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Late and large straggler: Pelican returns to Evergreen Lake

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By Sylvia Brockner

Spring has been up to her fickle tricks again with a wet soggy snow last Wednesday, May 11, followed by an overcast day on Thursday, May 12. By late afternoon, she had apparently had enough of her sulking and cleared off to a partly blue sky and some very welcome sunshine.
My friend Loie Evans had taken me into town for a doctor’s appointment, and as we were headed home up Bear Creek Canyon, she was telling me all the interesting migrants she had seen on Wednesday at Evergreen Lake in the snow. As she ended an amazing list, she added, “But no pelicans.”
I started to say, “It’s not too late. Maybe they will come in.” Then the sun came out and we decided to stop by the lake just to see what might be there. What was there was a huge white pelican sitting on the sandbar at the inlet.
Then someone started to feed the mallards on the other side of the lake, and the pelican decided to swim across and see what all the excitement was about. It was obviously nothing that interested him for he soon turned back to the inlet. Now he proceeded to swim back and forth across the lake as methodically as a farmer plowing a field. There were apparently no fish near enough the surface to interest him. Then the osprey came in and quickly snatched up a small fish, and the pelican took off after him, obviously hoping there might be a few tidbits for him, but the osprey made a clean getaway.
On Friday, a lone pelican was still seen at the lake, but on Saturday, May 14, 10 great white pelicans were on the sandbar. What a sight it is to see these pompous birds. Just their size alone is impressive. If you haven’t been to the lake yet this spring, now is the time to be there.
Migration has continued despite the cold wet weather. All week there have been warblers, sparrows, most of the usual summer residents and a variety of waterfowl to be seen. By Saturday, the latecomers, like kingbirds and wood pewee, were in. These insect-eating birds are always the last migrants to arrive as they must be sure warmer weather will assure a plentiful insect supply.
The white pelican is surely one of our largest birds. They are huge, bulky birds. They are clumsy looking on the ground and even sometimes in the water, but just let them get airborne, and they are magnificent, graceful fliers. These big birds are all white except for black secondary and primary wing feathers, which show in flight. Their yellow beak is immense and becomes more orange-yellow during breeding season. They also grow a horn-like knob on their upper bill during breeding, which disappears during the summer, and no one seems to know what its purpose is. They can stand 62 inches high and have a 108-inch wing span. They are definitely a big bird making the cormorants appear small when they are side by side on the sand bar.
The brown pelicans, seen along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as the Gulf of Mexico, are always found along salt water. The white pelican is seen only in interior United States and Canada and is strictly a freshwater bird. They nest on the ground, preferably on an island, in freshwater lakes and reservoirs. The nearest nesting colony is a Riverside Reservoir north of Denver. Several more colonies can be found in the National Wildlife Refuges such as Des Lacs and others in North and South Dakota.
The pelican beak is large and therefore their gular pouch is huge. As the old limerick of our childhood put it:
“A wondrous bird is the pelican
He holds more in his beak
Than he can eat in a week
I wonder how in the h--- he can.”
White pelicans have learned to choose islands for nesting sites and thereby escape predation from such animals as raccoons and foxes, which find the pelicans’ eggs and young a good source of food. Young pelicans eat a tremendous amount of food and grow rapidly, but it takes both parents to keep them supplied with food as they sometimes will fly as much as a hundred miles round trip to find enough food for their young. While they are prone to some predation, the worst destruction to pelican colonies has been from summer hailstorms when large numbers of both adults and young have been killed by large hailstones.
The nearest place to see pelicans regularly is at Barr Lake. While they do not nest there, they frequently come there to fish for carp.