Category Archives: American white pelican

Brown pelicans now thrive along nation’s coasts


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young brown pelican fishes along the causeway at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. These pelicans usually dive into the water, capturing prey in a large pouch that is connected to their bill. Pelicans also snatch fish while floating on the surface.

Back in early March I enjoyed a trip to coastal South Carolina, visiting locations near Pawleys Island such as Huntington Beach State Park, Myrtle Beach State Park and Brookgreen Gardens.

During my six-day stay in the South Carolina Low Country, I observed 95 species of birds, including several that should be making their spring return to our region any day now. I saw blue-gray gnatcatchers, yellow-throated warblers and a few shorebirds, including a greater yellowlegs. All of these birds usually migrate through Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia in April and early May.

I also saw some coastal specialties that don’t usually come close to my landlocked home state of Tennessee, including anhinga, tricolored heron and brown pelican.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young brown pelican floats on the water in a salt-water marsh at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

The brown pelican is the smallest of the world’s eight species of pelicans, which are grouped in the family Pelecanidae. Saying that a brown pelican is small, however, is a relative term. The brown pelican is about half the size of the related white pelican.

The brown pelican lives on both coasts, from around Seattle, Washington, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, southward to the tropics. This pelican also lives along the Gulf Coast, as well as ranging south as far as the mouth of the Amazon River in South America.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s website, there are two geographically and genetically distinct regional populations, or subspecies, of brown pelican that occur in North America. They are the California brown pelican, ranging from California to Chile, and the eastern brown pelican, which occurs along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as the Caribbean and the Central and South American coasts.

Pelicans have been documented living about 30 years in the wild, but the average age may be much less due to factors such as predation, disease and starvation. Many young pelicans, unskilled at catching fish, sadly do not reach adulthood.

DDT, which negatively affected breeding for birds such as bald eagle, osprey and peregrine falcon, also had a detrimental impact on the brown pelican. According to their website, in 1970, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered. The listing was possible through a law that had been passed before 1973’s Endangered Species Act. A recovery plan was published in 1983. In November 2009, the pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List, becoming another success story akin to that of the bald eagle.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Brown pelicans fly in a line over the Atlantic Ocean on the South Carolina coast, conjuring forth fantasies of ancient flying creatures.

Visitors to beaches along the Atlantic Coast have probably seen the impressive flight of brown pelicans in a single file formation of birds gliding only a few feet above the surf. The span of the wings can reach seven feet six inches. Seen near dusk, an observer could be forgiven a flight of fancy that allows these pelicans and their graceful flying formations to be compared to the long-extinct flying reptiles, the pterosaurs.

At a distance, the birds can readily be described as majestic and even graceful. On closer inspection, some different adjectives come into play to describe the brown pelican. At close quarters, a brown pelican is an ungainly, almost ugly bird. Pelicans have long necks and bills, and on land, they shuffle awkwardly. Young bird are drab brown and gray, often looking much more disheveled than adult birds.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A large pouch that is connected to its bill is one physical trait that makes pelicans distinct from other birds. Although these birds often appear ungainly, they are quite skilled at using their pouch-equipped bill to capture fish.

According to the website All About Birds, the brown pelican feeds mostly on small fish such as menhaden, mullet, anchovies, herring, and sailfin mollies. These large birds may plunge from 65 feet above the surface of the water to capture fish in their famous throat pouch. In addition to fish, a pelican can take up to 2.6 gallons of water into its pouch with every dive. The water gets expelled, leaving behind the fish.

When not feeding, pelicans will rest on sandbars, pilings and rock jetties. These “loafing” spots are important places for pelicans to rest and recuperate after the rigors of diving and fishing for their fish meals.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young brown pelican fishes along the causeway at Huntington Beach State Park. These birds capture fish in an elastic pouch that is attached to their bills.

The closest avian relatives of the pelicans are a couple of oddball birds known as the shoebill and hamerkop. The world’s other species of pelicans include Peruvian pelican, great white pelican, Australian pelican, American white pelican, pink-backed pelican, Dalmatian pelican and spot-billed pelican.

One state — Louisiana — has even made the brown pelican its official state bird. Most state birds are songbirds. The brown pelican is one of the exceptions, along with such birds as Minnesota’s common loon and the wild turkey, which has been adopted by Massachusetts.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young brown pelican dips its bill into the water along the causeway at Huntington Beach State Park. Pelicans are skillful at snatching fish while floating on the surface.

On a handful of occasions, brown pelicans have made brief appearances in the region, usually generating a great deal of excitement among birders. White pelicans are also rare visitors, but they make slightly more stops in the region than their smaller relative. For instance, a white pelican spent a few days at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol around Thanksgiving in 2015. To increase your odds of observing a brown pelican in the wild, it will be much more productive to simply spend a few days along the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia or Florida.


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Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this representation of a brown pelican. Today, the state of Louisiana has even made the brown pelican its official state bird.

Pelican surprises residents of Bristol neighborhood


Birders learn fairly quickly that sometimes you just have to trust your eyes. Residents near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, might have been understandably surprised in the days leading up to Thanksgiving when they spied a large white bird on the small lake in their neighborhood.


All Photos by Bryan Stevens  •  This American white pelican recently spent some time at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

Alice Morgan, a resident of the Middlebrook subdivision, was certainly surprised. “We are lucky to have a view of the lake,” she said in an email she sent to me on Sunday, Nov. 29.

She correctly identified the visiting bird. “We think that in the last few days we have been looking at an American White Pelican,” she reported in her email. “At first we thought it was a swan that comes and goes, but when we got our binoculars out, this bird has a very long orange beak that almost trails the water.”

