Pelicans on Parade
Posted: 09/18/2012
A week of cool temperatures is pushing along the early migration through Iowa. As thousands of teal move into and through the state, other early migrants are taking their cue…and exiting.

Birders with their eyes on the sky can still find dozens, even hundreds of white pelicans wheeling over larger lakes and the border rivers. However, their numbers may have peaked in the last week.  Still, as they do every year, the big white birds are winning over new followers. “I know the first time I saw one in 1989, I’m saying ‘no, no, no’, there are brown pelicans. But it was a white pelican!”recalled 2012 Pelican Fest co-organizer Karen Disbrow of Iowa City. “A lot of people don’t even think there is a white pelican in North America.”

And in the last couple decades, that includes more and more showing up on the Mississippi River, Coralville and Red Rock reservoirs and other large bodies of water. 

“Over the last 25 years, pelicans have really recovered around the country. Now, the last three years, it’s been absolutely fabulous to have them nesting on an island near Clinton,” underscored DNR wildlife diversity technician Pat Schlarbaum. “They are utilizing the habitat, finding fish and teaching us about their biology, what it takes to have clean water and have the opportunity to watch them.”

For most of the year, a resident population of immature pelicans patrols the upper reaches of the Coralville Reservoir, in Johnson County. As they mature and look for nesting areas, they move north. However, as shown on a couple islands on the Mississippi River, pelican production has returned to Iowa.

Humans’ fascination with the white pelican, and it’s up to nine-foot wingspan, bring out serious birders and casual family outings. Minutes before the start of this month’s Pelican Fest, on the Hawkeye Wildlife Area near North Liberty, about 300 pelicans floated just offshore. As the on-shore activity grew, though, the birds moved further out into the shallows of the Iowa River corridor.

A bank of spotting scopes helped attendees find the birds. They did stay within sight nearly all day. At times, some would wheel overhead, turning from white to silver to black as the sun caught them at different angles. Others would knife across the water, just a couple feet from a watery smackdown. Their numbers build through August and past the Labor Day weekend; stretching to a couple thousand or more. By months end, though, they are on the move again.

Disbrow and co-organizer Terry Escher, of the Corps of Engineers, saw the potential for education and some outdoor entertainment. “We want people to be aware of the conservation organizations (around this area); to make it a true festival”, said Disbrow, active with the Iowa City Bird Club and other birding organizations. “Lots of groups, the Boy Scouts came with food. We came up with (wash-off) pelican tattoo…and also just the birds themselves. This is really fabulous.”

That humans would devote a day to viewing them—plays right into the pelicans’ strength. “They do everything in synchrony. They fly in sync. When they fish, they line up and essentially school the gizzard shad into shallow water…where they all dip their beaks at the same time,” marveled Schlarbaum, as he watched them. “And when they fly? They put on an incredible show. It’s just a great chance to see a species that’s been a long time gone…coming back.”