By Peter Vankevich
Brown Pelicans: From Beacon to Big Foot and back
Two skiffs left Ocracoke in the early hot, windless morning of July 6 on a mission – to band the chicks of the nesting Brown Pelicans that returned to Beacon Island after an absence of several years. About 12 volunteers joined Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist for Audubon North Carolina and John Weske who has held a master bander permit since 1959.
The approach to the island is slow as the depths in some places are barely more than a few feet and sand is visible just below the water. It’s low tide. Hopping off the boat, I step into soft mud and start to sink, suddenly recalling those Tarzan movies with the obligatory quicksand scene. Once out of the mud and after my panic dissipates, I notice lots of shells, especially the moon snails. Picking up several, all of them have a tenant, a hermit crab.
It’s one of those days of the doldrums and the water is flat and it’s 90 degrees. Just two days later, the effects of the year’s first tropical Storm, Chris, well off the coast, nevertheless produced winds here into the 25-mile range and would have prevented us from getting to the island in what North Carolina novelist Michael Parker aptly described as this “watery part of the world.”
Rapid and sometimes violent weather changes like this are common here. Early arriving storms can cause colonial bird nesting failures, sometimes at a great scale, especially for low-lying islands and sand flats like Ocracoke’s South Point where Black Skimmers, Least Terns and some plovers nest.
Ocracoke Inlet islands
Beacon Island and nearby Shell Castle and North Rock islands are located about two miles northwest of Portsmouth Island in the Pamlico Sound and are owned and managed by Audubon North Carolina to support bird nesting. The three islands are shadows of their former selves due to erosion over the many years. Beacon, that once measured 20 acres, is now barely seven. North Rock is hardly visible and Shell Castle, once the largest with about 50 acres and which had a thriving small community more than 200 years ago, is just a sliver.
A few years ago, the N.C. Coastal Federation and Ocracoke watermen Gene Ballance and the late James Barrie Gaskill, along with Maria Logan, placed bags of oyster shell on the most exposed side of the island, slowing down the erosion.
The last pelicans nesting on Beacon were in 2014 when 558 nests were tallied. But that year, Hurricane Arthur, the earliest recorded hurricane land strike in North Carolina, pummeled the area on July 4 as a Category 2 storm causing a lot of mortality to the pelican chicks. In May, the following year, Tropical Storm Ana hit the region with high winds and overwash.
Whether it was due to these storms or other reasons, the pelicans abandoned Beacon, and in 2015, a few miles north, they joined the thousands of terns to nest on Big Foot Slough Island. That year, 1,998 young pelicans were banded there and the two following years have had similar numbers. With its much higher elevation, Big Foot is a safer nesting site than Beacon.
Big Foot Slough
Big Foot, off Ocracoke and which can be seen from the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferries, was created in the early 1980s from sand dredged from Big Foot Slough Channel. It comprises about 44 acres. More sand is periodically added when dredging is needed to keep the channel open. The island is managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), which works with The Army Corps of Engineers. Thus, dredged material serves the beneficial purpose of providing habitat for birds, especially during the nesting season.
In between dredging additions, vegetation coverage on the island naturally increases. According to Sara Schweitzer, the wildlife diversity biologist with NCWRC, the amount of vegetation on the island can affect nesting birds. Terns and skimmers nest on sand, and others, like herons, egrets and pelicans, nest in grasses, bushes and trees.
Vegetation had been significantly increasing over the past couple of years thus diminishing the habitat for the terns and skimmers. An additional concern was that sand spurs were rapidly covering the island. The razor-sharp burrs of this weed readily attach themselves to animals and can harm young birds.
This winter, the NCWRC, in conjunction with the Army Corps and a contractor, deposited new dredge sand, covering most of the island’s vegetation. This improved the nesting for the terns. Some bushes and plants were left for nesting herons, egrets and pelicans. Weske estimated when he visited the island in late June that there were approximately 75 young pelicans, significantly fewer than the past three years.
Whether or not it was this loss of this vegetation on Big Foot that prompted the pelicans to return to Beacon, they certainly did. This year with two efforts, 1076 chicks were banded. This is only the third time that more than 1,000 chicks were banded in a single season on that island.
Pelican banding began on Beacon in 1985 with 76 chicks. From 1985 to this year, a total of 16,924 chicks have been banded on that island, according to Weske’s records.
“The first record I have of pelicans nesting on Beacon is 1978 in the Colonial Water bird Census, which counted 106 nests,” Addison said. Hailing from southwest Florida, Addison has worked for Audubon NC since 2011 and monitors the nesting seasons. Athletic and an accomplished boater, she got interested in birds when she took an ornithology class in college.
