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1/19/2017 Pelicans are the Pacic Northwest's newest climate refugees


Pelicans are the Pacific Northwests newest climate refugees

by Katie Campbell

This story originally appeared on OPB/EarthFix (http://earthfix.info/news/article/pugetsoundhasnewclimaterefugeestheyrepelicans/).

American white pelicans are conspicuous birds. With their long orange bills and their ninefoot wingspan, they stand out, even at adistance.

Sue Ehler easily spots a squadron of them through her binoculars from over a mile away, coming in for a landing on Puget Sounds PadillaBay.

Theyve got that pure white. It just shines like a bright light out there. More than the other white birds, Ehlersays.

Ehler visits this estuary in Northwest Washington every other week from spring to fall with her friend and fellow citizen scientist and retired biologist Matt
Kerschbaum. Theyre volunteers with the Skagit Heron Foraging Study, tracking the health of the largest breeding colony of great blue herons in the

Ehler and Kerschbaum were among the first to notice thepelicans.

It was like seeing aliens arrive, says Ehler, a seasonal biologist with a degree in ornithology. Its unprecedented for them to
be here, so something really unusual ishappening.

White pelicans are different from brown pelicans, a more common summer visitor to coastal Washington. The white pelicans range stretches across much of the
country but not into WesternWashington.

White Pelicans werent a rarity in Washington a century ago, when they were common visitors to the states inland waters. But their numbers fell due largely to
habitat loss and pesticide use. In recent decades, populations have recovered to the point that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is now
recommending that they be uplisted from endangered to threatened (http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01829/wdfw01829.pdf).

At first Elher and Kerschbaum counted about a dozen white pelicans in Padilla Bay. But the ranks soonexpanded.

We had a baseline of nothing and suddenly we got a 130. So it kind of sets off the alarms that say, Maybe I should look into this a little bit, said Kerschbaum,
a retired wildlife refuge manager with U.S. Fish andWildlife.

They put out a call for sightings with area birding groups and Audubon societies and soon had more than 100
reports not just in Puget Sound, but also on the Olympic Peninsula and north into coastal BritishColumbia.

I wouldnt be surprised if they arent prospecting for new locations, says Dan Roby, a professor of wildlife
ecology at Oregon State University who studies pelicans and other birds. White pelicans do seem to be
expanding and establishing new sites. It seems like its only a matter oftime.

Roby says the pressures of climate change could be atplay.

Citizen scientists Sue Ehler and Matt Kerschbaum Climate ChangeRefugees

noticed white pelicans one one of their routine
counts of herons on Padilla Bay in Puget Sound. Normally the regions white pelicans spend the summer near breeding areas farther south and east, raising
Credit: Michael Werner, OPB/Earthfix their young on islands in freshwater lakes and rivers. The surrounding water creates a natural barrier that
protects the nestlings from predators. But with parts of Oregon and California are enduring another year of
severe drought, prime breeding grounds like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon have been

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1/19/2017 Pelicans are the Pacic Northwest's newest climate refugees


Sections of Malheur Lake have gone dry, creating land bridges that allow coyotes to reach the islands, where young roosting birds are easyprey.

The American white pelicans range covers much of the United States, but doesnt
include Western Washington, where hundreds of pelicans have been recently
sighted. Credit: Madelein Pisaneschi/KCTS9

Roby and his team monitor pelican colonies and count breeding pairs. They often fly over known pelican colonies and take aerial photos to avoid disturbing them
by approaching by boat or on land. Earlier this summer they flew over Malheur Lake and found only a few hundred birds when normally there would

The officials at Malheur reported the pelicans have failed in their breeding efforts there for the past twoyears.

After several years of drought, the lake is so low itll take two or three good snowpack years to bring the lake back to levels that would support a pelican
colony, Robysaid.

So he said the pelicans visiting Puget Sound could be climate change refugees moving north in search of islands surrounded by water that would make a suitable
site for a new colony.

Over the last 50 years the median location of pelican colonies across the country has shifted north by almost 200
miles, according to a recent Idaho Fish and Game report (https://idfg.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/DraftPelican

For a good disperser like white pelicans thats not that far, Roby says. Its certainly notable that the median site
has moved that far north, but Im not really surprised. Thats the trend that you see a lot inbirds.

When it comes to climate change, pelicans may be better off than landlocked species. But Roby said he thought the
American white pelicans normally spend
ideal pelican habitat would be difficult to locate in WesternWashington.
the summer months on freshwater lakes
and rivers farther south and east, like here
at Oregons Lake Klamath. Credit: Jes Its hard to find islands in Puget Sound that dont have human disturbance, Roby said. White pelicans are
Burns, OPB/EarthFix extremely sensitive to human disturbance and will abandon a colony quickly if people get tooclose.

And if they did find a suitable location, Roby said their human neighbors may not be so welcoming. Thats because
people often assume that pelicans eat young salmon, but actually biologists have found that white pelicans eat small, mostly nongame fish as well as amphibians

Pelicans OutProspecting

In early July, after a couple months of testing out Padilla Bay, Ehler said, the group of more than one hundred pelicans tookoff.

It was just overnight. One day they were here and the next, they were gone, Ehlersaid.

Soon she got reports of a large group of pelicans at Deer Lagoon (http://soundwaterstewards.org/icbw/estuaries/DeerLagoon.htm), a quiet inlet on the south
end of Whidbey Island that has both a freshwater marsh and a saltwater marsh.

Its quite an exciting event. The local residents are all watching them, coming out and checking on

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Its quite an exciting event. The local residents are all watching them, coming out and checking on
them, said Joe Sheldon, of the Whidbey AudubonSociety.

Through a spotting scope, he counted nearly 200 pelicans. He looked closely at their legs, but could see
noevidence of tags that could provide clues to where they came from. Over the course of a few hours, he
watched as the pelicans swam around the marsh among great blue herons, ducks, terns andgeese.

Species with a variety of ecological requirements find this to be a delightful home and a delightful place
to visit, Sheldonsaid.

Joe Sheldon of the Whidbey Audubon Society says,

Seeing 180 white pelicans in Western Washington is Its too soon to say if these pelicans are just Puget Sound tourists, or new summerresidents.
unheard of. Credit: Michael Werner, OPB/EarthFix
Will they come back? Sheldon asked. Well wait and see for nextyear.

To see the pelicans before they migrate south for the winter, heres how to visit Deer Lagoon. (http://www.whidbeyaudubon.org/deerlagoon.htm) Explore a
map of white pelican sightings and submit your own reports at eBird (http://ebird.org/ebird/map/amwpel?

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