American white pelicans have returned to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, making December an ideal time for birdwatchers and nature photographers to catch a glimpse of these rare seasonal visitors, as well other migrating species that flock to the refuge in the off-season.
White pelicans are big and eye-catching visitors to Pea Island, with one of the largest wingspans of any bird species, measuring up to 10 feet wide.
Unlike brown pelicans that dive from heights into the water to capture their meals, white pelicans usually stay on top of the water’s surface, and eat by dipping their bill/pouch underwater to bring up a scoop of fish with a few crustaceans mixed in.
White pelicans are a fairly rare sighting within the refuge, with only a few typically spotted at one time, although their local numbers have been ticking upwards in recent years.
According to the Carolina Bird Club (CBC), this unique species, (which traditionally nests in the Great Plains and the Western United States), has undergone a dramatic increase in numbers in the Southeast over the past few decades. Up until the 1990s, there were only one or two reports of white pelicans in the entire state of North Carolina, and these reports usually included a sighting of just a single bird. By the 2000s, however, flocks of white pelicans numbering up to several dozen have occasionally been spotted in the state, and were most often recorded at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
White pelicans typically linger for a month or more in N.C., and tend to leave the area as the weather and tourism season heats up in the early spring.
In addition to white pelicans, visitors to Pea Island can also expect to catch thousands of other feathered wintertime residents at the refuge this time of year, including tundra swans, ducks, ibis, egrets, herons, and geese.
How to Visit:
A good starting point to explore the refuge is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center, which connects with the North Pond Wildlife Trail, immediately behind the parking area.
Wildlife trails within the refuge are open year-round during daylight hours, and are fully disabled-accessible. Neither pets nor bicycles are allowed on walking trails, and more information can be found at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/pea_island/visit/visitor_activities/wildlife_trails.html.
For more information on happenings within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and beyond, visit https://www.facebook.com/USFWS.NC.