LDWF Biologists Find Banding Pelicans At Night On Queen Bess Island To Be Easier Than In The Day
story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Pelicans, as you can imagine, don’t want to be handled by humans. Like any wild bird, the approach of a person will usually send it flying in the opposite direction long before they’d be able to grab it.
Being rather large birds, nabbing an unwilling pelican is more difficult than with other avian species. They’ll scratch, claw, peck, even throw up on those attempting the feat.
Though brown pelicans are no longer endangered they remain protected by law so harassing them is forbidden. However, there are times when it is necessary for biologists to get up close and personal with pelicans.
The summer of 2019 was one of those times and Queen Bess Island, located in Barataria Bay near Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, was the venue. Queen Bess is a haven for brown pelicans when it’s time to produce young. It is the third largest colonial bird colony in Louisiana, accounting for 15-20 percent of the state’s brown pelican nesting activity.
The good news is Queen Bess is in the midst of a massive makeover. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) are restoring 30 acres of brown pelican and wading bird habitat along with seven acres of nesting tern habitat to the 37-acre island.
However, Biologist Todd Baker, LDWF’s Coastal Resource Scientist Manager who is overseeing the restoration project for the department, was concerned about something before the project kicked off in September. He wondered if the pelicans that utilized Queen Bess during the spring and summer of 2019 for breeding would return in 2020 when the project was completed.
“No one that I know of has taken a colony where pelicans are actually nesting and completely restored it altering the hydrology, vegetation, elevation and entire landscape,’’ Baker said. “We used the best available science and ‘lessons learned’ from previous restoration efforts on Queen Bess and other projects to inform the design and our decision making process. We also worked closely with CPRA’s team of restoration specialists and bird experts for guidance on the project. But still the question for next nesting season remains, ‘Will the brown pelicans that are nesting there now come back next year?’ It’s something we need to answer.’’
Hence the need to volunteer some of those pelicans for an important project. Baker, other LDWF personnel and partners decided that to definitively answer the question they would need to band, or tag, some of the pelicans nesting on Queen Bess during the summer of 2019.
It certainly wouldn’t be easy. Baker and his compatriots knew the drill well, dealing with the birds during the BP Oil Spill and previous banding efforts. The old way of doing things was to go out early in the morning, before Louisiana’s infamous heat and humidity started boiling, and band as many pelicans as possible. Usually, only young birds are banded. However, adults as well as juveniles needed to be banded for this project.
Unfortunately, as soon as boats approach the colonies, most adult pelicans scatter. This would make capturing them difficult. Additionally, adults shade their young from the brutal sun during the day. Spooking them from the nest to leave their young and eggs unprotected is not ideal.
In the Dark of the Night
So Baker had an idea. What if they performed the operation at night?
“Working at night there’s obviously somewhat of a visual barrier because it’s dark,’’ Baker said. “But you don’t have the heat stress that you would have during the day.’’
The plan worked like a brown pelican charm. They were able to band 500 pelicans, including 353 juveniles and 147 adults, during an eight-night run in June and July.
“The first couple of nights were experimental and we were learning how to implement the new nighttime technique,’’ Baker said. “In the end, it worked better than we expected. While we did introduce stress to the colony, it was much less than we anticipated and significantly less than traditional techniques. A lot of the birds would simply walk right up to you. We were able to work for a long time. Many adults would flush but we were able to get close enough to capture several of them. Additionally, they did not flush in large numbers as is common using traditional daytime banding operations.’’
Dr. Paul Leberg, head of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s biology department and one of the state’s top brown pelican experts, assisted with banding during the process. He, too, is a veteran at banding pelicans and said he was pleasantly surprised with how working at night was so successful.
He said the bands will provide valuable data on how the pelicans disperse and if they will, indeed, come back to Queen Bess. He thinks they will but having precise data will be important.
“The nice thing about this is with banded birds you can actually look and see if the individuals that are there this year are the ones that come back,’’ Leberg said. “You never know when you’re looking at a population of nesting birds where those birds came from. Did they immigrate from new sites or were they residents that were there in the past?’’
