For the Birds Radio Program: Wild Pelican Chase

Original Air Date: Aug. 6, 2002 Rerun Dates: July 17, 2003

This summer two Brown Pelicans have turned up in Wisconsin. Laura went chasing for one.

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Now that American White Pelicans are becoming fairly common in the Midwest, birders are becoming a bit blase about pelican sightings. Until July 29, when naturalist and author John Bates of Manitowish Waters in Wisconsin got a phone call from a gentleman on Big Sand Lake near Phelps in Vilas County. He and his neighbors had been seeing an adult Brown Pelican for several days, sitting on people’s docks and hanging out near boats. Brown Pelicans are salt water birds, that used to be on the endangered species list but are now increasing along the south Atlantic, Gulf, and California coasts. But once in a while, one starts wandering inland for a bit. When Sam Robbins published his definitive Wisconsin Birdlife in 1991, there had been 4 records of Brown Pelicans in Wisconsin. And this spring a fly-by was reported on Lake Superior near Ashland. When the sightings of any species can be counted on one hand, birders instantly gravitate to the spot where one is seen in hopes of adding it to their lists.

Unfortunately, John didn’t manage to get there, and the bird was found dead in the lake a day or two later-right now it’s awaiting necropsy in Rhinelander. In addition to the carcass, .there are good photographs of the living bird, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that it did indeed spend its last days in Wisconsin. But then on Sunday, August 4, John got another phone call from another amazed witness to yet another Brown Pelican in John’s neck of the north woods, this time from Larry Mirkes who lives on Mercer Lake. Within 15 minutes John was on the spot, and he and Larry had great looks of a most cooperative bird. John immediately got the word out on the Wisconsin Bird Net.

Naturally, when I opened my e-mail that night, I decided I had to at least try to see the bird. I made the three-hour trip the next morning with my dog Photon-the only one in my family who enjoys going on an 8- or 9-hour wild goose chase. I got to Larry’s house a few minutes before Daryl Tessen arrived. Daryl has the distinction of having seen more species of birds in Wisconsin than any other human in history. Last I knew his Wisconsin list stood at 386 species, and the Brown Pelican would be a new one.

Larry took us out on his boat so we could check out all the little inlets of the lake, but the pelican was nowhere to be found. I checked out several lakes on the way home, too, but no luck. Birding is not a sport that offers guarantees. A living, wild bird can go pretty much wherever it wants, and overall it’s a miracle that any bird on any hotline sticks around for any birders to find and see it.

I was a little disappointed about the pelican, but Photon had a jolly good day-she went swimming in Mercer Lake after we gave up on the bird, and then we stopped at her favorite place, the Hurley Dairy Queen, on the way home. As Photon slurped down her little dish of ice cream and I ate my chocolate dip cone, I realized that I’d had a darned nice day, too. We’d seen a loon diving, an eagle fishing and soaring overhead, lots of full-sized baby Mallards in the lake, and several Eastern Kingbird families on fences along the drive, and it was a beautiful day.

When I got home and read on the Bird Net that the pelican was seen that day 18 miles away, near Minoqua, I was only a little bummed out. I don’t know when I’ll be able to take the time to try to chase another rarity, but I’m glad the one that got away lived to explore another Wisconsin lake, and hope it eventually finds its way back to its saltwater home.