Birds Breakfast En Masse

Above a breeding brown pelican in the late afternoon.
Above a breeding brown pelican in the late afternoon.

There are mornings when seemingly every bird on the beach is trying to feed. It looks like structured chaos everywhere as I walk from one hungry group to another.

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Feeding Frenzy

An osprey patiently waiting.
An osprey patiently waiting.

It starts with a feeding frenzy. Brown pelicans are goofy looking birds, over four-feet long with wing spans exceeding six and a half-feet. They dive into the water from heights of sixty-feet not quite at a 90-degree angle, Their enormous bills are held slightly above their bulky bodies as their white underwing pattern twirls. At the last second their wings fold against their bodies which make a partial corkscrew-like turn as this ungainly looking avian missile enters the water.

There are twenty brown pellys frantically plunge-diving. Two, in perfect sync, turn, dive, twist their bodies in a half corkscrew and leave tall splashes in the water. I cannot hear the splash because of the waves. The pellys are hunting for small fish and anchovies. Adults can eat up to four pounds of fish a day. Their dive stuns small prey which they scoop up in the pouches of their enormous bills which hold 2.6-gallons of water. They come to the surface straining the water because their stomaches cannot hold as much as their bills. Larger fish whose gray forms can sometimes be seen in their outstretched pouches take the pellys numerous attempts to swallow.


A brown pelican with its pouch spread. That pouch holds 2.6 gallons of water.
A brown pelican with its pouch spread. That pouch holds 2.6 gallons of water.

The “Fish-Hawk”

Ospreys are physically adapted to hunt fish from their closable nostrils to their feet which are specially adapted to grab and hold fish. An osprey, brown, white and brilliant looking, fights the wind flying slowly. As it passes me the raptor starts an assent like the heroic but doomed Icarus. Hard hunting today. The bird nicknamed the “fish-hawk” takes advantage of the stiff breeze turning sidewards into it and letting it carry him up the beach. He soon comes back this way flying purposely and slowly, looking down, eyes scanning the water and moves on.

Now the osprey is flying low, scanning the water for fish. As it comes directly overhead its light underwings show a dark enigmatic pattern. This is a moment when the osprey always seems mysterious and majestic. Its eye seems gray, not the usual blazing yellow as it floats out of sight. This area is yielding nothing now and it leaves.

Two female black scoters with a male black scoter The male has the "butter-bill."
Two female black scoters with a male black scoter The male has the “butter-bill.”

Sometime later it will probably fly to a bare tree on Beer Can Island holding a fish with the head forward. The osprey will drape its catch over the branch holding it securely with one claw. After looking around and resting it will raise its wings and partially flutter them leaning over the fish’s body. Using its cruelly hooked bill the bird will go to a gill as if it is about to plant a passionate kiss. The kiss of death. However its passion won’t be romantically driven but empty-belly driven. The bird will spend at least the next hour twisting and tearing out bits of raw flesh all the while looking around.

A Rare Visitor

Black scoters, diving sea ducks, have been here for a month. They are the birding event of the season because there is little record of these northern birds showing up on Florida’s Gulf Coast. They are a long way from their Arctic nesting grounds and won’t be going there until the spring. It’s been suggested that their name derives from “scoot“ because they can quickly rise from the water’s surface. They can also dive to over 100-feet.

Above a brown pelican in flight.
Above a brown pelican in flight.

Right now the water may be too rough for them to come ashore but they swim parallel to it closer than I’ve seen them swim before. I walk with them for a short while but they head out to deeper water. I’ve little doubt that my presence is the cause. They are simply adverse to being near humans.

Later they show up again. This time, in spite of the waves they come ashore lead by a male which has a knobby yellow bill giving it the nickname of “butter-nose” or “butter-bill.” The scoters ride the waves in where a number flop face down on the soaking wet sand while some attempt to clumsily stand. The scoters put their bills into the sand which falls from them like wet mud. They favor blue mussels, crustaceans and aquatic insects. However at this distance I can’t see what they are eating. Soon they go over the waves and paddle out to sea.

There’s only one reason that a laughing gull would be chasing a Forster’s tern in mid air and that’s a fish. This isn’t a territorial dispute. Laughing gulls are the most notoriously aggressive birds on the beach when it comes to food. Four other laughers join the first one zig zagging after the Foster’s disappearing into a cloud. The posse comes back this way still in pursuit. I silently yell to the Forster’s, eat it quick!


A group of breeding brown pelicans waiting to be thrown fish.
A group of breeding brown pelicans waiting to be thrown fish.

An Old Friend

A morning like this, while exciting can be emotionally draining. I’m suddenly relaxed and happy to see an old friend. It’s a herring gull who lost its left foot probably to a monofilament fishing line as a youngster. This is the first time I’ve seen it this winter which will be its fourth one here. I’ve watched it grow up year by year from an all brown first winter bird. Much of its juvenile brown color has been replaced by gray on its back but some steaks of brown still appear there and on its neck and breast. The big gull has difficulty sitting and rising and can limp on the stump remaining leg. However it moves with extraordinary deftness on its remaining foot. I’ve nothing but admiration for this bird and won’t photograph it as I feel that would be taking unfair advantage. I just stand a while watching and enjoying. This guy’s a perfect tonic for a morning of excitement.

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Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.




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