Pelicans return to Slave River rookery

Pelicans return to Slave River rookery
American White pelicans have begun nesting on the Slave.Photo: John McKinnon.

Bird-lovers along the Slave River are welcoming the return of some faithful, feathered friends, who have officially arrived for their summer nesting period on the archipelago near Mountain Portage rapids.

The northernmost colony of American White pelicans, who have been coming to nest on the Slave for hundreds of years, began settling on the rocky islands just off the Portage peninsula on April 28 – a week earlier this year than normal. Last year, the pelicans moved in on May 5.

In usual fashion, the colony had sent one pelican reconnaissance officer to a lookout point on the river to report back on when it was safe for the rest to move in from their resting point at the Salt Plains.

Having seen that the ice bridge connecting the islands to the shore – a path for predators – had melted, the guard returned to deliver the message and, since then, dozens of the white birds have been landing out on the river.

A recent fly-over by Parks Canada officials showed the usual prime real estate – Islands 1, 2 and 3 – inhabited by the first arrivals. When those are full, pelicans will begin to fill up the next most popular.

“They’re coming in now over a four-week period,” said Jacques van Pelt, one of the original founders of the Pelican Advisory Circle in Fort Smith, which has led the longest continual pelican survey in the world since 1974.

As mating happened down south already, the birds are currently building their shallow nests and laying eggs. Males collect the sticks and bring them to the females, who rake the wood and silt on the island into round pits with their horned bills.

“There’s no set of islands in the Slave River corridor better suited for this, so they’re very faithful,” van Pelt said.

Over the years, the pelicans have selected among the seven islands based on water levels, sometimes choosing the highest islands in times where the flush from the Peace-Athabasca Delta was large enough to endanger eggs on the lowest islands.

The Advisory Circle is again planning its three bird counts for the summer with Parks Canada and the department of Environment and Natural Resources, with the cooperation of Northwestern Air, who assists with the flyover.

“Once again, we’ll be doing the three censuses – the June nesting count, the July chick or “pod” count and the August fledgling count,” said John McKinnon, an Advisory Circle member and ecosystem support technician with Wood Buffalo National Park.

The Advisory Circle is now doing the usual awareness-raising, letting pilots and paddlers know to stay well away from the nesting islands lest they disturb the cagey birds.

“This is a deserter bird – they will abandon their nests,” van Pelt said. That fact was discovered the hard way by Ernest Thompson Seton in 1907, who scared the birds away when he visited the island, causing 100 per cent nesting failure. Since then, the pelicans have abandoned that particular island permanently.

Both McKinnon and van Pelt advised that the closest visitors can get to the pelicans is the high bluff on the peninsula at Mountain Portage rapids, where interpretive signs exist at a designated lookout point.

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