In the fall, American White Pelicans return to the shell banks behind Dewees and in Cape Romain. These huge birds nest in the interior of the US, and some spend the winters right here in the Lowcountry. They are one of the largest birds in North America, smaller than a condor but substantially bigger than our other local large birds like the bald eagle. And they are MUCH bigger than our year-round Brown Pelicans!
It seems to me like the number of White Pelicans on the banks behind Dewees Island has been growing in recent years, so I did a little research and was surprised to find that they’ve been here a long time. This Post and Courier Article draws attention to them in 2016. But some White Pelicans were on that very spot hundreds of years ago, as J. J. Audubon himself describes in this passage from his book Birds of America in 1827.
My friend JOHN BACHMAN, in a note to me, says that “this bird is now more rare on our coast than it was thirty years ago; for I have heard it stated that it formerly bred on the sand banks of our Bird Islands. I saw a flock on the Bird Banks off Bull’s Island, on the 1st day of July, 1814, when I procured two full-plumaged old birds, and was under the impression that they had laid eggs on one of those banks, but the latter had the day previous to my visit been overflowed by a spring tide, accompanied with heavy wind.”
Most bird books don’t even have White Pelicans on the range map for South Carolina, but there are lots of reliable sightings in the last decades. It is possible that the species was generally missing from the state for a long stretch around the 1900’s. Arthur Trezevant Wayne, who published Birds of South Carolina in 1910, says “I have never seen this fine species alive on our coast,” and references Bachman’s quote to Audubon.
Breeding White Pelicans have a sort of horn
If you look at that Audubon print above, you’ll notice that the bill of the White Pelican, which can be an astonishing 15 inches long, has a bony protuberance like a horn. This growth is only present during the breeding season, and I’ve never seen a pelican who still has that appendage. We did see a large flock of white pelicans in Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho in mid-July: I think these are juveniles based on plumage.
Even Lewis and Clark were struck by the size and characteristics of the White Pelican. And it’s such a huge bird to make a big migration! Many of our winter birds arrive via the Atlantic flyway, but I think these Pelicans are moving more southeasterly than the north/south orientation of the flyway. They are expert soarers, and seem to float on the thermals with very little effort.
The first time I saw them feeding, it was really like a ballet, with the crowd of Pelicans scooping up fish and moving forward all together.
Longer Nature Observation
Here’s a longer video for you to watch and come to your own conclusions.
We’ve seen a lot of these in recent days on Dewees Island, especially when the king tides of November inundated the shell banks in the waterway. At that point, a group of White and Brown Pelicans moved into Dewees Island’s impounded wetland. Some spent the night at “the corner” and others were actively fishing along with cormorants and Brown Pelicans.
To think about how tall this bird really is, check out this photo of a swimming White Pelican next to a Great Egret. It’s a slightly odd angle, but the 3 foot tall egret looks tiny next to the Pelican!
Roosting Sites Along the Intracoastal Waterway
The shell middens behind Dewees have an incredible flock of these birds that seems to get larger every year.