Winter birds of the bays

A white pelican

A white pelican

Published: Monday, December 30, 2013 at 02:01 PM.

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-20th 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.

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