Another entry in Abby’s Birdbrained Summer. Abby, the summer communication intern for the Coast Office of Audubon North Carolina, is visiting sites with Audubon’s field staff and our community of volunteers. After she goes into the field, she’ll post blogs detailing her experiences.
Audubon North Carolina recently visited Ferry Slip Island on the Cape Fear River to band Brown Pelican chicks. We met at the Carolina Beach boat ramp promptly at 6:30 a.m. and squeezed onto three different boats. Everyone excitedly chattered as we sped toward Ferry Slip Island. “It looks like the island has fur,” said volunteer Katherine Frazier. She was right. Pelicans and Laughing Gulls congregated so densely, the island looked as though it was covered with a feathery carpet.
Altogether, 27 participants gathered on the beach to receive instructions. Lindsay Addison, Audubon North Carolina’s coastal biologist, told us to slowly encircle the birds, forming a human barricade. Three professional bird banders and three Audubon employees outfitted themselves in sashes of aluminum bands resembling ammunition bandoliers. The rest of us were to be the walls of the human fence, and hold birds until a bander came and closed the bracelet on their right leg.
“The most important thing,” Lindsay said, “is not to let them get into the water or pile up.” She advised us on the size of the chicks we needed to band—the larger ones covered in white down and growing in adult feathers. The handful of smaller chicks that had yet to grow any feathers were not large enough for bands. John Weske, the master bander, explained how banding data is used to learn about bird populations. With these instructions, we carefully surrounded the birds.
The chicks were not pleased about the human presence, and viciously snapped at us. “Grab the bill first,” said John. He showed me how to hold a pelican’s bill gently and avoid blocking the nostrils. Although the chicks’ flapping gular pouches were intimidating, I found that their toenails were a lot more likely to inflict damage. Each huge webbed foot was equipped with sharp claws!
“Need a bird. Need a bird,” was the call of the veteran bird-banders as they walked through us. It only took them a few seconds to adjust the metal band around a bird’s leg firmly, with no gap that might allow fishing line to get entangled. Each band had a unique code that gives information about demographics and migratory patterns if the bird is discovered later. The birds’ body temperatures were higher than I expected, and in the hot sun I quickly sweated through my shirt. A large chick knocked my sunglasses off my face as it tried to evade capture. “I saw a chick swallow a pair of sunglasses once,” said John. “But we got them back.” I didn’t want to think about my sunglasses coming up in fishy vomit, so I was extra careful to keep them lodged on my head.
"The pelican banding was an incredible experience. The event was so well organized, and everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic that it was really gratifying. We worked hard and got dirty, but holding these gangly birds was an experience I will never forget," said first-time volunteer Robin Vaughn. "The dedication and enthusiasm of the Audubon staff and volunteers to protect all of our birds is inspiring. I have shared my new enthusiasm and appreciation for our birds with friends and family."
"Never before have I had so much fun being pooped on, scratched and bitten," said Nancy Fahey, another volunteer and the coordinator of the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project.
By noon we had finished banding the vast majority of pelican chicks on the island. We were stinky, sweaty and covered in a film of feathers as we returned to the boats. John emphasized that banding would just be a disturbance to the birds, with no value to conservation and science if banders were not persistent and consistent in banding the chicks each year. This is the 30th year of banding on the Cape Fear, and the river is just one of many locations on the east coast that bands pelicans. That day alone, we banded 885 pelican chicks, an excellent contribution to the population of banded Brown Pelicans on the Atlantic seaboard.
A special note: This is Abby's last blog post. We at the coast office enjoyed having her adventuring along with us this summer and we thank her for her hard work and excellent writing. We hope you have also enjoyed reading her posts.