Thursday, April 9, 2020

Florida’s Other Snowbird: The White Pelican

Stepping Stones

Here we are in December and, traditionally, youngsters will glance out of their windows late in the month to catch a glimpse of a jolly old man on a sleigh. Their anxiety level is high, and the anticipation is nearly uncontrollable.

For bigger kids, like professional as well as novice bird watchers, that anticipation comes around Thanksgiving and, no, there is no watch for a sleigh, but rather large white birds that makes their way to Florida. I like to call it “The Birder’s Christmas,” and guess what? Delivery is right on schedule!

On Thanksgiving Day, I was on the Dolphin Explorer and got my first look at this season’s migrating American White Pelicans. Nearly 200 of them were spread along the mangrove roots and on the sand bars east of the Jolley Bridge. What a sight to see and, oh, to see so many!

These magnificent water birds are twice the size of our everyday brown pelicans and boast a wingspan up that can surpass nine feet, making it the second largest wingspan in North America, second only to the amazing California Condor.

They travel to Florida each year as the northern waters begin to freeze, making it difficult to obtain food. On the west coast of Florida, they can be seen this time of year from Sarasota-Bradenton all the way into the Florida Keys. They will be here until late winter or early spring, timing their return to the homelands with the thaw of ice and snow.

They are all white in color except for black tips on their wings, which are usually visible while in flight. They are very graceful when flying and truly a sight to behold. They do not nest and mate here, but will wait until their return home to lay their eggs and raise the young.

Unlike brown pelicans that dive solo into the water to catch their fish, the American White Pelicans will work together as a team for food. It is common to see some of these birds work in-line and direct a school a fish towards their teammates. These will feed on the prey and then direct those fish back to the other pelicans. 

The White Pelican diet will consist mostly of minnows, panfish, bottom feeders and tadpoles. They also are very good thieves and will steal larger fish from the mouth of a competitor if that bird is not quick enough to swallow its catch.

Following the path of some tagged and monitored birds of this species, it seems that they breed mostly in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and as far away as Canada. There are five major “flyways” in the U.S. and these pelicans travel down the Mississippi River Valley en route to Florida. 

Locally, in past years, they have been found in our region on the south end of Marco Island, on the sand bars just off Caxambas Pass and nearby islands. They have also been sighted in points east of that region as well as in the backwater area of the Marsh Trail, three miles south of the intersection of San Marco Road and U.S. 41.

As mentioned, I saw American White Pelicans on the Marco River, near the Jolley Bridge, but that was probably just a short layover on their journey to the hunting areas they know best of all. If you have a chance to see them, please do so. They are beautiful, magnificent and only here part of the year. Remember, they are Florida’s “other” snowbirds!

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel, Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books, available locally and an award-winning columnist for this newspaper. Bob loves his wife very much! 

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