Ducks paddling, egrets darting for fish, cormorants spreading their wings in the sun, pelicans heading for splash down… I couldn’t wait to return to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge last February. It was my third visit to the refuge, which is more than I’d ever expected, being that it’s 2,000 miles from home! Located on Sanibel Island, on the west coast of Florida, it’s the perfect spot for a birder to view most of the Florida regulars, plus a few special visitors. And this time, we had a very special visitor indeed. Or not.
With Pete generously offering to drive so I could hang out the window with my long lens, we headed for the entrance gate, across a long bridge from the cities of Fort Myers and Cape Coral (with its famous Burrowing Owls). However, once we started on the one-way wildlife drive, we realized that there was a problem. Most of the birds are on the driver’s side of the car. Thankfully, there are plenty of turnouts and other parking areas. As we came to the first viewing area, Pete found a spot in the shade and I started assembling my camera, lens, and tripod.
I’m always amazed at how the bird populations change over the years, even when I visit at the same time of year. Five years ago, the species list was dominated by Wood Storks and Brown and White Pelicans. This time I saw Dunlins, Black-bellied Plovers, and, surprisingly, plenty of Roseate Spoonbills.
This first stop proved to be an important one. First, I noticed some brown ducks. At first I wrote them off as females, but then realized that no, they were Mottled Ducks—and right away I had a new species for my life list!
Then, the spoonbills flew in and I became absorbed in taking picture after pictures of these supremely photogenic birds.
When I finally came up for air, I couldn’t help but overhear the group standing next to me:
“Did you see The Pelican today?”
“No, but it was here yesterday. Have you heard any more news?”
“Um, excuse me,” I interrupted. “Which pelican are you talking about?” I knew it had to be something other than the Brown Pelicans flying off the gulf side of the road, or the American White Pelicans herding fish in the lagoon.
“Oh, it’s a Great White Pelican!” exclaimed the woman, floppy hat and binos around her neck proclaiming her a serious birder.” It’s here all the way here from Africa—except no one has seen it yet today. I hope it’s still around!”
Returning to the car, I quickly did a search on my phone. There was no mention of a Great White Pelican on any of the rare bird lists, but it did appear in a local newspaper. I did find references to a well-documented sighting in February 2016. Had the bird returned?
Pete and I spent the rest of the morning making a (very) slow circuit of the lagoon, ending up back at the Visitor’s Center by late morning. Should we make one more attempt for the potential rarity?
Of course we should!
While we were stopped so I could photograph a cooperative Osprey, another birder caught my attention and directed me to an inlet just down the road, believing the bird there to be the rarity we were all searching for. When I arrived, the crowds were noticeably absent, but hey, I figured, it was lunchtime. Most serious birders (and most birds) only stick around for the morning.
Here’s the bird in question:
Is this a Great White Pelican, or an American White Pelican?
At first I wasn’t sure. Of course, my North America field guide didn’t have a picture of a Great White Pelican, so I had no idea what I was looking for. In the bird’s favor, it did seem rather large, and it was isolated in its own inlet, apart from the American White Pelicans fishing together on the other side of the drive. On the other hand, it sure looked like the pelicans I was familiar with. And again, where were the throngs of excited birders?
I remained hopeful until I had a chance to take a good look at some reliable photos of Great White Pelicans and compare them to a previous photo of an American White Pelican. Here is the American bird:
Here is a Great White Pelican. I took these shots in San Diego at the Wild Animal Park. It’s obviously different, but then, this bird was in its breeding plumage (which accounts for the pink-beige coloring and the bump on the head).
I went looking for a non-breeding example. Here is a photo I snared online from Wikipedia, courtesy of:
Even in its winter plumage, there’s no mistaking the differences. It would seem that I had just seen a fairly large, introverted American White Pelican.
Oh well, Ding Darling NWR still lived up to my (elevated) expectations.
Birds, from top: Reddish Egret, Double-crested Cormorant, Black-bellied Plover, Mottled Duck, Roseate Spoonbills (2), American White Pelicans (2), Great White Pelicans (3).