Western pelicans colonize region

April 19, 2018

American white pelicans, which have been an increasing migratory presence in the Daily Journal area in recent years, were photographed in the last week by Sharlene Parr at Kankakee River State Park and by Gary Soper at Black Oak Bayou in Indiana’s LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area, as well as Willow Slough’s J.C. Murphy Lake, both just east of the state line.

Soper wrote pelicans have been reported in the area for the past month at those three locations and other local areas, using local waters as “staging areas, where they can rest and feed while waiting for that moment when that strong hormonal drive pushes them to head farther north for the nesting season.”

Soper reported 50 counted at Black Oak Bayou and similar numbers at Willow Slough, and about 25 on a small rocky island at the state park. “Even larger numbers exceeding 100 have been reported near Braidwood-Mazonia Fish and Wildlife Area,” he wrote.

Parr photographed the pelicans at the state park, noting they had been there for a few days and that one was banded on its leg. “Unfortunately, I cannot read the band. It would be nice to see where it came from,” she noted.

Another key gathering place locally is the “wide water” area where the Kankakee, Des Plaines and DuPage rivers meet between Wilmington and Channahon, Soper wrote.

Experts have reported that their migratory pattern had been on a north-south route west of the Mississippi River but has been moving east for years.

Veteran birder Jed Hertz, of Kankakee, reported first seeing them at LaSalle and Willow Slough in 2008.

The first Daily Journal photos and report of one stopping in the area was at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 20, 1997, when a surprised Terry Nells, of 463 W. Water St., Kankakee, phoned and said: “There’s a pelican down behind my house ... I’ve never seen one before ... It looks like it might be tired out.”

“OK. Be right over,” this reporter answered. Seeing a large white bird behind a sandbar with its head down, I thought: OK. That’s a swan. I had reported some migrating through the Essex area a dozen or so years earlier but hadn’t seen them. I only had seen the brown pelicans on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Fishing brothers Robert and Steve Miller, of Bourbonnais, also were on the scene in ’97. Robert flipped a 2-pound carp toward the big bird, which lunged and made short work of the handout.

The pelican seemed content to make a home just downstream from the dam at Kankakee, fishing for itself and enjoying handouts from humans of the neighborhood.

After a week, Illinois Conservation Police Sgt. Fred Mathis intervened, thinking the bird should be heading to warmer climes. He captured the 16-pound freeloader and took it to stay with wildlife rehabilitators Don and Judy Abrassart at Aroma Park. Mathis provided some fish for its keep and started to look for its transportation south.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials arranged for United Airlines to fly the bird to the Gulf Coast in a shipping crate built by Illinois Department of Natural Resources employees at Mazonia-Braidwood Fish and Wildlife Area.

In the nearly 20-plus years since that winter of wonder visitor, western white pelicans have become common visitors of late winter and spring in the region.

Brown pelicans, which cling to the seacoasts from Nova Scotia and British Columbia south to Chile and Venezuela, plunge spectacularly into the ocean from as high as 60 feet to catch fish, tilt their bills down to the water out, then toss their heads back to swallow their prey.

American white pelicans don’t dive for food; they float on the water to scoop up lunch and often work cooperatively at herding up their prey of small fish or crustaceans in shallow water, encircling them and scooping them up, Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes.

Their group flights above Braidwood Lake and elsewhere are spectacularly coordinated aerial ballets.

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