Harlan County's Pelican Watch: A Case of Economic Development through Birding


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By Dave Titterington

A pelican at Harlan County Lake. (Chris Mayne)When one thinks about bird-watching in Nebraska, what comes to mind is the ever-alluring pilgrimage by tens of thousands of people to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes through the Platte River Valley. Unprecedented in its scope is the hundreds of thousands of cranes congregating on a 65-mile stretch of the river, attracting visitors from across the country and around the world.

Nebraska is one of the top birding regions on the North American continent and is slowly gaining more popularity as a birding hot spot. The incredible diversity of birds returning to Nebraska or passing through during the spring migration is a prime example of the birding opportunities the state has to offer. Millions of snow geese and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl pass through, stopping to rest and refuel before resuming their journey onward to northern breeding grounds. More than 36 species of shorebirds can be found during migration wading in the shallows of Nebraska’s wetlands and sifting through the mudflats for food. Greater prairie chickens congregate on their booming grounds to begin their mating rituals. The central Great Plains flyway, extending from the Missouri River Valley to the panhandle of the state, ushers through a rich diversity of bird species numbering in the millions on their way north in the spring and the return trip south in the fall after the nesting season.

Of the 914 North American bird species, nearly half are listed on the Nebraska bird checklist, with over 200 species remaining in the state to breed. In the last decade, more and more traveling birders, as well as resident bird-watchers, are discovering Nebraska’s rich and diverse birding heritage.

Some Nebraska communities are beginning to realize the positive economic impact of highlighting the birds that occur in their area. The economies of Kearney and Grand Island greatly benefit from the expenditures of birders during the six weeks the cranes are visiting the Platte River. Over the past five years, several new birding festivals have been organized benefiting other communities as well. The annual Prairie Chicken Festival at Calamus Outfitters benefits the community of Burwell and the surrounding area. And the American White Pelican Festival in Harlan County benefits several south-central communities.

Take for example the White Pelican Watch in Harlan County. White Pelican have traditionally migrated through Nebraska and were sighted by Lewis and Clark during the Corp of Discovery expedition. On Aug. 8, 1804, the expedition found a flock of several hundred white pelicans resting on a sandbar about 2 miles north of the mouth of Little Sioux River in present-day Burt or Thurston County, Nebraska, and Monona County, Iowa. One of these birds was shot and measured by Captain Lewis, and its throat pouch was determined to hold 5 gallons of water.

An estimate of 5,000 to 6,000 pelicans was made the same day by Private Whitehouse. Pelicans were also seen on the return trip, Sept. 4 and 5, 1806, near the mouth of the Vermillion River, and within the river stretch from present-day Burt to Dixon counties, Nebraska. A few were also shot on Sept. 6 in what would become southern Burt County. Today a few white pelicans still use this dredged and highly channelized stretch of the Missouri River during migration to and from their North Dakota or Manitoba breeding grounds, but most migration now occurs in lakes and rivers farther west, where the waters are clearer and less swift.

The American white pelican is one of the largest birds of North America, measuring a little over 5 feet in length with a wingspan that can exceed 9 feet, the second largest wingspan of any North American bird. They may be heavy, reaching weights of 16 to 20 pounds, but in flight they are fluid and graceful and can soar as majestically as any broad-winged bird.

White pelicans are slightly larger than their cousins, the brown pelicans, which are found along the Gulf Coast and up the Atlantic and Pacific waterways. The male and female look exactly alike, with the male being the larger of the two. They are mostly white, only showing the black primary and outer secondary feathers of their large wings when in flight. The juvenile pelicans are similar to the adult except for the dirty grayish markings on the head and back, along with having a gray bill. The legs and feet are a bright orange. They have such a distinctive and unique appearance, it makes identification relatively easy. However, on occasion white pelicans have been mistaken for whooping cranes when migrating high above in a loose V formation or soaring on thermals.

White pelicans breed in colonies on isolated islands of freshwater lakes in the upper Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada and the mountain west. Wintering along the coasts, they only breed on these inland freshwater lakes. They forage for food in large marshes, lakes and sloughs along rivers that may be as far as 30 miles from the nest site. The nest is a depression scratched out among the loose stones and vegetation with the same debris lining the bottom of the nest, where two white eggs will be laid. The parents will share the duties of incubating the eggs using their feet to keep the eggs warm due to the lack of a brood patch on their belly. After the hatch, both adults will again share the parental responsibility of feeding and caring for the young. In the fall they will begin their retreat south, where they will spend the winter on the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts from central California and Florida south to Panama.

