If you ask most humans to describe what they think of as a vacation paradise, it is likely they will mention palm trees, fruity drinks with paper umbrellas and perhaps a little calypso music in the background. But for American white pelicans, millions of other migrating birds and a few in-the-know birdwatchers, Harlan County Reservoir is a paradisiacal stopover secreted in an unassuming little corner of south-central Nebraska.
Harlan County residents have long known that spring is just around the corner when the American white pelicans return from their winter hunting grounds along the Gulf of Mexico to take up temporary residence at the reservoir, usually throughout March and early April and sometimes as early as late February. The great birds return again from late August to early October during their fall migration.
Originally built to control flooding and manage irrigation, the Harlan County Dam and Reservoir are now one of the prime outdoor recreation destinations and wildlife havens in Nebraska. The reservoir—with a normal pool surface of over 13,000 acres—is the second-largest body of water in the state, one of the largest bodies of water within the North American Central Flyway and one of the few places in the Great Plains where American white pelicans can be seen in great abundance during their annual migrations.
The pelicans arrive by the thousands in photogenic, follow-the-leader flight lines and land on the surface of the reservoir to feed. Unlike brown pelicans, which dive for their prey, white pelicans hunt in a manner more similar to lions and the canine species, working together to herd fish into a circle and then chasing them to each other.
The American white pelican is one of North America’s largest birds, weighing 10–20 pounds. They have wingspans of up to 9 feet, and a mature adult’s beak can be 13–14 inches long. The plumage is almost entirely white except the black wingtips, visible primarily only in flight.
Currently protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, American white pelican populations have recovered significantly since the mid-20th century when environmental regulations regarding pesticide use came into effect, and they are considered to be stable or slightly increasing today. An estimated 100,000 or more adults exist in the wild.
Beginning in 2011, the Harlan County community is for the first time formally inviting wildlife enthusiasts and the general public to join in observing the spring pelican migration in south-central Nebraska. The Harlan White Pelican Watch will run from the first of March through early April, and a White Pelican Homecoming Celebration will be held in Alma from March 20–26, with a “Spring Fling” on March 25. The public is invited to all of these events to help welcome this stunning harbinger of spring back to the local community and the state.
The pelicans can be easily observed from many shoreline locations around the Harlan County Reservoir, including boat docks, camping areas and walking trails. There is no fee to enter any of these areas, and no state park permits are required as the lake is a federal project managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Visitors to the migration viewing areas are asked to observe posted regulatory and safety information, to refrain from attempting to approach the birds and to be courteous of other birdwatchers in the area.
Harlan County Reservoir is a primary early spring stopover not only for American white pelicans but also for migrating ducks and geese, including Ross’s and snow geese. Over 300 bird species have been observed in the area. In winter months, hundreds of bald eagles can be seen roosting and hunting around the edges of the reservoir and near the spillway east of the dam.
For an extensive list of bird species in Harlan County and along the Republican River, visit www.chickendancetrail.org. For more information on the Harlan White Pelican Watch and the 2011 White Pelican Homecoming Celebration, contact the Harlan County Tourism office at (800) 762-5498, harlancountytourism[at]yahoo[dot]com or the Alma Chamber of Commerce at (308) 928-2992.