Pelican Banding on Gunnison Island

Gunnison Island is a protected pelican nesting island in the North Arm of the Great Salt Lake. I was recently asked to help band juvenile pelicans this July with Utah's Department of Natural Resources and a few other non-profit groups. Here's how it went...

"Hug a Pelican?! Of COURSE I want to hug a pelican! Oh, er...BAND a pelican. Yes, that's what I meant." As I hung up the phone I was still picturing the opportunity to hug one, of course. Seeing pelicans on Gunnison Island, a protected island upon which few feet have trodden, is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was definitely going to take advantage of that by doing all the hugging I could.

My alarm went off at 3:30 am, and after a 10-minute period of groggy confusion, I remembered that today was pelican-banding day! The morning dawned bright as Karri Smith and I (both representing Great Salt Lake Audubon) pulled up to the meeting spot to meet the other banders and biologists working on the project. We hopped on boats to Gunnison Island, watching the sun come up over the pink waters of the North arm of the Great Salt Lake. Birds flitted past us in sun-streamed flocks, and tinted clouds spanned the morning sky. The island became bigger and bigger as we made our approach, and so did our excitement.

Pink bird morning copyright Jennie Burns

Gunnison Island copyright Jennie Burns

After landing and making our way to shore, we went over our banding plan. First, we were to spread out into two groups, one to walk over the top of the island and the other around the side. Walking at the same time, in this way we would sneak up on the pelicans, herding them into one spot and keeping them from escaping into the water. After that we were to quickly set up a makeshift pen around the pelican group, keeping them inside and making it easier to grab them one by one for banding. We were to band approximately 300 juvenile pelicans.

Pelicans, pelicans, everywhere!

We found the group of juveniles snoozing in the center of the island. They became alert as we made our approach, but it was not difficult to pen them in. The adults flew away and watched our activity from above. For four straight hours we banded in the blazing sun, catching the birds one by one and taking them over to the banders who tagged both their wings and then let them go. For four hours we did our best to keep the birds inside the pen, constantly running around pushing escapees back inside the pen and breathing dirt, dust and feathers swirling around in the air from the stampeding pelicans. Carrying the pelicans close to our bodies and feeling their soft downy feathers was the best part. I can now say I’ve officially hugged a pelican!

Herding pelicans copyright Karri Smith

Hugging pelicans copyright Jennie Burns

Biologist George Oliver banding pelicans copyright Jennie Burns
Juveniles copyright Jennie Burns

Four hours later over 300 banded pelicans make their way down to the water to regroup. These banded pelicans will offer biologists more knowledge about the migration and nesting patterns of a bird that is close to becoming endangered. The Great Salt Lake offers critical nesting habitat for these birds, and companies that wish to expand mineral mining on the lake is a huge threat to the species. I felt honored to have spent my day with these birds, and to even have set foot on this beautiful bird haven. Thank you to John Luft for letting Great Salt Lake Audubon be a part of this critical effort.


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