Pelican-tracking project uncovers impact of Gulf oil spill in Minnesota

6/13/2016 | 0

Researchers capture an American White Pelican at Marsh Lake, in western Minnesota. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.

Researchers capture an American White Pelican at Marsh Lake, in western Minnesota. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.

Last month, we shared the exciting news that our friend and longtime contributor Carrol L. Henderson received the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Garden Club of America. As the supervisor of the nongame wildlife program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Henderson has been involved in many bird-conservation projects, including successful efforts to restore Bald Eagles, Eastern Bluebirds and Peregrine Falcons.

Carrol L. Henderson holds a tagged pelican that is ready to be released.

Carrol L. Henderson holds a tagged pelican that is ready to be released.

After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he and colleagues from Audubon Minnesota, North Dakota State University, and the U.S. Geological Survey began studying Minnesota’s American White Pelicans and Common Loons. They wanted to know where birds that breed in Minnesota spend the winter and if they have picked up contaminants from oil and dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2014, we reported on the project’s tracking of juvenile loons. To date, 22 loons have been fitted with transmitters.

In early May, Henderson and others placed transmitters on 10 American White Pelicans that breed at Marsh Lake, in western Minnesota. Five other birds had received devices in 2015. Pelicans nest at four sites on the lake; last year, about 10,300 pairs were counted on the lake — about 63 percent of the 16,400 pairs that nest in the state. Across Minnesota, the number of nesting pairs has declined since 2011, when 22,000 pairs were tallied.

Researchers attach a numbered cell-tower transmitter to a pelican's wing. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.

Researchers attach a numbered cell-tower transmitter to a pelican’s wing. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.

The pelicans tagged last year were tracked to the Gulf, and at least two of the five are back in the Gopher State this spring at two separate colonies. Henderson says he and his colleagues hope data from the newly tagged birds “will further correlate their movements within the Gulf of Mexico to assess the extent of time they are in areas with the petroleum contaminants.”

American White Pelican chicks in a nest at Marsh Lake. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.

American White Pelican chicks in a nest at Marsh Lake. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.

In addition to tracking the birds’ movements, the researchers have analyzed their eggs. Of 40 eggs from Marsh Lake analyzed since 2013, 10 percent have been found to have oil and dispersant contamination from the Gulf. The study’s funding of more than $640,000 has come from Minnesota lottery proceeds.

The next step, says Henderson, is to develop a program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “for remediation of losses of loons and pelicans over the coming months using BP settlement funds. Funding could come as early as next year.” — Matt Mendenhall, Senior Editor

Expanding eastward: American White Pelican is now breeding in Wisconsin.

Read ‘Open Doors,’ Carrol L. Henderson’s article about birding in Cuba

Ralph’s Talking Eggs, by Carrol L. Henderson.

Henderson’s account of Lake Osakis, Hotspot Near You No. 113.

 

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