Baker said it was important to band both adults and juveniles even though the young birds don’t reach sexual maturity until around 3 years old.
“We didn’t want to wait three years to answer the question on if they’ll return and that’s why we banded the adults,’’ Baker said. “But this will also answer the question of what happens in three years when the juveniles reach breeding age. Will they return to where they were hatched? We’ll see how they respond compared to the adults.’’
The bands are made of PVC material and the alpha numeric number on it can be seen from a distance with binoculars.
Of course, when pelicans begin the breeding season in March of 2020 spotting the banded pelicans on Queen Bess will be fairly easy. However, Baker said the population on Queen Bess Island may be down next year. The restoration process is expected to be completed by the middle of February, in plenty of time for nesting season. But the island will have a different look and the vegetation will not be mature or ideal for nesting.
“The habitat will not be as mature though it will be much larger,’’ Baker said. “We’ll see exactly how they respond thanks to the bands. Over time, as that habitat matures, more grass will grow, more of the woody vegetation such as black mangroves will appear and we anticipate the birds will return in stronger numbers.’’
Leberg and his students will be on the lookout for the banded birds as will LDWF biologists. Leberg’s research extends to other pelican colonies in Louisiana, especially in the Barataria Terrebonne area. So they’ll be able to track banded pelicans in other parts of coastal Louisiana should they go there.
But they’ll also have a close eye on Queen Bess. He said the degree to which pelicans return may be determined by how much woody vegetation remains following the restoration.
“The pelicans do much better when they’re nesting on mangroves or other woody vegetation,’’ Leberg said. “Some of that will be lost initially but they’re hoping to retain some of it. Where it’s retained there will be a lot of pelicans. But if the area is reduced there will be less opportunities to nest until that brushy vegetation covers some of the restored areas.
“But make no mistake, the restoration will be a boon for not only pelicans but other wading birds.”
Improving and increasing habitat for the brown pelican is key to keeping its population numbers robust.
“Brown pelican populations in our state is a mixed bag,’’ Leberg said. “We have a large number of birds but they’re concentrated on a few islands. That makes those islands where they’re present really important to preserve and improve.’’
Queen Bess is one of the top priorities in that process.
In addition to being a key Louisiana brown pelican colony, it is also nesting habitat for about 10 species of nesting colonial water birds, such as tri-colored herons, great egrets and royal terns. The island, which is battling land loss from subsidence and erosion from over wash, had only about five acres of nesting habitat available last summer.
Queen Bess Island has historical significance for the brown pelican in Louisiana. The brown pelican ceased nesting in the state in 1961 and by 1963 had virtually disappeared from Louisiana’s coastal wetlands primarily because of the now-banned pesticide DDT. In 1968, LDWF began a restoration project of the species with Queen Bess as launching point.
From 1968 through 1976, brown pelican chicks were captured from Florida and relocated to coastal Louisiana, including Queen Bess. In 1971, 11 nests were documented on the tiny island, marking the first successful recolonization of brown pelicans in Louisiana.
The restoration project will enhance the existing rock ring around the island, which will serve as containment for the sand fill material that will increase the island’s elevation. The island will be sloped with the highest elevation at the southwest end and the lowest at the northeast.
Once the material in the lower elevation area of the island has settled, it will be planted with black mangrove. The middle elevations will be planted with scrub-shrub vegetation that is useful for nesting. The highest elevation of the island will be covered with small limestone to create bare ground nesting habitat for nesting black skimmers and a variety of terns. Bird ramps will be placed around the island to provide flightless juvenile birds with safe and easy access to the water.
On the southwestern side of the island, a set of rock breakwaters will be placed just offshore. This feature will create a lagoon style nursery feature without harsh wave energy for the young birds to learn how to swim, preen and feed.
Baker said he’s eager to see how the nesting process plays out next spring.
“We think the pelicans will come back but we don’t know for sure,’’ Baker said. “The banding will greatly assist us in telling us this part of the story.’’
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