It’s looking like a good year for pelican nests on the Slave River rookery, where the great birds have been coming to lay their eggs for at least a century.
The Pelican Advisory Circle in Fort Smith, just downstream from the archipelago where the birds nest, finished their June nest count last week after having flown over the islands to photograph the birds earlier last month.
An estimated 691 nests were counted on the islands – 87 more than last year, making 2012 the fourth highest year in terms of nest numbers. The year 2001 still holds the record with 756 nests.
There were nearly 70 more nests on the pelicans’ favourite, but smaller, island, known as Island 1 this year compared to last year. The other populated islands remained roughly the same in terms of nesting populations, but the least favourite island, Island 5, is seeing twice as much nesting activity as it did last year. Island 2 – known as “Pelican City” – continues to have the most density, as is normal, at 427 nests.
The islands are numbered by the pelicans’ order of preference. The oldest birds, which can be great-great-grandparents in the pelican world, get first choice, picking the centre of the first island upon arrival in late April or early May.
John McKinnon, a Parks Canada representative with the Advisory Circle who did the flyover to photograph the nests, said this last count showed some of the most densely populated, symmetrical nesting he has ever seen on the islands.
“This is spectacular,” he said.
The pelicans tend to nest closely and in secluded areas surrounded by vegetation, if possible, for protection.
Each nest is presided over by a partnership of pelicans who take turns sitting on the eggs and fishing downstream at the Rapids of the Drowned, where large numbers of pelicans can currently be seen gobbling up great amounts of lamprey – approximately five to six pounds each a day.
Advisory Circle founder Jacques Van Pelt said there is good reason for the pelicans to do their nesting and fishing in this area, which is the furthest north of any pelican colony.
“They favour this site on the Slave River because it’s the most nutrient-laden site in the world. That’s because of the silt load that comes from the Rockies. Silt-laden fish are much more nutrient-laden,” he said, adding that the site is also very private, which the cagey birds – known to desert if approached – appreciate.
The Advisory Circle now must wait until their end-of-July chick count to see how many eggs survive predation and other potential factors that risk their hatching.
“What’s left after is what’s important,” said Van Pelt. “An average of one chick per nest survives.”