Brown pelicans used to be an endangered species. Now there...

Brown pelicans used to be an endangered species. Now there are more than 2,500 pairs in the Chesapeake Bay area.  Credit: For The Washington Post/Ann Cameron Siegal

Wes Bradshaw remembered a time when there were no pelicans on the Chesapeake Bay, a period that covered about three-quarters of the waterman's life on Smith Island, Maryland.

"I had seen pictures of them, but I didn't see my first one till 24, 25 years ago," the 77-year-old retired crabber said from inside the skiff he uses to transport guests to the island's pelican rookery. "Now, I enjoy looking for them and seeing what they're up to."

The arrival of nesting East Coast brown pelicans on the Chesapeake Bay, the northernmost point in their spring migration, is an uplifting chapter in the often bleak tale of climate change and declining wildlife diversity. Though pelicans - and their deep throat pouches - have existed for at least 30 million years, they do not appear in the Eastern Shore's historical records. Neither the region's Native Americans nor English explorer John Smith, who mapped out the waterway in 1608, mention the prehistoric-looking bird.

"It's a recent thing," said Jim Rapp, an avid birder and conservationist who leads pelican tours on Smith Island with Delmarva Birding Weekends. "In 20 years, this place could look like Florida, bird-wise."

Previously, brown pelicans, like many Washingtonians, summered on North Carolina's Outer Banks. However, Jim said disruptive storms may have forced the birds to relocate their breeding grounds about 130 miles up the East Coast. Nesting brown pelicans, the smallest of the eight species, were first documented on Chincoteague Bay, near Assateague Island, in 1987. Since then, the once-endangered birds (DDT, the toxic insecticide banned in 1972, was a culprit) have formed robust colonies in the central and lower sections of the bay. Their numbers have rocketed, from about 60 pairs in the early 1990s to more than 2,500 couples today.

"There's no better real estate on the Chesapeake than on this estuary. There are no land predators and loads of fish," said Jim, who once assisted scientists in banding 1,600 pelicans in an afternoon. "The Chesapeake has become a pelican factory."

During winters down south, brown pelicans have as many responsibilities as Florida spring-breakers. However, for their roughly six months in the Mid-Atlantic, the birds are all business: mating, building nests, laying and incubating eggs, teaching their offspring life skills, securing the future of their species. The bulk of these activities take place in rookeries that are often inaccessible to the flightless or boatless.

Smith Island cake at Silver.


Smith Island cake at Silver.

Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Im/The Washington Post

On Smith Island, resident watermen such as Wes will scoot visitors over to the colonies during high tide, when their vessels can inch close to the action. Delmarva Birding also organizes daylong excursions during peak weeks. The fee covers all water transportation, including the round-trip ride from Crisfield, Maryland, to Smith Island, plus a crab-cake lunch with a slice of pinstriped Smith Island cake, Maryland's official dessert.

On a Thursday morning with ponderous clouds and rumbling thunder, our group boarded the Barbara Ann II from Crisfield. Captain John Asanovich was at the helm, and his first mate, Barry Chew, was everywhere else.

"There's a glossy ibis," he exclaimed, followed by a tricolored heron, a night heron, another glossy ibis, a snowy egret, two bald eagles, an osprey and a great black-backed gull, the largest member of the gull family. "Pelican behind us!" Jim called out excitedly.

Ewell, the largest of Smith Island's three villages, is a...

Ewell, the largest of Smith Island's three villages, is a popular birding destination.  Credit: The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs

The pelican sightings became more frequent as we neared Ewell, the largest of Smith Island's three villages.

We docked in Ewell and, after quick stop at the Smith Island Cultural Center, walked along a road that was light on car (and golf cart) traffic but heavy with bird jams.

Jim peered into the distance and trained his 10-times-magnification binoculars on a yellow-crowned night heron with plumes that fluttered down its back like ribbons. A seaside sparrow with mustard-colored smears on its face flew by. As if on cue, a pelican banked around a curve and plunged into the water.

Nesting brown pelicans started to appear around the Chesapeake Bay...

Nesting brown pelicans started to appear around the Chesapeake Bay about 25 years ago, having relocated from North Carolina's Outer Banks. Credit: The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs

In June and early July, the rookery would typically resemble a nursery overrun with featherless black-skinned newborns with pterodactyl features or weeks-old hatchlings with heart-shaped brown patches on their backs. However, a Mother's Day storm had wiped out the nests around Smith Island.

"They lay eggs in May, and incubation takes 28 to 32 days. The babies can't fly until they're 75 days old," Jim said. "If you do the math, we could have baby birds till October."

In Tylerton, our group piled into three skiffs captained by islanders who could read the private thoughts of the sea and sky.

Wes piloted the boat across the Maryland state line and into Virginia and rounded a bend partially obscuring the rookery on Chesapeake Bay Foundation land. "You can smell them before you can see them," Jim said.

The rookery was mainly populated by adults, with a few youngsters in the mix. "See those real dark birds?" Wes asked, pointing at what looked like chocolate-dipped pelicans. "They are last year's babies."

For a moment, we forgot about the pelicans as we watched a floofy gull chick hobble down the beach and stand apprehensively on the water's edge. Its parents, bobbing on the waves, squawked encouragement. The baby took one tentative step, then another, and was soon floating toward its life coaches. Our boat erupted in quiet cheers. Soon, it would be the pelican chicks' turn. Better late than never.


Smith Island Inn

The Smith Island Inn rents three rooms in a restored Eastern Shore farmhouse, plus cottages, within walking distance of the main dock and the Smith Island Cultural Center. Guests have free use of canoes, kayaks and bikes. The inn provides a list of activities and local tour guides, such as Wes Bradshaw, who takes visitors out on his boat to see the pelicans ($30 an hour; 410-425-2250). Restaurants close at 4 p.m., but guests can preorder dinner for $45 per person, which includes an entree (crab cakes, for instance), sides, bread and a dessert choice of Smith Island cake or apple crunch pie. ​Rates from $139 a night, including breakfast; 20947 Caleb Jones Rd., Ewell, Md., 410-689-9438,

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