Birding…Brown Pelican

by Larry Czajkoski

Brown Pelican:

LOOK!, it’s a plane.  NO, it’s a bird.  It’s not just any bird…

This past Memorial Day weekend, lake residents and guests were treated to an unusually rare occurrence on the waters of Lake Lure.  That occurrence was the visit of three Brown Pelicans.  Typically, Brown Pelicans reside exclusively at the coastline of the Oceans and Gulfs.  There is no certainty in knowing why they ended up here on Lake Lure, but the best guess of birding experts is that the preceding week’s storms brought them into our area.  Whatever the case, it was a joy to see them here where they seemingly enjoyed the fresh mountain breeze and a slightly different menu.  I’ve been fortunate to be able to view them in their more natural habitat along the Gulf Coast of Florida (photo included from a few years ago of a Brown Pelican gliding majestically over the waters off Sarasota) and now here on Lake Lure too (photo of a Brown Pelican roosting in a pine tree situated along the Lake Lure channel towards town center.)

The Brown Pelican is an interesting and entertaining bird to observe.  Its roosting and feeding habits can be a constant source of enjoyment.  I photographed this non-breeding adult in Florida (non-breeding as determined by its white/yellowish head and white hind neck) as it glided just over the surf in search of some tasty morsels.  I photographed the roosting pelican the morning after this past Memorial Day from a pontoon boat.  After searching for them for over an hour (looking primarily on the water’s surface) and just about to give up and head in, this bird swooped down from the pine tree gliding over the water for a bit and then returning to its roost….as if to say, “here we are, up in the tree…”  which made this birder extremely happy :O).


During nesting season, the brown pelican sports a chocolate-brown hind neck (as does the Pelican in the recent photo here in Lake Lure) ; at other times, it is white necked.  Yellow adorns adults crown at all seasons while immature pelicans have a grayish brown head.  At 4 feet long and with a 7 foot wingspan, the brown pelican is one of our largest and most distinctive birds.  Brown pelicans were brought back from the brink of extinction after conservation measures were strengthened and a ban on the pesticide DDT, which caused widespread breeding failure among these birds in the 1960’s and 1970’s, was instituted.  The United States’ first national wildlife refuge was established in Florida to protect a beleaguered brown pelican colony.  In the Carolinas, just head toward the ocean to find the brown pelican.  They are seen all along the southeastern coast flapping low over bays or cruising over the surf at the beach.  But, don’t be surprised if they show up on a lake here in WNC too.


“Yes, anchovies please!”  Anchovies, sardines, and other fish catch brown pelicans’ attention, sending them from horizontal flapping and gliding to angled plunges into the water.  As a brown pelican hits the surface and briefly sinks, its bill opens and its pouch fills with up to 2 ½ gallons of water.  The bird quickly strains out the water from its bill and swallows any captured fish.  Their act of diving and crashing into the water over and over is truly an amazing thing to watch.  So next time you visit the beach areas (or Lake Lure) pay attention to the brown pelicans and enjoy their aerial antics.

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