The young, starving white pelicans all started to show up in the same week and volunteers with the Wildlife Center of the North Coast thought, “Oh, no.”
They were worried they were about to see a repeat of what happened in 2014.
That summer, the wildlife center received a crash course in juvenile white pelican care after campers flushed an estimated 100 chicks from nesting grounds on Miller Sands Spit, an island complex in the upper Columbia River estuary east of Astoria between Svensen and Knappa. They captured 30 chicks and later released 21.
This year, the wildlife center has only ended up harboring 10 white pelicans, young birds that were likely startled off their nests and took to the river before they were old enough to fly or feed themselves. On Wednesday morning, volunteers released five on Chinook Indian Nation land at Tansy Point in Warrenton near Youngs Bay.
Caring for white pelicans may be a relatively recent experience for the wildlife center, but the birds have become more and more common on the estuary over the past decade.
Climate change appears to be driving a northward shift in seafaring brown pelican populations, but there is not as clear a link between climate change and white pelicans’ movement westward and toward the coast in the Pacific Northwest.
It was a surprise to researchers like Dan Roby, a professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University, when white pelicans began nesting seasonally at Miller Sands Spit in 2010. White pelicans are more often associated with freshwater lakes and rivers farther south and east.
But the pelicans have been subjected to a lot of drought at more traditional breeding sites inland, Roby noted.
“So I think a case could be made for climate change being a factor in the shift of American white pelicans northward and coastward,” he said.
“This year hasn’t been a bad year for a lot of the areas where they’ve traditionally nested, but when drought dries up the water bodies that they normally use to nest and forage, they have to go somewhere, and I think some of them started checking out potential places near the coast where there’s plenty of water.”
Once considered endangered in Washington state, white pelicans were down-listed to threatened in 2016. In 1994, they had reestablished at a colony in the Columbia River that had not seen breeding in about 50 years. The colony has since grown to over 3,000 nesting pairs, according to a status review of the birds by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2016.
According to reports by state fish and wildlife managers in past years, white pelicans’ range appears to have shifted north by almost 200 miles.
White pelicans can now be seen floating in large, pillowy-looking groups on either side of the New Youngs Bay Bridge or drifting slowly in large flocks over downtown Astoria beginning in the spring and through late summer. Larger than brown pelicans, with wingspans that can reach over 9 feet in length, they are instantly recognizable. There is nothing else like them in the estuary.
“This pelican makes unusually long flights for feeding and migration,” notes the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on a webpage dedicated to the birds, “and at great distances, soaring flocks have been reported as UFOs.”
White pelicans are sensitive to human disturbance at nesting sites, and this could hamper the growth of colonies in certain areas like Puget Sound or the Salish Sea, Roby said. Miller Sands is popular with fishermen and another place where the birds face the possibility of frequent disturbance.
But, Roby added, “they’ve weathered a lot of bad breeding seasons in the Columbia River estuary and the number of birds that we saw on Miller Sands Spit earlier this season — we’re talking about hundreds of birds nesting there.”
Some years, if birds have been disturbed early in the season at Miller Sands, researchers have seen them move to Rice Island to the west and nest successfully.