Friday, July 1, 2016

The Pelican Invasion

The Wisconsin bird of the year has to be the American White Pelican. Their numbers attracted thousands of people along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Milwaukee to Door County.  And their return is significant.

Caspian Terns surrounded by Ring-billed Gulls
Many moons ago during the time period when people didn't understand the word extinction, these birds were hunted on the Great Lakes for their feathers. Women enjoyed wearing hats with exotic feathers. Some of them even had bird nests, the whole dead bird or their wings attached to the hat! For more info, check out the NPR link on the women who saved birds.  The history of birds is a fascinating one. 

Nothing says sexy like a woman with a dead bird on her head.  Photo courtesy of NPR
Alas, all the pelicans were wiped out from the Great Lakes for many decades.  Only a few of these birds could be seen in places like Green Bay.  As a child growing up in the area, I NEVER saw a pelican once.  Nor had the people of my Shire. Eventually after the ban on poaching during the early 20th century, these birds slowly made a comeback and their populations have dramatically increased today. 

The Great Lakes have also seen an invasion of exotic fish and marine life over the years.  One fish I do remember well is the alewife.  This tiny fish dies off in the thousands along the beaches of Lake Michigan during dramatic weather shifts in spring and early summer.  The smell alone is terrible.  And the coastline can be covered in piles of these fish as the currents force their sickly bodies closer to the shore.  Over the years, towns along these areas have had to send in equipment to clean up the beaches. Take for example this recent report from Racine.  I'd like to make a correction to the article.  There are no such things as sea gulls.  Just gulls.  

A Forster's Tern stretches out the wings
Well these little fish attract MANY gulls, terns, grackles and other pelicans!  I've noticed that in Manitowoc where the pelican population is quite large, there weren't as many alewife on the beaches.  This bird may actually be beneficial for people living along the shoreline who suffer from the wretched smell. The food source has attracted many birds into this area.  They are nature's natural(all green) clean up system.  And perhaps the answer to restoring balance to an unstable ecosystem.  Just by the return of a bird species, beaches might become cleaner places.  Good for the birds and good for the people.  The dead alewife that do make it to shore are ground up for cat food and fertilizer.  FYI.

So back to the pelicans who were stealing the show.  People from all over, in their friendly Wisconsin ways, would ask birders if those were indeed pelicans.  Birders politely would tell them that they were.  Then people would share their personal recollections about having never seen one growing up.  And speaking for myself, it is shocking to see pelicans flying over the beach on a summer day.  I mean, were we living in California?  It's pretty amazing to see them fly in their "V" formations over the roads.

An angry Bonaparte's Gull
So while people walked their dogs with leashes and some without, they would ask birders about the pelicans.  Birders were looking at rarer things.  And soon it became a distraction.  One birder would take one for the team while we isolated the rarer gulls.  We'd watch unleashed dogs run out and chase the gulls into the air.  AND while we were trying to count them.  It was very frustrating.  It's dangerous for the birds.  It's dangerous for people and other dogs.  On one outing one dog attacked an owner with a dog on the leash.  When the dogs were separated and the owner of the unleashed dog was told that his dog attacked another, the owner responded, "Not my dog."  Irresponsible moron. 

Nellie cuddles up in her blanket. She'll have nothing to do with them birds.
Shorebirds take serious concentration. And after awhile, the question, "Are you looking at them pelicans?" got old.  Fast. Maybe I became too serious.  But when you're counting somewhere around 500 Ring-billed Gulls and get distracted, it gets frustrating.  I can't multi-task very well.  I am after all a man:) And I'm not saying all men can't multi-task.  But I know I'm not alone:)

Don't get me wrong. I love the pelicans!  But I also loved the gulls. I wanted to spend most of my time on the Lake and bird.  Towards the latter part of my vacation, I went to the infamous Manitowoc Impoundment every day.  It was cool and breezy with a great chance for rarities.  Lots of rarities.  

Lesser Black-backed Gull
Some birders don't get into the gull ID thing like I do. And I get it. Gulls can be some of the most challenging birds out there. Understanding gulls over the years has been a lot of fun.  However, I'm not the same way with sandpipers.  Isn't it interesting how we all have our favorite groups of birds?

A 3rd cycle Great Black-backed Gull!!!  This was shocking to me!  I thought they wintered only in Two Rivers, but apparently not!  Cool find!
Even their various year molt cycles are interesting. We found Bonaparte's, Franklin's, Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, Little, Ring-billed, Herring and Laughing Gulls.  That's a LOT of gulls! And then there were the terns!

