text & photos by Melanie Lynch
I can't say they didn't warn me about the smell of a pelican nesting ground. They did. But the phrase "It smells awful," didn't come close to preparing me for the heavy, greasy, gamey miasma that clings to Holland Island at pelican nesting time. Ah, such an exquisite combination of scents: bird dander, bird poop, and regurgitated fish. Now, overlay that on what can only be described as an avian version of a prison-break scene from a Marx Brothers movie . . . and you have an idea of how I spent the better part of a Saturday last July: holding my breath, chasing adolescent pelicans, and dodging vomit.
Yes, I said dodging vomit. Young pelicans, I learned that day, don't like being chased and grabbed by humans (who would've guessed?), and many of them express this dislike by losing their lunch. I don't know if it's a defensive thing or just anxiety; all I know is that it makes you think twice about grabbing one of them. Nobody else seemed much bothered by this. But of course they were experienced banders--a dozen or so loosely connected scientists, academics, and grad students who were here to put identification bands on as many of the adolescent birds as they could catch in the course of the day. And of course there was Harry Armistead, Bird Man of the Chesapeake [see "Harry at Every Tern," March 2008], a retired Philadelphia librarian and renowned amateur ornithologist who knows these middle-Bay islands like the back of his hand, and who had invited me along on this banding expedition.
Armistead and I and two others had come in Armistead's skiff, Mudhen, from Fishing Bay in lower Dorchester County, and we rendezvoused with a second boatload of banders (out of Deal Island) just after dawn on Holland Island--a nearly drowned fragment of the archipelago that reaches into the Bay from lower Dorchester. Rounding the shallow channel between the middle and northern segments of Holland (the latter with its single forlorn house, the last remnant of this island's human history), we had seen our first sortie of brown pelicans, flying past with their chests out and heads upright, looking both military and vaguely comical. They were fishing; every so often, one would peel off and dive into the water--straight down, bill wide open. It's essentially a high-speed dip-netting procedure; the huge bill captures more than two gallons of water along with the fish. The brown pelican, Harry told me, is the only pelican species that fishes this way. Others, he said--the larger white pelican, for instance--prefer to swim along and scoop fish out of the water. They'll even do this in groups, corralling the fish before scooping them out.
On the island itself, there were pelicans everywhere, hundreds of them--a cluster of them on the roof of the derelict house, some bobbing in the shallows, some perched in scrubby trees or on the decaying remains of a dock, others bunched together near the water's edge. And covering what seemed like every square foot of the island were their straw nests--roughly the size of party platters, and slightly elevated on straw pedestals. In among these, in equal numbers and virtually indistinguishable from the pelican nests, were the nests of double-crested cormorants, which share nesting grounds with pelicans wherever the related species (both of the order Pelecaniformes) overlap.
If it comes as a bit of a surprise to you that we have brown pelicans here in the Chesapeake . . . that's as it should be, because until about 15 years ago, the northern limit of the bird's range had been North Carolina. But, for reasons that are still only guessed at, they moved into the Bay in the late 1990s, according to Armistead--who in fact was the first to report the territorial expansion. "On July 4, 1996, my son George and I saw four [near Bloodsworth Island], the first ever recorded for Dorchester County," Armistead says. "Seven years years later, I was out there with a friend and we estimated just over 1,000 in that general area. How's that for dramatic range expansion?"
