Jason Fry is a filmmaker from Brownsville. We met at a diner there. He told me what happened to him the afternoon of Dec. 8 as he drove down Highway 48, from Brownsville to Port Isabel.
“It was low visibility, and all of a sudden a pelican dropped out of the sky right in front of my truck,” he said.
He hit the brakes just in time, but the bird didn’t move. Traffic was too thick to get out and move the pelican off the road, so he just went around it. Ninety minutes later, he drove back the same way.
“There was just carnage,” Fry said.
Brown pelicans used to be pretty rare in South Texas. In the 1960s, they were brought to the brink of extinction by the pesticide DDT. Since then, their numbers have rebounded. But now they’re facing a new threat.
On just one day last month, over 60 brown pelicans were killed along Highway 48. Strong winds blew the birds into the roadway – where they stood little chance against oncoming traffic. It caught a lot of people’s attention – particularly because pelicans were involved.
Tommy Saenz is a lifelong South Texan. He helped assemble a team of volunteers to help the pelicans.
“They’re beautiful when they’re flying in formation,” he says. “They fly in a V formation. I can’t describe how beautiful they are.”
But why were pelicans getting killed? That’s the first thing Saenz’ group, Save Our Pelicans Laguna Madre area, wanted to know.
This group of pelicans roosts in a bay called the Bahia Grande, about 10 miles west of the Gulf of Mexico. In the morning, they fly out to the gulf to hunt fish. In the evening, tired and full, they fly back over Highway 48 to roost in the bay.
Saenz and the other volunteers think the problem facing the pelicans are the 40-inch-high concrete barriers in the middle and on either side of the road.
“What happens on the north wind when it hits that concrete barrier – it creates an updraft and then, of course, a downdraft,” Saenz says. “What the downdraft does is, basically, as the pelican approaches the roadway – they get slammed back into the ground, into the road.”
The group wants the barriers replaced by something that won’t alter the wind flow so much. But the Texas Department of Transportation isn’t so certain. The barriers were added several years ago, but pelicans have only recently been killed in such large numbers. Still, TxDOT spokesperson Octavio Saenz says they’re trying to fix the problem. In 2015, TxDOT installed poles designed to deter the birds.
“We’ve been on it for a while,” he says. “This event that occurred in December took everybody by surprise.”
The poles’ main effect is pushing pelicans to other parts of the road.
On a Friday afternoon in early January, the conditions were especially dangerous for the pelicans. A cold front was on the way. North winds topped 25 miles per hour. The volunteers were bundled up with reflective vests as their outermost layer, armed with orange flags and whistles. Jason Fry tells me the basic strategy:
“The main thing is you’ve got to get out ahead of it, and if a bird does go down, you want to be about a hundred yards ahead of it so you can flag down the traffic and actually get them to stop,” he says. “You don’t want the whole team on top of every single bird.”
The volunteers spread out, stopped cars going 75 miles per hour, picked up these wild birds, made their way across four lanes of traffic, cleared two concrete barriers, and then deposited the birds in the Bahia Grande.
There were only a handful of people to cover over a mile of road. Still, they’re pretty successful – both in snagging pelicans, and in slowing down traffic.
Justin LeClaire and Stephanie Bilodeau are wildlife biologists who moved to South Texas from Vermont.
‘Normally we get very few that slow down,” LeClaire said. “And we’ve had most people slow down when we’ve been flashing the flags.”
“Yeah, it worked really well,” Bilodeau says. “They seem to be really receptive today.”
While standing at the bridge, we see a few pelicans much further down the road coming in low.
“See if they can make it,” LeClaire says.
“That’s not looking good,” Bilodeau says. “Oh gosh, oh shoot, there’s one. That’s way down there!”
We took Bilodeau’s truck to the downed pelicans. After they helped them across the road, we started back to the bridge.
“Was this one here,” LeClaire says. “You wan to pull over real quick just in case it’s still alive?”
It’s a juvenile – all brown – not like the adults. A strip of feathers between its wings had been torn away. You could see the bright pink and red muscles that ran along its back. They couldn’t help this one.
“Yeah, I had even seen one where I felt like I almost connected to it, like that one – just kind of looking into those eyes that aren’t closing anymore,” LeClaire says. “I don’t know, that one was super sad.”
“Especially considering we just barely missed it,” Bilodeau says. “We were there, what, five minutes ago?”
When we get back to the bridge, we found Renee Lockett, another volunteer, guarding four pelicans on the road shoulder.
“They seem to be staying put,” Lockett says.
But it’s gotten darker, and there weren’t enough volunteers to handle all the birds. They decided to grab two of the pelicans, then come back for the others.
“Ugh, it’s a little nerve-wracking,” Bilodeau says.
“This guy’s going,” Lockett says.
The pelicans made a break for it.
“Oh shoot, they’re going,” Bilodeau says.
“Oh no – stop, stop,” Lockett says.
Two went for the road, toward the bay. They flap their wings, but can’t get enough lift. A truck bearing down the road stopped just a foot and a half short of hitting them. Lockett and Bilodeau quickly scoop them up and take them across.
By now, the sun has set. It wasn’t safe to be out on the road. The team is debriefed to end the night.
“So 15 we’ve pulled off total. Two dead, plus the cormorant,” LeClaire says. “And then three before we got here, I guess. So five dead total today,”
“Five dead, 15 off,” Lockett says. “Ok. Success.”
“That was a busy day,” LeClaire says.
“So worth it,” Bilodeau says.
“Absolutely, absolutely worth it.” Lockett says.
It was tough knowing some pelicans had died, but the team had saved a lot more, and I felt good as I made my way toward my hotel. There were no lights on that stretch of Highway 48 and haze coming off the Bahia Grande made it even harder to see.
I drove slowly because the road is slick and the wind was pushing my car around. I remember thinking “I really hope I don’t see a pelican, because I won’t be able to stop.”
And a moment later, that’s what happens.
I stopped the car, and pulled onto the shoulder, thinking maybe I could still help. But I couldn’t find it.
When I got to my hotel room, I got an email from Tommy Saenz. It says that after sunset, more pelicans tried to cross the road. They usually don’t cross so late, but some of the volunteers think the strong winds put the birds behind schedule, and 18 pelicans died after the team left that night. Most were killed just east of the bridge, where I hit one.
TxDOT is working with local agencies on a long-term fix. One solution may be installing more pelican poles. The volunteers are also optimistic about finding a long-term solution, but they’re hoping one comes soon – not just for the pelicans but for the humans involved.
“It’s very dangerous for us to be out there, especially if it gets dark,” Saenz says. “We do do it, we have the love for it, but we can’t do this every time.”
Or at least, they hope they won’t have to do it every time.