Explore Maryland’s Smith Island, a haven for brown pelicans

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On a sunny mid-June afternoon with a tickling breeze, dozens of brown pelicans soared overhead like an avian Cirque du Soleil. Some birds carried nesting material in their comically long beaks; others scanned the light chop for a meal. On the shore, the future parents were tending to their eggs, motionless as statues. As performers swirled around him, Wes Bradshaw recalled a time when there were no pelicans in the Chesapeake Bay, a period that spanned about three-quarters of the boatman’s life on Smith Islandmd.

“I had seen pictures of them, but I didn’t see the first one until 24 or 25 years ago,” the 77-year-old retired crabber said from inside the skiff that it uses to ferry guests to the island’s pelican colony. “Now I like to seek them out and see what they do.”

The arrival of East Coast brown pelicans in the Chesapeake Bay, the northernmost point of their spring migration, is an uplifting chapter in the often dark story of climate change and declining wildlife diversity. . Although pelicans – and their deep-throated pouches – have been around for at least 30 million years, they don’t appear in historical records on the east coast. Neither the Native Americans of the area nor the English explorer John Smith, who mapped the waterway in 1608, mention the prehistoric-looking bird.

“It’s a recent thing,” said Jim Rapp, an avid birder and conservationist who leads pelican tours on Smith Island with Delmarva Birding Weekends. “In 20 years, this place might look like Florida, bird-wise.”

Previously, brown pelicans, like many Washington residents, summered on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. However, Jim said disruptive storms may have forced the birds to move their breeding grounds about 130 miles up the East Coast. Breeding brown pelicans, the smallest of eight species, were first documented in Chincoteague Bay, near Assateague Island, in 1987. Since then, the once endangered birds (DDT , the toxic insecticide banned in 1972, was a culprit) formed colonies in the central and lower parts of the bay. Their numbers have exploded from around 60 pairs in the early 1990s to over 2,500 pairs today.

“There is no better real estate on the Chesapeake than on this estuary. There are no land predators and plenty of fish,” said Jim, who once helped scientists band 1,600 pelicans in one afternoon. “The Chesapeake has become a pelican factory.”

During southern winters, brown pelicans have as much responsibility as Florida spring breakers. However, during their roughly six months in the mid-Atlantic, the birds are all busy: mating, building nests, laying and incubating eggs, teaching their offspring life skills, securing the future of their species. Most of these activities take place in rookeries which are often inaccessible to people unable to fly or board.

On Smith Island, resident boatmen like Wes take visitors to the settlements at high tide, when their ships can get closer to the action. Delmarva Birding also organizes day trips during peak weeks. Fee covers all water transportation, including round-trip travel from Crisfield, MD to Smith’s Island, as well as a crab cake lunch with a slice of island pinstripe cake Smith, Maryland’s official dessert.

On a Thursday morning with heavy clouds and rumbling thunder, our group boarded Crisfield’s Barbara Ann II. Captain John Asanovich was at the helm, and his second in command, Barry Chew, was everywhere else, closing plastic flaps when the rain started to fall, wiping wet seats when the sun came up, and swatting away a fly that had hitchhike. to the island. The main motive for our group was to see the brown pelicans, but we still jumped – or at least nodded – whenever Jim pointed out a flying object.

“There’s a shiny ibis,” he exclaimed, followed by a tricolor heron, a night heron, another shiny ibis, a snowy egret, two bald eagles, a an osprey and a black-backed gull, the largest member of the gull family. “Pelican behind us!” Jim called excitedly.

I arrived late to the party – I was immersed in the Audubon Bird Guide app trying to learn the difference between egrets and herons – but looked up in time to see a small splash marking the pelican entrance to live fish market. Seconds later, he burst through the waves, a winged jester among graceful acrobats. “They have a massive beak and a slow wing beat,” Jim said, “but they turn into a torpedo in the water.”

Pelican sightings became more frequent as we approached Ewell, the largest of Smith Island’s three villages. The Barbara Ann passed a pier heavily occupied by pelicans who stood like teenagers in front of a Starbucks. Jim explained that these birds were juveniles, too young to start families of their own but too old to be around their parents. “They’re just hanging out,” he said, “or learning adult skills, like building nests.”

