As Summer comes to an end, it’s obvious that we don’t see some of the birdlife we saw a few months ago. Swallow-tailed Kites have left South Florida on their way back across the Andes mountains to their home in southwestern South America… what a journey! Also, the Least Terns, the smallest of the Tern family, have raised their young here and returned to Venezuela, only to return next year and raise the next generation.
As these annual visitors leave, that only means that other seasonal and migrational birds are here or on the way to the area. Let’s talk about a few of them that we should look for.
The fastest animal on the planet passes through the Marco Island area in September and October. Diving on prey at 200 miles per hour, the Peregrine Falcon is unmatched in speed by any other predator. They will soar high in the air, locate an unsuspecting bird at a lower elevation, dive with their wings fully folded to their body and strike their target with such force that it can break the neck.
Peregrine means “Wanderer,” and they can cover a range of 15,500 miles per year! Nesting in the Tundra’s of northernmost North America, they winter in areas of South America. It is not unusual for them to stop in the Marco Island and Everglades regions before moving on to the Florida Keys. From there, it’s on to South America.
Over the past few years, I have noticed a few of these falcons that stop in our area but don’t continue on. There have been regular sightings during the winter months only. Apparently, they catch the northern migration back home in the spring. They were seen regularly in the mangroves behind Little Marco Island and Rookery Bay. Just last week, a post on social media noted a Peregrine Falcon that attacked a tern!
The Florida Keys Hawkwatch program is extremely diligent in counting the falcon migration each year. In 2015, volunteers counted more than 1,500 peregrine falcons in a single day at Curry Hammock State Park, a region known for bird activity. Falcons are tracked there from September 1st through October 31st. What a sight that must have been in 2015!
Another favorite bird that everyone loves to see is Florida’s “other” snowbird. Traveling from the lakes of western Canada and Northern United States, the American White Pelican winters in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
In Florida, they can be found primarily from Charlotte Harbor and southerly into the Florida Everglades. Some of these birds will fly nonstop during their southern migration!
With a wingspan as wide as nine-and one-half feet, they have the second-largest span of any bird in North America with only the California Condor being greater.
They feed differently than the brown pelicans that we see here all year long. Brown pelicans are solitary hunters and plunge dive into the water from above to catch their prey. White pelicans float on the surface and then submerge their heads below water to scoop up fish. Sometimes they work as a team to herd fish together, forming a semicircle to drive prey to shallow waters. In the air, they are very graceful and often fly in formation together.
In our area, they have been seen on the sandbars of the Marco River, in the 10,000 Islands Marsh Trail shallows, Caxambas Pass sandbars, Faka-Union Bay, Chokoloskee and point further east. They arrive not too long after the first frost hits the northern homes. Soon after, rivers and streams up there begin to freeze over which limits access to food supplies and triggering the reason for that long migration.
The White Pelicans should be arriving soon so keep an eye to the sky for those large, graceful flyers with the huge wingspan. Also, look for the bandit-eyed Peregrine Falcon right now as well. There are a variety of other northern feathered friends arriving shortly but that’s a story for another day!
Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is also an owner of the new tourist attraction at Port of the Islands, Wild Florida Ecotours. An award-winning columnist for Coastal Breeze he is also the author of 2 books with a third on the way. As always, Bob loves his wife, a nurse working the front lines during this pandemic, very much!