We planned our Sanibel visit for weeks. The day we arrived an absolutely off the wall visitor from Africa also dropped in. A Great White Pelican, a denizen of the old world, with a range centered on Africa was found roosting amongst a flock of American White Pelicans in the J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Local residents and bird experts Lillian and Don Stokes alerted us to this bird after it was conclusively identified by Judith Davis, a long time birder and roving naturalist for J. N. Ding Darling NWR.
This is not an easy bird to miss. It weighs approximately over 30 pounds, for reference, the Brown Pelican average weight is 8.2 pounds and the American White Pelican weighs in around 16.5 pounds. While the Great White Pelican does superficially resemble the American White Pelican, there were a number of key differences. This Great White Pelican, likely a breeding condition female, had an overall pinkish cast. The bill was multi-colored with yellow, blue and red , there was a yellowish wash on the breast and massive legs were pinkish. Most notable was a pronounced bulbous protrusion between the upper bill and crown, and the soft tissue color around the eye was large and orange.
This was the first recorded sighting of the species in North America. It was not known how the bird got to Sanibel, speculation ranged from escaped bird from zoo or collection, ship assisted ocean transit, hurricane driven, or simply a hop across the South Atlantic like the Cattle Egret before it. The bird had no leg bands. The wing feathers were not cut. The bird was capable of feeding in the wild, sustained flight, and was able to socialize with the American White Pelicans. There were, at last report, no records of errant GWP’s from North American Zoos and other collections of exotic waterfowl.
Is this a good species? Time and the official ornithological reviews will tell. The bird was well seen by hundreds of birders over the course of three days. It flew off mid-day on the third day and has not been seen anywhere by anyone on the public record since then. The question of legitimacy of the species as a countable bird in North America rests with the Florida Ornithological Society report and subsequent review of their findings by the American Birding Association, ABA.
Certainly anyone who saw the bird will not soon forget it, and it sure looked and acted like a wild bird. The greatest mystery is how a 22 pound white bird with a wingspan approaching a California Condor can fly away on clear day and simply vanish. Perhaps the bird joined migrating American White Pelicans that were beginning to move north at the time, or perhaps a future search of museum and institutional records will find the specimen of the first Great White Pelican to reach North America. In the old days many a bird was collected for museum records or to control the spread of disease, I personally hope that this is not the case, however if there is a specimen, blood or tissue studies could be used to conclusively determine the origin of the bird.
Additional Interview with Judith Davis talking about the Great White Pelican on BirdCallsRadio Click Here: BirdCallsRadio: Judith Davis, Great White Pelican