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Wild Side Column: Large snowbirds are a feast for the eyes

White pelicans, white ibis and a greater egret in the salt marsh west of our house in Cedar Key, Florida. Dan Wilcox photo.

Many large snowbirds make their way to Cedar Key, Florida during the winter. They can be seen in shorts with white legs dining on seafood in the restaurants on Dock Street or staring at the sunset along the water's edge. There are many more avian than human snowbirds here now.

One of the joys for us spending the winter here is watching all the birds. As much as it's cool seeing dolphins leaping in the Gulf or manatees in the springs, seeing a flock of American white pelicans soaring over is a real thrill. They are large birds with a 9-foot wingspan, weighing up to 30 pounds.

At a distance you might think they are a flock of swans. Upon looking closer with binoculars you can see that these beautiful birds are white pelicans. Distinctive with snowy white plumage, big tangerine-colored bills with a pouch, large webbed feet and black-edged wings when flying, white pelicans are social birds that are usually seen in large groups. Unlike the brown pelicans that sit by themselves on pilings, waddle on docks looking for fish scraps, and do nosedives into the water to catch fish, white pelicans do their flying, roosting and feeding together.

White pelicans migrate in large flocks in V-formations. They breed in interior North America during the spring. White pelicans are colonial nesters, usually on isolated islands in rivers and lakes. One of the largest breeding colonies is on an island in Marsh Lake on the Minnesota River near Appleton, Minn. We often see them on the Upper Mississippi and Chippewa rivers during the summer. They spend their winters in tidal marshes and brackish lakes along the Pacific in California and along the Gulf Coast from Florida into Texas and Mexico.

Near Cedar Key we often see white pelicans flying over, roosting on oyster bars between the islands and in the tidal marshes. They feed synchronously, herding fish in in shallow water, making shade with their wings, and dipping their bills together to catch fish.

A few days ago, Carol encouraged me to come outside and see all the birds. It was low tide and a flock of over 100 white pelicans were feasting on mullet trapped in a pool just west of our house. It was fun to watch them enthusiastically gulping fish. Also standing by and feeding on the exposed oyster bar were some greater egrets, white ibis and roseate spoonbills.

We have sympathy for our friends and neighbors up north dealing with a tough winter. We snowbirds enjoy watching the avian snowbirds here in Florida.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at rfjsports@rivertowns.net.