We see brown pelicans along South Florida beaches all the time, but white pelicans are another story. They are two to three times larger than brown pelicans and they go to extraordinary efforts to get their winter in the sun. Thousands migrate to Florida from the mountains and plains of the U.S. northwest – and they fly non-stop! By spring, like all snowbirds, they head north.
White pelicans have a wingspan of 9 feet, making them one of the largest birds in North America. They are graceful in the air, often flying in a formation.
All this means these are the sort of big, dramatic birds that even folks who don’t consider themselves birders will enjoy spotting.
While not common, you can find white pelicans on both the Gulf and the Atlantic Coast in winter if you know where to look.
Around Punta Gorda, white pelicans from the Grand Tetons return each winter to an island that serves as a rookery and night-time roost in Charlotte Harbor. Called White Pelican Island, it’s a long, long paddle for kayakers and the birds are there primarily at the start and end of a day. So locals recommend looking for them in several parks and waterfront locations during the day.
One recommended vantage point is Placida, an out-of-the-way location far from the Interstate and 25 miles from Punta Gorda — the sort of off-the-beaten-path spot that’s fun to discover. It’s located at the start of the causeway to Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island. A good place to try is the boat dock at The Fishery restaurant, 13000 Fishery Rd., Placida, or the nearby fishing pier.
If you’re a kayaker, several outfitters take trips into the adjacent Gasparilla Sound from near here. Once, when kayaking from Placida, I saw a formation of some 75 white pelicans fly overhead in October.
Vince Molnar, owner of O-Sea-D Aquatic Adventures, runs kayak tours on the Woolverton Trail along the Gasparilla Sound and said his groups get within 100 yards of white pelicans in the water nearly every day in winter.
“Brown pelicans are so used to everybody, they’re hanging out getting scraps of bait off boats,” Molnar said. “White pelicans keep their distance from people.”
The truly lucky to get see the white pelicans in their unusual feeding technique, Molnar said. White pelicans do not use the plunge-dive technique of their brown cousins. Instead, they work together, beating their wings to herd fish into a tight circle. Molnar said they have a symbiotic relationships with cormorants, who dive under this circle, both feeding and driving fish to the surface, where the pelicans can feast on them.
Wildlife photographer John Young (JRYoung1947 on Flickr.com) captured just such a feeding scene – a wild splashing ruckus involving white and brown pelicans plus cormorants – in Merritt Island on the central Atlantic coast.
“This was at Kiwanis Island Park,” Young wrote. “I usually go there for osprey. I bumped into this spot a couple of years ago. It is not on the (Merritt Island National Wildlife) refuge but on a neat fish-heavy waterway.”
Birders who want to check it out can follow John’s directions: The address is 951 Kiwanis Island Park Road, Merritt Island. From US 1, go east 3.2 miles on SR-520. Turn into the park complex at the light just east of Sykes Creek Parkway. The park is open 7 a.m.to 9 p.m.
(The photos on this page are courtesy of John Young. )
Other places to spot white pelicans:
- In South Florida, a flock of white pelicans has been hanging out around Peaceful Waters Sanctuary in Wellington (January 2016).
- In the 10,000 Islands off of Everglades City. Those kayaking off of Chokoloskee in January 2013 report white pelicans within paddling distance.
- Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve 10941 Burnt Store Road, South Punta Gorda.
- Circle B Bar Reserve, 4399 Winter Lake Road Lakeland, Fl 33803; entrance on south side of SR 540 (Winter Lake Road) between US 98 and Thornhill Road, Lakeland (Circle Bar B Reserve is a favorite among birders.)
- J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 1 Wildlife Drive, Sanibel Island.
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Visitor Information Center is located four miles east of Titusville.
- Seminole Rest in the Canaveral National Seashore. A flock of white pelicans spends the winter loafing on a shell bar directly behind the historic Goodrich’s Seafood Restaurant, 253 River Road, Oak Hill, which is just north of Seminole Rest, according to spacecoastbirding.com. (Yelpers love Goodrich’s; this out-of-the-way waterfront seafood restaurant sounds like a neat stop during a pelican-sighting trip.)
- Pelican Island in the Indian River Lagoon was the nation’s first wildlife refuge. While it was preserved because it was a nesting area for brown pelicans, it is visited by wintering white pelicans too.
More about white pelicans
- Here are great pictures of white pelicans at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland.
- Impressive video of a flock of migrating white pelicans near Cedar Key.