Harry Kelton has never been one for an empty nest.
After his youngest son graduated and moved away from home, he and his wife relocated to a houseboat in Biscayne Bay at the Pelican Harbor Marina and rescued an injured pelican. Without ever imagining the magnitude of their undertaking, they rescued another and another until they had more than they could handle.
Three decades later, Kelton’s Pelican Harbor Seabird Station on Miami’s 79th Street Causeway is set to mark its 35th anniversary with nearly 2,000 rescues in 2014, a record-breaker, and construction on a new building.
“It’s been a hobby that got out of control,” Kelton, 88, likes to joke.
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The station, funded by private donations and housed in a building the county constructed in 1990, is manned by just four full-time workers and one part-timer. A league of volunteers helps wash down pens, rake sand and haul around buckets of fish — about 39,000 pounds a year — to feed the pelicans. One regular makes a daily delivery of used newspapers to line kennels.
“It’s teamwork with the community,” rehabilitation manager Teresa Sepetauc said. “We can’t do it without each other.”
During rounds Wednesday morning, Sepetauc ran down the list of recent arrivals: a mysteriously weak gull brought in by a lifeguard, a green parrot that slammed into a window, hit its head and suffered permanent brain damage, and a pelican that swallowed a hook.
The ingested hook was the easiest fix. Years ago Kelton came up with a treatment the staff calls “cotton fish.” Cut open a mullet, stuff it with cotton, feed it to the pelican and watch it regurgitate the cotton, which pelicans can’t digest, with the hook attached.
“It’s genius,” Sepetauc said, still clearly impressed by a treatment she has deployed hundreds of times.
Outside pens shelter healthier patients on their way to freedom. One pen holds three white pelicans that arrived in the fall. Two stranded themselves in Minnesota and another was hand-raised in Wisconsin. They were flown to the station in the hope that they would bond, teach each other how to be birds and learn to fly, Sepetauc said.
Another pen houses pelicans too marred by injuries, mainly from fishing tackle, to ever survive in the wild. Some have a condition Sepetauc calls “frozen wing” — if a broken wing isn’t treated, it often heals at an odd, extended angle.
Almost always, the birds turn up injured by fishing tackle: line tangled around wings or feet, or pouches ripped by hooks.
Over the years, Kelton has tirelessly preached the virtues of being mindful of the birds when fishing, reminding anglers not to leave deadly line hanging from the birds or toss pelicans their scraps. Most fish caught, like snapper and grouper, are bottom dwellers with hard bones that the birds can’t digest. He once had signs made that read: “Don’t kill pelicans with kindness.”
Kelton keeps a mounted box in the station’s lobby displaying some of the items he’s dug out of birds over the years. Most are treble-hooked plugs that slice open pouches and make it impossible for pelicans, which dive from as high as 65 feet to scoop up fish, to eat. The box also includes some more surprising items, including an arrow and eight vertebrae from a discarded snapper that punctured one bird’s pouch and which Kelton extracted one by one. There’s even a mouse trap.
In 2014, the station made a record 1,968 rescues, 52 more than the year before and 36 more than in 2012. Executive director Christoper Boykin, who ran the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s coral reef program just across the marina until September, attributes the rise more to awareness about the station than to increased injuries.
As new chief of the station, Boykin is embarking on an ambitious plan to modernize it, starting with a March 14 anniversary celebration to honor longtime supporters and attract new ones. In addition to the new building, which will double the size of the current one-story structure to about 2,000 square feet, the station will include a handicapped accessible boardwalk. The station is also expanding its social media presence. By liking the group on Facebook, visitors can find out in advance when bird releases will occur.
The station also conducts monthly sunset cruises, selling wine and beer, aboard the Pelican Skipper to see the nearby rookery on Bird Key.
“About 2.7 million people live in Miami, but we only have 4,000 names in our database,” Boykin said. “The more people who know about us, the more people who can bring us birds to help.”