A strange bird is the pelican,
His beak holds more than his belly can.
There was a time not long ago when Marylanders and Virginians had to take Ogden Nash's word about the curious fish-eating birds and their expansive beaks, but not anymore.
Reference to pelicans is not found in any history of our region, but pelicans are suddenly abundant on the lower Chesapeake Bay, particularly around Smith and Tangier islands where in this decade they've established nesting colonies numbering nearly 500 pairs.
Capt. Alan Tyler sees the big birds gliding along all the time when running his ferry boats between Crisfield, Point Lookout and Smith Island. "When they dive, they hit the water hard!" said the skipper with unchecked admiration.
Indeed, pelicans are strange birds, prehistoric in looks, smooth in flight. They have a high glide ratio with their long, tapered wings, and can swoop along wave-tops effortlessly as they hunt for stray schools of menhaden near the surface.
When they spy a likely target, they fold their wings behind and crash down in a great shower of spray, dipping their huge beaks to come up with a basket full of water "almost as big as a bushel," said Dave Brinker, who monitors the flock for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
A peculiar jaw structure allows the birds to expand the base of their lower beaks when they dive. They use the widened aperture to scoop up gallons of water, hopefully with a baitfish or two trapped inside, then squeeze the excess water out of the distended lower jaw pouch as they lift their heads to swallow the fish.
So indeed, when it first emerges from a shallow dive, a pelican has more in its beak than its belly ever could hold, and Nash is proved a genius again.
I saw my first pelican on Chesapeake Bay more than 20 years ago, but they remained relatively rare until the last few years. These days if you go to the right places, you're bound to see plenty.
Last week, fishing the Southwest Middle Grounds off Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac with Billy and Linda Brener, we saw more and more pelicans the farther east we went. When we got to the shoals surrounding Smith Island, Brener spied a commercial fisherman's pound net where he said he always sees a couple of dozen hanging around.
We idled over and there they were, gawky brown birds balanced precariously on the exposed tops of the netting, waiting for menhaden trapped in the impoundments to surface so they could dive and scoop them up.
Unlike pelicans in Florida that waddle around at your feet, these birds were spooky and they scattered as we neared, but in time they got comfortable with our presence and began gliding back in.
Tyler, the ferry captain, said they won't come ashore on Smith Island, preferring to keep a safe distance from humans, at least for now.
Brinker, the DNR biologist, said the birds nest in May and June in remote, uninhabited marshes between Smith and Tangier islands. The young take nine weeks to reach flight stage, during which time adults feed on menhaden and fly back to the nests to regurgitate food for the young, which are born "naked, blind and about as ugly as anything you've ever seen," he said. "They look like reptiles."
Brinker is credited with recording the first successful nest of brown pelicans in Maryland in 1987, when he watched a pair set up housekeeping on a dredge-spoil island in Chincoteague Bay behind Assateague Island. U.S. pelican populations at the time were still rebounding from a steep decline attributed to widespread use in the 1960s of the pesticide DDT, which threatened populations of many large, fish-eating birds including bald eagles.
After DDT was banned, pelican populations began expanding and the summer feeding range steadily spread north, Brinker said. "In 1986, we saw a pair of pelicans carrying sticks onto South Point Spoils, where there was a big nesting site of about 2,000 pairs of herons."
"These were probably young, first-time breeders, sort of playing house, like moving in together before getting married," he said. "The next spring, they moved in and made young."
Pelicans generally lay three eggs that hatch in series every two days after a gestation of a little over a month, he said. If food is abundant, all three little ones may survive; if not, the ones born later get squeezed out by the first-born, which gets bigger and stronger first and hogs the food.
Fishing apparently has been good in the region as the pelican nesting colony steadily grew to a current total of about 650 pairs. The first nesting pairs in the Chesapeake proper turned up in 1991, and today it's the principal nesting area for Maryland and Virginia. In one stretch of marsh between Tangier and Smith islands, 495 nests have been counted.
Maryland is the northernmost nesting area in the East for brown pelicans, Brinker said. The trend toward warmer weather may be boosting the trend. The season here is now just long enough for the birds to fly north from wintering grounds as far south as Cuba, make nests, hatch young and raise them to flight stage before it's time to head back south for the winter.
He reckons the population will keep growing until pelicans run out of nesting sites, food or elbow room. The current abundance is a good indicator of a healthy bay, he said, since the birds need lots of forage fish plus relatively clear water to see their prey in order to thrive.
The expansion is our gain. Pelicans as a species are at least hundreds of thousands of years old, probably millions, said Brinker. On the ground they're goofy and clumsy but in flight they are refined and a pleasure to watch, gliding effortlessly along with big eyes trained below and long, distinctive beaks hinged and ready to strike.
To see pelicans on the bay, take the ferryboat Chelsea Lane Tyler from Point Lookout State Park to Smith Island. It leaves Wednesday-Sunday at 10 a.m., round-trip fare is $22; or take the Captain Tyler from Crisfield to Smith Island, which leaves daily at 12:30 p.m., round-trip fare $20.
CAPTION: Prehistoric in looks, but quite smooth in flight, the pelican suddenly is abundant on the lower Chesapeake Bay.