Pelicans snared by deadly trap

ON THE BAY

Killings: Remote power lines over a shallow stretch of the Chesapeake Bay have electrocuted as many as 100 of the birds, once an endangered species.

October 15, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

It is one of the bay's most stirring comebacks. The regal brown pelican, a bird hammered low in past decades by DDT and other now-banned pesticides, has been rapidly expanding its range.

Ten years ago, it was rare to sight a pelican around most of the Chesapeake. Then, in the early 1990s, a nesting colony appeared on a sandy spit known as Shanks Island, just below the Maryland-Virginia line, around Smith Island.

Pelicans return

That colony now numbers more than 100 pelicans each summer. And last year, Maryland biologists discovered 15 pairs nesting for the first time in the Maryland portion of the bay, on Spring Island, a few miles west of Deal Island in Tangier Sound.

But recently, local watermen have begun to report a deadly trap. These northernmost nesting pelicans in the nation are dying by the dozens or perhaps in even greater numbers.

"It was a mass killing that I saw, at least 30 of them in less than a day," Smith Island crabber David Lee Laird said last week.

It was in early September, Laird recalled, and he was dragging his "scrapes," a type of toothless dredge, through the underwater grasses for soft crabs, just above the state line.

The pelicans would alight on high-voltage lines that bring power up the bay from Tangier Island to Smith, and drop, dead, into the water around his boat, Laird said.

`It was upsetting'

It appeared that the birds, with wingspreads in excess of 6 feet, would make simultaneous contact with two wires, completing a circuit that sent 7,000 volts through them.

"It was upsetting, I'll tell you that," Laird said. "It seemed like when one bird went down, others would gather around from all over. Then they would set on the wires, and they would be killed. It was like an execution."

Laird said he'd previously seen "two or three" pelicans dead on the water in the vicinity of the power lines, but never anything like the mass killing.

James Eskridge, a Tangier crab potter who works the same area, said he had seen "eight or nine dead pelicans" floating on the water last year and came upon a half-dozen more this month. One of those had what appeared to be burn marks on its beak, he said.

He turned in bands from the legs of a few of the birds, two of which came from Maryland and one from North Carolina, he said.

Eskridge, who keeps journals on the bird life he sees when crabbing, said other Tangier crabbers have reported seeing as many as a dozen dead pelicans in a day, either dropping from the power lines or floating dead on the water.

It's impossible to know how many brown pelicans are being killed, but when you add up eyewitness accounts, and figure that the crabbers are only out there a fraction of the time, it seems possible the deaths could be 100 or more.

Officials unaware

No one I called, including power company officials, and federal and state wildlife officials in Maryland and Virginia, was aware of the problem.

Pelicans, with their large, webbed feet, are not known for perching on electrical lines, and it is anyone's guess why they seem to do so around Smith Island. It appears they only sit on a small stretch of the lines, where they cross a quarter-mile or so of open, shallow water around the southern end of Smith Island.

The high voltage lines there, belonging to the Accomack and Northampton (A and N) Electrical Cooperative, are some of the most remote power wires in the Chesapeake region.

Remote site

The power coming through them to Smith Island originates on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, travels through an underwater cable to Watts Island in lower Tangier Sound, then underwater again to Tangier Island, then north on poles several miles to Smith.

Kelvin Pettit, an official with A and N, said "the news is very disturbing, and we will certainly investigate it." He said the company's high-voltage lines are normally spaced 4 to 6 feet apart, enough to prevent most birds from completing a circuit by touching two at once.

However, birds with wingspreads as large as pelicans "could be a problem." He said it is "not economically feasible" to insulate high-voltage wires.

Don Schwab of Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said he had heard of eagle electrocutions before, "but this is a first for pelicans."

John Gill of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis said his office would investigate the pelican deaths. The pelicans, while no longer an endangered species, are federally protected under migratory bird laws.

Here's hoping wildlife managers and the power company can work out a solution quickly. The pelican population in the area seems to be expanding. As long as the hazard remains, it seems inevitable that more of these lovely birds are going to be electrocuted.

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