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Pelican numbers down in Md.; change no cause for concern

(July 26, 2013) The same cold and rainy weather that kept beachgoers from Ocean City this spring also trimmed back numbers of a favorite bird in the area.

There are fewer pelicans in Maryland this year than last, but the change is no cause for concern, said Central Region Ecologist Dave Brinker of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife & Heritage Service.

“You’re seeing fewer (pelicans), but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong,” Brinker said. “It’s just nature.”

Brown pelicans — not to be confused with their West Coast counterpart, the American White Pelican — migrate to this area from their wintering grounds to the south and usually begin laying eggs between late March and early April, Brinker said. But cool waters kept fish deeper this spring, delaying readiness of a food source pelicans need to put on weight for egg laying.

“It absolutely has been an unusual spring this year,” said Bryan Watts, director for the Center for Conservation Biology in Virginia. “For most of our other water birds, it has been a really late season.”

Maryland boasts the East Coast’s northern-most pelican colonies, making it a capricious summer home for the birds.

“Because we’re at this end-of-range scenario, the numbers vary from year to year a lot,” Brinker said. “When we have mild winters, you’ll probably see more breeders and therefore more wandering birds. And if you have a cold winter, you’ll see fewer.”

The same holds true for a cold spring, he said. The failure of a fairly new pelican colony on the Chincoteague Bay also explains why beachgoers are seeing fewer of the birds flying the skies over Ocean City. None of the 125 pairs of pelicans who nested there last year raised chicks, probably because of predators, Brinker said.

The collapse of the colony means there are no pelican colonies in the coastal bay system this year, he said. That leaves two pelican colonies in Maryland, on Holland Island and Adam Island in the mid-Chesapeake Bay. Though the state’s Department of Natural Resources hasn’t compiled the numbers yet, Brinker said there are fewer pelicans than last year in the colonies after running counts last Friday.

The situation is different on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, however, where pelican numbers are up overall, Watts said.

All four Virginia colonies are on barrier islands, and that’s no coincidence.

Pelicans have a long breeding season, from about March to August, and need predator-free nesting grounds, Watts said. They also need a steady source of food.

With an abundance of fish, especially tiny, oily menhaden, in the bay, the Chesapeake is a great feeding ground for pelicans. The birds can travel hundreds of miles searching for food, which they carry under their bills in a gular pouch that can hold almost three pounds of seawater and fish — about triple what they can fit in their stomachs.

Despite its fare of menhaden and minnows, though, the Chesapeake wasn’t home to pelicans until about two decades ago. The first on record in the coastal bays came in 1987, as populations in the U.S. Southeast began rebounding after the 1972 ban of the egg-damaging pesticide DDT.

“They started to respond rather dramatically,” Brinker said “They were at carrying capacity in the southeast states… so young birds were looking for a place to settle.”

The first pelicans pushed north to Maryland and Virginia in 1991, “and they’ve been breeding there every since,” he said.

As many as 2,500 pairs have stopped in the Chesapeake Bay area in the summer, but Brinker predicts this year’s tally “won’t be anywhere near that.”

With an average or warm spring next year, however, he predicted “those numbers are going to bounce back.”

“Pelicans are doing well. They’ve recovered from all the things that kept them down for many years before,” he said.

The best place to see pelicans in Ocean City is on Skimmer Island, by the Route 50 bridge, or at the fishing wharf on Second Street, Brinker said. Or, keep an eye on the sky— pelicans should be out in greater force later this season.

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