American white pelicans have been appearing in increasing numbers. 

About 250 of them were seen on Grass Lake (off of State Highway 59 toward Newville) a couple of weeks ago.

“I think a lot of people are surprised that we even have pelicans,” said Ryan Brady, bird monitoring coordinator for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. “They tend to think of pelicans as being associated with the oceans, which is true of a different species (the brown pelican).”

Late March through early May is the prime migration time for American white pelicans coming from the Gulf of Mexico.

The pelicans seen in Rock County prefer prairies and wetlands in the central part of the continent. A lot of them historically nested in the Dakotas, southern Canada, out in the prairie potholes and portions of northwest Minnesota. Slowly they started filling in some of the wetlands in Wisconsin.

Looking at just the first year of data collected for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II (2015 to 2019) an increase in pelicans can already be seen.

In the first atlas (1995 to 2000), there were two sites in the state where pelicans were known to nest: Horicon Marsh and lower Green Bay.

Now, Brady reports: “we have multiple colonies in at least seven different places from Door County, through Green Bay, south into Horicon, and even Green Lake County. I suspect over the next years, we’ll see a few more nesting sites pop up, maybe along the Mississippi River.”

Most of the pelicans seen in Rock County are migrants, on their way north.

“We don’t know of any nesting colonies in Rock County,” he said.

That said, not all pelicans nest.

“There very well could be some hanging around Rock County for the summer,” he said.

Last summer, Brady, a bird biologist in Ashland, said pelicans were reported on the southern side of Lake Koshkonong. In July eBird.org, an online database of bird observations, had reports of 30 birds.

“If you want to see a pelican midsummer in Rock County, that would seem to be the place to go,” he said.

The “floater population” can be seen in wetlands in the state’s southeast glacial plane, the non-urban area from Rock County through Dodge County, Horicon Marsh, Lake Winnebago up into Green Bay. Brady said that’s a core corridor as well as the Mississippi River Valley.

Pelicans like shallower water bodies, where they can scoop up fish. They also can be seen “thermaling around,” riding warm air columns like hawks do.

Anyone can report breeding bird observations by using the Atlas eBird portal. Sign up at wsobirds.org.

The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II helps identify the conservation needs of breeding birds.

The volunteer effort by is coordinated by The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.

The first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas represented the largest coordinated field effort in the history of Wisconsin ornithology. More than 1,600 people were involved. Atlas organizers hope to have at least that many helping with the second atlas.

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