Slide Eagle

Bald Eagle © Perry Doggrell

BIRDS THAT FISH

Brown Pelicans, Ospreys and Bald Eagles are found throughout the beach strands. These large birds are each unique, but each seeks the same prey – fish.

 

The Brown Pelican is one of the most iconic birds of the Gulf Coast. With a 6-foot wingspan and graceful flight, it may be seen flying just barely above the water surface, often in long lines. You may notice lines of pelicans undulating over the waves. When flying higher often in a V-formation, the lead bird will flap, and each succeeding bird times its wing stroke a second later taking advantage of the air vortex from the preceding bird. Spectacular dives from up to 60 feet signify pelicans feeding. Older pelicans dive from greater heights and at steeper angles improving accuracy in targeting fish.

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Brown Pelican © Harry Purcell

Mullet, menhaden and small, surface-schooling fish comprise the bulk of their diet. Upon diving, it scoops fish into its expandable gular pouch which can hold almost 3 gallons of water. After straining water from its pouch, the pelican tips its head up and swallows the prey. In the process, it swallows salt water, so it has special glands to rid its body of excess salts. Often seen perched on posts and docks along the shorelines, the pelican is also a strong swimmer with fully webbed feet that aid surface-diving or scooping up surface fish.

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Brown Pelican © David Sparks

Ospreys are a frequent sight year round, but much more so in the warmer months. Birds figured out flight long before humans did, but the osprey has taken it one step further applying aerodynamics to cargo. Wheeling over the water, an osprey sights its prey and plummets. Tucking wings close to its body and extending powerful legs forward with lethal talons ready, the osprey hits the water feet first and latches onto a surface-schooling fish or one in shallow waters. In flight the osprey then turns the fish’s head forward as he flies to a perch where its meal will be consumed.

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Osprey © Perry Doggrell

Ospreys eat fish exclusively, and have colonized a wide array of habitats, from fresh waters to salty shores. Historically, ospreys built their heavy nests of sticks in trees, but have adapted to human structures like radio and cell phone towers, utility line supports, ballfield light structures and platforms erected specifically for them. These artificial sites have greatly expanded nesting possibilities and the osprey has taken full advantage of them throughout its worldwide range.

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Osprey © Harry Purcell

Bald Eagles are our highest profile bird of prey, selected as the national emblem in 1782. They have been a key symbol in human cultures of the Americas and represent freedom, wilderness and environmental ethics. Often seen soaring on flat wings – like a flying board – with white head and tail glinting in the light, the bald eagle prefers eating fish, but will eat small mammals, birds and reptiles. You may see an eagle plucking a duck from the water or catching a fish with sharp, massive talons. Weighing up to 12 pounds itself, an eagle may heft almost half its weight due to its broad strong wings.

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Bald Eagle © David Sparks

Bald Eagles mate for life and engage in elaborate aerial courtships. A few pair nest locally. Their large stick nests lined with softer material can weigh hundreds of pounds and are reused each year. The young are all dark and take four to five years to mature and attain adult plumage. Formerly listed as endangered, the Bald Eagle has had a successful comeback from the edge of extinction thanks to federal regulations, intensive conservations efforts and wide public support.

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Bald Eagle © Perry Doggrell

Starting in the 1950s when DDT and other pesticides entered the food chain, the pelican, osprey, and bald eagle populations plummeted. These chemicals killed many outright, and eggshell thinning caused crushed eggs when the adults settled into their nests to incubate. Upon removal of those contaminants from the environment, populations of each species rebounded rapidly. The success of these birds is a testament to the ability people have to remediate damages to the environment, and to the resilience of many species when given the chance.

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Osprey © Harry Purcell

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