In search of the white pelican

This week, Notes from the River takes a road trip.

Actually, we took a road trip this past Black Friday. Or as REI outdoor outfitter (which closed on Black Friday), referred to it: “Opt Outside” day.

So Carol and I, along with 6,033,922 of our closest friends (according to REI #OptOutside), all decided to head outdoors instead of sitting at the traffic lights on North Prospect while trying to make our way to Best Buys and Marketplace Mall.

We went in search of the elusive white pelican, a stunningly beautiful bird that has not yet been seen in our backyard on the Sangamon River.

I grew up in the land of the brown pelican, swimming in the Atlantic ocean at Ormond Beach when the  brown pelicans would come in fast and low like heavily laden WWII bombers in a perfect line, in perfect sync, skimming within inches of the wavetops.

The lead brown pelican flaps once popping up in to the air, followed in sync by the rest of the squadron and they fly up, circle once or twice then they’d make gangly, awkward, beak-first splashing dives straight down into the Atlantic, and hopefully, if he or she is lucky, they catch some hapless, unsuspecting mullet. Usually not.

So as you can see, brown pelicans are nothing to me. Not so with the elusive white pelican.

I spotted one of my first groups of white pelicans this past summer not on the ocean or on a lake or river but out at our friends’ cabin near the entrance road to Yellowstone National Park.

With its ten foot wingspan, second only to the California condor, the white pelican is a soaring, not a flapping bird. That day, they were riding the thermals among the picturesque, craggy Wyoming peaks. They were so far off, I could see but a speck of a large white bird against the blue sky with the tell-tale black wingtips (no, not the banker’s shoes). They circled ever upward, clearing the distant mountaintop, then heading off to the great beyond. I hope they enjoyed their visit as much as I did.

The white pelican grows to an impressive length of nearly 6 feet (when including its impressive beak), along with the trumpeter swan, the longest bird in North America.

Unlike my familiar brown pelicans, the white pelican doesn’t do anything as gauche as make gangly, awkward, beak first nose dives into the ocean to catch mullet. They prefer to casually scoop up fish dinners while leisurely paddling around on lakes and rivers. Sometimes they work cooperatively as a team to herd fish into a tight area of the lake so they can be more easily snapped up.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often attempted cat herding without success (until they hear the can opener), so I can’t even imagine the skill that must be involved in fish herding.

Our road trip took us to Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge just west of Havana along the Illinois River.

If you went by Sangamon, you’d have to go all the down the way down the Sangamon to Beardstown, then head north on the Illinois River for several miles until you arrived at Havana. It’s probably easier by car.

Birders flock to Emiquon and refer to it with such accolades as “one of the top waterfowl locations in the country” and “the Jewel of the Illinois River”. The National Forest Service website offers that 212 bird species have been documented at Emiquon including 28 species of waterfowl.

A birder on a 2011 visit reportedly spotted 40 unique bird species including 5 trumpeter swans, 10,000 redhead ducks and 30,000 greater or lesser scaup and 101,500 snow geese. I can’t even imagine counting 101,500 geese, especially after just finishing counting 30,000 greater or lesser scaup, but that’s those crazy birders for you.

But Emiquon has another story.

Emiquon is dominated by Thompson and Flag lakes, which at the turn of the century, were renowned as one of the top destinations for sportfishing in the country. Thompson Lake was the “the largest and most recognized lake in the Illinois River Valley” and described as a “biological paradise”.

And then, in 1924, in a deeply controversial move, a levee district was created and a 13.5 mile levee was constructed along the Illinois River. Both lakes were pumped dry to create a farm that was plowed, planted and harvested for the next 80 years.

The levee is still there, but Thompson and Flag lakes have now returned with 7,100 acres purchased from private landowners in 2000 by The Nature Conservancy. Emiquon is now recognized as one of the largest and easily most successful floodplain restoration projects in the Midwest, and the white pelicans have returned.

And yet, as soaring, migrating birds with ten-foot wingspans are wont to do, by the time of our Black Friday/”opt outside” visit on this cold, windy 34 degree late November day, they had already all soared off for warmer climes on their winter migration south to the Gulf of Mexico. It did leave me wondering who had made the superior travel plans on opt outside day.

Carol and I did spot several interesting ducks; northern shovelers and American coots. But still, nothing nearly as impressive as the elusive white pelican.

Nonetheless, now we have a good reason to return again to Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge in the spring.

And a good reason to remember that any day, if not every day, should be “opt outside” day.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, 12/8/16, by Scott Hayss

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