Pelicans are nesting on this Great Salt Lake island for the first time since 1943

A large flock of American white pelicans on a beach

After seemingly flying the coop, pelicans have returned to nest in the Great Salt Lake.

Last year, after American white pelicans completely abandoned their nesting colony on Gunnison Island — located on the northwest quadrant of the Great Salt Lake — Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources was curious to see what would happen in 2024.

Fortunately, the birds are back and have started nesting again on Gunnison Island, as well as Hat Island — a very small island in the south arm of the Great Salt Lake. 

This is the first time they have nested on Hat Island since 1943.

A flock of seven pelicans swim in the water
Photo courtesy of Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources

Both Gunnison and Hat Islands are owned by the DWR and have served as vital nesting areas for migrating pelicans over the years, since they offer the birds much-needed isolation and protection. The islands are closed to visitors, since even the smallest disturbances can impact the birds.

It is illegal for people to go within one mile of the islands by land, air, or water — but the department is happy to share these exciting updates with local bird lovers.

“Hello again, feathered friends,” the DWR shared on social media earlier this week.

It looks like the birds are here to stay — at least until the end of their nesting season in September.

Pelicans are very large birds, meaning their nesting period takes a long time, including a week to court, build a nest and lay eggs; a month to incubate the eggs; three weeks to feed a nestling; and nine to 10 weeks to care for a pre-fledgling.

“In total, this process takes about four months or longer, so pelicans need a protected space for a long period of time, and remote islands provide that protection,” DWR Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manager John Luft said in a statement.

With low water levels, however, both islands have become rife with predators like coyotes, pushing the pelicans to abandon their homes.

In 2014, the DWR began efforts to place transmitters on these pelicans, conducting annual surveys to monitor populations that use the Great Salt Lake during spring and fall migrations. It was on April 29 of this year that biologists confirmed that the pelicans were again nesting at Hat Island.

“As far as we can tell, pelicans are nesting at Hat Island again because some may be a little ‘gun shy’ about nesting at Gunnison Island after the disturbances that led to the colony abandonment last year,” Luft explained. 

“So this year, some birds decided to find a new location to nest that is still close to the rich food sources in wetlands on the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake.”

A pelican flies toward a body of water
Photo courtesy of Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources

Monitoring surveys for this season are still ongoing, and pelicans are continuing to arrive at their nesting colonies, so the DWR doesn’t yet have a final tally of how many pelicans have returned this year. However, initial estimates show 800 birds on Gunnison Island, and about 1,300 on Hat Island.

In 2022 and 2023, the Gunnison Island pelican colony only had about 2,900 nests, with roughly 5,800 breeding adults — the lowest number since the 1970s. 

Not only is this year’s return promising for the wetland environment, but it indicates hope about the population as a whole.

“Overall, pelican populations are doing well, and even the total abandonment of the Gunnison Island colony last year had little impact on the continental pelican population,” Luft said. 

“Seeing birds nesting at both islands again is a good sign that shows the resiliency of breeding pelicans to re-establish historic pelican nesting colonies.”

To keep pelicans safe, experts have made it clear that the Great Salt Lake’s water levels play an important role.

“Unfortunately, both Hat Island and Gunnison Island are still accessible to land-based disturbance, even though lake levels are currently rising,” DWR Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program Wildlife Biologist John Neill said in a statement.

“The threat of nesting colony abandonment will continue to persist as long as the islands aren’t surrounded by water.” 

Utah's Great Salt Lake
Photo courtesy of John Morgan (CC BY 2.0)

In fact, to get the lake up to a healthy level within 30 years, it will need to see average inflows increase by 471,000 acre-feet a year, according to the University of Utah. That’s a roughly 33% increase in the amount that has reached the lake in recent years.

Between robust water conservation efforts, shepherding that water back to the lake, and mitigating the rising temperatures of climate change through meaningful legislation, experts believe there is hope. 

“Decision-makers must balance human, ecological, and economic health as they take actions to improve water management, mitigate adverse impacts, and increase water deliveries to the lake,” said William Anderegg, director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy and co-chair of the university’s Great Salt Lake Strike Team.

The strike team’s latest analysis “makes clear the challenges Utah faces, but also demonstrates the value of working together, in a data-informed way, to ensure the health and sustainability of Great Salt Lake,” he continued.

While most of the responsibility to improve the Great Salt Lake is on humans, the pelicans prove that there’s cause for hope.

“Overjoyed to see how water conservation and two good water years can make such a big difference,” nonprofit Utah Water Savers commented on DWR’s social media post about the return of the pelicans.

“Our work is not done yet, though.”

Header image courtesy of Brian Forsyth/Pexels

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