Former professor, Doc Sontag, was at it again.  Every day at 2 PM he finds rarities for the Wisconsin crowd to chase at the Manitowoc Impoundment.  On my last day, I wanted to say good-bye to this amazing fellow.  And what followed afterwards was awesome......

Doc is wearing the brim hat with suspenders.  Love that guy!
Something spooked the pelicans, gulls and terns into the air. Thousands of birds circled around us.  When all the birds began to land, I noticed a strange tern in flight.  It looked like a Common Tern(expected for this area), but something was off in the flight pattern.  As it landed, I noticed it was tiny.  So I went to the Doc and said, "Hey, is that a Common Tern?"  It sure wasn't acting like one. 

Arctic Tern
 The Doc's eyes grew.  With his expertise and knowledge, he shouts out, "OH MY GOODNESS! We've got an Arctic Tern here!" I've only seen this bird ONCE in my life! A birder group forms quickly and everyone begins to record and take data making notes.  Orange/red bill, small, short orange/red legs, etc etc.  Our team keeps up with the ID getting photos for the records.  We begin to report to the various listservs. This is HUGE! As we are trying to do all this detailed work, a group of friendly people stop by and ask, "Are you looking at the Pelicans?" Son of a .........

The Doc takes one for the team and begins chatting with the people about the pelicans.  This guy is amazing. I think back on my times with him in class and remember how patient he was with me. And here again he shows the same courtesy and patience towards others. Flashback! In one corner of our lab, he had a pile of formaldehyde cats for study. Needless to say, I was a bit traumatized:)  It was part of the curriculum and he was a great professor. Me? Well I could've done better. I was into the art of party and socializing. I remember during a time when we did blood testing in class. I hate blood and I almost passed out trying to prick my fingers like 500 times. It was like sticking a turnip! The lesson was about testing chromosomes.  If I went back now as an adult, I would be a much better student.  One of my favorite lessons with him was dominant and recessive gene traits.  Doc, I failed you in the biology department but I hope to make up for it in the bird one:)

Caspian Tern
During my last days along the "Lakeshore", I enjoyed all the shorebirds as much as I could.  Even the pelicans.  I have only seen one white pelican in Arizona this year so Wisconsin certainly made up for my lack of sightings this year. 

Here is yet another positive about the pelicans. They became the unofficial ambassadors between birders and non-birders alike. Their presence caught the public's eye and a general interest for birds. And that's a good thing!

Franklin's Gull
 Their large numbers and exotic beauty brought in crowds of people. Places like the Manitowoc Impoundment and North Point in Sheboygan were magnets for the crowds where the pelicans hung out. Unintentionally, we, the birders(or anyone foolish enough to wear binoculars:), became the ambassadors who bridged the people with these birds.  When votes are needed to save or protect habitat, etc, perhaps people will remember their positive experiences with these birds and help protect our ever shrinking wildlife spaces. At least, this is my hope. 

Because as we know, birds are simply amazing. They are meant to fly free. They inspire art.  And they inspire so many of us. 

It doesn't matter where we live.  There is beauty everywhere we are.  All we need to do is stop and look. It's really that easy but something we can often forget to do in our busy daily lives.  And the pelicans did that for so many people.  

Until next time......

Photo courtesy of NPR


  1. sounds quite the adventure was had. pelicans, new bird (arctic tern), gulls... i'd be a better student in certain areas now too. i think i have more of a curiosity now. as for the hats, i wouldn't own one with a dead animal of any kind. i'd rather be photographing the live ones. hope all is well. have a great day/ weekend~

  2. Charlie Sontag! You know Charlie! I was relatively new in the UW Colleges Bio Department when he was our department Chair. What a lovely man - so glad he's still birding and that you all saw that Arctic Tern. Funny coincidence - I live in Green Valley in winter and happened onto your blog through Audubon there, but live in WI rest of the year.

    1. It certainly is a small world, isn't it?:) When you come back to Green Valley, let me know. We can do some birding:)

    2. Wonderful! I'd love that.

  3. Such an interesting post Chris and wonderful to read of the recovery of the pelicans and the women who saved them. Over here the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the RSPB) was set up by women against the use of birds' plumes in hats.

    So enjoy reading your posts detailing your wildlife sightings. As always the photos are superb :)

  4. Keep on being a good bird ambassador Chris. The tedious and distracting questions are what Rangers deal with all the time. So wonderful to see this mentor of yours.


Thanks for stopping by!