Bird disappearances and a Gulf-Minnesota connection

Seahorse Key in the Gulf was the site of a major bird disappearance in April 2015.

The affable ex-Marine officer who was my guide for an excursion into the waters of the Keys compared the brown pelican to the white, with a clear preference for the latter.

“The brown pelican lands on the water with all the grace of a Labrador Retriever,” he said, getting a quiet chuckle. “The white pelican lands elegantly.”  

The white pelican is Minnesota’s pelican. Both birds exhibit impressive stability of flight: they are rigid as they glide inches above the water, prey below. Their flights evoke military precision.

We were two miles off Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico and it had just come home to me again: the connection between Minnesota and the Gulf is interesting, mostly unknown and often avian. Case in point: the white pelican.

Audubon Minnesota did a study over three years recently of where Minnesota-summering white pelicans wintered in the Gulf. They fitted 15 of the birds—five per year—over the period with tracking transmitters at fall migration. All were first captured at Marsh Lake in Lac Qui Parle County by our border with the Dakotas.  

Audubon Minnesota found the birds did not make a beeline south at all; they wandered the high plains and flyways en route to the Gulf, took their time, were opportunistic, probably. Secondly, their destinations were scattered around the rim of the Gulf from Florida to the Yucatán, Kristin Hall of Audubon Minnesota told me.

Amazing are the birds! It is their diversity of behavior and range over the earth, why they shift that range, and how they thrive or don’t that hold vast and critical information for humankind. There is likely no better or more nuanced measure of the health of the planet than the sum of all that.

Marsh Lake in Western Minnesota has held as many as 15,000 breeding pairs of white pelicans in the summer. Minnesota and North Dakota combined, harbor perhaps 40 percent of the entire world’s population of white pelicans in the summer! 

Not to be a homer, but that’s another reason why I believe Minnesota is ecologically significant beyond its size or reputation.

Marsh Lake has probably seen its pelicans fluctuate or leave at times. Suddenly, I mean, not owing to migration. Other places certainly have.

“Chase Lake in North Dakota was considered the largest breeding colony (of white pelicans) in North America with nearly 18,000 nesting pairs in 2000,” according to Audubon Minnesota literature identifying “stewardship” species. “But during the height of the 2004 breeding season, the adults suddenly abandoned their nests and young.” That’s inexplicable.

These sudden disappearances can’t be taken lightly as human endeavors increasingly press bird species. Yet, disappearances aren’t unknown.

Off the commercial clamming town of Cedar Key — on Seahorse Key to be exact — a very large and multi-species disappearance in April 2015 still has scientists, naturalists and locals wondering what happened to the largest rookery of birds in the Gulf. Some thought it a virus, some thought it a raccoon invasion, others blamed snakes and military sonic booms. Whatever it was, suddenly and overnight the pelicans, herons, egrets, spoonbills, cormorants and other birds utterly vanished. 

It’s something I wanted to check out for myself after reading Audubon’s winter magazine piece on the Seahorse Key disappearance. I’d planned to be down here in the last wild part of Florida in February anyway, not that I was going to out-sleuth anyone, just to give it a look. And so I have and can now only report the birds are coming back, slowly.

So that’s where it stands, another bird mystery, a disappearance. An enigma not soon to be solved, but somehow I think also a story of connectedness, an obscure axis with Minnesota at one end, the Gulf shore at the other, and daunting complexity veiling it all.

The details

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is looking for information on returning pelicans. They would like to know when, where, and how many you see. To report pelicans, contact Lisa Gelvin-Innvaer, Nongame Wildlife Specialist at 507-359-6033 or lisa.gelvin-innvaer@state.mn.us.

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