Harsh island a breeding ground for Utah pelicans
Thursday , July 17, 2014 - 5:40 AM
Gunnison Island lies in the part of the Great Salt Lake where the salt is so thick, bacteria have turned the water lavender.
It’s only six miles from the mainland, but the strange colors make the island seem otherworldly — soupy amethyst waters, snow-white salt beaches, black rock and cerulean sky. It’s a land that’s proven inhospitable to humans. There’s no shade, no water and very few plants. Still, life thrives. Gunnison Island is home to one of the largest breeding colonies of American White Pelicans in North America, which specifically select the site for its inhospitality and seclusion.
Tuesday, July 15 offered a rare occasion to see the colony up close. For two days each year, Utah DWR officials and a motley team of bird enthusiast volunteers make the trip by boat, banding hundreds of young birds by hand. Their goal is to band 250 birds in two hours with only about 30 people.
"It’s such a big production that we’ve fortunately scaled it down to just two days a year,” said John Luft, Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “The whole reason they’re out there is because they can’t stand disturbance.”
The state owns the island, and has permanently closed it to tourists to further preserve the nesting birds’ solitude. As a state wildlife management area, the island also gives bird researchers an important insight into pelicans’ habits, although they mostly monitor the colony by aerial surveys. Over the decades, the colony has significantly expanded bird biologists’ understanding of pelican behavior.
“We know a lot about this particular population,” said Don Paul, who has surveyed the island for the Utah DWR since 1980. “We’ve contributed to others working with colonies throughout western North America.”
There’s still plenty left to learn, which is where the banding and boat trip come into play. Space is limited and it’s highly coveted among bird researchers, even if it means grueling work.
True to the lake’s reputation, the smell is putrid. It’s only enhanced at Gunnison Island by the droppings left by many thousands of pelicans and gulls. The researchers work through the stink and heat under a sweltering July sun to wrangle juvenile birds into pens, catch them and restrain them. Even as juveniles, the pelicans are as large as full-grown turkeys and put up a decent fight.
The color banding project is all about timing. There’s a limited window between when the juvenile birds are too young to band and when they’re old enough to just fly away when scientist try to catch them. There’s also a small daily window to round up the young birds. Adults catch morning airstreams to hunt fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge 30 miles to the north. The fish their parents bring are the juveniles’ only source of food and water. Adults are often gone hunting for days. If the parent pelicans return while researchers are still tagging, their young won’t get fed and they may not survive the harsh landscape.
The state has banded pelicans’ legs for decades, but this is only their fourth year using colored bands on the birds’ wings. The large tags are easier to spot from a distance and provide valuable information on the birds’ migration patterns.
“I get reports about once a week or so from birders in southern California to way down in Mexico,” said Russell Norvell, avian conservation program coordinator with the Utah DWR. “This is going to give me some idea of where our birds go.”
Perhaps more importantly, the research also provides information on the birds’ interaction with human populations. The Salt Lake International Airport has thrown a large chunk of funding into the pelican banding project to better understand their movement and reduce strikes with aircraft. With information they gather from Gunnison Island, the airport will develop a pelican management plan.
“This is the first time we’ve been involved in a project like this,” said Gib Rokich, operations and wildlife manager with the airport, who joined the volunteers on the July 15 banding effort. “We’re involved with the research program to determine which are our problem birds, where they’re going and try to figure out if there’s something we can do alleviate the strike hazard.”
Conflicts have also arisen with anglers, who have increasingly complained the birds are over-predating sport fish. Most Utah DWR researchers involved with the project, however, said those concerns are likely overblown.
“It’s mostly misguided, to be perfectly honest.” Norvell said. “Pelicans primarily go after what they call ’trash fish,’ the native fish people don’t actually go for — chubs and things like that.”
After a hot, 11-hour day, the banding group is sweaty, thirsty and covered in pelican grime. Instead of complaints, however, they speak with enthusiasm. Most said they hope to return next week, when Utah DWR will spend another day wrapping-up the project for the year, tagging a total of 500 birds for 2014.
"This was my first time, and it was fantastic,“ said Katie McVey with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Bear River refuge. ”This is an amazingly harsh place to raise young, but there aren’t a lot of predators around. I can see why the pelicans like it.“
The harsh environment will still claim plenty of the young birds before they’re ready to fly south. According to Luft, the colony’s pelicans only have a nesting success rate of around 25 percent. Hungry gulls often snatch eggs and very young chicks. Other juveniles face starvation, thirst and injury. Drought and a changing climate could bring even more threats.
"We’ve been figuring, with the lake level dropping, it would create a land bridge,” Luft said. “Once you have one coyote come in there, it pretty much wipes out the whole colony.”
For now, the island continues to successfully harbor a stable population of pelicans, usually between 6,000 to 12,000 nesting adults, although Luft said surveys have found as many as 20,000. The first human to explore the island, Howard Stansbury, noted “immense flocks” of the birds in 1852. Those numbers took a dive during the decades people tried to make a living on the island harvesting bird guano in the 1870s. Pelicans apparently only visited then, but nesting populations immediately jumped back to the thousands once humans abandoned their economic efforts, leaving the austere, rocky island to the birds.
“That’s how you can tell how important it is for them to be in a place that isn’t susceptible to disturbance,” Luft said. “They’re willing to risk not being very successful on their nests just so they don’t have people pestering them. Or other mammals. Or predators.”