Three brown pelicans killed at Gayman Bridge

Rick Kelley/Valley Morning Star A brown pelican glides above the waters of the Laguna Madre.

A sudden, late-afternoon drop in the fierce winds associated with a cold front Jan. 2 spared all but three brown pelicans, which were killed at the Carl “Joe” Gayman Bridge along State Highway 48.

The Pelican Team deploys when cold fronts rumble into the Valley, which prompts brown pelicans to fly up the Brownsville Ship Channel, follow the cut across the highway at the bridge, and roost for the night in the Bahia Grande.

But the bridge has become a pelican trap due to unusual aerodynamics above the structure which force the pelicans down onto the roadway, where they stand little chance against traffic running between Port Isabel and Brownsville in the 75-mph zone.

“We were pretty worried about those really strong winds in the morning and how long they would carry over,” said Justin LeClaire, a team member. “I think gusts were well into the 40s early on in the morning, and although there aren’t many birds crossing at that time of the day north into the wind, some birds do go back and forth.”

“Prior to 2 p.m. there were three brown pelicans, a red-breasted merganser, a black-crowned night heron and at least one laughing gull that did get struck on the highway and killed,” he added. “A couple of us arrived about 4 p.m. which is when the bulk of birds cross, the last hour or two of daylight basically.”

But by that time winds in the area fortunately had subsided to around 20 mph, which is apparently navigable by pelicans crossing into the Bahia Grande to roost.

LeClaire praised the efforts of the Port Isabel Fire Department, Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, all of which had personnel on-site Sunday with emergency lights blazing.

“Even if we had a lot of birds down, hopefully we would have had some good success getting them off,” LeClaire said. “But thankfully they didn’t even hit the roadway really.”

He said one brown pelican did land on the highway but was able to right itself and fly off into the Bahia Grande.

“Which kind of shows that the winds at that point weren’t too terrible,” he said.

He said the recently erected TxDOT signs warning motorists to slow down due to pelicans in the roadway were flashing and are probably helping.

“It really seems like when we’ve got law enforcement out there with emergency lights that it really makes a difference,” LeClaire said. “But the lights on the signs were lit up. It certainly isn’t making it worse, and we’re glad to see those working during the cold fronts.”

In the past five years, the Pelican Team has recorded 993 brown pelican deaths at Gayman Bridge linked to the passage of winter cold fronts. Around 700 birds have been rescued.