The barrier islands off the southeast coast of Louisiana support more than 16,000 nesting pairs of brown pelicans. Wildlife biologists monitor the health of the pelican population and the movement of these coastal birds.
The birds prefer nesting on the islands, but they don't stay there. Steve Phillips continues his special report on the brown pelicans. Louisiana-born pelicans have been spotted as far away as Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
"I love my job. I never get tired of coming out here," federal biologist James Harris said.
His work environment is a barrier island off the coast of southeast Louisiana. His job involves close encounters with brown pelicans.
"The pelicans never do attack you."
Counting the pelicans means walking through their nesting area. Even if the birds wanted to attack, they're not built for it.
"Once they get up and flying, they're just beautiful fliers. And they can go long distances. But close in maneuvering, they just, they're not built for speed and maneuverability."
The nesting season stretches from late April into mid August. South Gossier Island is home to nearly 3,000 nests with an average of three eggs each.
Each spring, biologists post warning signs to help protect the nesting habitat. Pelican nests are scattered all over the island.
"The birds you see here, all the ones with the white plumage on the head, those are all adult birds. And these birds don't reach sexual maturity, they don't start breeding until they're three or four years old. So, for three and four years, they're somewhere else."
A banding program will help determine just where the young pelicans go when they leave the nests. Banded birds have already been spotted as far away as Central and South America. A large number also stay along the Gulf Coast.
"I would say that probably 90 percent or better of the birds that you see on the Gulf Coast, on the Mississippi Coast, were hatched right here."
Along with their aesthetic beauty, brown pelicans are also an important barometer for the health of the environment. Problems with the brown pelican population can often signal more serious environmental concerns.
"In 1975, we had endrin get into the environment at the mouth of the Mississippi river, which caused some pelicans to die," Louisiana wildlife biologist Tom Hess said. "They are very susceptible to pesticide contamination. And if the pelicans wouldn't have been here at that time, the endrin problem could have escalated and been a problem throughout our environment."
Pesticides virtually wiped out the pelican population along the gulf coast in the early 1960s. Thanks to wildlife management, more stringent protection and the elimination of many harmful pesticides, the pelicans are back.
"The fact that they have been brought back and the numbers we see out here now is just a tremendous success story," Harris said.