24 Feb 2013

Our dry season, the causeway and pelicans…

By: Jorge Ventocilla

Undoubtedly rain is a beautiful thing. Thomas Merton, French/American poet and mystic said that “Rain is a festival!” However, the dry season is great here in Panama, both in land and sea. It is a great opportunity for visiting the Amador Causeway with the family and making the most out of this beautiful time of the year.

In the Amador Causeway and in the Pacific Coast in general you will have the opportunity to see a beautiful show of seabirds flying (seagulls), plunge-diving into water (pelicans) or robbing other birds’ food by executing a smooth maneuver (frigate birds). And of course, you will see other birds, like the cormorants, flying in rows against the blue sky.

Today we will talk about one of these characters: the stylish pelican, the knight of the sea.

If we ask someone from Panama City about three common birds in the city, they would probably mention gallinazo (Turkey Vulture), talingo (Great-tailed Grackle) and pelícano (Pelican). The latter is part of the Pelecaniformes order which includes six bird families. A common characteristic is that they have feet with all four toes webbed.

There are also six fossil families in the Pelecaniformes order, and the Elopteryx is the most important of them. It is one of the oldest bird fossils ever known, from the European Cretaceous Period. “Piqueros” (boobies), “tijeretas de mar” (frigate birds), “patos aguja” (anhingas), “paticuervos” (cormorants) and “rabijuncos” (tropicbirds), along with pelicans, are all part of the Pelecaniformes order.

The relationship between these birds and human beings is very interesting. The “guanay”, one of the cormorants found in the coasts of Peru, is the major producer of “island guano”, world-renowned organic fertilizer. I have read that in ancient Polynesia frigate birds were used for sending messages from one island to the other. Also, people from the East made good use of the skills shown by the almost 30 cormorant species. First they taught them to fly back to their owners and then they took them fishing. The owner would place a tight collar around their necks which provided enough room for them to catch the fish but prevented them from swallowing it. When the bird flew back to the ship, the owner would get the fish and release the bird for starting over again. 

There are 7 pelican species that can be found almost everywhere, except for the Poles and some other regions. Two of these are well-known species and both of them can be found in the New World. The first of them is the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), which has a single black spot in each wing. Its distribution ranges from the western United States and Canada, migrating to Mexico and part of Central America for the winter. Francisco Delgado, professor at Centro Regional Universitario de Veraguas (regional center for Universidad de Panamá in Veraguas), had the chance to watch and capture this species with his camera in El Agallito beach, near Chitré, during the dry season of 1984.


The second species is the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), the only species in our coastal areas. Its distribution ranges from the southeastern and western United States to the Guianas or Guyanas and a little further south down to the mouth of the Amazonas; and in the Pacific Coast, in Central America and the Antilles.

Our pelican seems to be both clumsy and funny, as the rest of the pelicans; however, this is the only pelican species that feeds by diving into the water. Sometimes these birds dive into the water from up in the air, creating a significant impact. These birds have no problems with plunging from high above thanks to the internal air sacks beneath the skin in their breasts which serves as a cushion against the impact. Their gular pouch, which is a unique characteristic, has the functionality of an underwater net.

“Funny” and “clumsy”…maybe, but they are no fools. Pelicans love to spend their leisure time and breed in Taboga and other islands near the bay. During the dry season, approximately 50,000 pelicans from many places nest in the islands of Taboga and Urabá (just remember that a similar number of cormorants, Phalacrocorax brasilianus, also nest there); and approximately 30,000 nest on the Pearl Islands (Archipiélago de Las Perlas). By the end of the breeding season, there would be at least 50,000 new pelicans.

Gene Montgomery, Smithsonian researcher, wrote the following years ago: “Offshore winds result in a wind-generated upwelling in the Bay of Panama when sustained north trade winds blow during the dry season. This upwelling lowers surface temperatures and increases available nutrients, and ultimately increases the availability of fish to the marine fauna in the islands that are most suitable for breeding and nesting. This is what makes the Bay of Panama an attractive place for pelicans and other seabirds.”

The number of pelicans in the Bay of Panama varies from year to year. They come and breed early in the dry season and just a few will remain here after July. Montgomery counted an approximate resident population of 2,000, year-round. He also posed a hypothesis concerning the possibility that many of the pelicans that can be found in the Eastern Pacific, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and West Indies could come from the colonies of nesting seabirds in Panamá.

As a witness and pioneer of the movement, I am proud to say that in 1985, after almost 30 years, the national government declared the southern part of Taboga and the neighboring Urabá Island as a “Wildlife Reserve”. I hereby greet and salute all pelicans, cormorants, herons, seagulls and other seabirds that now have a protected place in the Bay where they can breed without being disturbed.

English translation by: Sara I. Melo D.