• Large white pelicans hang out on a sand spit in the Amelia River. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

Spending an afternoon on the water

It was going to be one of the coldest weekends of the year but that didn’t stop my friends Susan and Flip Gallion from putting their boat on the water for a sunset cruise. Flip had a charter earlier in the day, but he and Susan were still up for an outing. Did I want to go with them? Sure!

We all bundled up in layers, but with his windshield plastic screen up there was no problem at all. The sun warmed us, the wind was kept off us, and the air was bright and clear. Beautiful. I packed bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, pretzels and drinks and off we went into the blue.

We began our voyage at the Egans Creek Marina just before the North 14th Street bridge. Soon enough we were passing all the sleek sailboats along the docks of the Tiger Point Marina and were out onto the Amelia River, for a view of the port, the mill, and our own sadly desolate Fernandina Harbor Marina, which has been basically out of commission since two hurricanes ago. On we powered, past the now-thriving Amelia Island Yacht Basin marina and on up the river, all the way to the Down Under restaurant at Shave Bridge. We didn’t stop for a beer but it made a convenient turn around point, nonetheless.

But it wasn’t just businesses, factories and thriving (and not-so thriving marinas) that we saw. What I was most focused on were the pelicans. The first bunch of pelicans I spotted were the “common kind” – well for us, anyway. A group of brown pelicans and a few associated shorebirds were lining a small sandy beach across from the city marina. We’ve all seen brown pelicans many times, flying overhead in formations or low above the water and perching on the pilings near Atlantic Seafood and around our abandoned marina. Flip was powering on by, but I requested a closer look so we backtracked a bit so I could photograph them.

These brown pelicans are with us year-round, but in greater numbers now, in the winter, when their habitats up north get too cold for those who summer there. Brown pelicans feed by diving head first into the water, sometimes confusing people into thinking they are seeing the spout of a whale instead of the splash. But if you look at the water’s surface after a splash and see a pelican floating there, that’s your sighting.

But white pelicans, now that’s another story. These white birds with white and black wings are about three times larger than brown pelicans, reaching weights up to nearly 20 pounds, and are one of the largest birds in North America. On our afternoon trip, Flip took us right to where he had last seen a group of white pelicans, and sure enough, they were still there.

White pelicans are mostly in our coastal waterways in winter, although a few non-breeding stragglers don’t migrate north like most do to breed in the spring. The group we watched contained more than 30 birds, all huddled close together on a dry bit of sand. Although you could tell they were large birds, they seemed even larger due to the smaller dark cormorants that shared the same sandbar.

It was evening when we were boating and the white pelicans, like their brown cousins, were roosting for the night. They both need vision to catch their fish, so they forage during the daytime. White pelicans catch fish very differently than brown pelicans, though. Instead of plunge diving, they dip their beaks into the water to scoop up prey. And sometimes, if you are out boating during the daytime, you can see them cooperatively feeding. A group of white pelicans fan out in formation and herd fish toward the shore, in a similar strategy that dolphins sometimes use when they “strand-fish.”

I’ve been out on Susan and Flip’s boat a number of times and I am always impressed with the differing sights out on the water every time, whatever the season. There is just nothing like a spell on the water to sooth the soul and to give a whole different perspective to the paradise we all call home. If you want to see for yourself, call 753-2339, email flip@oceanbird.com, or check their website www.oceanbird.com. I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige you. I guarantee you won’t be sorry!

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