Scientists plan to bring successful island restoration project, pelican roost to Houma

A successful island restoration project that repopulated tens of thousands of brown pelicans will be re-created 16 miles from Houma.

The island will be a re-creation of the Queen Bess Island at the mouth of the Houma Navigational Canal, beginning in September. Queen Bess is a 37-acre island that was clawed back from the Gulf at a cost of about $20 million. For reasons unknown to scientists, it is a prime breeding ground for Louisiana's state bird, the brown pelican. The bird and its habitat are a good petri dish for studying the effects of land loss and how to combat it, scientists said.

As a small boat of scientists puttered toward the lone Gulf island, a wall of darkness rose from its shore, blackening the sky with beaks and feathers. Before the boat reached the island, the wind wafted a rotten stench of shrimp and other sea life over the boat.

"That's the sweet smell of success," Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Program Manager John Wiebe said.

Thousands of brown pelicans call Queen Bess Island their summer retreat, June 11. The island was restored from 5 acres to 37 acres over a three year period, 2017-2020. Scientists are unsure why the bird uses the island as a prime roosting location to raise their young.
Thousands of brown pelicans call Queen Bess Island their summer retreat, June 11. The island was restored from 5 acres to 37 acres over a three year period, 2017-2020. Scientists are unsure why the bird uses the island as a prime roosting location to raise their young.

It was the smell of droppings from more than 20,000 birds that call Queen Bess Island their summer love nest. They estimate about 10,000 are brown pelicans. The island is lush with many hues of green. Hermit crabs scuttle along the shore in droves. Seagulls, brown pelicans, egrets, herons and more sit or float along its coast. The birds have no predators on the island, and nests are plentiful, beginning mere steps from the shore.

"You can't explain it, it's just something you have to see," Wiebe said. "When you are going through it, walking through it, there's just layers of nests."

A baby brown pelican attacks a sprig of Matrimony Vine on Queen Bess Island, June 11. The island was restored from 5 to 37 acres for about $20 million over a three-year-period, 2017-2020. Now, four years later, the population is recovering.
A baby brown pelican attacks a sprig of Matrimony Vine on Queen Bess Island, June 11. The island was restored from 5 to 37 acres for about $20 million over a three-year-period, 2017-2020. Now, four years later, the population is recovering.

Wiebe has been assigned to the project since its beginning in 2017 when there was only 5 acres remaining, and while the project was completed in 2020, the island must be maintained and studied so scientists can learn from it to replicate the efforts elsewhere. These lessons will be employed for a $34-million project to restore a Houma Navigational Canal Island. When complete, it will be 34.5-acre island at the mouth of the canal.

Wiebe was joined by CPRA Scientist and Project Manager Katie Freer. Together they explained how scientists had to plan out the perfect habitat for the pelicans to want to settle down and breed.

Clippings were taken from the natural vegetation of the island and then layered out across the rebuilt land. Standing on the oldest portion of the island CPRA Project Manager Todd Baker pointed to the newer areas, highlighting each layer of vegetation. Lines of slightly different plant life, like waves of subtly different shades of green, were the only indication to an untrained eye. From a distance, Baker knew each plant species by name.

The vegetation had a twofold importance: it both anchored the land to stave off erosion and provided nesting material for the birds. Matrimony Vine appeared to be a favorite of the pelicans. The branches of the bush could be found bent and twisted into a circle with an adult pelican standing on it, shielding its chicks from the sun's rays.

Pelicans, Baker said, have a high mortality rate in their first year of development, often dying in the winter chill. To combat this and ensure the species' survival, it's a matter of success by volume. More babies ensure more make it past that first year. After that, the species is very successful, he said.

Three fledgling brown pelicans gather around a small puddle on Queen Bess Island, June 11. The island was restored from 5 to 37 acres for about $20 million over a three-year-period, 2017-2020. Now, four years later, the population is recovering.
Three fledgling brown pelicans gather around a small puddle on Queen Bess Island, June 11. The island was restored from 5 to 37 acres for about $20 million over a three-year-period, 2017-2020. Now, four years later, the population is recovering.

"Those cold, muddy temperatures send the fish deep, and these birds, in their first year, don't know how to feed, so they literally starve to death in big numbers throughout year one," he said. "However, after year one, their survival rate is outstanding."

Baker often raised his binoculars to look at the birds swooping overhead, and the three scientists would identify different pelicans by their bracelets. The bird bling came in two varieties: state and federal. Many of the pelicans are tagged so that scientists can document their movement. They have found the pelicans roosting here travel to areas like Florida and Central America.

Baker said the pelicans are Louisiana's version of a canary in a coal mine. Every major issue plaguing Louisiana's coast affects their roosting habitat first. Erosion, subsidence, oil spills and more tear away at their habitats, as well as issues that reduce the mainland's coast. For example, when the BP oil spill hit, Barataria Bay had six to eight pelican colonies, Baker said.

"And now, as we stand here today, this is the only one left," he said.

He pointed to a pelican baby pelican nipping at a branch. "They're on the decline," he said. "Everything that affects our coastal Louisiana and our residents, these guys are on the front line of it."

All the data collected from the project is open source and can be found through the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration website here: https://www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/restoration-areas/louisiana. Type the project name in the search bar and click the result to pull up all the information.

This article originally appeared on The Courier: Scientists bringing successful island restoration project to Houma

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