From flying unbothered through the sky among a barrage of fighter jets during the OC Air Show, to chilling along the shores of the Assawoman Bay at all hours of the day, groups of brown pelicans have become staples of the waters around Ocean City.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Dave Wilson, the principal of Conservation Community Consulting, said the large, big-billed birds became prominent around the resort only within the last several years, a circumstance he attributes to local birds mixing with more southern ones traveling north after breeding.
Called “post breeding disbursement,” Wilson explained that groups of pelicans are coming up now from Norfolk and other southern areas after raising their offspring.
“That’s kind of what’s going on, that’s why people in Ocean City now are seeing more brown pelicans … because they’re post breeding dispersing, basically,” Wilson said. “They’re free to roam — they don’t have to stick with the kids.”
Those birds, along with the ones who have been here for years, come together and create colonies that are visible everywhere from Ocean City to Assateague.
“ … It’s complicated, but [they’ve been] breeding in the coastal bays from Chincoteague to Assawoman Bay for a number of years,” said Wilson, who is also the former public outreach coordinator and executive director for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
Called “comically elegant” and an “unmistakable bird of the coastal waters” on wildlife websites, brown pelicans have graced the shores of the Delmarva peninsula for more than three decades. Before that there were none, or almost none.
Dave Brinker, a regional ecologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, discovered the first regional brown pelican nest in Maryland in 1987 on an island off of south point. At that time, he had no idea the species would grow as much as it has.
“If you told me there would be 2,500 or 3,000 breeding pairs around the Delmarva in 20 years … it would be crazy,” Brinker said. “But there are probably 2,500 to 3,000 breeding pairs of pelicans on the Delmarva Peninsula in the summers.”
He added that from his research, the number across the region has stayed steady for the past 10 to 15 years, with a noticeable growth spurt in the ’90s and early 2000s.
“Since then, the numbers in the Delmarva area I think fluctuate year to year but they don’t seem to be increasing at the rate they were back in the ’90s,” he said.
Brown pelicans have made a remarkable comeback since the 1970s, when they were listed as an endangered species because of pollutants, such as the now-banned insecticide DDT, which also ravaged the osprey and eagle population.
Today, pelicans are no longer endangered (and ospreys and eagles abound as well) and are expected to keep nesting in the area.
Brinker said they are one of an array of bird species that breed in the area.
“Worcester County has the longest list of different species of birds that are preserved in the state of Maryland,” he said.
“Some are forest birds, some are beach birds, some are colonial nesting water birds, some are waterfowl that are now up in Canada but will be down here for the winter; the avian fauna of Worcester County is really diverse.”
Brinker added that birds can be seen pretty much anywhere around the region, with brown pelicans visible from just about any beach.
Wilson also said that climate change attributes to the influx of birds like brown pelicans, which are the only type that breed in the area.
“There’s a lot of species we’re kind of losing because of climate change,” Wilson explained. “But we’re gaining some things like brown pelicans in bigger numbers, glossy ibis, white ibis … they never used to be seen here at any time, but now they are coming up right after they are done breeding and we suspect that they are going to be breeding the coastal bays in the next couple of years.”
Wilson said the food supply and tree structure, which succumb to climate change, dictate the types of bird species that breed in the area.
As for pelicans, he said people can expect to keep seeing them until mid- to late-October and then sporadically when southern winds blow through in the winter.
“When it gets to be 55 or 60, some juveniles will accidentally fly in, be here a couple of days, and then fly back,” Wilson said.