Florida Keys News
Thursday, August 22, 2013
White pelicans visit Keys out of season
Some of the birds are sick; local experts puzzled

First it was Razorbills in January.

Now bird enthusiasts and rescuers in Key West are observing, and treating, another winged wonder residing in town out of season: the American white pelican.

However, local birders aren't exactly sure why they are sticking around in an area they usually migrate through in the winter.

"There are so many variables that could be encouraging these youngsters to stay that I don't think we could isolate just one of them," said Peggy Coontz, animal care director at the Key West Wildlife Center. "It could be something associated with what we'd call a good or bad year for them. There could be surplus babies who had a better chance of survival by staying here."

Coontz's colleague, Wildlife Center Executive Director Thomas Sweets, raised another possibility: "It could be that they're expanding their range," Sweets said. "Or perhaps they just became weak and weary and stayed on."

The pelicans, which are larger, more communal, and more amenable to humans than their brown counterparts, nest in colonies of mating pairs numbering in the hundreds in inland freshwater or brackish lakes in the United States and Canada, as far north as the Northwest Territories, and as far south as southern Wyoming.

In winter, they migrate overland through to a range bounded by the Pacific Coast in the west, St. Louis, Mo., to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico and Central America to the south. They have been known to be blown off course by hurricanes, and sightings have been reported as far south at Colombia.

But the pelicans, which have the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird, were not known to stick around the Florida Keys -- until now.

At present Coontz has three of the plump white and black birds cooling their wings at the White Street facility as they recover from a variety of ailments ranging from high parasite counts to a broken wrist/wing tip. One of the birds was found down the street at the White Street Pier.

Two others were found at the Key West Golf Course, where another seven or so are still residing.

The Wildlife Center's operating certificate requires it to treat the birds as wild, so their enclosure has been draped with view-obstructing material.

"We have to release them back into the wild at some point, probably in September, when the flock passes back through here, and we're not showing them to the public in the meantime," Coontz said. Both she and Sweets are counting on help from people working on the water to let them know when birds of the same feather begin reappearing so the pelicans can be released and blend in with the others.

The situation has been similar for Maya Totman of Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue, on Big Pine Key, who just yesterday released two once-sickly specimens from rehab.

"I think I've seen about nine of them since July," Totman said.

"And somebody called me today to tell me they had seen another that looked like it might be having some problems. They tried to catch it, but it flew away, very slowly."

Totman said three American white pelicans have recently died under her care, and the results of bloodwork performed by a local vet were alarming enough to wildlife officials that they asked her to send the birds' carcasses up to Gainesville for examination.

"Dr. Dan Wolf is the Fish and Wildlife Service veterinarian who I sent the initial blood sample to," Totman said. "He told me that he's been losing lots of brown pelicans up that way, and was interested to see what might be affecting these white pelicans. I'm still waiting to hear what's going on."

At the height of migration season, as many as 60 or 70 of the birds congregate in the area at the end of Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key.

Totman also said she has taken to calling one spoil island around Big Pine Key "Pelican Island," due to the birds' preponderance there during migration.

It's the first time Totman has seen the pelicans in the Middle Keys during summer.

She also told The Citizen she recently had an encounter with a red-tailed hawk, another seasonal anomaly.

"With the white pelicans, usually by the middle or end of March, they're gone," she said.

Coontz and Sweets of the Key West Wildlife Center ask anyone who sees white pelicans in the coming months to contact them immediately at 305-292-1008 or keywestwildlifecenter@hotmail.com.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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