White pelican on Catnip Reservoir

The white pelican

I had the good fortune in mid-July of this last summer to visit the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in far northwestern Nevada.  Along with it’s sister refuge, Oregon’s Hart Mountain Refuge, it preserves a wonderful chunk of Great Basin habitat.  Wide, open volcanic mesas and corrugated drainages stretch to the horizon.  It is an important wintering area for pronghorn, and provides year-round habitat for bighorns, mule deer, and greater sage grouse.

Several reservoirs on the refuge provide important nesting habitat for waterfowl.  I camped at Catnip Reservoir, on the western side of the refuge.   This small reservoir, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, hosted a rich variety of birds – coots, ruddy ducks and mallards, pied-billed grebes, Canada geese, white-faced ibis, killdeer, sandhill cranes, Caspian terns, ring-billed gulls.

Catnip Reservoir, Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge

Catnip Reservoir, Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge

After I arrived, I set up camp, and then scoped out the reservoir.  I was surprised to see a flash of white on the far side of the lake.  An American white pelican!  Just one, which was a bit odd, as they are usually found in flocks.   I’m fascinated by pelicans, with their prehistoric demeanor and graceful awkwardness.  American white pelicans are one of the largest birds in North American, with a stunning black and white, 9-foot wing span.  They often breed on inland lakes, so the pelican’s presence on Catnip Reservoir wasn’t unusual, but its solitariness was.  As the afternoon faded, I watched the pelican make a slow circumnavigation of the lake, gracefully tracing the shore counter-clockwise.

After a gorgeous sunset, the full moon rose over the mesa, and a cacophony arose from the lake.  I set up a parabolic microphone, pointed toward the lake and listened as waterfowl squabbled, squawked, and splashed, and chorus frogs tried to get their voices heard above the noisy birds.

Summer sunset at Catnip Reservoir

Summer sunset at Catnip Reservoir

The night was chilly, and I found ice in the tea kettle in the morning.   The cool temperatures didn’t quiet the birds on the lake, though, as they called even louder, joined by finches, blackbirds, killdeer, and wrens on the shoreline.

The sun was bright and the day warmed quickly.  The dog and I took a nice hike up to one of the mesas, following game trails across the mesa and returning along a small stream that fed into the reservoir.  Along the way we flushed at least half a dozen groups of greater sage grouse – huge, chicken-sized birds that live, feed, breed, and sleep in big sagebrush.  Their numbers are in decline throughout their range, mostly due to habitat loss, so it was a real treat to see decent numbers of them on the refuge, a testament to good land management.

Greater sage grouse head for the horizon

Greater sage grouse head for the horizon

On our way back to camp, we ran into a pair of sandhill cranes, feeding in the meadow surrounding the small stream.

Sandhill cranes near Catnip Reservoir

Sandhill cranes near Catnip Reservoir

We got back to the lake, and watched another day fade, as the pelican continued its counter-clockwise laps around the lake.  It got close enough that I was able to see the brown feathers on the back of its head – indicating it was a juvenile.  I also enjoyed watching the coots pay extraordinary attention to their little chicks, and male ruddy ducks chasing females and other males, while periodically giving their comedic “bubble-pop” displays (you can hear them in the recordings).

A skirmish among ruddy ducks

A skirmish among ruddy ducks

We spent another night on the refuge, then headed up to Oregon to commune with some trees.  But before we left, I scanned the lake for the pelican.  To my surprise, he (or she) had taken to the air, and was completing his lap around the lake on the wing.  I really enjoyed the wildlife and relative quiet of the refuge (except for 30 minutes of low-level military over flights one night).  I look forward to visiting again.

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5 thoughts on “The white pelican

  1. Gene Rodrigues

    Pelicans, both the White and the Brown, are very agile in flight and in the water. Pelican landings can sometimes get bizzare with multiple birds in flight landing on top of other pelicans nesting or sitting on the ground. On the ground, pelicans are just plain clumsy to the point of silliness. A few years ago at the Baylands in Palo Alto, California, a white pelican spotted me eating my lunch and eagerly decided to pay a visit for a handout. Moving too fast, his ungraceful landing knocked over my camera and tripod. Once on the ground, it did a somesault, then fumbled around trying to get on its feet and headed straight for my lunch bag. It grabbed the bag and flew off. The entire incident took about 30 seconds. Scared me so much I almost let go in my pants. Up close, you definitely know they are big birds.

