There are two species of pelicans in north America, and during the winter months, the Everglades are crazy with both. Unlike its cousin the brown pelican that lives here year round, the American white pelican lives far north during the summer months in nesting colonies. But during the winter, the Everglades lights up with the white pelican and it is a spectacular view that is so appealing to the eye when groups of these large birds can be spotted from great distances. Imagine paddling through the Ten Thousand Islands dominated by blue water and sky separated by a line of mangroves. Then imagine a white aberration in the distance that looks like a large white wall on the water. Pelicans for sure. Look up at the sky and you will see a squadron of black and white winged birds, circling above. This will happen later in the morning after the temperatures have sufficiently increased to create a thermal layer. These are the wintering white pelicans of the Everglades.
White pelicans are foragers, unlike the brown pelican that is a proficient dive bomber. The white pelicans typically work in groups in the shallow water, where they hunt for fish. These large birds (known to weigh as much as 30 lb) can consume over 4 lb of fish in a day (the pouch can hold 3 gallons of water), yet they are considered to be non-competitive to fishermen because they eat mostly non-game fish. However, I learned that with the increase in catfish farming in the southeastern states that these concentrated shallow fish ponds have become a popular foraging site for the white pelican. Normally, the birds spend about 1/3 of the day foraging and the remainder is spent loafing. But in the catfish ponds, they spend only 4% of their day foraging because they don't have to work as hard to fill up on fish. In the Everglades, the white pelicans can be spotted in the shallow waters of large bays or grassy water areas such as in Charley Creek or near the Hells Bay area. They work together to herd the fish and dip their large beaks into the water to capture them.
Photographing the white pelican has become one of my favorite challenges. Usually, I am photographing them as they loaf on a sand or oyster bar and they are typically in large number. It is difficult to approach them to get close enough for photographing, but when you do get close enough, the other challenge is composing the shot.
For these group shots, I try to get them all within the frame, but often there is a section of a bird sticking into the frame. I like their bright orange beaks and legs and try to capture the birds all facing the camera in some way. Occasionally, you can capture one flying by.
The white pelican is a thing of beauty, so large with its 10-ft wing span. In the fall, they usher in the winter season with their migration into the Everglades where they reside until spring when they leave to go north. You know their trek north is coming soon when you see the horn on the beak appear and the orange pouch, legs and skin around the eyes become more vivid; all indications that the bird is getting ready to breed.
Hope to see you again soon, white pelican, in the sunlight of the Everglades.