The reference to a swan was made because of a small population of mute swans that have resided on the lake at least the past 20 years. However, the bird that generated the recent excitement among area birders and Middlebrook residents wasn’t a swan or even a Thanksgiving turkey. The bird was truly an American white pelican, a rare and accidental visitor in the region.

“We have yet to see it fly to see if it has the black feathers in its wings, but the beak seems to be the marking of a pelican,” Alice noted. “They are not supposed to be in this area. Could it be lost, or are we incorrect in our identification?”


The pelican swam and associated with Canada geese at Middlebrook Lake.

In addition to the email from Alice, one of my Facebook friends, Joanne Campbell, tipped me off to the pelican’s presence.

“White Pelican on lake in Middlebrook,” Joanne wrote in a post to my page on Nov. 25. “I thought my neighbor was mistaken. I was within 25 feet of the pelican. Beautiful, but what the heck is he doing in Bristol?”

I responded to Alice’s email and Joanne’s Facebook post, informing them that their identifications were absolutely correct. Regarding whether the bird was “lost,” I am not sure of the answer. Middlebrook Lake most likely looked like a favorable location for a migrating pelican to stop in order to refuel and refresh itself.


The pelican scratches at an itch.

Bristol resident Wallace Coffey made the first report of the American White Pelican on Tuesday, Nov. 24. His post on Bristol-Birds, an online forum for sharing regional bird sightings, brought my mom and me to Middlebrook Lake the next afternoon. It didn’t take long to locate the large white bird sharing the lake with large numbers of Canada geese, American coots and hooded mergansers. The pelican sort of stuck out like a proverbial sore thumb. It didn’t seem wary of people, but I remained in my car and still managed to get decent photographs of the bird. While my mom and I watched the pelican, it swam among the Canada geese and coots on the lake. It also took time to preen its feathers and flap its wings.


The American white pelican certainly turned some heads during its brief stay at Middlebrook Lake.

The American White Pelican makes its home on large freshwater lakes and reservoirs across the prairie states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana and a few others — as well as the prairie provinces of Canada. They can be found along the Pacific and Gulf coasts during the winter, and as far inland as southern Minnesota and Wisconsin during the summer. By contrast, the smaller brown pelican generally does not leave coastal areas unless driven inland by hurricanes or other major storms.

Populations of American white pelicans residing east of the Rocky Mountains migrate along river valleys, including the Mississippi River, to their wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast and in Mexico. It is not unusual for a few to stray into the eastern United States. American white pelicans are social birds and prefer to travel in flocks, although some of the reported observations in the region have involved solitary birds.

The pelican at Middlebrook Lake represents the first sighting of an American white pelican in Bristol since May of 2010. At that time, a flock of seven of these large birds was reported at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake. Because the lake straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line, members of that flock of pelicans were observed in both Sullivan County, Tennessee, and Washington County, Virginia. There was also a sighting made by Patty Elton of three American white pelicans in Wythe County, Virginia, in May of 2014.


A flock of American white pelicans soars over Salt Lake City Utah in May of 2006.

In his book, “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee,” Rick Knight lists only five records of American white pelican sightings. The first-ever sighting in Northeast Tennessee took place on Nov. 3, 1981, at Austin Springs on Boone Lake. That observation, reported by Glen Eller and Harry Farthing, involved a single pelican.

Another ten years passed before another solitary pelican visited Boone Lake and South Holston Lake in December of 1991. One of the best-known sightings took place in February of 1995 when a single American white pelican took up residence at a small pond on the grounds of Mountain Home Veterans Affairs in Johnson City, Tennessee. After spending time at that pond, that pelican moved to nearby Austin Springs on Boone Lake and later the Holston River in Kingsport. Unfortunately, the pelican collided with power lines in the summer of 1996 while flying. It injured a wing, which had to be amputated by a wildlife rehabilitation expert to save the bird’s life. Since the pelican at that point was no longer able to survive in the wild, it was sent to a zoo in Bridgetown, New Jersey.


A flock of American white pelicans fly over the surf at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, in March of 2015.

Almost another decade passed before white pelicans were seen in Northeast Tennessee. That sighting involved my own observation of a single American white pelican soaring over my home in Hampton, Tennessee, on July 17, 2004. The actual credit for discovering the bird goes to my friend — David Thometz — who happened to look skyward and ask the question, “What is that big, white bird?” I think I must have been momentarily speechless when I focused my binoculars and immediately recognized an American white pelican. Eventually, I stammered out my identification

Two years later, on April 8, 2006, Coffey and Knight reported four American white pelicans at Spring Creek, which runs into South Holston Lake. After that observation, this large bird didn’t make another regional appearance until the 2010 sighting of the seven-member flock at Musick’s Campground mentioned earlier.


Early naturalist John James Audubon captured the American white pelican in its rather bizarre, ungainly glory.

So, evidently, American white pelicans do migrate through the region in basically every season of the year. They are not, however, among birds one might expect to see in Northeast Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m not surprised that the pelican selected Middlebrook Lake for its stopover. I’ve seen many unusual birds at this small lake over the years, including species such as common merganser, long-tailed duck, common goldeneye and tundra swan.

The American white pelican is one of North America’s largest birds. This pelican’s wingspan can span nine feet compared to the six- to eight-foot wingspan of its much smaller relative, the brown pelican. While the brown pelican dives into the water to capture fish, the American white pelican feeds while floating on the water’s surface. Flocks of American white pelicans will work cooperatively to corral and capture fish.

Worldwide, there are only eight species of pelicans. Some of the others include the great white pelican of southeastern Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as the pink-backed pelican of Arabia, Africa and southern India.

Pelicans, like most of our birds, have wings and are capable of long-distance flight. You never know what you might see. Keep your eyes open and a pair of binoculars handy.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email