White Pelicans on Whidbey

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Note–David Welton wrote and photographed this story. He has a lifelong interest in and majored in biology. Working in the Moore Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental College, he received National Science Foundation grants in 1968 and 1969 to study birds in the Sierras and Central America with professors Martin L Morton and John William Hardy. His senior year research project, “Postnuptial Molt and its Relation to Reproductive Cycle in Mountain White Crown Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha)” was published in “Condor,” the Journal of the American Ornithogical Association in 1973.  He briefly considered a career as a field biologist or park ranger, but chose medicine, and has maintained an interest in natural history ever since.

Powerful fliers, pelicans can soar to 10,000 feet.

Throughout human history change has prompted migration and relocation. The “people-ing” of the world began eons ago when hominids moved from East Africa to Europe. A band of Puritan pilgrims fled religious persecution, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  The American West was opened by those seeking a better life, and 1.6 million Black Americans left Jim Crow behind during the “Great Migration” following WW1.  More recently almost six million Middle Eastern refugees have taken flight to neighboring countries or Europe.

White Pelican aerobatics at Deer Lagoon in the fog with our landmark Double Bluff

Similarly, animals move along when ecologic conditions become unfavorable. Joel Carl Welty wrote in The Life of Birds (1962) “bird distribution is a dynamic constantly changing affair; no species stays in one place forever.”  Avian range is directly influenced by climate and temperature and indirectly by climate, alterations of food supply, and shelter.

We have witnessed pelican resettlement since 2016 at Deer Lagoon here on Whidbey Island.  

These large bright white birds weigh up to twenty pounds, and are hard to miss with their 10-foot wingspans and black primary and secondary feathers on the underside of the wing.  

Black flight feathers are easily seen on White Pelicans in flight

Frances Wood wrote in her column in the South Whidbey Record (August 2, 2016) that they were “accidental” sightings until July 2016, when small groups were spotted in Padilla Bay. Alerted to these reports, she subsequently found them at Honeymoon Lake and Deer Lagoon. Katie Campbell, in Crosscut (August 31 2016), quotes Oregon State University Professor Dan Roby: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t prospecting for new locations. White Pelicans do seem to be expanding and establishing new sites.”  His speculation is supported by Colleen Moulton of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, who reported a northward shift of pelican breeding colony habitat with loss of the seven southernmost sites over the past fifty years, in Studies of Western Birds (Western Field Ornithologists, 2018).

There are two types of pelicans in North America. The Brown Pelican is a coastal bird, and dives headlong into the water to feed on fish.  American White Pelicans are larger, and historically have ranged throughout central and northern US states, but not western Washington. They “dip” for minnows, salamanders and water bugs as they paddle along, scooping large volumes of water with weeds—and hopefully prey—in their pouches. They can soar on thermals to 10,000 feet, and use “ground effects” to stay aloft as they race just above the water’s surface. White Pelicans “commute” to forage up to 100 miles per day, and migrate even further. 

In contrast, coastal cousins Brown Pelicans are a “diver”, plummeting headfirst from 60-70 feet to capture prey. However they are also known to beg borrow or steal from fishermen as seen here on Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara years ago.

In breeding, pelican couples build a rock-lined nest  in the soil shortly after the spring migration. Generally two eggs are laid in each nest. Chicks are born without feathers and are completely dependent on their parents for warmth and nourishment. Most of the time only one nestling survives to leave the nest. Insulating down grows after about two weeks, and parents can leave the young for a while to forage for the rapidly growing chick. The babies are still vulnerable, however and huddle together in “creches” to stay warm.  Perhaps the “creches” make them gregarious for life. White Pelicans are social animals, and flocks of a hundred birds cooperate to herd fish into shallow water to make them easy catch.

Pelicans seem to have found a new home at Deer Lagoon.  Climate change and overall global warming likely is the driver.  However local weather anomalies that deviate from global averages are also influential.  Observations at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota demonstrate a 44-year trend to a 16-day earlier arrival at breeding grounds from 1965 to 2008, possibly due to warmer conditions in the birds’ winter habitat to the south. Nevertheless, local cold snaps put a damper on breeding success. Spring storms with hail, high winds, rain, and unseasonably cold snaps are not uncommon in the Dakotas, and have been correlated with over 90% chick mortality during the post-hatch vulnerable period.

Habitat loss due to drought and receding water levels have turned island nest areas into predator-accessible peninsulas at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Carp and other bottom-feeders stir the water, reduce clarity and hinder water plant growth. Shorebirds, dependent on this habit, have abandoned large portions of the refuge. Annual carp fishing derbies since 2010 have not done much to cull carp over-crowding.

A fleet of American White Pelicans herd schools of fish to the shallows of the saltwater portion of Deer Lagoon

The Deer Lagoon flock is not a breeding population, at least not yet. The shallow bay to the east is open to the sea, and rises and falls with the tides. A freshwater or brackish lake lies to the west with several small isolated islands.  Duck hunting was banned by Island County commissioners in 2009, and the 379 acres has been declared an “Important Bird Area” by the Audubon Society.  It would seem like an ideal area for these young birds. 

This is the fifth year White Pelicans have visited Deer Lagoon. It takes up to four years for pelicans to mature.  Maybe this group of roving young adventurers is just too young to start families? 

We will have to wait and see.  Breeding pelicans grow a fibrous keel near the tip of the beak. So next April if you see “horny” birds at Deer Lagoon, look for fluffy chicks in June.  

Cruising the fresher water of Deer Lagoon

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