Twice I have pulled up close to Queen Bess Island (2 miles north of Barataria Pass between Grand Isle and Grand Terre islands) with college buddy Ray Cheramie. The more recent occasion was a few days ago, when we fished for speckled trout on the east side of this small islet. Brown Pelicans ringed the island, either resting on its large granite boulders or swimming near them. Their baggy throat pouches were pulsating like a dog's rib cage while it is panting. Many more of them relaxed on a sandy flat or nested in small black mangrove bushes toward the islet's interior. The nesting season was essentially finished, for many of the birds I counted were full-grown juveniles with the ability to fly and feed themselves. There were so many Pelicans that I quit counting and decided to just estimate that from 3,000 to 4,000 of our state bird were there that day with many more flying in as sunset approached.
Twenty-one years ago Ray, a Grand Isle native, dropped one off in a light surf on the islet's western side at sunset, where I captured on film a Pelican flying across a large yellow setting sun with six more swimming in the water below. That photograph was selected to be on the cover of my "Discovering Louisiana" book.
There are three major differences in these visits of 1983 and 2004. The first is the view to the west that shows the marsh has moved substantially further away from Queen Bess. Second, the boulders that encircle the island today were just added in 1992 and again in 1996 as a part of a state and CWPPRA project. Finally, third, there are a lot more Brown Pelicans on the island today.
How can we simultaneously be losing marsh and gaining Pelicans? First a little history - the Brown Pelican was extirpated from Louisiana in the early 1960s, when DDT and similar pesticides accumulated in the fat tissue of the Pelican, resulting in death for many birds. Others laid eggs with shells so thin they never remained intact long enough to hatch. Restocking was begun in 1968 by the LA Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on Queen Bess Island. The program was an overwhelming success due to meticulous management and the banning of DDT.
Part of that management program entailed putting large rocks around Queen Bess Island to give the mangrove trees a chance to grow and, thus, permit the Pelicans to nest off the ground. That has allowed them to weather storm waves that otherwise would have covered the island and drowned their nestlings. So at least momentarily this island is safe bird haven, while the marsh to the west continues to subside and erode away.
Laughing Gulls, Louisiana Herons, and Royal and Sandwich terns are some of the other birds that have joined this rookery. The sounds, especially near the noisy terns, were deafening and louder than a motor cross racetrack or a disco with a vibrating dance floor. We caught a few fish and moved on to another nearby island that is now just a remnant reef to try to catch a few more. The trout and the Pelicans are still there; meanwhile, the marsh continues to sink. It's sad to think that our state bird and that delicious fish might soon join the marsh and vanish.