For my first few years living on Anna Maria Island, I had only heard of white pelicans, but never had seen them. Eventually, my curiosity prompted me to go look for them. I had heard there were some at the south part of the island in Anna Maria Sound. At first, I thought I’d found them. They looked white, but they were in many ways similar to the more common local Brown Pelicans. Soon I learned Brown Pelicans have white heads and necks when they are adults, but not breeding. This is all I had seen.
Later I learned the best place to see the American White Pelican in this area was Cortez fishing village, and this is where I found them. On the occasion of my first American White Pelican spotting, there was no question about what it was. It was gigantic compared to the local browns. The wingspan of the white is 9 feet, compared to 7 feet for the brown. The white pelican also looks completely white when it floats in the water. The black primary and secondary flight feathers on the wings are only obvious during flight.
Other than size and color, the most obvious difference between Brown Pelicans and American White Pelicans is their feeding behavior. Brown Pelicans glide in the air, then do apparently awkward dives, splashing loudly into the water with a strange twist, but usually recovering with a pouch full of fish. White pelicans do not dive; instead they forage for fish in a methodical way. Sometimes they even swim as a group in a formation, moving the fish toward the shore or into narrow areas where they can be more easily caught.