In the 1960s prior to the regulation of pesticide use, there was a significant decline in the numbers of white pelicans. Since regulations went into effect, the numbers of white pelicans have reached about 100,000 in the wild with slight yearly increases. They are sensitive to human disturbances and may flush off the nest if frightened, exposing the eggs to gulls and ravens. But the main threat to pelicans today is nest failure from flooding rains or prolonged drought, possibly a factor of climate change. Other threats include losses from entanglement in fishing gear, disturbances by boats, poaching and human-related habitat degradation.

White pelicans can live up to 16 years, with the recorded lifespan of a pelican in captivity exceeding 34 years. Unlike the brown pelican, which will perform aerial dives into water to catch food, white pelicans scoop up fish with their enormous bill, at times making shallow dives. They are known to work as a cooperative group, herding fish together to feast on, with each bird consuming up to 4 pounds of fish every day. It has even been recorded that within these cooperative flocks, blinded adult pelicans have been kept alive, presumably by other members of the group providing food for them.

Pelicans at Harlan County Lake. (Chris Mayne)

Today white pelicans are plentiful across all of Nebraska during the spring and fall bird migration from the Missouri River of eastern Nebraska to the marshes, lakes and prairie potholes in the state’s western panhandle. In the spring, when weather allows, adult birds will push on north to their breeding grounds. Many nonbreeding pelicans will remain on the lakes and reservoirs of central and western Nebraska for the summer. These are generally juvenile birds that won’t reach sexual maturity until about 4 years of age. The juvenile birds that remain will form feeding groups of 12 or more, working together to corral fish.

One of the largest concentrations of white pelicans in Nebraska during the spring migration is at the Harlan County Reservoir in the south-central part of the state along the Republican River. The pelicans begin to arrive in late February and early March. They will remain to hunt and feed until the second week in April, when the adults will resume their trip north and the nonbreeding birds will disperse in search of the summer’s prairie lakes where fish are plentiful.

The residents of Harlan County in Nebraska have long enjoyed the spring arrival of the American white pelican, which can number into the thousands. The venerable return of these birds is a sign winter has loosened its grip across the southern wetlands and prairies of the central Great Plains and spring is near. In 2010, after decades of local residents watching for the return of the white pelicans to the Harlan County Reservoir every spring, they knew they had a unique wildlife migratory event they wanted to share with the rest of the world.

With the help of the Harlan County Tourism Department in Alma, Neb., a White Pelican Watch was organized, running from March 1 through April 15, now in its fourth year. Visitors are invited to come to the reservoir and watch the return of these massive white birds in staggering numbers on this 13,000-acre lake on the Republican River.

Harlan County Reservoir is one of the largest bodies of water within the North American Central Flyway and is a primary stopover for millions of migrating birds, including bald and golden eagles; osprey; ducks and geese, including Ross’s and snow geese; many species of gulls and more, including an occasional sighting of a great whooping crane. Over 300 bird species have been observed in the area. It’s a paradise for birders.

To add to the excitement of the six-week-long White Pelican Watch beginning on March 28 and lasting through April 5, is the White Pelican Homecoming Celebration taking place in the communities of Alma and Republican City, Neb., on Harlan County Lake. Among all the activities planned during this celebration, visiting birders can take boat tours of the lake.

Viewing the white pelicans at the Harlan County Reservoir, along with many other birds, is relatively easy. They can be observed from many shoreline locations and parking lots around the Harlan County Lake as well from the marinas, RV parks and campgrounds and the many walking trails near the lake.

The White Pelican Watch is an example of how communities in Nebraska are taking advantage of their birding resources to promote the conservation of birds and bird habitats through economic development.

Yes, Nebraska is a premier birding region. From one of the smallest birds on the North American continent, the ruby-throated hummingbird, to the second-largest bird, the white pelican, and all sizes, shapes and species in between, there is no better place to go birding in the springtime than Nebraska.


For more information on the White Pelican Watch and White Pelican Homecoming Celebration, visit www.harlantourism.org. You can also make plans to attend the Annual Prairie Chicken Festival in the central Sandhills of Nebraska near the Calamus Reservoir April 4–6 by visiting www.calamusoutfitters.com. And don’t forget Audubon’s 44th Annual Nebraska Crane Festival in Kearney on March 20–23. Get all the details and register at www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

To locate more than 400 birding sites across Nebraska to view the 2014 spring bird migration, visit the Nebraska Birding Trails at www.nebraskabirdingtrails.com. For birding sites in central Nebraska, visit the Nebraska Central Flyway at www.nebraskaflyway.com. For birding sites and information in the 27 counties of southwestern Nebraska, including the Western Rainwater Basin, go to the Chicken Dance Birding Trails at chickendancetrail.com. And for the seven metropolitan counties in eastern Nebraska, visit www.nebraskametrobirding.com.

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