Barrington hosts a fair number of large birds, ones that exceed four feet in length or six feet in wingspan. Think great blue heron, Barrington’s official town bird, or bald eagle, a species that has been spotted regularly around Bakers Lake, or osprey. But there’s an even larger bird that can be seen locally in large lakes. It does not stay to breed as do the others, but visits only during spring on its way to northern breeding grounds in the prairie pothole region of Montana and western Canada. The bird? The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), a water bird that has a wingspan of a whopping eight to nine feet and measures over five feet long.
I first heard reports of pelicans on Baker’s Lake perhaps twenty years ago, from friends who live on the southwest cove. Frankly, I was skeptical. But my friend was right. When I first saw the pelicans for myself, with a group of birders on a scheduled walk to Baker’s Lake Savanna, we were thrilled to spot the enormous white creatures resting on a mud flat just east of the island rookery. Any rider on a Metra train can see the birds – if they’re there – as the train passes Baker’s Lake.
Chuck Westcott, former director of Crabtree Nature Center, told me that there’s speculation that flooding of the Mississippi River in 1993 caused the birds to alter their migratory path eastward. He missed the first ones reported on Crabtree Lake in 1994, but got to see them there last year when pelicans lingered into June. Sometimes as many as 50 gathered on the lake. Last May 30, I was driving west on Palatine Road when a group of 27 white pelicans flew low over the road in front of me. Immediately I pulled over and submitted a report to eBird, since it seemed like a rare sighting so late in the month.
In recent years, the pelicans have become regular springtime visitors to Baker’s Lake and other large lakes in the area. On an early May bird walk this spring at the adjacent savanna, participants watched a flotilla of the birds feeding en masse, frequently tipping up in unison as they dipped their large bills for fish. White pelicans have a feeding strategy entirely different from that of their brown pelican relatives: they move through the water as a unit, herding fish and using their lower mandibles as giant nets.
White pelicans are a vision in flight. Whatever awkwardness they exhibit on land drops away once they’re airborne. Those long brilliantly white wings edged with black flight feathers carry them majestically aloft. There’s no furious flapping, just a seemingly effortless glide and occasional wing dip. Sunlight renders their wings a brilliant white. The sight gives any viewer – as it did those bird watchers at the edge of Baker’s Lake – an instant sensation of awe.
Most of the pelicans we have seen this spring have an elongated knob on the top of the upper bill. It’s a curious growth that appears each breeding season on the bills of both males and females and which differentiates the species from their Old World counterparts. John James Audubon noted the difference in his notebooks:
“I feel great pleasure, good reader, in assuring you, that our White Pelican, which has hitherto been considered the same as that found in Europe, is quite different. In consequence of this discovery, I have honoured it with the name of my beloved country, over the mighty streams of which, may this splendid bird wander free and unmolested to the most distant times, as it has already done from the misty ages of unknown antiquity.”
Echoing Audubon’s wish, I too hope that the white pelicans will continue to grace our local lakes in spring and that Barringtonians will come out and savor the spectacle.
Barrington area naturalist and the author of our Birds of Barrington series here at 365Barrington.com, Wendy Paulson welcomes you to join her for this new season of walks. Cosponsored by Audubon Chicago Region and Citizens for Conservation, the walks are free and open to the public, though spaces are limited and RSVPs are required. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended for these hikes and don’t forget your binoculars!
June 2, 7:00 a.m.
Headwaters* (parking lot on Wichman Rd. off north side of Rt. 72; ½ mile west of Rt. 59)
June 9, 7:00 a.m.
Galloping Hill* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
June 18, 5:00 p.m.
Galloping Hill* (as above)
*indicates a more strenuous hike
Please RSVP to: Daniel Jacobson (312) 453-0230, Extension 2002 or email@example.com and let us know how best to contact you should that be necessary. Before you head out, please be sure to check the Citizens for Conservation website (CitizensForConservation.org) for any last minute changes or cancellations.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.