- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - American white pelicans have returned in near-record numbers to nest at the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

Refuge Manager Neil Shook said an aerial count shows 33,694 breeding adults, up almost 7,000 birds from 2015.

The count is among the highest recorded at the 4,385-acre refuge north of Medina, known as the largest nesting colony of white pelicans in North America. A record 35,466 birds were counted at the refuge in 2000.

Pelicans appear healthy at the refuge this year, Shook said.

“We’ve still got a few months to go, but it appears they are doing really well,” he said.

Shook said the nesting pelican population has been increasing since a scare in 2004, when nearly 30,000 pelicans left the Chase Lake refuge, leaving their chicks and eggs behind. A year later, the refuge saw a massive die-off of pelican chicks, followed by an exodus of their parents.

Predators, weather, diseases and other factors were considered but biologists have never pinpointed the reason for the deaths and departures. Shook said it may have just been a natural correction.

The pelicans winter mainly in the Gulf Coast states but some fly to North Dakota to nest beginning in April from as far away as California. The birds normally stay in North Dakota through September, caring for their hatchlings on an island surrounded by a lake that is alkalized, free of fish and other food sources, so the pelicans feast on small fish and foot-long salamanders from prairie lakes up to 100 miles away.

The big birds weigh up to 20 pounds, have a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, and measure 6 feet from bill to tail. The white pelican lives for about 25 years and breeds only once a year. Males and females take turns caring for their young. Typically, two eggs are laid in each nest, but only one chick survives.

The white pelicans do not plunge from the air into water like their cousins, the brown pelicans. White pelicans often work in groups, stirring up mud with their feet to scare their favorite food, the salamander. An adult pelican eats about three pounds of fish daily.

Pelicans have been monitored at Chase Lake since 1905, when the birds numbered about 50. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the site as a bird refuge in 1908, when many of the birds were being killed for their feathers or shot for target practice.

Biologists have been doing aerial surveys of the nesting grounds since 1972. They use photographs scanned into a computer program to count the number of nests.

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