Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 20, 2014

A Pelican Out of Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:36 am

White pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver_zps24f3cf3c.jpg

There are places one may expect to find pelicans and places where you wouldn’t. If you are a regular reader of my blog (a trait that should qualify you for sainthood) you’ll recall that I expressed a northerner’s fascination with the Brown Pelicans around Tampa region. I expected to see them there and there they were. I did not expect to see White Pelicans in Illinois last weekend, although I probably should have.

I’ve seen a few of these monstrous white oddities in Michigan over the years. A few individuals (sometimes up to dozen strong) show up on rare, but regular, occasions at the Pte. Mouillee State Game Area in S.E. Michigan. One can never expect to see them there but their appearance is not totally unexpected. I spotted two there last summer. Had I of been up on my migration knowledge I probably should have expected to see some pelicans when on a recent trip to visit my brother Dan in Rockford, Illinois. It was all about timing and location.

We were on a short “bro” trip to the tiny rural town of Byron not far from Rockford. Rockford itself is about an hour west of Chicago in northern Illinois and Byron is located southwest of town. We took the scenic route which followed the route of the Rock River (the waterway eventually spills into the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill.). For a mid-April day it was crappy weather and one which ended up with wind driven white-outs and several inches of snow on the ground.

White Pelican flock along the Rock River in mid-April photo WhitePelicansontheRockRiver_zpscd898de7.jpg

Against this dismal backdrop the big white birds in the river stood out like so many sore thumbs. They were unexpected (didn’t I already say that?) and I shouted out “Pelicans” and waved a pointy finger in their general direction as we passed. I guess I have a tendency to do this kind of thing. I recall a time forty-five years ago when I nearly caused my dad to careen our car off the road when I announced that I’d just spotted a Pileated Woodpecker flying into the tree line. I guess I did more than just announce the fact – I trumpeted. This time, Dan had the grace to act as if what I was saying was true and calmly turned around, although in retrospect it was an un-believable statement (equivalent to shouting Flamingo or Water Buffalo). Fortunately the pelicans I thought I saw were actually pelicans.

Spotting these birds made up for some of that foolish April weather. There were about twenty or so birds roosting on a gravel bar, along with an equal number of contrasting Cormorants, and a few were swimming in the gray choppy water. One of them briefly took to the air and displayed the enormous 9 foot wingspan (second largest in North America) and black-edged wings. All were decked out in their breeding plumage.  One bird in particular did his best to show off his finery. Actually I say “he” but since both sexes are alike I should just call it Pat or Leslie.

White Pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver2_zpsf43eb220.jpg  White Pelican on the Rock River, Ill. photo WhitePelicanontheRockRiver3_zps729287c9.jpg

From the light yellow wash on the white body feathers and yellow skin patch surrounding the eye, to the multiple shades of pink, orange, and yellow on the bill the spring coloration of the White Pelican is all about subtlety. A distinctive black patch located dead center on the throat pouch adds a touch of dignity. Add to this a prominent crest and two upper beak projections and you have a unique sight (Yes indeedy do!).The beak knobs – actually flattened keels – drop off after the season of love ends and the subtle colors fade to basic yellow orange.

Although these birds seemed out of place to me, they apparently are a regular sight along the Mississippi Valley during spring and fall migration. Their appearance is a much anticipated event as the pelicans make their way north from the Gulf to their breeding grounds in the northern plains of Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, and Central Canada.  They’ll remain for a few days and then move on.

Pelicans are expected around mid-April in Illinois which is exactly when I was there (wow, ain’t it serendipitous).  The migrants don’t traditionally venture as far east as the middle Rock River and this really was the only unusual thing about the whole affair. As the birds slowly rebound from their earlier disastrous encounter with DDT they are becoming more common and I – and you – can expect to see more of them in places where you’d least expect them.


  1. I think you’d be surprised at how many regular readers you have. You’re one of the highlights of my week.

    I saw my first white pelicans last weekend at Goose Pond NWR in Greene County, Indiana. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, but apparently they’ve decided we make a terrific stopover. This year there was a flock of 1500 [yes, fifteen hundred] there. What a sight!

    Comment by Robin — April 20, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

  2. good, interesting writing. Good research on the pelicans.

    Comment by scott — April 26, 2014 @ 10:44 am

  3. We are driving north near the Rock River in Illinois (as I type) and a flock of about 20 or so large white birds just flew along side us. My husband did not see them as he was driving – he did not believe they were white pelicans until I happened upon your blog searching the internet for “large white birds on the Rock River”! Love your blog, you have a new reader!

    Comment by Mimi — June 24, 2014 @ 6:33 pm

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