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Date of Issue: February 04, 2009


Snowbirds of a color moving south for winter



White pelicans flock to Cortez in the winter months, where they join the familiar brown pelicans in looking for handouts at the fish houses. Islander Photos: Bonner Joy
Snowbirds visiting Florida during the winter months comprise a greater group than humans who hail from a state beginning with a vowel.

The Sunshine State regularly sees snowbirds in the form of American white pelicans.

We also have finned “friends” in the form of great white sharks who cruise through the Gulf of Mexico.

And climate change may be driving another white avian, the snowy owl, south for the winter — not to Florida, but far from their usual arctic haunts.

White pelicans: biggest snowbird of them all

Winter to the north means American white pelicans in our locales. The birds are far larger than their brown cousins, with wingspans that can stretch to 10 feet.

Except for black trimmings on wing edges and a rosy-colored bill and feet, white pelicans are, well, white.

The birds spend winters in Florida and throughout the Gulf states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, as well as southern Mexico and southern California. There are some juvenile whites that spend summers here, but they join the rest of the flock to head north for the summer to western Canada and the northwestern United States. as they grow older.

White pelicans don’t dive into the water from on high to scoop up fish in their voluminous bill sack for dinner as do the more familiar browns. Whites float on the surface, head down, and scoop up their fish dinner.

They also tend to work together, with a group herding fish into the bills of others.

It’s common to see the big birds roaming the shallows off Anna Maria Island and Cortez this time of year.

They are a stately looking bird, with their long necks and regal bearing, except when they feed, swimming along head-down with their butts sticking out of the water

White pelicans have had a hard time adapting to humans. They’re shy, for one thing, and will leave a nest if disturbed.

They nest on the ground, making their eggs and young easy prey for predators.

Their brilliant white feathers were sought by plume hunters in the 1880s and used in hats and other decorations. That industry nearly wiped out some species in Florida until protection was provided through legislation.

White pelicans also suffered human intervention through pesticides in the 1960s, particularly DDT, which softened eggshells and dramatically reduced their population.

But the birds have had a resurgence in numbers of late and continue to visit us every winter.

 

‘Jaws’ just offshore

“Jaws” apparently winters in the Gulf of Mexico.

[Hit the John Williams score: Dum da dum da dum da ….]

Great white sharks are not just a finny nightmare found off New England during the summer, as penned by author Peter Benchley in his book and film “Jaws.” The fish also are found in the Gulf of Mexico during the winter.

How many? Nobody knows.

How big? Nobody is sure, but at least 15 feet in length.

How hungry? Very.

More to the point: how far offshore?

Call it about 20 miles out in the Gulf.

Dr. Bob Hueter of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota told St. Petersburg Times writer Terry Tomalin that a great white shark of more than 15 feet in length and weighing more than 2,200 pounds was caught 23 miles off Indian Rocks Beach in January 1994. That size compares to the length and weight of a small car.

"These fish migrate from northern waters during the winter months," Hueter told the Times. "When they are young, white sharks feed primarily on fish. But as they age, their teeth change so they are better equipped to eat marine mammals."

Humans are mammals, in case you forgot.

Oh, and Hueter added that although whites aren’t all that common, or at least spotted all that much, the ones that are out there are probably pretty big.

As Tomalin wrote, “Jose Castro, a shark specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, said white sharks probably once fed on Caribbean monk seals, which became extinct in 1948. ‘People forget that we once had seals here. White sharks probably fed on these marine mammals. So historically speaking, white sharks have always been here.’”

The fish has been protected from catch since 2004. Jaws of “Jaws” used to bring anywhere from $7,800 to $22,000. Today, on the black — great white? — market, who knows what a set of teeth would bring.

Record catch of a white shark was made by Alfred Dean in Australia in April 1959. It weighed 2,664 pounds, according to the International Game and Fish Association.

As Tomalin put it: “How common are white sharks in the Gulf of Mexico? Numbers aren't known because no formal census has been conducted. But from December to February annually, commercial bottom longline boats working the west coast of Florida typically catch several white sharks while fishing for grouper. In the Gulf, white sharks are typically found in deep water, from 20 to 100 miles offshore. Unlike California, Australia and South Africa, which have marine mammals — i.e., seals and sea lions — living along their coasts, the Gulf doesn't have a food source to bring white sharks close to shore. Mature white sharks average about 14 feet in length, though they can grow to 18 or 19 feet. A 21-foot white shark was reportedly caught off the coast of Cuba in 1948, but marine biologists doubt the veracity of that claim. Reports of white sharks 20 feet and longer can be found in historic records, but those reports have not been substantiated.”

 

Snowy owls flapping farther south

On a more pleasing note, it seems that snowy owls are finding winters in the south more to their liking.

The bad chord in that refrain is that the winter migration could be a sign of climate change.

According to the Associated Press, the usually arctic species is now finding a home in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. It’s the first time in more than 20 years the birds have been spotted that far south.

Snowy owls have moved south in the past in a semi-regular pattern, but usually because their arctic food supply of lemmings is sparse. This has been a banner year for lemmings, though, and breeding of the birds has reached such a large number that owls are just roaming around, fat and happy.

 

Sandscript factoid

The following ditty is popular on all manner of merchandise in curio shops throughout Florida. It’s usually credited to having been penned by poet Ogden Nash, although it was probably written by Dixon Lanier Merritt. It goes:

A wonderful bird is a pelican,

His bill will hold more than his belican.

He can take in his beak

Food enough for a week;

But I'm damned if I see how the helican.

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