BRUNSWICK — Some brown pelicans rescued from the Gulf oil spill last summer and released in Georgia not only returned to the state this spring but are nesting and raising young here.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist Tim Keyes recently spotted eight of the pelicans nesting in a large colony on Little Egg Island Bar, a state-managed natural area in Glynn County. The birds originally from Louisiana are marked by colored leg bands.
At least seven of the nests have chicks.
“So far, they look great,” said Keyes, who works with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Efforts to clean and relocate the pelicans once soaked with oil from the BP spill raised questions about whether the large waterbirds would survive and whether they would fly back to contaminated areas in the Gulf of Mexico. Oiling also can affect reproduction.
While the pelican sightings are a hopeful sign for those particular birds, Chuck Hunter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said there still are many unanswered questions about the effects of the oil on the pelican population in general, as well as specific questions about the pelicans spotted in Georgia.
“These birds, no matter how clean, likely still have some oil in their internal systems, and females especially may pass this contaminant on to the chicks,” said Hunter, chief of the service’s Division of Planning and Resource Management for the National Wildlife Refuge System in the Southeast.
“But this does tell me that it’s possible for some oiled birds to reproduce. Whether or not these chicks will fledge and survive to reproduce successfully themselves is also unknown and would take many years to determine.”
More than 1,200 birds were rehabilitated and released in Georgia, Florida, Texas and upstate Louisiana. Of those, 699 were brown pelicans, 140 of which were released in Georgia last June and July.
In the months during and after the BP oil spill that began in April 2010, more than 7,000 other birds were collected dead or died soon after.
Hunter said an unknown number of additional birds most likely were exposed to oil and never recovered because they died at sea or in remote locations on the coast.
Keyes said the Georgia nests have two to three chicks each – normal for brown pelicans – and at least one parent sporting a leg band. The chicks have been given a health checkup, and biologists are awaiting results of blood work. Keyes also banded some of the chicks so they can be tracked after leaving the nest.
“We’ll be visiting each of the eight nests weekly and monitoring the chicks, hopefully to the point we can say if they successfully fledged,” he said.
The young birds will start flying in about five weeks.
Of the pelicans released in Georgia, Keyes documented about 25 in the state this year. None were seen in December or January. It’s likely the pelicans migrated out of the area and returned to Georgia by mid-March.