BACK TO BESS

Brown Pelicans, Other Colonial Water Birds Flocked To Queen Bess Island Last Spring

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

 

When the dust settled on the Queen Bess Island restoration project back in February 2020, it was nothing like anyone had ever seen. Because of subsidence erosion and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the island, one of the state’s largest brown pelican nesting colonies, had been reduced to about five available acres of nesting habitat.

 

The project gave it almost an entirely new look, restoring about 30 acres for nesting to a vital colonial waterbird colony that annually produced more than 4,400 nests.

 

But the question that kept Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists up at night was: would the alterations negatively impact nesting on the island, especially early-on in the post-construction period? It wasn’t so much a question of if the birds would return to the island but when.

 

Their concern was that, because the island had been so radically altered, pelicans and other birds wouldn’t recognize it and it may take several of years for them to return.

 

It turns out they worried needlessly. Not only did they return but they did so in numbers that well exceeded their expectations. When nesting began later in February and into the spring, birds took to the island like college spring breakers would to a Florida beach.

 

“I was surprised by the sheer numbers,” LDWF biologist Casey Wright said. “We weren’t expecting the response to be this strong during year one. Five acres just wasn’t enough room for all of them. And now that we’ve added all that space, they really responded to it.

 

“We thought that because it looked so much different that we wouldn’t have this many. But the number of nests has surpassed what we had in previous years.”

 

That was obviously the goal. And it’s been reached in warp speed time. In fact, there were more birds breeding at Queen Bess this spring than ever recorded before.

 

As an example, it was projected that 1,500 brown pelicans would nest at Queen Bess in 2020. But the actual number was about 8,000.

 

In fact, this nesting season more than 10,000 nests were observed on the small island. Twenty species of birds nested on Queen Bess, including seven species of wading birds comprising 950 nests, five species of terns and black skimmers comprising approximately 1,700 nests, 450 laughing gull nests and other species as well.

 

“Two of our other target birds (American oystercatcher and black skimmer) also showed up,” Wright said. “We weren’t quite expecting the project to be as successful during its first nesting season for these birds that previously didn’t have suitable nesting habitat on the island.”

 

Queen Bess Island is a 37-acre island located in Barataria Bay near Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish. It is consistently among the third or fourth largest brown pelican colonies in Louisiana, annually producing 15-20 percent of the state’s nesting activity. It is also nesting habitat for about 10 additional species of colonial nesting waterbirds, such as tricolored herons, great egrets and royal terns.

 

LDWF and the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) jointly implemented the project. Funding for the project came from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Natural Resource Damages Assessment (NRDA) settlement administered by the Louisiana Trustee Implementation Group.

 

The brown pelican is Louisiana’s state bird, an important and iconic symbol for the Bayou State. But making sure there is nesting opportunity for pelicans in Louisiana is key in ensuring they continue to thrive not only here but throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico and eastern United States.

 

An article in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology estimates that there are about 35,000 brown pelican breeding pairs in Louisiana, which comprises 47 percent of the breeding pairs in the northern Gulf and 33 percent in the eastern United States. Texas is second with 21,000 breeding pairs.

 

Louisiana is even more important to other nesting colonial waterbirds. For example, the article estimated there are about 50,000 breeding pairs of royal terns in Louisiana. That’s about 50 percent of the breeding population in the northern Gulf and 26 percent of the world’s population of the subspecies maxima.

 

Increasing Queen Bess Island’s nesting capacity more than seven times is more than a feel good story, it’s adding more land when relative sea level rise continues to take it away.

 

LDWF Nongame Avian Ecologist Rob Dobbs said constructing the proper habitat features is important in restoration project designs. At Queen Bess, the restoration design wisely left some remaining pelican nesting habitat in place and balanced that with the need to raise the island’s elevation and create new habitat, both for pelicans and other species of colonial waterbirds.

 

He, too, was pleased and surprised at the number of pelicans and other birds that flocked to the island. But he said pelicans prefer to go back from whence they came.

