Nesting pelicans good sign for bay Recovery: Maryland naturalists say the birds' choice of Tangier Sound for a rookery indicates the Chesapeake's health.

July 17, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

SPRING ISLAND -- A new bird song is sounding over Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake: the outraged hic-hic-hic-hic-AWWK! of a freshly hatched pelican come face to face with a curious human.

It's hardly melodious, but the sound is heavenly music to biologist Dave Brinker, who tenderly watches over the first known nesting colony of brown pelicans to make its home this far north.

This spring, about 15 pairs of the gloriously gawky-looking birds built stick homes on this sand spit in Tangier Sound. A dozen month-old chicks are believed to be the first pelicans born in the Maryland portion of the bay.

Brinker and other Department of Natural Resources workers are delighted that the big birds, threatened with extinction in the 1960s and 1970s, have begun multiplying and moving north from their traditional East Coast breeding grounds in Florida, the Carolinas and the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's good news for the bay that they're here," said Brinker. "A healthy environment has a diverse mix of species in it. The more kinds of water birds there are here, the better off the bay is."

The pelicans' rebound is also a symbol of the nationwide recovery of wild creatures after the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972.

Like eagles and ospreys, pelicans had trouble producing young in the 1960s and '70s, as high concentrations of the poisonous chemical made their eggshells so thin that they cracked and broke.

But the big, fish-eating birds are making a comeback as DDT levels in the environmentslowly dissipate.

Now eagles and ospreys are frequently seen soaring over bay waters, and the scientists hope the pelicans, too, will soon become a familiar sight.

"They are at the top of the food chain," said Brinker. "If they do well here, that means the pesticides aren't as bad as they used to be."

With his beard, spectacles and perpetual grin, Brinker looks like an ornithological Santa Claus. He clearly has never met a water bird he didn't like, but he has special affection for brown pelicans.

The dun-colored birds' big bodies and odd, prehistoric-looking pouches, their clumsy dignity on land and grace in the air have endeared them to fishermen, limerick writers and naturalists.

Famed bird artist John James Audubon considered them among the best of all birds at forecasting the weather.

"Should you see them fishing all together, in retired bays, be assured that a storm will burst forth that day," Audubon wrote in 1840, "but if they pursue their finny prey far out at sea, the weather will be fine, and you also may launch your bark and go fishing."

Spring Island is the kind of secluded spot that pelicans prefer for their nurseries. Between 100 and 200 young adult pelicans share the slender island with a small nesting colony of laughing gulls -- discovered by Brinker yesterday and believed to be the only such colony in the state -- and a flock of cormorants.

The pelicans are strong, wide-ranging fliers and are sometimes seen much farther up the bay, DNR biologists said.

Brinker and DNR land manager Bill McInturff, who discovered the pelican colony last month, think its inhabitants are the overflow from a group of about 100 pairs that has nested since 1991 about 10 miles farther south, on the Virginia end of Smith Island.

A smaller colony nested near Assateague Island from 1987 to 1995, but there have been no pelican nests in Maryland since then, Brinker said.

Only the hardiest members of the young flock built nests this year on Spring Island atop bushes, lining the interiors with stalks of marsh cord grass and laying one to three rosy-tinged eggs inside.

Born about four weeks later, the hatchlings meet anyone's definition of "homely": Featherless and blind, their purply gray bodies are more lizardlike than birdlike.

For the next nine weeks, their parents will stock up on tiny menhaden and silversides, setting them aside in a corner of their pouches, then regurgitating them on the nests' rims for their offspring to sniff out.

As the youngsters grow, they gain downy white feathers and a raucous repertoire of hisses, hiccups and squawks. When they are old enough to handle, at about 4 weeks, the chicks feint and snap furiously at the DNR biologists who band their right legs with bright blue strips of metal.

The labels, each coded with a letter and number, allow bird watchers to report sightings to DNR and help scientists keep track of the colony. Brinker banded two chicks yesterday and had previously banded 10 slightly older birds.

At about 9 weeks old, the youngsters will be ready to fly. After a few more weeks' worth of exercise, they'll probably depart in late October to winter in the Carolinas or farther south, Brinker said.

It's hard to know whether this particular flock will return next year. There are no records of pelican sightings among colonists' journals or the works of early naturalists, so it's not clear whether the mid-Atlantic states were once part of their range, nor whether they will establish themselves here for good, Brinker said.

The bird-loving biologist is just happy that they're here now.

L "It's a good omen -- for the pelicans and the bay," he said.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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