American Birding Podcast



#ABArare – Great White Pelican – Florida

I’ve sort of been sitting on this bird for a few days trying to figure out what to do with it, a sentiment that I’m sure is shared by a great many birders in the ABA Area. Ultimately, I decided to go for it not only because it’s a cool bird, but because there’s an outside chance that it could be a legitimately natural vagrant and there are worse things to do in the early spring than bounce around some thoughts on this thing currently making waves down in Florida.

In any case, on February 28, a Great White Pelican, which has never before been recorded in the ABA Area, was photographed within a flock of American White Pelicans at “Ding” Darling NWR in Lee, Florida. The bird was seen the day it was discovered, and the next day, leaving the morning of its third day.  It has not been seen since.

Photo: Jeff Bouton

Photo: Jeff Bouton

“Ding” Darling NWR is on the southwest coast of Florida on Sannibel Island, just south of Fort Meyers. There is a $6 toll for the causeway on to the island. The bird has been seen on the Wildlife Drive. Cost is $5 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian or bicycle, free with a Duck Stamp. The Wildlife Drive is closed on Fridays.

A report from the field, upon the bird’s departure:

When leaving, the Great White flew off after 2 -3 other white pelicans. They left as a couple, then a single. She then followed in the same direction. The Pelicans that flew off before her were out of my sight when she decided to leave. I did not notice any other birds leave after her. The entire departure of all 4 birds took less than 3 minutes.

Great White Pelican is one of the world’s largest flying birds, and breeds mostly in southeast Europe and winters across much of Africa and in the Indian subcontinent. As mentioned above, it has never been recorded in the ABA Area before. That the provenance of this bird is vexed is a bit of an understatement. Discussion here should not be interpreted as any sort of advocacy for either position by me or the ABA, but feel free to discuss this bird in the comments. Any insight is appreciated.

Some notes of interest on this bird are as follows. This individual, an adult female by best guess, is neither pinioned not banded. While Great White Pelican is certainly known from zoos across the continent, including at least a couple in Florida, typically large birds are not free-flying in those places and are at least banded. Further, no AZA certified zoo has yet reported a missing pelican. Of course, this does not account for uncertified zoos or private collections, who may be less diligent in pinioning their birds and less inclined to report one missing.

There are a few extralimital records of Great White Pelican in Asia, as it has turned up out of range in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Vietnam, so it is certainly capable of traveling great distances. Perhaps most notably, we’ve long been aware of a pattern of Old World species crossing the Atlantic from west Africa to make landfall in the Lesser Antilles and northeast Brazil. Cattle Egret is probably the most famous pioneer, but this is a regular route for Little Egret, Western Reef Heron, and White-winged Tern in the Americas, too. It is unknowable whether a Great White Pelican would make that journey, though it seems reasonable to speculate that it certainly could travel that well-trodden path, and that this would be the likely avenue for a natural vagrant in the Americas. That said, we’ve seen several records of the aforementioned species in the Americas, and Great White Pelican is as yet unrecorded as a natural vagrant anywhere.

We look forward to seeing more information, either from the bird itself or as reports from various zoos and animal parks who may keep this species. In any case, it’s an interesting situation. While the odds of this bird being a natural vagrant are certainly very long, they’re not so long that one shouldn’t consider the possibility of natural vagrancy. We certainly know, more or less, what to look for as a sign of captive origin, but what would it take to make the alternate case? Time may tell.