We docked at Ewell and, after a quick stop at Smith Island Cultural Center, walked along a road not heavily traveled by cars (and golf carts), but laden with bird traffic. More than half of the main island is salt marsh, and the knee-high cordgrass and black rush seem to stretch to the curve of the Earth. Jim looked away and pointed his 10x binoculars at a yellow-crowned night heron with plumes floating down its back like ribbons. A seaside sparrow with mustard-colored spots on its face passed by. “They are [mainly] found in a salt marsh,” he said. “They’re not as charismatic as pelicans.” As if on cue, a pelican leaned into a curve and dove into the water. The bird was probably fishing for its mate, who was stuck at home patiently waiting for Junior’s shell to crack.

In June and early July, the colony generally looked like a nursery overrun with black-skinned featherless hatchlings with pterodactyl features or week-old hatchlings with brown heart-shaped spots on their backs. . However, a Mother’s Day storm had wiped out the nests around Smith Island. The birds left Drum Point, a recurring breeding site, and those at South Point Marsh in Virginia, a few miles from Tylerton, started again, several weeks late.

“They lay eggs in May and the incubation lasts 28 to 32 days. Babies cannot fly until they are 75 days old,” Jim said. “If you do the math, we could have chicks until October.”

At Tylerton, our party piled into three skiffs manned by islanders who can read the inner thoughts of sea and sky. I claimed the co-pilot seat next to Wes, who was clearly intrigued, if not smitten, by the pelicans. Before leaving for the colony, he told me that he had already stopped by the library to learn more about pelicans. (Unfortunately, he only found a short paragraph about their nesting behaviors.) His daughter searched for information online and discovered a membrane, or third eyelid, that protects the peepers from birds in flight and on expeditions. fishing. She shared the discovery with her father, who passed it on to his passengers.

“I thought they were just another bird,” he said, “but later I got interested in them, especially when I started getting people to see them.”

Wes piloted the boat across the Maryland and Virginia state line and around a bend partially obscuring the settlement on Chesapeake Bay Foundation land. “You can smell them before you see them,” Jim said. “Enjoy the show.” I changed my breathing from nose to mouth and settled in for the show.

The boats parked near a brushy berm dotted with nests and the heads of white-capped pelicans warming their eggs between their webbed feet. Incoming birds landed on the beach with blades of grass hanging from their beaks like cigarettes. Behind us, pelicans have cooled off in the water.

The colony was mostly populated by adults, with a few youngsters in the mix. “See those real black birds?” Wes asked, pointing to what looked like chocolate-dipped pelicans. “These are the babies from last year.” Pelicans have also mingled with other colonial nesting birds, including herrings and great black-backed gulls. Double-crested cormorants, which had set up a maternity ward behind the pelicans, were also relatively new to the area.

“I’ve been here many times and I always wonder, ‘Am I really on the east coast?’ said Jim.

For a moment we forgot about the pelicans as we watched a floofy gull chick hobble across the beach and stand apprehensively at the water’s edge. Her parents, floating on the waves, shouted encouragement. The baby took a hesitant step, then another, and soon floated back to her life coaches. Our boat broke into silent cheers. Soon it would be the turn of the pelican chicks. Better late than never.

20947 Caleb Jones Road, Ewell, Maryland.

The Smith Island Inn rents out three rooms in a restored east coast farmhouse, plus cottages, within walking distance of the main wharf and the Smith Island Cultural Center. Guests have free use of canoes, kayaks and bicycles. The hostel offers a list of activities and local tour guides, such as Wes Bradshaw, who takes visitors on his boat to see the pelicans ($30 per hour; 410-425-2250). Restaurants close at 4 p.m., but guests can pre-order dinner for $45 per person, which includes an entrée (crab cakes, for example), sides, bread, and a choice of desserts of Smith Island cake or Apple pie. ​Rates from $139 per night, breakfast included.

Delmarva Birding Weekends

The Maryland-based tour operator offers birding tours around the Chesapeake Bay, such as Smith Island Pelican Tours, which take place throughout June. Jim Rapp, who organizes and leads the outings, may add more dates for July, so visitors can see the chicks, which have not yet hatched. The full-day tour is $325 per person and includes round-trip transportation from Crisfield, MD to Smith’s Island, a canoe trip to the nesting colony, crab cake, and a cake lunch from Smith’s Island to Drum Point Market, entrance to the Cultural Center and Bird Guide.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice webpage.


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