American White Pelican Sighting Elusive in Coastal Carolina

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

—  Dixon Lanier Merritt, American poet, humorist, newspaper editor (1879–1972)

The white pelican can be found any month of the year although fall or winter is most likely, according to Birds of the Brunswick County Islands by Roy S. SlackBirds of the Carolinas by Eloise F. Potter, James F. Parnell, and Robert P. Teulings surmises that these birds may be migrants flying to and from their winter grounds in Florida, or possibly wanderers from the wintering populations.

Pelicans are very large, heavy birds. Males and females look similar.  This species is white all over with black wing tips. It has the characteristic massive, expandable bill to catch fish in, which is orange and normally held downward.  However, if it is immature the bill is gray.  If breeding (like the photo above), the bill has a protrusion in the middle.

Pelicans have short, thick, orange legs with all four toes connected by webs.  They fly with their necks folded back.  Interestingly, they fish by dipping their bill into freshwater and scooping up fish while swimming, which differs from the more locally common brown pelican.

White pelicans summer and breed in Canada and winter along the coast of California, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and Mexico.  They usually live in colonies, flying and fishing in flocks.  The nests are low mounds of earth and debris on marshy islands and egg laying begins in mid-May.  A clutch can have one to three large white eggs and will take twenty-nine to thirty-six days to incubate.  One brood is raised a year with both parents participating.

The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count of 1992-1993 lists out of the ten reports for our area, one sighting of 2 American White Pelicans.  The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) data for 2001 shows 2 were spotted in our neighbor to the North, Wilmington, North Carolina.  In 2003, the GBBC shows 3 in Wilmington on 2 different checklists.  They are a rare sighting in our locale indeed, but part of the fun and allure of bird watching is the element of surprise.

The wood stork could be mistaken for a white pelican at a distance, but take note of the dark unfeathered head that is outstretched on the stork in flight.  In flight at a distance the Northern Gannet might also pose confusion.  Are the local sightings of the American White Pelican a case of mistaken identity or a chance rare sighting?  This is an unknown element that makes the search interesting.


Previously published in The Brunwick Beacon. Reprinted with permission. 

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