By Tom Baird
With winter we have the opportunity to see new visitors on St. Joseph Bay – both feathered and otherwise. Flotillas of ducks can be seen resting and feeding in the bay, wintering loons arrive; various shore birds like avocets make an appearance, and large flocks of white pelicans move in. Whether you are a birder or not, you don’t need expensive binoculars, spotting scopes, or a telephoto lens to appreciate the white pelicans. These are really big birds and their groups on the bay are easily seen.
The white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) differs from our familiar brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) in several ways. For one, they do not make aerial dives on their food like our brown pelicans. White pelicans feed while on the water surface, often in large cooperative groups to corral fish. They breed inland far to the north and migrate to the Pacific coast or the Gulf of Mexico or as far south as Panama. They do not rest on the open ocean, but prefer bays and estuaries. They also build nests on the ground, as opposed to our brown pelicans that build two foot nests of sticks and grass in mangroves or other offshore island vegetation. The white pelican is also bigger than the brown having a wingspan second only to the California Condor, and a body measuring 50–70 inches long compared to 42–54 inches long for the brown.
In late spring and summer white pelicans breed in large colonies on islands in remote freshwater lakes in Canada, although some breeding colonies can be found as far south as Wyoming and northeastern California. During the breeding season, the normally yellow bill turns bright orange and a flattened “horn” is grown on the upper bill. Of the eight species of pelicans worldwide, this is the only species to grow a “horn”. After mating and the eggs are laid, these pelicans loose the horn and the bill returns to its normal color. They gather to begin their migration south in September and October.
We can easily see these colonies in winter not only on St. Joseph Bay, but also in St. Vincent Sound and on the artificially maintained freshwater ponds in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to our east.
Past use of DDT affected the reproduction of both white and brown pelicans. Despite improvements in recent decades, nevertheless, the brown pelican has disappeared in parts of its former range. Pesticides washing into coastal waters still threaten these birds, as well as habitat destruction. Both species are killed by entanglement in discarded fishing gear, especially monofilament fishing line. Boating disturbances and starvation during unusually cold winters add to population reduction of both species while in our bays. Nevertheless, both species are stable and slightly increasing in recent years following the drastic declines in mid-twentieth century from agricultural use of DDT.
Recently an avocet was spotted in the marsh. Even if you are not a birder – and this writer is not – the avocet will get your attention. (This elicited a whispered “Holy Cow!” by this observer.) This is the long-legged shorebird with the long, thin upturned bill. In profile this bird has a Bob Hope ski nose aspect.
Although not related at all – other than being birds –the American avocet (Recurvirostra americana) has a lot of life strategies similar to white pelicans. They breed well to the north in Saskatchewan, Minnesota, and interior Washington State, although some breeding colonies can be found as far south as California and Texas. They migrate in winter to the California coast, the Gulf coast, and around Florida. They are a rare visitor to Atlantic coast marshes as well. Here similarities end, because avocets are waders when looking for a meal.
When feeding, they go along the marsh shore sweeping the bill from side to side stirring up small crustaceans. On bays and estuaries, they will also feed on exposed mudflats at low tide. This is a fairly tall bird – up to 20 inches – with blue legs. We do not get to see this bird with its pleasing rust colored spring and summer plumage on its head and neck. But in its winter plumage of light grey head and black on white body it is hard to miss. However, it is that slender, black, up-turned bill that makes it immediately eye catching.
Avocet eggs were once harvested on their breeding colonies and they were hunted to near extinction in parts of their former range along the Atlantic coast. Nevertheless, habitat destruction, especially the loss of wetlands in the western U.S., has most hurt the avocet population.
Even if you are not an avid birder, and like me, prefer to just observe those birds with the good manners to stand or feed out in the open where they can be seen, winter is the time to see some truly remarkable visitors. If you are a birder, this area of the Florida coast is a birder’s paradise in winter, with excellent viewing opportunities on St. Joseph Bay, St. Vincent Sound, St. Vincent Island and Apalachicola. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is only a short drive to the east, with its fresh and saltwater habitats and viewing platforms. Birders visit there from all over the country in winter. Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in this area record impressive totals of migrating birds – both in number and variety. With good places to stay and good places to eat, this is an ideal place to add some birds to your life list.
Tom Baird has been a fisheries biologist, high school and community college teacher (oceanography and microbiology), director of a science and environmental center, teacher of science and principal in Pinellas County as well as an educational consultant. He retired from the Florida Department of Education and he and his wife divide their time between Tallahassee and Cape San Blas.