Armistead thinks the pelicans may have first attempted to set up shop on Bloodsworth Island, but then moved south--first to Spring Island and then to Holland--to avoid predators. "Bloodsworth has red foxes and probably also some mink, and possibly raccoons," he says. "From what I have seen, they need a place secure from predators, and one that is also one to two feet higher than the surrounding marsh, preferably with [groundsel bush or marsh elder], a high sand area, or some low trees." Once the pelicans wear out Holland Island (they're big birds and do a lot of damage to vegetation), they might move east to South Marsh Island, Armistead speculates, though only if it's reasonably free of predators. The northernmost pelican nesting grounds he has seen were on Bodkin Island, a tiny dot of land below Kent Island, at the mouth of Crab Alley Bay--though the birds there didn't "follow through," he says. Unlike the intermingled cormorants, which can tolerate cooler temperatures and have nesting grounds as far north as Lake Champlain, the pelicans have a fairly limited range; they want access to plenty of menhaden and a warm spring for brooding--both of which they find easily in the middle and lower Chesapeake. Pelicans are frequently spotted flying throughout the Upper Bay and are occasionally reported as far north as Cape May, although not in significant numbers.
TO KNOW THE HISTORY OF THE BROWN PELICAN (PELECANUS occidentalis) is to know why it is remarkable that we have them at all. The bird had a rough go of it in the late 19th and early 20th century--a victim not only of the feather-happy millinery trade, but also of Florida and Gulf Coast fishermen, who mistakenly saw pelicans as competition (actually they were not; they eat mostly menhaden), and did their best to wipe them out. The bird's rapidly declining numbers prompted Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 to establish the country's first National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Island, in Vero Beach, Fla.
Half a century later, they faced an even greater threat: the pesticide DDT. Unlike most birds, which incubate by gently lying atop their eggs, pelicans stand on theirs to keep them warm--which means their eggs have to be that much tougher. So the infamous eggshell-thinning effects of DDT hit the pelican especially hard; the bird nearly disappeared from North America, with the exception of a few places in Florida. Louisiana, the Pelican State, even briefly removed the image of the bird from its license plates in 1963. But, as with the eagle and osprey, the eastern brown pelican rebounded after DDT was outlawed, and just last year it was finally removed from the federal endangered-species list.
The same cannot be said for the brown pelicans of the West Coast, which have been considerably slower to bounce back from the DDT days--perhaps because of the lingering contamination of the Palos Verdes Shelf "superfund" site near Los Angeles, where thousands of tons of DDT were routinely dumped during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
And now, of course, the Gulf Coast birds face a new threat: oil contamination. As this issue went to press, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was penetrating the Louisiana marshes and had already contaminated two major pelican rookeries. All the more reason, some birders say, to celebrate that the eastern pelican population is not just increasing numbers, but expanding its territory. There are no reliable estimates of the bird's total numbers in previous centuries, but the current population is believed to number around 750,000, roughly half of which is in South America. Some 20,000 have been banded to date in the Bay. Those records show that pelicans live as long as 20 years. Once a female reaches breeding age (three to four years), she will produce an average of three eggs per season. If the Chesapeake as a whole is, as H.L. Mencken put it, a "great protein factory," then these islands are certainly its great incubators.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE MARX BROTHERS MOVIE ON HOLLAND Island, we were catching and banding, catching and banding, catching and banding as fast as we could. Our instructions in the morning briefing from Dr. John Weske, a North Carolina ornithologist and a federally licensed bander, were to catch only the large chicks--the "bruisers," he called them, with actual feathers and the beginnings of black bars on their wings. Try not to disturb the newborns that are still in the nests, he said, and don't worry about fluffy little "whiteys" scurrying around, which haven't grown real feathers. Focus on the bruisers. And don't worry; they're pretty docile. Just grab the shoulders, he told us, tuck it under your arm and clamp its bill closed with the other hand. Nothin' to it.
He was right. It really wasn't all that hard to snatch one. It was a chaotic scene, to be sure--humans galloping through grass and sand, whiteys scattering this way and that, bruisers clumsily trying to scale the clumps of grass. But, despite their imposing size, the bruisers were actually quite easy to handle. Some of the experienced banders could handle as many as four at a time, and they'd stand there nonchalantly, two birds under each arm, waiting for the bander to come along. Don't try that with the cormorants, though, I'd been warned. Don't try anything with the cormorants, which croak and snap whenever you come near their nests--as menacing as pit bulls and, I'm told, every bit as capable of drawing blood with that hooked dagger of a beak. Comic relief came in the form of a great black-backed gull chick--barely a handful of spotted fuzz, but darting around fearlessly, pecking at the sand and seemingly oblivious to the pelican rodeo around him.
