The flash of a large, white mass of soaring objects catches your eye. It fills a portion of the sky over the horizon.
As soon as you ponder what it could be, it disappears within an instant. Where did it go?
All of a sudden the flash is back. You are seeing a large flock of pelicans gracefully riding a rising column of warm air.
The American White Pelican is a common migrant to the state of Iowa, with peaks of migration in April and September. Historically, this pelican species was more common on the western margins of our state, but in the last few decades has become largely common in Eastern Iowa. Not entirely transient, non-breeding pelicans will summer at various locations in Iowa. Near Clinton, there are around 1,000 nesting pairs along the Mississippi River. In late July, the majority of breeders from farther north will group up with the summer residents, forming flocks of multiple thousands peaking in September. Statewide, the number of pelicans in fall migration can approach around 100,000.
Records in the 1980s and 1990s indicate some pelicans were choosing to stay for the winter. These, however, were usually single birds that were possibly sick or injured. Over the last decade or two, it has become apparent healthy pelicans are choosing to ride out Iowa’s harsh winters. These pelicans can be found where sizable tracts of open water persist, such as at the tailwaters of Lake Red Rock and Saylorville Lake. Locks and dams, especially near the Quad Cities, are another area to find them in the dead of winter.
In flight and at distance, the American White Pelican appears as a large, soaring bird with a color pattern surprisingly similar to the migratory Snow Goose or the very rare Wood Stork, White Ibis and Whooping Crane. They can soar in a skein or “V” as well, making them easy to mistake for Snow Geese. Overall, plumage in flight is snow white with black flight feathers. A closer inspection reveals a distinctively large yellow bill with throat patch.
It is surprising they are mistaken for Snow Geese, but since they tuck their heads in flight it makes their real body portions deceiving. Sitting pelicans appear pure white with a long neck and huge yellow bill. Breeding adults develop a small flat knob, or nuptial tubercle, on their upper bill. Juvenile pelicans will appear much like adults, but can seem more off white and sometimes have a more pinkish bill color.
Eastern Iowa is lucky to now host the annual Pelican Festival. See the September birding calendar for more specifics on this event. There are activities for all ages. Spotting scopes are set up for public use. Try out your “digiscoping” skills, highlighted in photography advice.
Sometimes distant birds fall well out of range for a camera. However, there is a method of photography, known as “digiscoping” or “digibinning,” where it’s possible to photograph or videotape very distant birds. Simply take your cellphone camera lens and align it perfectly with the eyepiece of a spotting scope or binoculars. Zoom in your camera, spotting scope or both to get even closer images. While doing this hand held is possible, there are adapters available for purchase online, specific to certain spotting scope/cellphone combinations. These adapters make taking great pictures or shooting still videos much easier.
OTHER BIRDS TO LOOK FOR IN SEPTEMBER:
l If habitat persists, look for shorebirds to continue their southward migration through Iowa. Sand Point at Hawkeye WMA is one of the best places in Eastern Iowa for shorebirding.
l Wood warblers will start migrating back south through the state in decent numbers with many appearing less colorful. Identification can be challenging for several species.
l Sparrow migration and diversity will begin to ramp up by late September. Look for LeConte’s and Nelson’s Sparrow in marshy areas or wet prairies in late September.
l Sept. 5, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the CEC.
l Sept. 9 — Annual Pelican Festival at Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, 2564 Amana Rd. NW, Swisher.
l Sept. 28-30 — Iowa Ornithologists’ Union Fall Meeting in Ventura, Iowa. Birding field trips will cover areas in Worth, Cerro Gordo and Hancock counties. Guest speaker is Noah Strycker of 2015 World Big Year fame. He set a world record, seeing 6,000-plus species of birds in one calendar year, spanning all seven continents. Register at https://iowabirds.org/IOU/Meetings.aspx, or call Paul Roisen, (712) 301-2817, if you have questions.
l Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He resides with his wife and son in Cedar Rapids. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.