Bird and Great Basin enthusiasts now have a chance to peek at one of the most remote places in the region. All they need is an internet connection.
Biologists, students and educators spent a long day Tuesday — and a long boat ride — installing a “PELIcam” on Gunnison Island, an isolated and important bird nesting site for American white pelicans. The camera is now streaming images all day and night, just in time for the birds to swoop in and begin building their nests.
The goal behind the PELIcam project is to pique public interest in the birds and tap citizens for a crowd-sourced science project.
“Not very many people know we have American white pelicans that live in the middle of this salty lake,” said Jaimi Butler with Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute. “Everyone knows what a pelican is, everyone can identify a pelican — they’re interesting, big cool birds. So why not, while we’re learning more about them, have people help us?”
Gunnison Island lies in the North Arm of the Great Salt Lake. Breeding pelicans select the site for its isolation, but it comes at a cost. The adult birds fly daily to Bear River Bay, Farmington Bay or beyond to catch fish to feed their young. The baby birds have no way to access food or fresh water on their own. Only around one in four of the chicks survive into adulthood and leave the island.
Biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources take advantage of adult pelicans’ daily food-finding trips to conduct annual tagging of the juvenile birds too young to fly away. Since 2010, the scientists have made an annual trip to the island, placing metal bands around juvenile Gunnison Island pelicans’ legs and punching green tags in their wings.
Birdwatchers can easily spot the tags and report sightings back to state biologists.
“This is a relatively cheap version of tracking them, but you’ve got to get people to report them,” said John Luft with the Utah DWR Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program. “I think that’s the biggest thing we’re trying to do with this project — get people interested ... let us know where you see these birds an if you can read the tag numbers.”
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The PELIcam will aid tagged bird sightings and provide a glimpse of the pelicans’ daily routine on the island.
“We’re hoping to learn more about the pelicans — like timing, reproduction, things we can’t really know because we can’t be out here on this remote island all the time,” Butler said.
The division’s Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program also placed another 14 motion-triggered cameras throughout the island to get a sense of the birds’ movements as well as the arrival of invaders, like coyotes and humans.
Gunnison Island’s location and lack of fresh water has largely protected the nesting birds. But dropping water elevation in the Great Salt Lake has created a land bridge allowing hungry predators and curious people to intrude.
Did you know?
The Great Salt Lake would be around 11 feet higher if not for human water use. The Standard-Examiner spent a year investigating the environmental and economic impacts of the declining lake levels in the project “Losing the Great Salt Lake.”
“If disturbance increases to a certain level, we risk the population not coming back and finding other roosting areas,” said David Kimberly, an assistant professor of biology at Westminster College. “We don’t know where those would be.”
The State of Utah owns the island and protects it as a rookery. Only those escorted by state biologists are allowed to visit.
“We don’t allow any trespassing on this island at all,” Luft said. “There’s actually a one-mile halo around the island, you can’t fly within a mile of the island without permission.”
The PELIcam brings the island a little closer to Utahns, at least virtually. It officially went live this week. The solar-powered camera transmits an image of the island’s Lambourne Bay every five minutes and compiles a daily time lapse video of the images, too.
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The project is a collaboration among the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Westminster College and the University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences MesoWest. The Tracy Aviary provided a $9,000 grant for the camera and for student research on the island.
Beyond keeping an eye on the live camera, the PELIcam team will also tap the public for help sifting through thousands of images collected by the island’s motion cameras when breeding season ends. To watch the pelicans and for more information on the project, visit GSLPeliProject.org.