Nature Journaling Tip #18: Our Lake's Honored Guests
Two American White Pelicans made a rare appearance on the open waters of Chautauqua Lake this spring. I observed one of them on March 26. A casual observer, without binoculars, might think the white bird way out on the choppy lake was a Tundra Swan, hundreds of which use Chautauqua Lake as a major migration stopover at this time of year. Through binoculars, however, the similarities ended. The pelican's bill was fantastic: bright yellow-orange in the morning sunlight, long and massive. On top of the bill, toward the tip, was an obvious growth like the centerboard on a sailboat, indicating this was a breeding adult. The American White Pelican is one of North America's biggest birds with a wingspan that may exceed nine feet. This bird certainly appeared huge, especially in flight, its solid black secondary wing feathers contrasting sharply with the clean white of the rest of its body.
How often does one see an American White Pelican on Chautauqua Lake? According to local ornithological records there were none from about 1860 until April 1988. One sighting was recorded in 1989, three in 1992. This year's March sightings were the first since September 1992. When this bird shows up it is indeed an honored guest.
A glance at a range map for this species shows why seeing one on Chautauqua Lake is such a rarity. While its winter range includes most of the Gulf Coast, Mexico and Southern California, its breeding range consists of discontinuous patches of the American and Canadian West, especially the Dakotas, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Their normal migration routes are hundreds of miles west of here.
If you are fortunate enough to live near a body of water, you owe it to yourself - and to the science of ornithology, which advances in large part due to the efforts of amateur "citizen scientists" - to become aware and appreciative of its birdlife. Chautauqua Lake is an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area for many good reasons, not the least of which is its crucial role as a waterfowl migration flyway. If more people were simply aware of this, rare sightings would be less likely to go unnoticed.
Mark Baldwin is the Director of Education at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (RTPI), a proud partner in National Environmental Education Week. Each year RTPI offers online workshops for educators interested in bringing nature journaling into the classroom. For more information visit www.rtpi.org.