Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Pelican Brief

I see pelicans here on a daily basis, flying in small groupings, skimming just over the top of the water or high up near the rooflines but late yesterday, while out on the beach taking photographs, I met up with one face-to-face.  

I was squatted low on the canted sand focused in on little pipers and a few seagulls pinching their beaks at the wet sand when I heard the sound of large flapping wings over my head. I stood up, startled for a few seconds, then quickly pulled my camera to get a shot - but as if to mock me he turned and jetted away. 

Maybe he was heading further down the coastline to celebrate the great news with the majority of pelicans that live in Florida: starting December 17th the brown pelicans will be officially removed from the federal endangered species list.  While these pelicans were removed from the Florida and Georgia endangered list in 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes their overall comeback from the brink of extinction as, “an amazing success story.” 

The brown pelicans were first imperiled by hunters who prized their feathers and later suffered heavily from the effects of the pesticide DDT, sprayed for mosquito control, which weakened pelican eggs so that they cracked prematurely. They were almost removed from the national list a few years ago but then the gulf was struck by oil spills and hurricanes. 

Brief Brown Pelican Facts
- These social colonial birds fly in single file low over the water; on sighting prey they plunge with wings half-folded, from heights of up to 50 feet (15 meters), surfacing to drain water from their bills before swallowing the fish.
- Scientist estimate more than 650,000 pelicans can now be found across Florida, the Gulf and Pacific Coasts and in the Caribbean and Latin America                         
- Pelicans measure about 48 inches long and weigh about 8 pounds and have a 6- to 7-foot wingspan             
- Females lay two to three eggs in a shallow nest. The eggs take about a month to hatch. 
- Chicks need 50 pounds of food during the first 75 days. 
- The oldest pelican on record died at age 43.
- Around waterfronts and marinas individual birds become quite tame, taking fish offered them by humans.

Maybe the one I met yesterday was jealous that I was giving all of my attention to the pipers and gulls. Or maybe he just wanted to be sure I was aware and awake to every thing that was going on out on the beach.  Or maybe he just wanted to say hello. But afterwards I stood up and took in a few deep breaths of the salt air and began to put the pieces together. The clouds were turning various shades of pinks, purples and greys. The rocks with their heads of green moss were echoing the sounds of the water like seashells do. And the color of the sand was shifting right under me as the dune grasses revealed deep yellow candles in their dark hearths. The pelican tipped me there as if tipping a wing into the waves...just because he can. And aren’t we all the better for having these brown pelicans flying through our lives.

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