It’s a bird, it’s a plane. No, it’s … pelicans?

Chances are if you ventured out onto Logan Martin Lake or have a particularly good vantage point of the main channel lately, you have seen something rarely spotted in these parts until now.

At first glance, it may look like an egret or some other large white bird, but a closer look reveals the distinctive bill and huge wingspan of a pelican — an American White Pelican to be exact. Pelecanus erythrorhynchos to be precise.

Residents up and down the lake are doing a double take of late, noticing huge flocks of one of North America’s largest birds.

“We have had quite a few reports of White Pelicans in that area this year,” said Marc Devokaitis, a public information specialist with Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We really don’t know whether the population is expanding or if the birds are just shifting their preferred winter habitat a bit further away from the coast. Though, actually, the range maps I’m looking at have the winter range clearly into central Alabama and Mississippi.”

Audubon.org calls the species “distinctive” because of its “nine-foot wingspan, black wing tips and trailing edges. Despite their size, the pelicans are graceful fliers, with flocks soaring high in the air and wheeling in unison.”

“This year is the first time I have ever seen them,” said former Pell City Councilman Gaston Williamson. From his home, he spotted them initially in December on a point south of the ball fields behind the Pell City Civic Center.

He has seen as many as 200 or 300 on a sandbar near where old US 231 ran before the lake was created. Part of that roadbed still lies beneath the water.

By mid-March, the numbers dwindled, he said, and he spotted about 20 flying in V formation heading north. “They may have started their migration,” he reasoned.

According to Audubon, the birds have colonies from western Manitoba in Canada and Minnesota and Northern California. They winter along the coasts of California, Mexico, Gulf Coast and Florida. “Migrating flocks of pelicans rest on lakes and rivers along the way.”

Laurie Massey, who lives upstream on Logan Martin, several miles from Williamson’s home, said they are “amazing to watch. They are so big. When I first saw them, I thought, are they some kind of domestic geese?” She grabbed her binoculars to confirm and soon concluded they were pelicans.

Like Williamson, she is studying about them, too. “All I know is what I read in the Audubon Bird Handbook. I was surprised to see them. Those great big, giant wings are a sight to behold.”

One morning on her way to work, she noticed them circling over Interstate 20. “There was a great big swarm of them just circling. That was pretty neat, too.”

There are 180,000 of the species globally, according to Audubon, and they were considered threatened until the 1960s when they began making a comeback. They were endangered by changing water levels, contaminants and the disturbance of humans, including shooting them for sport or protecting fishing. Since that time, Audubon reports, legislation protecting them helped reverse the numbers.

They weigh about 16.4 pounds and are more than five feet long. They differ from brown pelicans usually seen at the beach because they do not dive catch their prey. They swim on the surface of the water, dipping their bills to scoop prey into expandable pouches. They are noted by Audubon for what is called “cooperative foraging — coordinated flocks of swimming birds encircle fish or drive them into the shallows where they become concentrated and are more easily caught.”

Intrigued by the newfound species on Logan Martin, Williamson said, “I never thought I was going to become a bird watcher.” But he has, and he is learning what he can about the pelicans. Just like all the other lakeside residents doing a double take this year.


According to Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the American White Pelican:

Can weigh as much as 30 pounds with a wingspan of eight to nine feet.

In flight, it alternately soars and flaps with flocks flying in V-formation with its neck bent and head close to the body.

Has a large, yellow or orange bill with an extensible pouch.

Has short legs, webbed feet, and both sexes look alike.

During breeding season develops a short, yellowish crest on the back of its head and a horny ridge plate on the upper mandible.

For more:
You can hear how they sound at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_White_Pelican/sounds.

You can take a look at White Pelican sightings and other population data by using http://ebird.org/content/ebird/”http://ebird.org/content/ebird/. Click on the Explore Data tab. Go to Range and Point Maps. Set species to American White Pelican and the location to Logan Martin Lake.

Story by Carol Pappas
Photos by Laurie Massey

Discover the Essence of St. Clair Magazine – April 2013 Edition

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