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.
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?”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.