WHERE THEY NEST THE BEST

Queen Bess Island In Barataria Bay Has Proven To Be The Ideal Place For Louisiana’s Brown Pelican To Reproduce

story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information

photos by Joel Courtney & Gabe Giffin, LDWF Public Information

Imagine Louisiana without its state symbol, the brown pelican. That’s exactly what happened in the 1960s as the iconic bird disappeared from the Bayou State’s coastal region.

]By 1961, brown pelicans had ceased nesting in the state and by 1963 they had disappeared altogether. One of the only places they could be seen was on the state’s flag.

In the mid-1960s the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists decided this was completely unacceptable. Though at the time they weren’t completely aware of why the brown pelican was extirpated from Louisiana, they couldn’t imagine living in a state without its most recognized bird.

“It took a lot of bravery and courage to come out with a project like they did especially with birds declining everywhere,’’ said Todd Baker, Chief of LDWF’s Coastal and Non-Game Resources Division. “I’m sure there was a lot of criticism at the time. But it turned out to be one heck of a success.’’

Indeed it was. And is.

Starting 50 years ago in 1968, with Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay near Grand Isle as the launching point, Louisiana began a restoration project of the species. Once a popular nesting spot for brown pelicans, LDWF biologists thought it would be the perfect spot to reintroduce the species.

From 1968 through 1976, 767 brown pelican chicks were captured from Florida and relocated to coastal Louisiana, including to Queen Bess. In 1971, 11 nests were documented on the tiny island marking the first successful recolonization of brown pelicans in Louisiana. Biologists kept track of the growing numbers and documented a peak of about 4,000 nests on Queen Bess in 2008.

Today, Louisiana’s coastal skies once again are teeming with brown pelicans. Drive along just about any stretch of coastal roads and highways in the state and you’re sure to see brown pelicans soaring. Current estimates have the brown pelican population at between 80,000-100,000 in Louisiana.

“To think that we almost lost our state bird, the brown pelican, is inconceivable,’’ LDWF Secretary Jack Montoucet said. “As many drive along Louisiana’s coastal region and see the pelican flying above, it is easy to take for granted their great abundance. The job now is to make certain the species continues to flourish. We look forward to working with our partners to ensure that happens.’’

A Crazy Idea

Though it was only suspected in the 1960s, the pesticide DDT was the primary culprit in the decline and loss of brown pelicans in Louisiana. The chemical used to spray crops throughout the country made its way into Louisiana’s watersheds then into the fish, the brown pelican’s primary food.

That led to reproduction difficulties as the eggs laid by the pelicans had soft shells that couldn’t sustain the embryos. It finally led to the disappearance of the brown pelican. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that DDT was banned.

In the interim, LDWF biologists began the task of bringing back the bird. They looked to Florida to begin.

They decided to bring juvenile birds from the Atlantic coast of Florida into Louisiana to begin the process. They chose the wrong side of the state, said former LDWF biologist David Richard, who was part of the reintroduction project.

“We had setbacks,’’ Richard said. “We picked the wrong birds for the first five years because they nested at the wrong time to be successful at Queen Bess. They came from the east coast of Florida and we learned we needed to get them from the west coast (of Florida). So we had a terrible nesting chronology at Queen Bess that started in January. We’d lose all the birds in February, March and April to storms.’’

Brown pelicans in Louisiana normally nest beginning in April and concluding in late July. The Florida pelicans from the east coast begin earlier as the weather is more reasonable in January.

There was some success as the first 11 nests were recorded on Queen Bess in 1971. LDWF biologists learned from the experiences and improved their techniques through the years. Having DDT banned certainly was a major step.

In 1980, LDWF took the final group of juvenile brown pelicans from Florida. By 1989, there were 600 brown pelican nests on Queen Bess that fledged approximately 800 young, an impressive number considering from where the project began.

“We did our work before the Endangered Species Act (which was created in 1973),’’ Richard said. “LDWF took the lead and deserves the credit for initiating this project with many partners to get it started. We had a lot of cooperation from inside LDWF and with the federal government and other state agencies. It’s something that we took a lot of pride in. I think one of the big things was we wanted a state with brown pelicans for our kids and grandkids to see.’’

Still Plenty of Work to Do

The brown pelican was placed on the Endangered Species list in the 1970s but in 2009 it was delisted, heralding its comeback.

With 4,000 nests in 2008 on Queen Bess it looked like things were on cruise control. But coastal land loss was eating away much of the prime brown pelican production real estate.

“In 2010, we had five brown pelican nesting colonies in Barataria Bay,’’ Baker said. “As we sit here today, we only have one left and that is Queen Bess. That habitat is in serious decline.’’

Queen Bess is battling coastal land loss too. Once home to over 15 acres of nesting habitat, only about five acres remains today.

Worse yet, the BP Oil Spill disaster, which occurred in April of 2010, took a heavy toll on brown pelicans in Barataria Bay and Queen Bess.

“The brown pelican was delisted in November of 2009,’’ Baker said. “Five months later we had the BP Oil Spill. The oil that came in was really thick in Barataria Bay and penetrated the rock ring that outlines Queen Bess Island. Brown pelicans are truly an indicator of the health of our marshes. Any time something happens in our marshes, it’s going to show up in these birds. The island and its brown pelicans in 2010 were a complete mess.’’

