Turn your eyes skyward or take a few moments to scan the Mississippi River right now and you are likely to see flocks of American White Pelicans flying high on air currents or bobbing lightly on river waves. Thousands of the migrating birds have landed in the Great Rivers & Routes region on their way north to their winter homes in the south.
"We usually see the pelicans come through here in September and early October," said Ken Bucholz, Director of the Audubon Center at Riverlands. The Center is located along the Mississippi River. The birds migrate through the area, also known as the Mississippi Flyway, in the spring on their way north and in the fall going south.
Flocks of White Pelicans have been spotted at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge in Brussels, at Ellis Bay at the Riverlands Center, along the Mississippi River and at Horseshoe Lake State Park in southern Madison County.
In the past, visitors to the Riverlands Audubon Center have reported counts of more than 1,000 pelicans, according to Audubon Center Director Ken Bucholz. "That means there's a lot of food here for the pelicans," he said. He pointed out that the center's location in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway means most of North America's migrating birds come through the region in the spring and fall each year. American White Pelicans are carnivorous. Their diet consists of fish and crustaceans.
"The Mississippi Flyway is really the migrating birds super highway," Bucholz said.
In the Spring and Fall, as many as 5,000 American White Pelicans are in the region, according to a representative at the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge.
"People really enjoy seeing the pelicans because they are easy to spot," the Two Rivers rep added. "They are large, white vibrant birds. Sometimes people think they are swans because they are so big. In the fall you can see what we call a 'raft' of pelicans which means large groups. In the spring you will see smaller groups because they take their time moving north."
The American White Pelican is one of the largest birds in North America. Their wing span is 9 to 10 feet and they weigh 16 pounds on average. They are mostly white with black tips on the wings. The black is only visible during flight.
Watching the flocks of birds in flight is a stunning display of synchronized aerial acrobatics. Often, while in flight, the birds resemble a floating strand of pearls slowly floating through the skies.
The birds will stay in the region for up to five weeks in the fall as they forage for food. They will return in March as they make their way to their summer nesting grounds in the Great Basin area of the U.S. and as far north as Canada.
Bucholz pointed out the region does have a resident population of American White Pelicans who have chosen to make the waterways of southwest Illinois their permanent home.
Measuring 60 inches in length and 107 inches in width, the American White Pelican is one of the largest birds in North American and the only white pelican. Pelicans typically stay together in groups on their feeding trips and as they raise their families. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of pelicans flocked together on sandbars and small islands along the river between Alton and Grafton along the Great River Road. Throughout their migration, pelicans can also be found near lakes, salt bays, marshes and beaches.
Where to See the Pelicans
American white pelicans winter on the Gulf Coast, California and Mexico. During the spring and summer, they migrate to their nesting areas in the Great Plains and Great Basin. The pelicans can be seen in large numbers at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary for a three to five week stretch during the seasonal migrations. Pelicans also flock to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge.
Besides visiting the Riverlands and Refuge, pelicans can easily be spotted on the river when driving along the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway from Alton to Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton.
If you go:
Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary
The Audubon Center at Riverlands
301 Riverlands Way
West Alton, MO 63386
Two River National Wildlife Refuge
HCR 82 Box 107
Brussels, IL 62013