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SHARKS, RAYS, and… PELICANS?! Oh, My! - By Volunteer Elise Hayden

When I first came to Bimini to study Southern Stingrays (Hypanus americanus) as a Project Student, I was most excited to see the sharks and rays that I’ve dreamed of researching since I was a kid. The prospect of being involved in the catching, tagging, and tracking of my favorite animals is what first attracted me to the Bimini Shark Lab. I didn’t know that I would soon become obsessed with another group of local animals: birds.

[Elise freediving to look at a southern stingray at the Sapona wreck - Photo: Chelle Blais]

Because I came to the lab with a global pandemic in full swing, I and my fellow volunteers were required to complete a 2-week long quarantine on island before moving to the research station. With little else to do, I began watching all the different bird species around our quarantine house. Later, I learned that Bimini is home to a multitude of birds of all shapes and sizes including multiple species of ibis, owl, crane, egret, warbler, duck, dove, and more. These animals, with their bright colors and intricate songs, seem to demand to be seen and heard; during my first trip to Shell Beach, I was even greeted by a very friendly American Redstart which landed on my leg.

While each species is unique and beautiful in its own way, I quickly fell in love with one species, the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). I’ve become known by other volunteers and staff for greeting pelicans as they fly over. (Luckily, I’m not alone - PI Clemency White also finds the urge to wave and shout, “Hello!” whenever these huge birds are around!) I find them impossible to ignore - they can have a wingspan of up to 2.5m (8ft) and weigh around 16lbs! These large birds can be spotted alone or in groups, flying, floating on the water, or perched in the branches of South Bimini’s mangroves. However, I find that the most exciting time to observe Brown Pelicans is while they feed. Their feeding strategy involves repeatedly diving head-first into the ocean from up to 15m (50ft) in the air to catch small fish, sometimes in choreographed groups of 3 or more individuals, resulting in huge, loud splashes. This amazing spectacle is one of my favorite things to see when spending a day out on the water.

[Photo: David Palfrey]

As I started learning more about pelicans, I also learned about Juita Martinez, a PhD student and pelican researcher at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, on an episode of my favorite podcast, “Ologies” with Alie Ward which aired during #BlackBirdersWeek. This scientist speaks of pelicans endearingly, referring to juveniles as “dinosaur floofs”, because chicks go through a fuzzy, down stage before developing full feathers (seriously, Google baby pelican, you won't be disappointed). Throughout the podcast, I learned about the conservation issues that currently threaten this species, which include shoreline erosion and sea-level rise. Part of Juita’s research involves tagging individuals with colored bands to see which birds return to the islands where they were born and how they may respond to the loss of their home islands where they would usually return to nest. Specifically, she looked for differences in nesting behavior between pelicans that used restored vs. unrestored nesting habitats. So far, she has observed that pelicans are able to nest in the restored habitats, creating hope for the Brown Pelican population in Louisiana and evidence to support similar restoration efforts in the future.

[Pelicans standing on an area which will be undergoing commercial developments. Photo: David Palfrey]

This is an example of how the conservation and restoration of habitats can have a positive impact on wildlife populations. Here at BBFSF, we are strong advocates for the preservation of our surrounding marine habitats, including mangroves, seagrass flats, and coral reefs. Many of our past and current research projects, like my research which examines the movement and habitat use of Bimini’s Southern Stingrays, include habitat conservation components. As scientists, I believe it is our collective responsibility to do all that we can to preserve and learn to sustainably manage the world’s remaining natural resources. In identifying and advocating for the conservation of important habitats worldwide, we can take large strides toward a greener future and minimize negative impacts on our neighboring wildlife like pelicans, sharks, and more!

[Photo: David Palfrey]



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