Please, don’t tell me that pelicans have been a common sight forever and ever in Chesapeake Bay country because it wouldn’t be true.
I’ve spent a large part of my adult life on the waters of the Bay and seeing pelicans along with other non-native birds, occasionally even strange fish, is a recent phenomenon.
Back in the 1960s if you spotted a pelican it would have made the newspapers.
Nowadays, seeing 10 or 12 at a time, swooping down to the water surface in well-organized lines, their large bills clearly recognizable, is greeted with a bored “ho-hum.”
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (who provided that pelican photo) says its recent colonial shorebird census found 1,042 nesting brown pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis) pairs in the Chesapeake Bay. It was the largest number in recorded history and DNR biologist Dave Brinker said, “Pelicans are relatively new to the Bay ecosystem, and not something that Captain John Smith would have seen during his historic explorations.”
Actually, you don’t have to go back to John Smith’s days because most Bay boaters and fishermen didn’t see any appreciable numbers until around 1980 and if it did happen it only did so for brief periods before they headed back to the Southland’s more suitable temperatures.
“Climate change — warmer weather and milder, shorter winters — may be encouraging pelicans to expand their northernmost Atlantic Coast habitat into the Chesapeake Bay,” said Brinker. The DNR scientist discovered Maryland‘s first-ever nesting pair of brown pelicans in 1987.
Now a team of other biologists and volunteers join Brinker every summer to band 95 percent (more than 18,000) of the pelican chicks raised in the bay’s isolated islands. (From only five known nesting pairs in 1987, the number of brown pelican pairs in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay grew to 141 in 1999 and 1,042 in 2008.)
Brown pelican adults weigh around 8 to 10 pounds, have a wingspan that exceeds 7 feet and they easily travel hundreds of miles every year in search of food and nesting sites. The brown pelicans of the mid-Atlantic population are believed to be the most likely to migrate and Maryland is the northernmost state to have successful nesting pairs.
The pelicans are seen as early as March, usually around the Virginia/Maryland state lines on the Chesapeake. They’ve come to feed on menhaden, shad and other fish, but the migratory look for warmer weather in Florida, even Central America, when the frosty season arrives in Bay Country.
“If you see pelicans, do not feed them,” says Brinker. “Feeding pelicans and other migratory birds distracts them from their natural migration behavior, which can be deadly for pelicans.”
But it’s not just the pelicans that delight Maryland and Virginia boaters on the Chesapeake. In recent years there have been strong incursions into the Bay by Spanish mackerel, a fish not normally seen swimming along with the Bay’s regular visitors or indigenous species.
There also is a veritable onslaught of redfish (a.k.a. red drum or channel bass). Large specimens are taken in a Chesapeake area known as the Middle Grounds, while protected juvenile redfish are seen every summer in the Bay’s lower feeder rivers.
Even bottlenose dolphins and sharks show up now and then, but unlike the pelicans, the dolphins and sharks know they don’t belong here. They never stay.