HARLINGEN — The pelican toll in the killing zone on State Highway 48 on Tuesday was just three, members of the Pelican Team of rescuers said yesterday.
“It went really well,” said Justin LeClaire, a wildlife biologist and a team member. “They had only two deaths before dark, but I know we did see one more on the way out.”
He said 50 birds were pulled off the road and safely released on the north side of the highway.
The portion of highway which runs over the Carl “Joe” Gayman Bridge has become a killing field for brown pelicans, which in late afternoon fly from the Brownsville Ship Channel and up the cut the bridge spans to roost overnight in Bahia Grande.
Why it happens
Under conditions created by cold fronts blowing in from the north, the concrete traffic barriers on the sides and in the middle of the busy highway create a downdraft or a dead zone which causes flying pelicans to plummet to the roadway.
The Pelican Team of volunteers is allied with the Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Game Wardens, Port Isabel Fire Department and the Cameron County Emergency Management agency.
TxDOT also is looking at solutions to the wind issue at Gayman Bridge, and has funded a study of the pelicans and their movements which is being carried out by Lianne Koczur of Texas A&M University.
“She got 19 birds banded last night, and we would bring the birds over occasionally that we were grabbing off the road and band them and quickly throw them back on the north side,” LeClaire said.
LeClaire described the conditions as brutal — winds in the upper 20s with gusts to 35 mph, and spitting rain and sleet.
“The winds were out of the northwest which is the worst angle, basically, because it is perpendicular to the road,” LeClaire said. “There was a little bit of drizzle coming down on us, and you could actually feel the ice crystals on your face. It was a little painful.”
The Pelican Team has now had experience with several weather events which have put the birds in danger, and LeClaire said coordination is improving rapidly along the dangerous roadway with its 75-mph speed limit.
The team had Texas Game Wardens and a Cameron County Emergency Management crew yesterday, he said.
“They were doing the same thing — slow cruising around the danger zone, doing circles or slow laps, and just right down the center of the road with their lights on at 15 miles an hour, or 20 miles an hour, keeping people going slow.
“And if a pelican hit the road they would just stop in front of it and allow the volunteers to get it safely off the road,” he added.
Two dozen of the massive birds were killed in early December during a similar strong cold front which zipped into the Valley, bringing high winds from the northwest. Rescuers managed to save more than 200 by picking them up and carrying them to the north side of the bridge and releasing them.
On Dec. 14 just a single pelican death was recorded at the bridge during another cold front event.
The good news for today, LeClaire said, is the wind is expected to diminish as well as shift more to the north, which reduces the wind shear effect as it crosses the bridge.
The brown pelican is the smallest of the eight pelican species, although it is a large bird in nearly every other respect. It is 42 to 54 inches in length, weighs 6 to 12 pounds and has a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet.
Distinguished from the American white pelican by its darker plumage, smaller size and its habit of diving for fish from the air.
The brown pelican lives on both coasts in the Americas. Pelicans are gregarious birds and live in large flocks year-round.
Brown pelicans were listed as endangered from 1970 to 2009 but were de-listed as their population increased.