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White Pelican Over Mill Pond, Orleans

An American White Pelican over Orleans:

I don’t want to take away anything from the late Dr. King, but I too have a dream. Only mine isn’t a society altering metaphorical dream. My dream is more like a bird-related nightmare, and I have it on a regular basis. No matter what else I’m doing in my dream, I always seem to find a rare bird (no surprise there). But when I try to take a photo of the rarity, there’s invariably an issue with my camera: either the battery is dead, or it won’t focus or there’s something covering the lens…usually spilled ice cream, which is understandable.

Today, there was an opportunity for this bad dream to come true in real life. I was walking along Mill Pond in Orleans, when I looked up and saw several gulls soaring overhead. One of the gulls was significantly larger than the others, so I raised my binoculars, and OMG! It was a white pelican. The bird was flying high and was about to disappear over the tree line, so I yanked the lens cover off my camera and snapped the shutter as fast as I could. I was hoping to capture an image (and proof) before the bird was totally gone. Unlike my recurring dream, everything worked perfectly. I was able to get a documenting photo of this rare occurrence, although the pic was a little fuzzy. There must have been spilled ice cream on the lens, which is understandable.

White pelicans are huge birds. How huge are they? They have a nine-foot wingspan (yes, nine feet…just think about that for minute) and weigh nearly twice as much as a Bald Eagle. They also don’t live around here. White pelicans aren’t the coast huggers their smaller cousins, the Brown Pelicans, are. They actually breed well inland, in such non-oceanic locations as the Dakotas and Alberta, Canada. This is why I was so excited to see one flying over my hometown. I’m sure all sorts of rare, less obvious species pass through the Cape all the time and many go unnoticed. A bird this massive, however, should have been seen by a lot of folks, but as far as I can tell, I was the only person who saw it. This is why I needed a photo. It’s not that other birders wouldn’t believe me…but they wouldn’t.

Bird species tend to behave much the same way their close relatives do. For example, hummingbirds essentially all feed the same way, while Carolina Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees both act like, well, chickadees. This makes sense to me, but apparently it doesn’t make any sense to North America’s two species of pelicans. The Brown Pelican and American White Pelican don’t feed the same way or even enjoy the same habitat. Basically, the things the two birds have most in common are their huge beaks…and their last name.

Anyone who has been to Florida, or any other coastal area in the South, has likely seen Brown Pelicans in action. They hunt by flying above the ocean and diving down to capture fish, Osprey style. But unlike Ospreys, which dive feet first, the Brown Pelican hits the water with its face. Ouch! Oh sure, they have special adaptations to help mitigate the impact, but it still seems like a tough way to earn a living, and white pelicans couldn’t agree more. There is no crashing face first into the water for them. They hunt by calmly swimming along the surface and scooping whatever fish are naive enough to come too close. Often several of the big white birds hunt in a group (squadron) and will actually drive a school (group) of fish into the shallows for easy scooping. You would think at some point the Brown Pelicans would see what their cousins are doing and try the scooping method, and sometimes they do, but mostly they seem to prefer the painful diving and splashing technique. Go figure.

Brown Pelicans are also into seafood, consuming a diverse assortment of saltwater fish. White pelicans, on the other hand, understand that too much salt in their diet isn’t a good thing, so they also eat a lot of freshwater fish, especially while they are on their breeding grounds. Both pelican species spend the winter near the coast, but when spring arrives, the big white birds head north to the center of the continent. Here they breed in large colonies, typically located on barren islands in the middle of remote lakes. After their eggs hatch, the babies are fed a lovely diet of regurgitated fish.

Cartoons always show pelicans carrying a load of fresh fish in their giant pouches, but this isn’t true. Once fish are caught, they are immediately swallowed whole and not spit up until later, when the adults arrive back at the nest. I don’t want to tell nature how to do things, but the cartoons make a lot of sense. Pelicans are born with their own reusable shopping bags and they should use them. What’s the point of swallowing food, and then spitting it up again? Not only is it a waste of time, but it’s also disgusting. Nature could learn a lot from cartoons. I sure do. Birding is such a serendipitous hobby. One moment there’s nothing around except sparrows, and then suddenly there’s a giant bird flying overhead, one that’s 1,400 miles out of its usual range. How this pelican ended up in Orleans is a question that I don’t even think the bird itself knows the answer to. I was just happy I was able to get a picture of it. After downloading the photo, I was going to take a minute and wipe the spilled ice cream off my lens, but then I thought, why bother? It’s only going to get spilled on there again eventually.