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Big Wonderful Webbed-footed Waterbirds

Updated on August 6, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican found at Port Aransas
Brown Pelican found at Port Aransas | Source

Living along the Gulf Coast, one of the first things you learn to identify when birding are all the big waterbirds. Why? Well, because they are easy to spot. These birds are also distinctive enough not to mistake for other birds. The beginner birder will normally find these birds in, above and around water. So let me introduce you to the big webbed-footed waterbirds.


Pelicans Species Overview

Diet: fish, ocassionally known to eat small birds

Average life span: 23 years or more

White Pelican Size: 50 to 65 in. Weight: 158.7 – 317.5 oz.

Brown Pelican Size: 39 – 54 in. Weight: 70.5 to 176.4 oz.

Pelican Gallery

Flock moving along Port Aransas in winter
Flock moving along Port Aransas in winter | Source
White Pelican juvenile on the wing
White Pelican juvenile on the wing | Source
Seagull heading in for the steal.  Brown Pelicans keep their catches below water until ready to swallow because of the competition.
Seagull heading in for the steal. Brown Pelicans keep their catches below water until ready to swallow because of the competition. | Source

White and Brown Pelicans

Pelicans are easy to spot even at great distances in the sky. Their heavy bill and the way they curl in their necks to rest their bills on their chests in flight make easy identification. So too is their flap and glide flight pattern.

Pelicans come in brown and white. Brown Pelicans are more often seen along coastal areas such as Galveston. They are gray bodied with a long neck and yellow crown and chest patch when breeding. The edges of their large jugular pouches are white while the back of the neck is dark brown. Their non-breeding aspect shows a white neck.

With either bird, the fleshy pouch and hooked bills are specialized fishing equipment. Pelicans are divers, but with different hunting styles.

Brown Pelican Hunting Style

The Brown Pelican hunts from the sky, almost stalling before falling into the water in a controlled crash. That big fleshy pouch on their lower jaw opens in the water like a large cast net. They primarily catch menhaden, mullet, sheepshead and thread herring.

When returning to the surface, I’ve seen them keep their heads submerged, partly to secure their catch and drain the two to two and a half gallons of water they scoop during fishing and partly to keep harassing gulls from stealing their catch. Gulls are famous for harassing pelicans as they hunt. I’ve witnessed gulls standing on a Brown Pelicans back looking over their shoulders trying to get a free meal.

The below video shows the pelican’s crash dive shown in slow motion. The photographer discovered that the bird flips its body upside down before hitting the water, while the head stays in its upright position keeping track of its prey.

Brown Pelicans Hunting

White Pelican Hunting Style

The White Pelican is larger than the brown, but with the same build. They are all white with black on the primary and outer secondary wing feathers. Their bill and pouch are bright orange. The White Pelican is a freshwater bird, more likely to be found in rivers and lakes.

The White Pelican’s hunting style is more like a graceful ballet. A group will float along the river or lake in a synchronized huddle, dropping their heads into the water to scoop up fish nearly in unison. All birds will then come back up at about the same time and repeat as they move along. I witnessed this on Lake Houston one year when a large flock wintered on Kingwood’s shores. The video below shows their fishing style set to music. The horn-like growths on the upper mandible near the tip of the bills are part of breeding season changes.

White Pelican Ballet

Book to Look for by Dr. Harry Obersholser

The Bird Life of Texas (University of Texas Press), is out of print, but can be found on Ebay and other on-line book sellers.
The Bird Life of Texas (University of Texas Press), is out of print, but can be found on Ebay and other on-line book sellers.

From Threatened to No Concern, Conservation Success

Both these birds have had a rough past. Despite data showing that they don’t eat fish the commercial fishing industry uses, the birds were accused to decreasing game fishery catches. In the early 1900s fishermen regularly attacked rookeries destroying eggs to decrease the bird’s numbers. They nearly succeeded in driving the birds to extinction. Add the damage DDT did to their eggs, and it is a wonder that we have pelicans to enjoy today.

In 1969 the Cooperative Fish-eating Bird Survey only found 116 Brown Pelican on the Texas Coasts. The Brown Pelican suffered severely due to contaminated run off from cotton fields containing pesticides and defoliants that flowed into their rookery waters. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States and restricted the use of other pesticides. Since then the bird has slowly pulled up in numbers. It is now off the threatened and endangered species lists.

A little mystery. according to Dr. Harry Oberholser in The Bird Life of Texas. is the fact that White Pelicans avoided the major population drop that Brown Pelicans suffered between 1958 and 1961. A possible answer is the difference in diet, fresh verses saltwater, and the way the King Ranch protected its cattle watering lakes by making their million acres of land off limits to crop dusting and industrial plants. If true, you can thank the King Ranch and its clean forage for saving the White Pelican.

The Cormorants Species Overview

Diet: Shrimp and small fish

Known life spans of captured banded birds: Double-crested, 6 years. Neotropic, 12 years

Double-crested Size: 27.5 to 35 in. Weight: 42 – 88 oz.

Neotropic Size: 25 – 27 in. Weight: 2.6 – 3 lbs.

