The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is St. Maarten’s national bird and appears on both the island’s flag and coat of arms. This large seabird is often seen gliding low above the island’s coastal waters, resting on boats in the marina or perched on cliffs. It is unmistakable because of the large skin pouch under its long grey bill. This pouch can hold two to three times as much food as the pelican’s stomach, and serves as a net to catch fish. The Brown Pelican, together with the peruvian pelican (previously thought to be a subspecies of the brown pelican), is the only member of the pelican family that catches its prey by plunge diving, with its long broad wings partly folded. Because this bird has very good eyesight, it can spot fish from a height of 20 m (~65.6 ft).
Some great spots on St. Maarten to witness the Brown Pelican’s unique fishing style are Simpson Bay Lagoon, the outer Simpson Bay, Great Bay and Little Bay Pond. Following reports that the local population of Brown Pelican had greatly diminished, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation recently carried out a year-long study to find out more about the Brown Pelican’s status. Information was gathered on the Brown Pelican’s population size, its nesting habits, its diet as well as its threats, with the aim of better managing and protecting the island’s national bird. A total of 339 individuals were recorded. Breeding season was found to be between early June and early August. Habitat destruction was identified as the most significant threat, with many breeding sites lost to waterfront development. Thankfully the most significant breeding and nesting site – Fort Amsterdam, Pelican Rocky and Molly B’Day – are currently not at significant risk. The study also found that overfishing and marine debris are endangering the island’s population of Brown Pelican.