Spoils. Mr. Brinker reaches for it from one side of the low tree and DNR wildlife biologist Laura Gill reaches for it from the other side. The bird snaps at both of them and eludes them for a minute or two. Finally, Ms. Gill succeeds. With

one hand holding the beak shut, the other grasping the bird where the wings join the body, she carries it down to the island's shallow beach.

She holds the wriggling bird, and Mr. Brinker and Lesley Hendrix, a summer worker at DNR, affix two bands, one on each leg. The right leg gets a metal band with federal tracking numbers on it; the left gets a bright blue state band, with numbers that can be read through binoculars while the bird flies.

Bird C01 is taken back to its tree, and Ms. Hendrix brings out the second pelican, which is even less happy than the first.

"We don't use B because it looks too much like an 8 in the air," Mr. Brinker explains as he waits for Ms. Hendrix to bring the second bird to the beach.

The mark of Maryland

In this, as in so many other ways the Maryland environment is monitored, common sense meets the scientific method for maximum results. Blue is for Maryland only, so even if an observer down in Florida doesn't get the number from a pelican, at least Mr. Brinker will know that if it had a blue band, it was one of his.

He pulls out band C02 for the bird Ms. Hendrix has brought out and is holding between her knees. The bird isn't cooperating. Its pouch quivers and ripples as it bends its neck first one way, then another, in a vain effort to free itself.

"What do I do now?" Ms. Hendrix asks uncertainly as she straddles her increasingly restive pelican, holding its bill closed.

"Be assertive!" Mr. Brinker says with a smile, reaching for the pelican's leg. It's her first pelican banding, but she gamely holds the bird still while he bands it, then trundles it back in the brush.

Banding is an important tool, Mr. Brinker says. Amateur ornithologists and environmental workers can see the bands from the air, and he relies on such reports to help monitor the birds' nesting and breeding habits and their migrations south during the winter months.

"Until relatively recently, the farthest north it bred was islands around North Carolina," Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes says of the brown pelican. Dr. Parkes is the senior curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. "Along the Atlantic coast, they have been working their way further north."

Pelicans live a relatively long time -- 25 years or so, say Dr. Parkes and Mr. Brinker. Like the bald eagle and the osprey, the brown pelican was threatened by pesticides in the 1960s and early 1970s. Most toxic was DDT, which thinned the eggs' shells so that the parents crushed them while incubating them.

The DDT contamination didn't kill off the Atlantic pelican population, but it stopped the birth of new baby birds. The pelican was listed as endangered until it began to breed successfully again after DDT was banned in 1972, and the pelican population began to grow.

And like other migratory water birds, the pelicans have been moving north steadily -- a trend not yet understood, although some scientists wonder if the birds are showing the effects of global warming.

"Before 1987, they never bred in Maryland," Mr. Brinker says. "There's been a lot of pressures removed . . . DDT was the biggest one."

Mr. Brinker has had reports of birds he's banded as far south as Florida. Dr. Parkes says some of the Atlantic and Gulf pelicans winter as far south as the West Indies and the northern coast of South America.

The South Point Spoils birds are the hardest to band, in Mr. Brinker's experience, because unlike those on Shanks Island and elsewhere, they nest in low trees. Normally, pelicans build their nests on the ground, a habit that makes catching them a little easier.

But not much. The following day, Mr. Brinker and Ms. Hendrix, Ms. Gill and three other DNR employees don't have to reach into trees. They just have to herd the pelicans whose nests are on the ground on Shanks Island and keep them from fleeing into the water. Slowly, arms spread wide, they circle the 23 chicks that are the only pelican colony on the Chesapeake Bay. The birds look displeased and a little scared. One breaks free and is in the water before Mr. Brinker can grab it.

But the remaining 22 stay in a tight group. They squawk malevolently and snap at the herders as they are put in an impromptu pen made of portable screens.

'Pelican wrangler!'

"I'm a pelican wrangler!" jokes Lori Byrne, a DNR employee from Kent Island, as she stands in the pen, handing out pelicans for banding to Ms. Gill, Mr. Brinker and Ms. Hendrix. Also helping are Richard Rice, a summer employee at DNR, and Lee Curtis. Mr. Curtis is a former waterman and a native of Marion. His 13 years at DNR have changed his view of the marine environment that has always been home. Once an avid duck hunter, he no longer hunts, he says -- "After I went to work at DNR and saw how the duck population was declining, I didn't want to go anymore."

Mr. Curtis and the others make short work of banding the 22 pelicans: 44 bands go on 44 pelican legs in just over an hour.

As the sun climbs higher in the sky, and the flies begin to nibble with increasing ferocity at the human interlopers, Mr. Brinker and the others pack up their screens and bands. The pelicans waddle back to their nests, leg bands already accepted and forgotten.

The DNR workers climb back into their two boats, and the island is once again the remote haven that pelicans need to breed, a pristine stretch of sand in the Chesapeake where one environmental victory is bearing fruit.

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