Photos and text by Emma Croes
“In Galisbay one day, I was observing, that dissident giant twisting and turning. Getting ready to make a dive, to snap up something to eat.” This is a quote from the poem “The Fall of the Pelican” written by Serge Tuder and translated into English by D. Jeffrey Razafindrainibe and published in 1978.
In Simpson Bay, just recently, I was observing the same thing. A lone pelican was flying back and forth along the beach, carried by the ocean breeze. I was struck by its beauty and I tried to capture its image in pixels with my camera.
After my photo session, I realized that I actually didn’t know much about the Brown Pelican or Pelicanus occidentalis. Yes, I knew that it was St. Maarten’s national bird, that it ate fish and that it was supposed to be brown- coloured. But that was about all.
So I did some research on this magnificent creature. I visited Philipsburg Jubilee Library, I looked online, I watched a documentary named “Pelican Dreams” by Judy Irving (2014), and I asked Nature Foundation a few questions based on their St. Maarten Pelican Project Report (2011).
What I found out is that you can tell a young pelican apart from an older pelican by its colour. Young pelicans are fully brown. When they get older, their heads become kind of spotted with white feathers. Grown-ups have a white head, neck and throat with yellow highlights, their amazing wingspan of up to 7.5 feet in length still showcases the tell-tale brown feathers associated with its name. They should weigh more than 3.5 kilograms and, like all pelicans, they have very long bills. (For those of you who do not know what bill means, it’s another word for beak.)
The Brown Pelican’s dive is very unique in the way they seem to plummet down from startling heights into the water. The hunt starts by making a circle until the pelican spots its prey. Then it starts to bank and turn, and when the dive is fully initiated, the wings are folded in closer to the body with a tucked in neck. The chest of the pelican protects it from the hard impact on the water; it works kind of like an airbag. The impact stuns the fish, making it possible for the pelican to scope it up and swallow it whole. All in all, an efficient method of fishing.
According to Nature Foundation’s Pelican Report, the Brown Pelican is not doing so well. Its numbers have decreased steadily since the 1960s and 70s. This coincides with the increase in seafront development that started around that time, resulting in habitat destruction. However, this is not the only reason for the Brown Pelican’s predicament. Other reasons are the decline in the number of fish in the sea, as well as garbage and discarded fishing material that can be found in the waters, endangering the pelican’s habitat.
A few important habitats, including the pelican nesting grounds, have remained intact on St. Maarten are thus far. These include Divi Little Bay, Great Bay, Molley Beday and near islets, and the Pelican-Simpson Bay area. Molley Beday is one of the little islands of the eastern shore that, together with Pelican Rock and Hens & Chicks, provides favoured nesting grounds for the Brown Pelican. These tiny islets have been allocated as Important Breeding Areas (IBA).
In 2011, Nature Foundation organized a pelican count to determine its numbers. They counted a total of 339 that included eight chicks and 35 sub adults. The breeding season of the Brown Pelican on St. Maarten starts at the beginning of June and runs through to the end of August, with a peak at the end of July. Both parents take care of the chicks that are totally dependent on them. This requires a lot of fishing by both parents to keep the chicks, as well as themselves, fed. The decline in the fish population has made this very difficult for the grown-ups, and as such the number of chicks becoming sub adults has decreased as well.
However, there is hope for the Brown Pelican. Nature Foundation states that the imposed fishing restrictions at Man of War Shoal Marine Park seem to have resulted in an increased number of fish. They are currently monitoring the reefs, including the Marine Park, and their results will be published hopefully at the beginning of next year.
Nature Foundation also spoke in their 2011 report of initiating a fishing-line recycling program, in order to keep fishermen from discarding their fishing materials. In an invited comment, Melanie Meijer zu Schlochtern, Project Officer at the Nature Foundation St. Maarten, stated that Nature Foundation “always promotes recycling and reusing; however, the government needs to set up proper recycling as we cannot do this. Whenever we find fishing equipment, we take it off the reefs and dive schools do the same for us.”
This year, Nature Foundation has been very active with their “Save the Sharks” project. I was curious how this project would benefit the Brown Pelican. Melanie told me that sharks are keeping the fish population healthy and they are very important for our reefs. “If we do not have sharks, we do not have a healthy ocean or coral reefs, and we would also lose many fish. By keeping a healthy fish population, we help pelicans [by protecting] their main food source. No fish, no pelicans.”
Each year, Nature Foundation is called to rescue Brown Pelicans in apparent distress. The total number of rescues differs per year, but it involves a few each year nonetheless. When people see a pelican in trouble, they can always call Nature Foundation. Sometimes, however, the cause is a natural one, like old age. Nature Foundation hopes to conduct another St. Maarten Pelican project to establish new numbers and to require new insights in the near future. Nevertheless, we can all do our best to prevent further habitat destruction in the immediate future by being more aware of all that lives on land and sea.
My name is Emma Croes and I am 11 years old. I got interested in photography when I was eight. For the last year, I have been able to practice my skill at Player Development as the team photographer. I am particularly interested in sports and nature photography.