American White Pelicans Establish Breeding Community on Maryland's Eastern Shore
American White Pelicans at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland
The American White Pelican is a magnificent creature, a large white water bird 55" to 70" tall with a 9 foot wingspan. Large and easily recognizable, the American White Pelican has all white plumage except for the black that shows up on their primaries (the longer feathers on the wing edges) in flight. They do not dive, like Brown Pelicans,but fish, bobbing to the surface of the water to capture small fish in their formidable 13" - 14" bills. White pelicans often work together, beating their wings on the water to drive small fish into shallow waters.
American White Pelicans breed and nest in brackish inland waters and lakes of Northwestern America and Western Canada, appearing in breeding colonies in March or April. During breeding season, a bump appears on the upper mandible of both male and female American White Pelicans and the breast feathers take on a slight yellowish hue. Two or three eggs are laid in a shallow nest lined with reeds. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs. Young American White Pelicans fledge in one month but remain in the care of their parents until fall migration in September or October.
Historically, American White Pelicans breed in Canada, from British Columbia to Mackenzie and western Ontario, wintering in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California. So, what are they doing in Maryland?
American White Pelican
In the past several years, small groups of American White Pelicans were spotted at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore, causing great excitement for birders. While birdwatching can be viewed as a quiet pursuit, featuring leisurely drives along wetland roads, or slow walks in the woods, the sighting of a rare or regionally unusual bird can be quite a thrill.
During 2007, sightings and reports of American White Pelicans on Maryland bird forums were met with caution. If you claimed a sighting, that report went up for review. Due to the fact that Maryland is not in the customary range for white pelicans, a sighting would obviously seem questionable without a photograph or a similar posting by a reputable bird watcher in that area.
American White Pelican
I am a casual birdwatcher. I had better get a real good look at a bird in order to identify it. If I don't get a perfect view, or have my sighting confirmed by someone else, I do not count the sighting.
Face it, some people are excitable and drawn to novelty, hoping for the thrill of a regionally unusual bird and may exaggerate the field marks of a routine sighting.
In 2009, my husband and I spent several hours on several visits staring over the wetlands at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, looking at distant white blobs, only to see that they were swans. Beautiful yes, but not the American White Pelicans that we hoped to see.
American White Pelican in Flight
In 2010, the popular Maryland bird forum, Maryland Osprey (which no longer exists) did not put sightings of the American White Pelican at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge up for review. Confirmed reports had been so frequent that the American White Pelican have been accepted as reasonable sightings.
On Easter Saturday, 2010, my husband and I slowly cruised the edges of the beautiful, brackish marshlands at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. The scenery is so lovely that it does not really matter to me if I spot anything remarkable. Sightings of Great Blue Heron and Bald Eagles are so common, a birdwatcher can plan on seeing them. The flat stretches of dark water punctuated by stands of loblolly pines and wind rippled marsh grasses are beautiful. It is what Maryland looked like hundreds of years ago before the asphalt and strip malls that line our congested highways.
Then, out by a grassy point, I spotted a splash of brilliance on the overcast day. Several American White Pelicans splashed, flapping their wings and tossing those formidable beaks, while others rested on the shore. Snatching up the binoculars, I spotted two breeding adults, notable for the odd looking bump on the upper mandibles.
Not only were 24 white pelicans shining so brightly on a marsh in Maryland, but they were in full breeding mode! We could not believe our luck. The joy of seeing these beautiful creatures is indescribable. My husband and I sat for some time enjoying the spectacle.
Two mallards passed in front of the group. The ducks only served to highlight the size of the pelicans. The mallards looked tiny compared to the majestic White Pelicans.
Who knows how long the American White Pelicans will remain in Maryland, so far off the path of their usual range? Why the white pelicans have made themselves at home at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Maryland is a mystery; but those magnificent birds are causing quite a stir in the birdwatching community.
In the Fall of 2012, a dozen White Pelicans bobbed on the cold water at Blackwater. The holiday weekend and beautiful weather attracted many bird watchers. Cars and bikes were pulled to the edge of the narrow roadway as people trained their binoculars on a dozen White Pelicans.
American White Pelicans and Tundra Swans at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
- Friends of Blackwater NWR - Gallery
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is a major stop on the Atlantic Flyway. Gallery and visitor information