Habitat Restoration Makes Home for Pelicans

Date: August 01, 2008

The Country Today
By Diane Baumgart
Regional Editor

LAKE BUTTE DES MORTS- American white pelicans have found a home at the Terrell's Island wetlands. More than 600 pelicans nested there this year.

In 1998, the Butte des Morts Conservation Club purchased 1,200 acres of wetlands on the south shore of Lake Butte des Morts, which is part of the Lake Winnebago system. They placed the area into a non-profit public trust and began restoring the area as an attractive home for wildlife. Seven islands were built, with two of them completed in March. Club members added riprap, vegetation, fencing and netting. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources funded the construction of a break wall.

As preservation work continued, the birds took notice.

"We almost fell over when we found pelicans a year ago," said Pat Fisher, founder of Feather Rehabilitation Center in New London. "We were releasing a northern harrier in Omro when a kid said, 'Look at the pelicans.' There were about 300 of them flying in unison."

As they stood watching the birds, Ms. Fisher and the other rehabilitators wondered about the possibility of banding the birds. They contacted the conservation club and asked permission, which they got, along with a pontoon and other equipment. Club members showed them the main island filled with pelicans.

On May 31, they banded 11 pelicans.

"There were nests with babies all over the one island," Ms. Fisher said. "Some chicks were swimming; some were on nests, some walking around. There were eggs hatching. When you are in the boat it takes your breath away."

Banding them was challenging.

"We had no idea what we were up against," Ms. Fisher said. "It's messy work. (Pelicans) throw up fish on you."

Pelicans have wingspans up to 9 feet, Ms. Fisher said. They don't dive. They herd their dinner into shallow areas and scoop them up in their beaks. They lay an average of two eggs but the second chick usually doesn't survive.

A large percentage of the conservation property is wetlands, club president Nile Roeder said. The 12,000 acres is open for recreational fishermen but no hunting is allowed from the high grounds.

"We hope to preserve the natural resources and help Lake Butte des Morts act as a filter and breeding area for fish and natural species," Mr. Roeder said. "That's where banding of the pelicans makes a difference."

Learning about wildlife patterns, food consumption and water quality draws students, conservationists and natural resource personnel to the area. The DNR has collected regurgitation samples on Green Bay to identify which fish the pelicans eat. At Terrell's Island, it's mainly gizzard shad, Mr. Roeder said.

While the first day of banding went well, plans to return a second time didn't work out. June rain elevated the Fox River and the islands almost flooded, Ms. Fisher said. There were many dead birds and lost nests. The birds were stressed; eggs were found floating and many chicks drowned.

Along with nesting pelicans, great egrets were found on a nearby island. An endangered species, the egrets needed protection, Ms. Fisher said.

"Next year, we would like to get permission to band again. We could band earlier where it wouldn't interfere with nesting egrets," Ms. Fisher said. "And we would like to start education trips. We could take kids on boats. The BDMCC has to have individual groups come in throughout the year to maintain their status."

Mr. Roeder said they also hope to continue banding but would need to work closely with the DNR to achieve that goal.

While the area does not have any staff at the site, they hope to open a nature and visitor's center.

"We are trying to get funding to purchase a 20-acre parcel that is privately owned," Mr. Roeder said. "We are going through negotiations. The property would enable the club to build a nature center. Hopefully this area is preserved so future generations can enjoy the birds," Mr. Roeder said.

White pelicans also can be seen nesting at Cat Island in Green Bay and at Green Lake.

Diane Baumgart can be reached at dianebaumgart@sbcglobal.net.