Louisiana Pelicans Recover, Along With Their Island

QUEEN BESS ISLAND, La. (CN) — Nearly wiped out by agricultural pesticides in the 1950s, Louisiana’s state bird the brown pelican has made a tremendous comeback. Now, thanks to 150,000 cubic yards of Mississippi River sand and help from $18.7 million of BP’s multibillion-dollar settlement for the catastrophic oil spill a decade ago, one of the pelicans’ essential nesting grounds is also coming back.

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig caught fire and sank April 20, 2010, killing 11 people and pumping at least 100,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the next 87 days, the disaster lobbed tar balls and oil onto the already dwindling Queen Bess Island, 3 miles offshore from Grand Isle and 45 miles from New Orleans. The oil spill came as a final injury after decades of coastal erosion had reduced the island to a mere skeleton, reducing its 45 acres in 1956 to just 5 in 2010.

An oil covered pelican sits stuck in thick beached oil at Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay, just off the Gulf of Mexico in Plaquemines Parish, La., on June 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Thousands of birds and pelicans were covered in oil and tar during the oil spill, and an estimated 1,000 pelicans died as a direct result of the disaster.

This week, Queen Bess Island will reopen for birds at a restored 36 acres.

Construction on the island is wrapping up and the result is “nesting habitat for the next 20 years,” said Todd Baker, the biologist supervising restoration work for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Baker said the restoration was designed with sea-level rise in mind. Much of the sand that was brought to the island by barge was used to elevate the island.

“A bird cannot have a nest that will go underwater,” Baker said.

The island is the fourth-largest brown pelican rookery in Louisiana and supports 15% to 20% of the state’s pelican nests. It is also a critical nesting habitat for at least eight other species of water birds, including tricolored herons, great egrets, roseate spoonbills and royal terns.

“If we build something that is the proper elevation now, it will change in 20 years. So what we’ve done with this project is we’ve built some habitat at a higher elevation, so that the island will be resilient for the next 20-30 years,” Baker said.

Restoration of Queen Bess Island involved enhancing a rock ring around the island to protect and maintain the sand fill that raised the island. A set of rock breakwaters just offshore of the southwestern side of the island create a lagoon-style nursery that will help young birds learn how to swim, preen and feed.

Highest is the southwestern side, roughly 4 feet above sea level and gently sloping toward the northeast, where intertidal marsh elevations and an enhanced tidal exchange gap will host black mangroves and other fish and wildlife habitat. A nearby breakwater is intended to reduce wave-driven erosion through the gap.

Small limestone meant to resemble tiny shells will work as nesting habitat for birds that prefer to nest on the bare ground and also serve as ramps to be placed around the island to provide young birds with access to the water.

“We’ve restored the footprint of the island,” Baker said. “The result is good nesting habitat today and into the future.”

Each spring hundreds or thousands of brown pelicans and other birds fly to Queen Bess Island to lay eggs. With reconstruction of the island wrapping up, the season for egg laying is just about to kick off. The island will be closed to foot traffic through September.

In the 1950s, the birds were dying from eating fish contaminated by pesticides, especially DDT, carried into Louisiana bays by the Mississippi River. The contaminants caused the birds’ eggs to have such thin shells they would be crushed under the weight of the parents during incubation.

By 1961, pelicans stopped nesting in Louisiana altogether.

Biologists in the Pelican State reintroduced the birds by capturing young pelicans in Florida and releasing them on islands off the Louisiana coast. Their hypothesis, which proved true, was that the birds would remember the islands and return when they were old enough to lay eggs. Queen Bess Island was the first place reintroduced pelicans laid healthy eggs in the state. During the 1971 nesting season, scientists counted 11 pelicans nesting on the island.

In November, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission designated Queen Bess Island a wildlife refuge. This designation underscores the island’s role as critical habit for the brown pelican.

“The significance of the island is twofold,” Baker said Thursday. “It recognizes how much the state of Louisiana has put into the island, and also, as a rookery, the designation gives us more protections for the birds on the island.”

Baker said that before the designation as a refuge, the only power a wildlife agent had to protect the nesting birds from people came under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which empowers an agent to stop people from entering a bird’s habitat only if they see a nest being destroyed.

But now, under the new protected designation, “all you have to see is someone on the island” during the eight months when the island is closed to people. Baker said nesting lasts from roughly late February through September and during that time the island is closed.

Construction was headed toward its projected completion by Feb. 15 this week with the last several barge loads of sand making their way onto the island still crisscrossed by dredge pipe and construction equipment.

One side of the island is elevated by 1 to 1½ feet and as you cross the island you realize it is gradually sloped toward a higher elevation.

Baker said the island is targeting birds that nest in colonies, such as brown pelicans, herons, egrets, black skimmers, three species of terns and laughing gulls.

“The island is very important to the brown pelican,” Baker said.

He said that while he is the biologist on the project, another critical component of the restoration work came from the state’s Coastal Protection Restoration Authority with whom his agency has worked closely, and by Katie Freer in particular, the project manager for the CPRA.

“It’s thrilling to be completing this project right now, in time for the brown pelican and other birds to come back in time for nesting,” Freer said Thursday. “But also, that we can build on this project for the projects to come.”

In November, when Queen Bess Island was designated a wildlife refuge, Gov. John Bel Edwards lauded the designation.

“It’s so important that we protect, as best we can, the natural resources of our state,” Edwards said in a statement.

A brown pelican flyies over Queen Bess Island in Louisiana on July 16, 2018. The island is being restored to nearly its former size after decades of coastal erosion and the devastating blow of an offshore oil spill 10 years ago. About 6,500 brown pelicans and 3,000 smaller seabirds cram their nests every summer onto Queen Bess Island, which shrank from 45 acres in 1956 to about 5 acres by 2010. (Gabe Giffin/Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

When the governor toured the island in early February, he was pleased and said pelicans would be too.

“I think they’ll like what we’ve done with the place,” Edwards said.

“Before we started this restoration last August, only five of the island’s 36 acres were usable for nesting,” Edwards said. “Now all 36 acres are available, and we have plans to keep it that way for years to come.”

Queen Bess Island is 3 miles offshore from Grand Isle, La., which is deemed one of the best places in the world to see migratory birds.

“After a long flight across the Gulf of Mexico, migrating birds flock to Grand Isle to rest after their difficult journey. The island has become one of the best places in the world to see the variety of species flying north,” said Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle.

In April every year Grand Isle has a migratory bird festival to celebrate the arrival of migratory birds and to provide access to viewing. This year, free boat rides will take visitors to the island’s periphery.

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