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Restoration underway at SW Louisiana pelican nesting island

January 16, 2021 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Restoration is underway at the state bird’s only breeding site in southwest Louisiana, the Louisiana Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority said.

Rabbit Island is also where about 180 brown pelicans and 140 smaller birds were released in 2010 after oil from the BP spill was washed off of them.

Spill settlement money is paying for the $16.4 million project, including the $7.3 million contract with Weeks Marine of Covington, authority spokesman Chuck Perrodin said Tuesday. The company is dredging sediment from the Calcasieu Ship Channel to rebuild the island, which sits in a cove of Calcasieu Lake.

The authority said Rabbit Island is the first rebuild of a waterbird colony since the successful restoration of Queen Bess Island, which saw a dramatic increase in nesting activity immediately following its completion.

“Within weeks of construction wrapping up last February, at least 8,000 brown pelicans started nesting on Queen Bess, more than double what was expected,” executive director Bren Haase said in a news release. “And Rabbit Island is more than twice the size of Queen Bess, with 88 acres being rebuilt as suitable nesting habitat. We look forward to welcoming thousands of nesting birds back this spring.”

Before Queen Bess Island was increased from 5 acres (2 hectares) to about 37 acres (15 hectares) of usable nesting area, about 6,500 brown pelicans and 3,000 smaller seabirds nested there.

Rabbit Island has eroded from nearly 290 acres to about 200 — and most of that is either under water or so low that even normal high tides cover it, drowning eggs and chicks. The few high points are 1 to 2 feet above sea level.

The state is restoring 88 acres with the greatest chance to stay restored, and raising the overall height to 3 to 3.5 feet (about one meter) above sea level so crews can plant the sort of shrubbery that pelicans prefer for their nests. The area to be restored includes more than 80 acres (32 hectares) of land and six (2.4 acres) of marsh.

Construction of containment dikes began in mid-October and dredging began Dec. 9, Perrodin said in an email.

The state estimated in 2017 that it would cost about $27 million to bring the island back to 200 acres. That cost was cut 40%, partly because scientists decided that an 88-acre restoration would reduce both impacts on nesting birds and danger from predators.

Nests on islands protect eggs and chicks from predators such as raccoons, snakes and coyotes. If an island is large and high enough, more predators will make their way to it and stick around.