    If you ever travel to the San Francisco Bay Area, try visiting the Baylands in Palo Alto California on the west side of the bay or the tidewater areas in Alviso, California on the southern end of the bay. The tidewater area on the east side of the bay near the City of Hayward is another good place. You will find large communities of white pelicans nesting, feeding and flying at both locations. There are estuaries in the Baylands and you can observe pelicans feeding in groups.

    Pelicans on the ground during mating season are very vocal. Mated pairs are very affectionate to one another and issue intimate sounds.

    Here in Virginia Beach, nearly half of the cities acreage is water. If you live on the coast near Chesapeake Bay, brown pelicans are everywhere this time of the year. They feed on fish, blue crabs and other crustaceans. You are offered good opportunities to study or film them. Once they get accustomed to your presense, you can get fairly close without them flying off. Just approach slowly and take your time. They are a little hesitant at first, but after a few minutes you can enjoy watching their antics.

    I get the opportunity to see a lot of larger birds here in Virginia Beach, but pelicans are one of my favorites.

    Enjoyed your Montana post and plan to visit myself next spring. My daughter and son-in-law are both ecologists working out of the Flathead Lake Research Center.

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      What a great pelican story! I once helped rescue a brown pelican that found itself in SE Arizona, so I got a very close look at that massive bill. I have no trouble imagining what a sight it must have been to have one ungracefully swoop in and steal your lunch! Thanks for the info on the Bay Area pelicans. I associate white pelicans with inland lakes, not estuaries, so I’ll have to go check that out. I was once kayaking on the Sea of Cortez near some small islands where brown pelicans were perched (non-breeding season). They flushed as we approached and suddenly there were pelicans everywhere! I wish I could have recorded the sound. Thanks for sharing your observations!

      Reply
      1. Gene Rodrigues

        A local naturalist here told me that pelicans can hold more food in their bill than their gizzard. When you see white pelicans feeding in a group and they find a school of fish, they keep catching fish until their beak can hold no more. If they have young, they sometimes fly back to their nest, dump their beaks and return to the feeding group.

        I see brown pelicans do that here, but they also skim for fish while flying low over waves and sometimes dive like a commorant. They don’t stay under very long though.

        I took up wildlife photography as a retirement hobby, but some animal antics catch me off guard because they were so unexpected and I just watch rather than grabbing my camera. I haven’t developed the instinct yet to grab the camera first.

        I have some interesting stills you might enjoy seeing. We have a large population of night herons here. I found an oyster bed a while back and like to stop by at low tide. I have sequences of shots showing herons banging open oysters and crabs on rocks. They will work for an hour or more before reaching the point where they can feed. Sometimes their mate stops by to help out and they take turns.

        Have my own birding site coming up in the spring as wetlandexplorer.com. The domain is currently parked. I’ll drop you a line when it goes up.

        Reply
  2. David E. Roy, Ph.D.

    I bought Wild Mountain album and probably will buy the Sonoran Desert (I grew up in Tucson and miss that desert terribly). I’ve been a psychotherapist for 40+ years, and there is research that shows that direct connection with nature is healing (psyche and soma); I suspect natural sounds would be efficacious. (There are organized professional groups with this emphasis; a marketing idea.)

    However, I happened onto your site for a totally different reason, searching for a way to be able to record both sides of a conversation with my iPhone. I realized your blog about microphone connections was purely about using these devices as a recorder of external sounds. I am wondering if you know of any way to do what I am after? As you indicated, the bluetooth devices do not work well; and this goes for bluetooth connections to devices that do what I’m after.

    Reply
    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Hi David, thank you for your interest in my recordings, and I certainly agree that listening to nature sounds is healing on many levels. There is a company called the Sound Agency that works with businesses to bring in nature sounds to the workplace, to reduce stress and increase productivity. The head of the company, Julian Treasure, has some wonderful podcasts out there that you might find interesting. I strongly suspect that one of the primary reasons we find being in nature soothing is due to the sounds and lack of anthropogenic noise.

      So I understand you just want to record both sides of a phone call? There are Android apps that do just that, so I would expect that there are some iPhone apps that do the same thing. No extra equipment required. The sound files are saved on your phone, but could be easily transferred to a computer. Hope that helps,

      Chris

      Reply

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