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Each summer, thousands of brown pelicans journey from southern wintering grounds in Florida and Cuba to the Chesapeake Bay to breed on the marshy islands of Maryland’s eastern shore, including Adam Island, Smith Island, Holland Island and Taylor’s Island. However, little is known about the daily habits of these migratory birds once they reach the Chesapeake Bay, how long they stay and the full range of their habitat. On July 11, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center scientist Autumn-Lynn Harrison set out to deploy GPS tags on the Bay’s brown pelicans to track their migrations and better understand these iconic birds. This project was made possible through Friends of the National Zoo’s Conservation Grant program.
This brown pelican nesting colony is on Adam Island, one of the disappearing islands of the Chesapeake Bay. Also nesting on the island are herring gulls and double-crested cormorants. The island still contains the remnants of an abandoned helicopter pad and a Navy tower.
Autumn-Lynn Harrison, Research Ecologist, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (right) and David Brinker, Central Regional Ecologist, Wildlife and Heritage Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (left) set up a leg-loop trap over a nest in a brown pelican colony on Adam Island, Dorchester County, Maryland. Brinker discovered the very first pelican nest in Maryland in 1987.
The first brown pelican capture, ready to receive a GPS tag and share its migration secrets!
GeoTrak GPS/Argos satellite tags charging in the sun, while scientists set up the tagging station. The tags weigh about 2 percent of the bird’s mass and are designed with a sloped front to reduce drag when pelicans dive, as well as a solar panel to keep the battery charged. The blue tape holds a magnet that turns the tag off. When the team is ready to deploy the tag, they remove the magnet, and the tag begins transmitting.