If you add the Brown Pelicans banded on Big Foot from 2015 to this year, a total of 4,902, that makes it almost 22,000 banded in the Ocracoke region of the Pamlico Sound.
Brown Pelicans are doing very well in North Carolina and other coastal locations, but that was not always the case. Pelican sightings were rare, but not unusual around the state from the 1920s onward until the DDT crisis that occurred in mid-20th century.
But, according to the “Birds of North Carolina,” by Pearson, Brimley, and Brimley, revised 1959, the first nesting record in the state was in 1929 when 14 nests were found on Royal Shoal (near Beacon), which is now totally submerged. The next nesting record comes in 1947 when there were 30 nests and 33 young birds on Shell Castle Island.
DDT damage to wild birds
Pelicans and several other species were seriously endangered when DDT, a synthetic pesticide used to combat diseases carried by insects, was made available for public sale in the United States in 1945 and a few years later, another pesticide, Endrin, was made commercially available. The dangers were brought to light in the 1962 best-seller, “Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson that spotlighted the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
DDT caused nesting failures by shell thinning for many species, and Brown Pelicans, Bald Eagles, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons were particularly vulnerable. It was banned for agricultural use in the United States in 1972, due to its effects on wildlife and the possible risk towards humans.
Endrin was widely used, particularly in the South, as an insecticide on crops such as cotton, grains, rice and sugarcane. It was also used to control grasshoppers and small mammals, such as mice and voles. Massive fish and bird kills were attributed to it and all use of Endrin in the United States was banned by 1991.
With the removal of these pesticides, Brown Pelicans began a remarkable recovery and there may be more now than in, at least, the past few centuries. They have expanded their breeding range north to the Chesapeake Bay and are no longer on the endangered species list.
Banding pelican chicks is a lot harder than banding terns, and there is perhaps no one more skilled at it than John Weske, a legend among those familiar with North Carolina coastal water birds. Weske, 82, got his master banding permit in 1959 and has concentrated on banding North Carolina’s Royal and Sandwich Terns and Brown Pelicans.
Pelicans have a much longer hatching period and on July 6, the age-range of the birds was from still a few unhatched eggs to just hatched and to nearly full-sized birds. It takes two people to place a band on the right leg. One approaches the pelican from behind, putting one hand on its back and the other to quickly grab the bill to keep the bird from snapping. Once cradled safely, the other person takes a band and with pliers tightens it onto the leg.
Experienced banders can do this in just a few minutes and the bird is let go, carrying with it important information that can track its movements and help determine its longevity. The oldest recorded Royal tern was 30 years old when it was found in Belize in 2013 sporting one of Weske’s North Carolina bands dated 1983.
People who find dead birds with a band can contact the Fish & Wildlife Service online by clicking https://www.fws.gov/birds/surveys-and-data/bird-banding/reporting-banded-birds.php and provide the numbers on the bands.
Pelicans and terns are not the only species on the dwindling islands off Portsmouth. Maria Logan, an Ocracoke artist now living in Washington,
worked for four years for Audubon NC beginning in 2011, monitoring American Oystercatchers on these islands.
“It sounded like a wonderful opportunity,” she said when she heard about the job. “I would take a boat to these islands at sunrise when it was cooler and gather general data on the Oystercatchers in the area.” This information was in a study that compared growth rates and fledgling success on barrier islands vs dredge islands.
“I’d log where they were spending time during different tides and weather, where they were foraging, and other behaviors,” she said.
“The chicks’ ability to blend in with the dried wrack, vegetation or the shadows created by the heaps of oyster shells is impressive.”
During her tenure, Logan noted many other nesting species, including gulls, terns, herons, egrets and ibises. The islands were an important resting stop for other species during migration. “These islands of the Pamlico Sound are important for sustaining life year-round,” she said.
Native Ocracoke islander Rudy Austin, who operates Portsmouth Island Boat Tours and takes visitors to the village, often makes a detour to approach Beacon from a safe distance and says visitors this season are amazed at the sight of so many pelicans and other nesting birds including Oystercatchers, White Ibis and the herons and egrets.
Austin, who has witnessed many habitat changes over the years that have had an impact on bird populations, believes islands like Beacon and Big Foot are important nesting areas that should be maintained because they don’t have as many predators and disturbances as in other locations.
Brown Pelicans did not completely abandon Big Foot Slough. A total of 66 chicks were banded this season and Addison, who was assisting, estimated there were approximately 20 more. Also banded this year were 3,363 Royal Terns and 586 Sandwich Terns (according to numbers below).
Birds banded on Big Foot Slough Island:
2015 2016 2017 2018 Total
Brown Pelican 1,988 1,623 1,225 66 4,902
Royal Tern 4,926 5,265 3,070 3,363 16,624
Sandwich Tern 1,029 434 700 586 2,749