Pelicans’ paradise on Smith Island, Md.
On a sunny mid-June afternoon with a tickling breeze, dozens of brown pelicans flew overhead like acrobats. Some birds had long bills, while others scanned the light chop for a meal. On shore, expectant parents tended to their eggs. While the performers swirled around him, Wes Bradshaw remembered a time when there were no pelicans in the bay.
The 77-year-old retired crabber said he didn’t see his first picture of them until 25 years later. I enjoy looking for them and watching what they are doing.
The arrival of brown pelicans on the Chesapeake Bay, the northernmost point in their migration, is an uplifting chapter in the tale of climate change and declining wildlife diversity. pelicans have existed for at least 30 million years, but they don’t appear in the Eastern Shore’s historical records John Smith, the English explorer who mapped out the waterway in 1608, didn’t mention the prehistoric-looking bird.
Jim Rapp, who leads pelican tours on Smith Island with Delmarva Birding Weekends, said that it was a recent thing. This place could look like Florida in a few decades.
Brown pelicans used to summer on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Jim said that storms may have forced the birds to relocate their breeding grounds up the East Coast. Brown pelicans, the smallest of the eight species, were first documented on Chincoteague Bay in 1987. The birds have formed robust colonies in the central and lower sections of the bay since the ban of Dtt in 1972 From about 60 pairs in the early 1990s to more than 2,500 today, their numbers have rocketed.
There is no better place to own real estate on the Chesapeake than this estuary. Jim once assisted scientists in banding 1,600 pelicans in an afternoon, and said there were no land predators and lots of fish. The Chesapeake is now a pelican factory.
Brown pelicans have as many responsibilities as Florida spring-breakers during the winter. For about six months in the Mid-Atlantic, the birds are all about business: breeding, building and laying eggs, teaching their offspring life skills, and securing the future of their species. The majority of these activities take place in rookeries that are accessible to flightless and boatless people.
On Smith Island, resident watermen such as Wes will take visitors to the colonies during high tide when their vessels can get close to the action. During the peak weeks, Delmarva Birding organizes day long excursions. The fee covers all water transportation, including the round-trip ride from Crisfield, Md., to Smith Island, plus a crab-cake lunch with a slice of pinstriped Smith Island cake.
A group of people boarded the Barbara Ann II on a Thursday morning with clouds and thunder. When the rain started to fall, Captain John Asanovich was at the helm, and his first mate, Barry Chew, was everywhere else, zipping the plastic flaps when the sun peeked out and caught a fly that had hitched a ride to the island. We jumped up whenever Jim pointed out a flying object because our primary goal was to see the brown pelicans.
He exclaimed that there was a glossy ibis, followed by a tricolored heron, a night heron, another glossy ibis, a snowy egret, two bald eagles, an osprey and a great black-backed gull. elican is behind us! Jim excitedly exclaimed.
I looked up in time to see a splash marking the pelicans entrance to the live fish market, even though I was deep in the Audubon Bird Guide app. A winged jester among graceful acrobats burst through the waves. Jim said that they have a big beak and a slow wing beat, but they turn into torpedoes in the water.
As we neared Ewell, the largest of Smith Island’s three villages, we saw the pelican more often. The Barbara Ann chugged past a jetty filled with pelicans outside a Starbucks. Jim explained that these birds were too young to start their own families and too old to bond with their parents. He said they are just hanging out or learning adult skills.
After a quick stop at the Smith Island Cultural Center, we walked along a road with a lot of bird jams. More than half of the main island is salt marsh, and the knee-high cordgrass and black needlerush are stretched to the Earth. Jim peered into the distance and trained his 10-times-magnification binoculars on a yellow-crowned night heron that fluttered down its back. A sparrow with its face painted in mustard flew by. He said they were found in salt marsh. They are less charismatic than pelicans. A pelican banked around a curve and fell into the water. The bird was fishing for his mate, who was stuck at home waiting for Junior to crack his shell.
In June and early July, the rookery would be overrun with black-skinned newborns with pterodactyl features or weeks-old hatchlings with brown patches on their backs. The nest around Smith Island was wiped out by a Mother’s Day storm. The birds left Drum Point, a recurrent breeding site, and the ones on South Point Marsh in Virginia, a few miles from Tylerton, started over a few weeks behind schedule.
Incubation takes between 28 to 32 days when they lay eggs in May. Jim said that the babies can’t fly until they are 75 days old. We could have baby birds until October if you did the math.
The islanders of Tylerton were able to read the private thoughts of the sea and sky. I claimed the co-pilot seat next to Wes, who was very interested in the pelicans. He told me that before we left for the colony, he had dropped by the library to learn more about pelicans. He found a short paragraph about their behavior. His daughter searched online for information about a third eyelid that protects the birds peepers. She shared it with her dad, who took it with him.
He thought they were just another bird, but later on, he became interested in them.
Wes piloted the boat across the Maryland state line into Virginia and rounded a bend that obscured the rookery. Jim said you can smell them before you see them. Enjoy the show, that’s what I say. I switched my breathing from nose to mouth and settled in for the show.
The boats parked within close range of the scrubby berm were occupied by pelicans warming their eggs between their webbed feet. The incoming birds landed on the beach with grass around their beaks. pelicans are in the water
The rookery was mostly populated by adults. Is it possible to see the real dark birds? “What looked like chocolate-dipped pelicans?” Wes asked. The babies are last year’s. The colonial birds included herrings, great black-backed gulls, and pelicans. The double-crested cormorants, which set up a maternity ward behind the pelicans, were new to the area.
Jim has been to the Eastern Shore a number of times and he still wonders if he is really there.
For a moment, we forgot about the pelicans, as we watched a gull chick stand on the water’s edge. Its parents, bobbing on the waves, encouraged it. The baby took one tentative step and was on its way to the life coaches. The boat erupted in loud cheers. It would be the pelicans turn. It was better late than never.
Ewell, Md., is at the location of 20947 Caleb Jones Road.
Within walking distance of the main dock and the Smith Island Cultural Center, the Smith Island Inn rents three rooms in a restored Eastern Shore farmhouse, as well as cottages. canoes, kayaks and bikes are free for guests. Wes Bradshaw is a local tour guide who takes visitors out on his boat to see the pelicans for $30 an hour. Guests can pre-order dinner for $45 per person, which includes an entree (crab cakes, for instance), sides, bread and a dessert choice of Smith Island cake or apple crunch pie, when the restaurant closes at 4 p.m.
The Delmarva Birding Weekends are held.
Smith Island pelican tours are held in June and are offered by the Maryland-based tour operator. Jim Rapp, who organizes and leads the outings, could add more dates in July so that visitors can see the not yet hatched chick. The tour costs $325 per person and includes round-trip transportation from Maryland to Smith Island, a bird guide, a crab cake lunch at the Drum Point Market and admission to the cultural center.
Potential travelers should consider local and national public health directives before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the CDC website and on an interactive map.