By Pat Foster-Turley
December 2, 2021
Caption: Black vultures pair-bond for life and are intelligent social birds that help clean up our environment.
Caption: Brown pelicans call Atlantic Seafood and other marina docks their home during the winter months.
Every week I aim to write a column for the Fernandina Observer and some weeks are easier to find a subject than others. There are times when I have three or four story possibilities circulating in my head. And then there are times like this week when I am bereft of ideas.
But we live in an interesting place with a lot happening in the natural world around us and it just took me a little head scratching when I came up with this idea. It’s been a while since I wrote about the pelicans at Atlantic Seafood at our marina. OK, time to check it out again.
In winter a flock of brown pelicans flies from points north to spend the colder months hanging out at our marina. In the past, I have noticed some of these birds with bands on their legs and dutifully reported the information to posted websites and learned their origin was from the Chesapeake Bay area. This time, visiting the dock behind Atlantic Seafood I didn’t see any bands on the pelicans, but sadly, when I rechecked the old bird banding reporting website this was now inactive anyway. Lack of staff? Lack of funding? Covid? Who knows why but these sites are now “temporarily unavailable.”
But still, I found a story. Not only were a handful of pelicans relaxing behind Atlantic Seafood, they were joined by a group of black vultures, one of my favorite birds of all time. And, what about the otters? Do they still visit this area? The only way to find out was to question the young guys working in the store.
Sadly, I learned that otters no longer frequent the marina area, and one fellow told me he has worked at Atlantic Seafood for four years or so and has never seen one. That’s not surprising, with all the increasing human hubbub that is centered along this area of the marina. And, sad to say, otters have not appeared in my own dying backyard retention pond in many years as well, most likely due to lack of food sources here. There are still some otters in the Egans Creek Greenway, but their numbers too will decline if there are not enough unrelated otters on the island to mate with. Another loss of biodiversity in front of my eyes: it’s so, so sad.
But visiting the guys at Atlantic Seafood was fun for me anyway. When I mentioned the vultures on the dock I learned that they hang out mostly on the roof of the Hampton Inn, but sometimes visit here. The guys loved the way the vultures strutted around. And, then I got to tell them my vulture story and now you will hear it too.
Many years ago Bucko and I worked at Marine World Africa USA, an animal theme park in the San Francisco Bay Area. My best friend there, Mary Rose, was the birds-of-prey handler and one of her charges was Igor, a black vulture that was retired from the old Addams Family television show. Igor was already at least twenty years old then, and lived many more years after that. Black vultures form pair bonds that last their lifetime. In Igor’s case, Mary Rose became her partner. Igor loved Mary Rose, performed her courtship display to her and even laid infertile eggs after this stimulation. But as much as Igor loved Mary Rose, she hated me. I was the person who would visit Mary Rose at the end of the day to get her to put Igor away—and Igor knew me as “the enemy.”
When Igor was on a jess tethered on Mary Rose’s glove she could not attack me, so instead she displaced her aggression to Mary Rose, biting her roughly whenever Igor noticed me. I could be in a large crowd, invisible to Mary Rose, but Igor always spotted me and started biting. “Get away Pat—I know you are here!” This was a real problem during the killer whale shows which opened with Mary Rose high on a ladder with her arm outstretched calling “Igor!” who flew there from across the park where she was released by an assistant. I had to stay indoors out of sight during whale shows or Igor would spot me on the ground and start to attack me, forgetting totally about joining Mary Rose up on the yardarm.
Like the guys at Atlantic Seafood said, “This was a one in a million experience” and they were right. And yes, I got another column out of the visit. Perfect!
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]