OCEAN CITY, MD. -- Scientists believe a formerly endangered species once nearly wiped out by pesticides may be making its nesting ground in Maryland for the first time.
"It's one thing to see a bird, but it's another to see the beginnings of a viable population in Maryland," David F. Brinker, an avian ecologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, told the Baltimore Sun.
Brinker, 33, estimates 150 brown pelicans are nesting this year in Maryland, according to a survey he has carried out.
He and some student assistants first spotted the birds last year on a tiny islet near Sinepuxent Bay south of Ocean City. He returned this summer to confirm his sighting and saw a flock of the birds. On June 23, he confirmed his suspicions that the pelicans were having young in the state.
"When we found it, it was just wonderful," Brinker said.
The big pelicans, with their distinctive long, flat bills and elastic throat pouches, always have been a rarity in Maryland. Their normal range is from Texas to North Carolina. According to ornithologists, the brown pelicans have never been found nesting this far north.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the brown pelicans and their larger migratory cousins, the white pelicans, suffered under the effects of DDT and other pesticides sprayed on farm fields.
The bald eagle, peregrine falcon and osprey all nearly fell victim to the same pattern, in which the chemicals entered the food chain and made the birds' eggshells too fragile. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the pelicans on the endangered species list.
Five years ago, the pelicans were spotted again in Maryland, a sign that the ban on DDT and other conservation efforts might have helped. About 1980, the birds were taken off the endangered list, Brinker said.
"To see so many here shows a very good response for an endangered species," said Glenn D. Therres, a wildlife biologist for the Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service. "I have certainly seen them before, but the fact that they are nesting in Maryland is exciting."
Six nesting pairs of brown pelicans have hatched six young on the tiny island south of this resort town, Brinker said.
Brinker, employed by Therres under a five-year, $300,000 contract to survey colonial water birds across the state, said few sightings for him have matched the thrill of discovering the pelicans on the 900-by-400-foot islet.
The patch of land already is home to an estimated 1,800 water birds including colonies of herons, ibis and egrets.
The pelicans seem to like the social atmosphere, Brinker said. There are few predators, a good local food supply and the large number of birds can adequately defend against any potential adversaries.