Cormorant Gallery

Neotropic on the left and Double-crested on the right.  Side by side comparison.
Neotropic on the left and Double-crested on the right. Side by side comparison. | Source
Cormorants must dry their feathers frequently as they become soaked from hunting.
Cormorants must dry their feathers frequently as they become soaked from hunting. | Source
a Juvenile Double-crested Cormorant in a communal roost.
a Juvenile Double-crested Cormorant in a communal roost. | Source

Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants

If you hang out on the rivers of Texas during the year, you are going to see large black birds flying about. In flight, their bodies are narrow with fast flapping wings. Sometimes they are hanging with the seagulls. Sometimes they are perched on dead trees staring out at the water or holding out their wings in the sun. These are the cormorants. They are smaller scale birds compared to Pelicans, but they are easy to find and mostly in the same places you will find pelicans.

We have two cormorants that are abundant across the eastern side of Texas. The Neo-tropic Cormorant seems to be the most abundant. This one is notable because of the V-shaped white border of feathers under its eye at the base of its hooked bill called a throat patch. It is smaller than the Double-crested Cormorant, which doesn’t have a throat patch. the Double-crested has long swept back feathered eye brows in breeding season.

These birds are often seen together. They dive for fish independently, but can also work together beating the water with their wings to scare up prey. They can stay underwater for quite a long time and pop back up 10 to 15 yards from where they first dove. Taking rough timings of their dives was a pastime one winter. The times ranged from 50 seconds to 80 or more.

Their catches tended toward small minnows as seen at a distance. Their slightly hooked beaks are tailor made for this kind of fishing. It helps them get a good grip on otherwise slippery meals. The longer they are in the water, however, the lower they float. Cormorants don’t have oil glands to keep their feathers from getting soaked, which is why they are such good divers. When swimming becomes too difficult, they will come to shore and spread their wings in the sun to dry off.

Anhinga Species Overview

Diet: fish

Average life span: 16 years or more

Size: 29.5 – 37.4 in.

Weight: 46.7 – 47.6 oz.

Snake Bird or Water Turkey

While cormorants tend to ride low in the water, the Anhinga swims like a submarine. Like cormorants, an Anhingas’ lack of oil in their feathers give them neutral boyancy. Only their upper neck and head stay out of the water, hence the reason for one of their nicknames. This black bird is larger than a cormorant with a long pointed bill rather than hooked. In flight they are often described as flying crosses. They are not as easy to find in the water due to their low profile, but when you do find one it is unmistakable.

Females have a buffy head and neck with a black body and tail. The males are all black with silvery streaks across their upper wings and backs. They prefer fresh water, but can be found in brackish marsh waters and even salt waters during migration or wintering areas. The below video was made in Florida, showing the life of the Anhinga and its survival skills.

Anhinga Life and Survival

Anhinga Gallery

Male Anhinga on the shore drying off
Male Anhinga on the shore drying off | Source
Anhinga juveniles in a tree at the Trinity River Waterbird Rookery. They shared the tree with Egrets and Cormorants.
Anhinga juveniles in a tree at the Trinity River Waterbird Rookery. They shared the tree with Egrets and Cormorants. | Source

The first time I saw one, it was drying its feathers in the sun at the edge of a fresh water canal bank along Anahuac NWR’s Shoveler Pond. I was facing into the sun at its back, so go figure, my pictures were in silhouette. Even so, there was a protrusion in the upper throat, like a pointed Adam’s apple called a jugular pouch indicating a male.

Females are a bit easier to find, especially in rookeries where a good collection of water birds can be found in one place. During migration they can be seen flying with Vultures, Swainson’s Hawks and White-necked Ravens if not in separate flocks. According to Cornell Labs, they nest near saltwater, but prefer to feed in fresh water.

Unlike the birds mentioned above, Anhingas have no hook on their long bills. They spear fish in a leisurely fishing style while diving. Their diet includes sucker, mullet, sunfish, catfish, and shad. Sounds like a good bird to watch for if fishing on the coast.

Location, Location, Location

Living on the Upper Coast of Texas, I have found all but the pelicans at the Smith Woods Rookery on High Island and the Trinity Waterbird Rookery on Interstate 10 in spring and early summer. Brown Pelican watching has been best for me on Galveston and the coastal islands while White Pelicans are found more inland on lakes. The Neotropic Cormorant seems to be the easier of the two cormorant species for me to find, but one winter, my part of the Lake Houston hosted a large mixed flock of gulls, terns, pelicans and cormorants. They all lived happily together fishing, and roosting on a public dock at night until late February when each kind began to break off for breeding grounds.

This, however, is a large state and Brown Pelicans can be found all along the Coastal Prairie from Orange to Brownsville. White Pelicans and Cormorants, on the other hand, have been seen almost anywhere there is water. There have been sightings as far west as Elpaso, north in the Red River Valley and Northern Panhandle, along most of the southern Rio Grande Valley and along all the major rivers in between.

Enjoy these unique species as you learn about birds. They are a good starting point to the vast list of waterbirds to be seen.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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