A roaring weekend cold front is apparently the culprit in yet another pelican kill on State Highway 48 between Port Isabel and Brownsville.
Witnesses said yesterday the carcasses of about a dozen brown pelicans were seen about 7 a.m. Monday along the roadway near where more than 60 birds were killed by traffic on Dec. 8. TxDOT reported three dead pelicans were found during the latest incident.
Pamela Downing of South Padre Island, who commutes that section of highway daily, described the scene as “gruesome.”
“I was riding in from South Padre, and obviously it was another large pelican kill along the highway,” Downing said. “It was a little grotesque, and there was even a beak standing straight up as I was dodging carcasses of the animals.”
Pelican mortality along the section of State Highway 48, which has a posted speed limit of 75 mph, has been occurring sporadically for years. Most of the deaths have occurred in winter when cold fronts push through from the north.
TxDOT recently installed flashing warning signs along the highway urging drivers to slow down because of the possibility of pelicans on or near the roadway.
“The portable message boards have been placed on both sides and we are looking into placing signs similar to what are on the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway,” alerting drivers to watch for pelicans, said TxDOT spokesperson Octavio Saenz via email yesterday.
Two years ago, TxDOT installed metal poles at a cost of $60,000 that extend up and out from concrete traffic barriers along the shoulders of four-lane State Highway 48. The idea was the poles, which rise several feet above the roadway, would deter pelicans from flying near or landing on the highway.
The poles were installed near the Jaime J. Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp with additional poles about two miles north of that site near the Bahia Grande Pilot Channel.
“Our environmental section here at the Texas Department of Transportation Pharr District has been monitoring the issue very closely since the first cold front,” Saenz said. “We have determined that the pelican poles that were set up on two sections of SH48 are effective.
“The question is now to determine what is causing the brown pelicans to fly so low over the road,” Saenz said. “There are several options that are being considered, from placing additional poles to attaching reflectors on critical areas.”
The highway cuts through wetlands which are part of the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Some have speculated the birds are trying to escape the bitter winds as the cold fronts push through by leaving the Gulf of Mexico to find shelter inland. Or, they say, pelicans are mistaking the rain-slicked highway for water and attempting to land.
Downing said the pelican deaths are occurring at a spot where the 3.5-foot concrete traffic barriers are situated along both sides of the highway, leaving a minimal shoulder.
“I’d like to think lowering the speed limit would help,” Downing said. “I don’t know if they can move those barriers — I know they’re concerned about human beings getting hurt … but when I’m driving there’s no shoulder, you can’t even avoid the birds if you wanted to.”