The white pelican is no stranger to Wisconsin, but rarely if ever has this species been seen locally in such large numbers. Experts believe higher lake levels may explain why this large bird is stretching its wings.
They weren’t gulls or terns, and certainly not cormorants or mergansers or any other bird commonly seen along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Ozaukee County.
These were white pelicans that gathered in the shallows off Port Washington last week, and not just one or two like have been seen sporadically in past years but a flock of 75 or more that spent a calm morning feasting on fish off the city’s south beach.
“A lot of people are reporting large numbers of white pelicans in areas where they are often not seen,” said Bill Mueller, director of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in the Town of Belgium. Weighing 19 pounds with wingspans of nine feet and long orange bills, the American white pelican, a relative of the ocean-going brown pelican, is easy to spot, but like most birds is hard to figure out.
“We’re not quite sure what’s going on with these birds this year,” Mueller said. “But you have to remember we experienced some very bizarre and unusual weather recently and that’s having an effect on a lot of species.”
One of the results of a cold winter and wet spring is that Lake Michigan water levels are 14 inches higher than last year, and that could explain why white pelicans are on the move.
Noting that there are established nesting colonies of white pelicans on Green Bay, Mueller said, “These birds nest on low-lying islands and perhaps some of those nesting areas have been inundated by the higher water levels, but that’s just speculation.”
Paul Samerdyke, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologist who monitors the white pelican population at Horicon Marsh, said the high water theory is more than just speculation.
“We’ve had a lot of high water in pelican nesting areas, so some nests were probably lost,” he said. “As soon as the young got ready to fly, the water came up and white pelicans got mobile very quickly. They are much more mobile and visible this year.”
Whether the white pelicans stopped in Port just for the day or if they plan to stay for the summer is anyone’s guess, particularly when it comes to a bird that landed in Wisconsin quite by mistake.
“About 15 to 18 years ago, the first white pelicans set up territory in Wisconsin after a storm event during their migration,” Samerdyke said. “They ended up finding untapped resources for nesting and breeding here.”
A bird that was literally blown into Wisconsin has since thrived here, establishing nesting colonies on Green Bay, Lake Butte des Morts, Horicon Marsh and along the Mississippi River, where they live in the spring and summer. In fall, they migrate to the Gulf states and Mexico.
Wisconsin, it turns out, has everything a white pelican could want — relatively undisturbed shorelines where they build nests in the sand lined with plants and plenty of food.
Consuming an average of three pounds of fish a day, the white pelican is a clever fisherman with a voracious appetite.
Unlike the cormorants and mergansers they share their environments with, white pelican do not dive for their food. They are primarily surface fishermen, and to give themselves an edge they work together to essentially corral schools of fish with their feet and wings, then scoop up their prey with their long bills.
“They feed in shallow water by basically herding fish, then have a feeding frenzy of sorts,” Samerdyke said.
The birds put on a clinic in Port last week, scooping up billfuls of what were undoubtedly alewives just a few feet off south beach.
Whether the ample supply of fish in the waters around Port is enough to keep the birds in the area this summer remains to be seen.
“Maybe these birds are on the move and when they find an area that’s good for foraging they’ll decide to stay awhile,” Mueller said. “Or maybe they’re scouting new nesting sites.
“Honestly, we’re not really sure. It’s a little hard to get into the head of a bird.
Image information: A FLOCK OF 75 or more white pelicans spent a calm morning last week fishing off Port Washington’s south beach. Photos by Bill Schanen IV