The American white pelican: species rare to Whidbey touches down at Deer Lagoon, Honeymoon Bay

American white pelicans have been spotted on South Whidbey

A squadron of about 50 huge, white seabirds has been sighted flying over Whidbey. Observers, including serious birders, are scratching their heads.

It’s the American white pelican that has put the birding community in a flutter. If you are familiar with their smaller cousin, the brown pelican, imagine an all-white bird with black feathers along the trailing edges of their wings and a large orange/yellow bill. White pelicans weigh in at around 20 pounds, twice the size of brown pelicans.

White pelicans are listed as an “accidental” on the scorecard of Whidbey Island birds, meaning they have been sighted less than five times in the past. And never before observed on Whidbey in the summer.

The recent reports of American white pelicans in Western Washington began at Padilla Bay about a month ago. When a large flock settled at Deer Lagoon near Bayview Corner, I chased on over to see for myself. But the birds had flown off.

Shortly after, a friend reported seeing them circling in the air near Honeymoon Lake. I understand they are now intermittently back on Deer Lagoon. A recent observation tallied 180 pelicans.

This species typically breeds east of the Cascades in limited numbers and throughout the Great Basin. They retreat to Southern California, states around the Gulf of Mexico and into Mexico for the winter.

The flock here on Whidbey is likely a group of non-breeders or birds that could not find suitable habitat in time to nest this year.

Several years ago, while kayaking the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, my husband and I spotted a group of White pelicans flying overhead in a graceful “V” formation. With 9-foot wingspans, they resembled a squadron of small airplanes.

Later, we watched this species cooperative foraging system on the river. A group of about a dozen pelicans spread out near a school of fish and began bill dipping and wing beating to drive the fish toward shore where they easily cornered their prey.

Amid a whirlwind of birds and splashing, the pelicans scooped up pouches full of water — their expandable pouches can hold up to three gallons. The birds pointed their bills downward to spill out the water and then raised their bill straight up to swallow the fish whole.

The bird’s long bill and pouch offers a rather comic proportion to the rest of its body. During breeding season, add on a fibrous keel that grows up from the middle of the bill, resembling a blunt unicorn.

Avian biologist Dennis Paulson has commented that American white pelicans in Western Washington this time of year is unprecedented. He suggests that the pelicans are likely expanding their range because of loss of breeding habitat (i.e., at Malheur Lake, Oregon and possibly other areas) due to drought and climate change.

Because of human disturbances and loss of habitat, the overall population of these birds has declined sharply in recent decades. So seeing a flock on South Whidbey is a double treat.

Deer Lagoon County Park is always a special place to go bird watching. And right now you might be able to add an amazing, huge white bird to your Whidbey Island bird list.

 

 

Frances Wood can be reached at wood@whidbey.com. Craig Johnson is at backyardbirds@whidbey.com. at