After an hour of relentless capture and release, some of us took a break and poked around the remains of Holland while a few interns took off with a dip net to capture some of the already banded adults for inspection. Sure enough, they discovered, many of the adults were sporting the bands that Weske and company had given them in recent years in North Carolina. And one of the adults appeared to have been one if the previous winter's frostbite victims on the Bay--many of which who are rescued and treated every year at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Newark, Delaware (see sidebar).
I suppose it has to be considered a successful banding expedition when you run out of bands before you run out of birds--and that is in fact what happened. But there would be one more trip in a month or so, Armistead told me, by which time all the whiteys we'd seen today would be bona fide bruisers.
Back aboard Armistead's skiff, we pulled up anchor and headed north--painstakingly at first, with the tide low, the channels elusive and the grasses clutchy. But soon we were clear of the shallows and planing along past Bloodsworth Island (another prodigious rookery, this one for herons, ospreys, ibises, and several species of egrets), breathing the fresh, fresh air and enjoying the wind-assisted delusion, while it lasted, that I did not smell like a pelican nest.
Oh well . . . at least my cat would be happy to see me.
When not chasing pelicans, eagles, and ospreys, Melanie Lynch is Chesapeake Bay Magazine's manager of circulation services.
When Holland Was For Humans
Holland Island, once considerably larger than it is now, had human inhabitants, at least sporadically, as early as the late 17th century. But its heyday was between 1860 and 1920. By 1890 the population had grown to more than 360 people in 75 homes. The island had a church with a full time minister, a full-time doctor, a post office, a school with two teachers, and even a baseball team. It was also home to nearly 100 boats--mostly skipjacks and bugeyes, but also a few pungies and schooners--many of which were built on the island. By the beginning of World War I, however, erosion was already pushing some residents to the island's higher ground, such as it was. Others saw they inevitable coming and packed moved their entire homes across Tangier Sound to Crisfield and other Eastern Shore towns. To this day, real estate listings will identify these relocated homes as "Holland Island houses."
It was all over by 1922, when the last family left, and since then the island has lost over half its total acreage. What was once an 11/2-by-5-mile long island of 160 acres, is now 80 acres and into three distinct segments. Hurricane Isabel was not kind to it in 2003, and knocked holes in the walls and completely flooded the first floor. The island's owner, Stephen L. White (also founder of the Save Holland Island Foundation) has tried to fend off the encroaching Bay, but it is proving to be a losing battle. As of this writing, the northern tip of the island, with its iconic last house standing, has now been cut off. The door is missing and the house has started to lean, in spite of huge erosion bags that had been placed there in an effort to stabilize things. The western shoreline of the island is littered with bricks from foundations long ago eroded away and pottery shards from abandoned kitchens. Two cemeteries still remain.
Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Sidebar:
Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Delaware was born of an oil spill in 1976, when the Liberian tanker Olympic Games ran aground and spilled over 130,000 gallons of crude in the Delaware River. After that spill, oiled waterfowl were found as far as three miles inland in search of clean water, but in spite of Tri-State's best efforts, thousands of animals died. The organization has since evolved into one of the country's top bird rehabilitation facilities and maintains a professional 24-hour oil-spill response management team. They were immediately hired by BP to oversee the wildlife rehabilitation response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, thought the Newark facility continues with it's rehabilitation efforts for all birds. Every winter there are always a number of brown pelicans who just can't seem to make it out of the Bay in time and are brought to the Newark facility in with frostbitten toes. Tri-State Bird Rescue maintains a donation "wish list" and, while monetary donations are always welcome, they accept material donations ranging from duct tape to frozen mullet to gift cards for Lowes and Home Depot. For more information, go to http://www.tristatebird.org/