group of American white pelicans is wintering on Pea Island
Coastal Review Online
fall, the annual migration of birds along the coastal flyways usually
results in a rare or unusual species making an appearance, much to the
pleasure of bird watchers and nature photographers.
Hatteras Island, at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, such birds
have been hard to overlook. Anyone driving along Highway 12
through the refuge has probably noticed these enormous, plumed giants.
you won’t need to get up before the rooster crows, go crawling through
thick shrub thickets or make silly sounding bird calls to see these
feathery beauties. A group of American white pelicans have found the
refuge’s waterfowl impoundments much to their liking and have not been
shy about mixing in with their Eastern brown pelican cousins. A few
white pelicans have shown up here in the past, but the significance
this year is that close to 150 of the birds have taken up residence.
have seen these birds before, flying high overhead at a distance too
great to gain a proper appreciation. So with the reports of a large
flock out on Pea Island, I figured I wouldn’t be risking much to
venture out in search of them. A friend and I took the leisurely route
to the Outer Banks, taking advantage of the relaxing ferry ride across
Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke, then on to Hatteras and north on Highway 12
until we reached Pea Island in the late afternoon.
in one of the impoundments, on a small island covered with a shaggy
coat of tall grasses, a group of large white birds were huddled
together to ward off the sting of a cold north wind. I quickly
dismissed them as great egrets and we headed off to the refuge’s
visitor center to get advice to narrow down our search.
center has a huge bay window overlooking an impoundment with a line of
spotting scopes perched on their tripods, inviting us to find these
snowy white birds. We spotted two of the birds about a mile away in a
restricted section of the refuge. Containing my excitement, I
coolly asked one of the refuge staff where we might get a better look
at the pelicans.
turned out that the group of birds I shrugged off earlier as egrets
were indeed white pelicans. They were just hunkered down low with their
large sturdy bill swiveled around 180 degrees and resting on their
backs. Even with binoculars, it was hard to distinguish these birds as
pelicans due to their posturing to get under the wind.
headed out on foot along an embankment that separated two of the
impoundments in search of the birds. How elusive could they be? They’re
5 feet in length -- from the tip of their tail feathers to the end of
their bill -- with a 9-foot wingspan, a huge orange bill and an
all-white body except for coal-black wing tips. They should be easy to
on the water of the impoundments, tundra swans had already arrived for
the winter. Their necks and heads submerged in the shallow water, they
were searching for food. Nearby, coots and cormorants paddled about
while great blue herons and great egrets stood statuesque along the
edge of the shore. Then off in the distance, I saw about six white
birds with black wing tips heading in our direction. This turned into a
false alarm as a group of white ibis flew close enough overhead that we
could hear the whistling of their beating wings.
we moved on to the north side of the impoundment, I caught a glimpse of
a small mammal running across the embankment and down into the
impoundment. A river otter, I thought.
sun now casting long shadows, a golden glow settled like dew on the
vegetation and water.
the western horizon, a squadron of what looked like airplanes began
dropping down towards the impoundment. There they were, about seven of
these wayward birds landed on a sandbar in the middle of the
impoundment, resplendent in the glorious light. In comparison, they
dwarfed the few brown pelicans that were also on the sandy spit.
white pelicans began preening their feathers to settle in for the
night. As the curtain of darkness fell, the western horizon celebrated
by releasing a canvas of red and orange streaks. In the marshy waters,
a raccoon mimicked a boxer as it jabbed the water with upper cuts
searching for prey, occasionally slipping a reward into its mouth.
we walked out of the refuge, the soft cooing of the tundra swans
echoing off the calming water held promise for the coming day.
to Nags Head for the night, the silhouette of the Bodie Island
Lighthouse stood out like a sentinel standing at attention. Its beacon,
equaling the call of a siren, obligated us to stop. The rising moon, a
day late of full, illuminated the structure as the beam flashed out its
warning to mariners. A dark sky opposite the moon began popping out
stars that danced about like a flame tethered to a wick. We captured,
with our cameras, this stunning scene laid out before us, but the
image, more importantly, will be forever etched in my memory.
next morning, back out at the refuge, warmer temperatures invited
mosquitoes to rise out of the shrub thickets to irritate me. I didn’t
care because the white pelicans were more active and flying overhead
between the two impoundments. At the far end of one of these wetlands a
couple of them were on the surface of the water feeding.
brown pelicans that dive from the air into the water after fish, white
pelicans leisurely sit on the surface of the water and scoop up fish
with their large net-like pouches. In shallow water, they will work
together to corral and direct fish into a concentrated area where the
entire group can benefit. In deeper waters, where the reward isn’t as
certain, they are mainly solitary feeders. They can’t be trusted by
other water birds though, as they will not hesitate to steal fish if
given the opportunity. This trait is known by biologist as
down one of the embankments that offered a bit of cover to try to get a
better look at the feeding pair. A young white-tailed deer leisurely
walked the trail ahead of us, not one bit unnerved by our presence. At
one point it actually turned and walked directly towards us before
vanishing in the thicket-lined marsh.
through the shrubs at the pelicans, I was able to appreciate the
rareness of the sighting. I have seen them only a few times in my life.
This time of year they should be wintering much farther south in the
warmer climates of the Gulf Coast and beyond. During breeding and
nesting season, they are typically found around the freshwater lakes,
rivers and marshes of the northern Great Plains. Sightings are rare
enough in North Carolina that occurrences aren’t even noted on range
maps. However, each year wandering migrants are sighted along our coast
and big lakes such as Mattamuskeet in Hyde County.
two white pelicans were methodically dipping their bills and pouches
into the water no different than ladles into a pot of soup. Their bill
is the largest of any bird and the pouch is capable of holding two
gallons of water. At the end of the bill is a short down curved dagger
called a mandibular nail which is used for preening, snagging fish and
personal defense. Before mating season, these birds grow a small
horn-like appendage on the top of their upper bill. Known as the
nuptial tubercle, the horn is thought to be a showy indicator related
to courtship and mating since it drops off after the females lay their
eggs. This seasonal growth is why the bird is also called the
rough-billed pelican in some areas.
to our presence, the two pelicans slowly and calmly peddled their
webbed feet, propelling them out into the middle of the wetland. A
small wake created by their breast plowing through the calm water
etched a "V" on the glassy surface as they drifted away. The American
white pelican is facing the same hazards to survival that plague other
waterbirds. Loss of habitat, human disturbance of nesting sites and
poor water quality all contribute to this species’ struggle for
we were hiking out, a few of the white pelicans awkwardly reached their
enormous wings into the air and pulled themselves into the sky. Once in
the air, their clumsiness turned into grace on the wing, leaving me to
hope that we continue to see them for generations to come.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)