By Linda Cicoira
In groups, brown pelicans are called a pod, a squadron, or a pouch. When they are fishing, they are referred to as a fleet. These pointy-beak birds, are gliding around the Eastern Shore of Virginia in higher numbers these days, according to a story in the Virginian-Pilot.
Two brown pelican colonies, or nesting sites, have been identified. One is at South Point Marsh, on the bayside in Accomack County, and has been home to thousands of pelicans since 1992. The other one is on Wreck Island National Area Preserve, in Northampton County, on the seaside.
“Even though they’re only in a couple of colonies, their numbers are increasing, and the colonies are getting bigger,” said Ruth Boettcher, a coastal nongame biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. She helped conduct a water bird survey in 2018 and documented the colonies.
Brown pelicans were an endangered species as the result of pesticide exposure in the 1970s, which thinned their egg shells. They’ve since fully recovered and are expanding, with thousands of breeding pairs returning to Virginia from points south each year.
According to the newspaper story, the pelicans arrive throughout the summer to nest. They typically remain monogamous through a single season, laying up to three eggs. Usually, before cold weather sets in, they migrate south to Florida’s east coast. When warmer days stretch into fall and winter, some of the birds stay in the mid-Atlantic feasting on several pounds of menhaden and other fish each day. Cold weather can be dangerous for brown pelicans.
“When they get caught in a sudden drop in temperature that is prolonged, they can get into trouble,” Boettcher said. Local wildlife rehabilitators have cared for and later released pelicans with frostbitten feet. Healthy ones typically weigh between 6 and 10 pounds and can live up to 40 years.
In the summer, brown pelicans hit their stride, flying in a ‘V’ formation or a straight line over the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. They can spot schools offish from 70 feet above and will dive and plunge into the water, scooping up almost three gallons of sea water and fish into their elongated throat pouches.