One of the most enjoyable pastimes when at the Gulf Coast is watching the abundant bird life. The Sand Pipers scurrying between the waves that wash food up on the beach, the Seagulls all clamoring for a tidbit, the Great Blue Herons looking tall and proud and, of course, the Pelicans flying effortlessly inches above the water and diving for food. Indeed, Pelicans seem to occupy every old dock piling perch that can be had, resting until their next fishing expedition. This is a Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis) as opposed to the White Pelican also seen along the Gulf Coast. The White Pelican is a little larger bird and feeds differently, by swimming on the surface and scooping up fish in its bill. The Brown Pelican is a real showboat, diving beak first at high speed and allowing the water pressure to open and fill his beak/throat pouch, hopefully with fish, after which he pops to the surface forces the water out of the pouch and swallows the fish. A very effective maneuver!
The abundance of life in our coastal areas belies the fact that, though very productive, coastal areas are extremely sensitive ecologically. As plentiful as Pelicans seem to be now, it wasn’t too long ago when they, and many other coastal species, were in peril. I remember it well having grown up in South Louisiana amongst the abundant marshes and swamps. But it all started some years before as a host of herbicides and pesticides developed during and after WWI and WWII began to be used almost indiscriminately, albeit with good intentions, to rid the world of diseases and the organisms that carried them. As a small boy I remember well the old trucks moving along the bayou side spraying DDT, dieldrin, chlordane to name a few. Kill those mosquitoes at all cost! It wasn’t until it was almost too late that scientist realized that those very persistent lethal compounds did not break down for many years and permeated the food chains. Down the bayou the fisherman all noticed the populations of Pelicans and other shore birds declining dramatically but it wasn’t until Dr. Rachel Carson published in 1962 her now very famous book, “Silent Spring”, that the world took notice. You see, those chemicals move right on up the food chains often concentrating as they go. For the Pelican, particularly the Brown Pelican, the DDT made their egg shells so thin that they broke under the weight of the incubating mother. For some years, Pelicans were scarce and were listed as Endangered. When the use of DDT and other chemicals were curtailed, and in some cases banned, the food chains became healthier and the Pelicans, and other impacted species, returned.
So, the sun was low and I was photographing around Weeks Bay Preserve south of Fairhope, Alabama and was watching a fisherman with a cast net trying his best to catch mullet for supper. Only problem was that 7 or 8 Brown Pelicans were hungry also and every time he brought up the cast net he got one mullet and the Pelicans got the rest. The guy in the picture was particularly adept at stealing his buddies’ fish. Doesn’t he look well fed? Nature is always fun to observe and is a great teacher if you take the time to enjoy.
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