More than 5,000 birds dead and alive were collected in Louisiana because of the disaster. This comprised approximately 65 percent of the bird recoveries throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Brown pelicans made up 22 percent of all recoveries. Data collected suggests the impact on birds was between 51,000-84,000 and more than likely on the high end of that scale.

Queen Bess was one of the most photographed islands during the disaster because of the amount of oil that accumulated on it.

Though the oil spill disaster took an unimaginable toll on Louisiana’s wildlife and natural resources, funding from it will assist in bird restoration. Louisiana will receive about $5 billion worth of natural resource damage funding to restore the impacts of the spill. Of that, a little more than $200 million is dedicated specifically for bird restoration.

That will likely be a boon for Queen Bess, which is the third largest brown pelican rookery in the state, producing between 15-20 percent of the state’s nesting activity. It is also nesting habitat for about 10 species of nesting birds, such as tri-colored herons, great egrets and laughing gulls, and commonly has over 5,000 nests annually.

Improving the habitat on Queen Bess is a goal of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), LDWF and other partners. The island has experienced significant subsidence through the years and the nesting habitat is now approximately five acres and marginal at best. Almost every inch is taken up by nesting birds.

“In Louisiana we share our living space with more species of the animal kingdom than just about anywhere else in America,” said CPRA Chairman Johnny Bradberry. “If we cannot save the habitat for those species, we cannot save it for ourselves. And as Queen Bess Island proves, every foothold of land is vitally important.”

To help revitalize the population and add to Queen Bess’ size, CPRA and LDWF are designing a restoration project that may begin as early as 2019. The existing rock ring around the island will be enhanced to serve as containment for the fill material that will be added. 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 eastern area of the island has had time to dry and settle it may be planted with black mangrove or smooth cordgrass. Bird ramps will be placed around the island to provide flightless juvenile birds safe and easy access to the water.

“The island is almost a shell of what it once was,’’ said LDWF non-game ornithologist Michael Seymour. “It’s because the habitat, especially the middle of the island, has subsided so much. It’s filled with water. A lot of the mangroves have died back. So the birds have lost a lot of nesting habitat. The idea is to create an island on top of the existing island. Put sediment on top the island, do some replanting. It’s going to be quite the colony. Hopefully back to what it was several years ago.’’

In many ways, the brown pelican is an indicator of the health of the Louisiana coast. The rookeries are on the front line of the coastal land loss crisis and experience all the devastating effects from oil spills to hurricanes. The rookeries these brown pelicans and many other colonial nesting water birds call home are small exposed barrier islands on the perimeter of Louisiana’s fragile coastal marshes. As these rookeries subside and erode, brown pelicans are forced to move in search of suitable alternatives.

“We have a huge issue with restoration in Louisiana,’’ Richard said. “The rock ring around Queen Bess Island didn’t happen by accident. We noticed there was a problem in the 1980s. We worked wherever we could to scrounge up some money to put up rock barriers around the island to maintain the island. It was getting smaller.

“We wanted to expand the range of pelicans to their original range when we began. Our research showed one of the first wildlife refuges in Louisiana was Shell Keys. You can’t find Shell Keys today. It’s now a sandbar south of Marsh Island.’’

That’s why meaningful restoration is so important, Richard, Baker and others said. With it, Louisiana’s state bird can continue to thrive and call the state’s coastal marshes home.

Additional Information

For video and photos from Queen Bess Island go to ldwf.cantoflight.com/v/QueenBessIsland/landing.

Brown Pelican History in Louisiana

  • Pelicans ceased nesting in Louisiana in 1961 and disappeared from Louisiana marshes by 1963.
  • The reason for extirpation was egg shell thinning from DDT, a widely used pesticide in the 1950s and 1960s that was banned in the United States in 1972.
  • Number of brown pelicans in Louisiana prior to extirpation - 50,000 to 80,000 birds.
  • From 1968-1976, approximately 767 brown pelican chicks were captured from Florida and relocated to Queen Bess and Rockefeller Refuge.
  • Current estimated Louisiana brown pelican population is 80,000 to 100,000 birds.
  • Brown pelicans were removed from Federal Endangered Species list in 2009.
  • Other important pelican rookeries in Louisiana:
    • Raccoon Island - 4,000 brown pelican nests
    • Breton Island - 1,750 brown pelican nests
    • Philo Brice Island - 3,300 brown pelican nests

About Queen Bess Island

Queen Bess Island Facts:

  • Location - Jefferson Parish in Barataria Bay just north of Grand Isle.
  • From 1968-1976, approximately 715 brown pelican chicks were captured from Florida and relocated to Queen Bess.
  • Queen Bess was the first successfully restored nesting population of brown pelicans in Louisiana.
  • First nest on Queen Bess was 1971 and totaled 11 nests fledging eight birds.
    • By 1989 there were 600 brown pelican nests that fledged approximately 800 young.
  • Peak brown pelican nesting on Queen Bess occurred between 2001 and 2010.
  • Peak nesting - 4,000 nests in 2008.
  • Queen Bess comprises approximately 15 percent of the annual brown pelican nesting activity in Louisiana and up to 20 percent in some years.

Proposed Restoration of Queen Bess:

  • Approximately 5 acres of nesting habitat is currently available on the 36-acre island or about 896 nests per acre.
  • Restoration of the entire 36-acre site is being considered. It will provide:
    • 7 acres of nesting tern habitat (crushed limestone)
    • 29 acres of brown pelican and wading bird habitat
    • Breakwaters on southwestern perimeter of the island

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