 

“These birds are so faithful to their breeding sites,” Dobbs said. “It’s something ingrained in their biology. In that sense, it’s not surprising. But it’s definitely reassuring because we didn’t know what the level of disturbance from the restoration project was going to do, how it was going to influence their behavior. So actually seeing them back in such great numbers is very encouraging.”

 

In anticipation of the project, LDWF biologists and other partners banded 364 juvenile and 136 adult pelicans on Queen Bess in the summer of 2019. The restoration project commenced in the fall, long after the 2019 breeding season had concluded. The aim was to see if these pelicans would indeed come back to Queen Bess in the spring of 2020.

 

Many did. A total of 30 of the banded adults were seen at the island this spring, which represents 22 percent, a big statistic considering that in similar situations the number is usually much less than that. And that’s only the adults that were re-sighted. There were probably many more on Queen Bess.

 

“Banding is important because you can learn a lot about movement,” said Wright, who coordinated the banding effort. “Our main purpose was to see how these birds responded to a major restoration project. That’s why we wanted to band adult birds so that we could see where they went. All the banded and resighted breeding adults from last season’s pre-restoration banding project have been found on Queen Bess and not elsewhere”

 

Pelicans usually aren’t sexually mature until they are 3-4 years old. So observing the juveniles this particular breeding season wasn’t as important as the adults. Even though the entire pelican population doesn’t migrate in the classic sense, Dobbs said young birds, in particular, do move around a lot.

 

“Those young birds won’t breed in their first year or two and so they may wander around during that period,” Dobbs said. “Banding data show that marked birds, particularly juveniles, regularly move long distances along the northern Gulf coast.”

 

They’ll even go as far as central America as eight banded pelicans were spotted in the Yucatan, Panama and Guatemala.

 

It was important, however, to band juveniles to see if they will return to Queen Bess once they become sexually mature.

 

LDWF biologists continued banding this summer, recruiting 350 pelicans at Queen Bess. They also banded 250 at Rabbit Island, another important brown pelican rookery which will undergo restoration this fall.

 

Another Benefit

The additional land created on Queen Bess had another benefit besides nesting opportunity that was realized. Tropical Storm Cristobal passed just to the east of Grand Isle in early June, bringing an elevated storm surge onto the island. There was some mortality, including 30% of brown pelican chicks. Most of those were estimated to be less than six weeks of age.

 

But the restoration project elevated portions of the island and provided these flightless birds real-estate to run to as the tidal surge increased and flooded out nests. Had that not happened, mortality would have been much worse, according to LDWF Coastal Resource Scientist Manager Todd Baker.

 

“Losses would likely have been much higher under a no action scenario,” Baker said. “Queen Bess produced more birds this year than at any time in its history. While Cristobal wasn’t a strong tropical system, considering the sediment was exposed and not yet vegetated, the project design performed very well and the island did not suffer any significant damage or sediment loss.”

 

More to Come

One of the reasons biologists were surprised by the number of nesting pelicans was because there was a lack of preferred vegetation on the island. Pelicans like to nest in mangrove trees and there aren’t as many as there will be down the road.

 

“By pumping all that material onto the island (during the project) we removed a lot of the vegetation,” Wright said. “So there is a lot of bare ground out there. Pelicans prefer to nest in woody vegetation. It’s safer for them. It gets them off the ground and away from potential over wash events due to extreme tides and tidal surges.”

 

Nevertheless, the pelicans still came despite the lack of vegetation. “Once the prime real estate was taken, they started nesting on the ground,” Wright said. But more vegetation is on the way.

 

Though the land building part of the restoration project is complete, there is more to do. There are plans to supplement the original plantings from the restoration project with more vegetation on Queen Bess this winter to enhance nesting opportunity next spring.

 

“This winter we have a major planting event planned,” Wright said. “We hope to plant 4,000 black mangroves and 2,300 matrimony vine plants. That will add a lot more elevated space. Mangroves, depending on the size, can support nine to 10 pelican nests in one bush. That will add more space for not only pelicans but egrets, herons, even roseate spoonbills.”

 

The lower portion of the island will be marsh vegetation and create even more habitat for other species of nesting birds this spring.

 

Additional Information

 

For more information on Queen Bess Island, go to www.wlf.la.gov/page/queen-bess-island</

FALL 2020