SOUTH RIVER – An unlikely visitor made the day of an avid bird watcher.
“I was able to get some great shots,” said bird guru Lynn Loney of the solo pelican she was able to catch on camera while it rested in Forest Lake.
Loney received a phone call alerting her to the photo op after the bird was spotted on a small island near Tom Thomson Lane last week.
“We got within 20 feet of this bird,” said Loney. “It was just resting there all morning.”
Loney said the bird seemed quite comfortable with them being there.
“He just slept,” she said. “I think he must have been around people all summer.”
Loney said she and her friend stayed with the bird for about a half hour before the bird took off.
“It’s a funny pattern when they get going,” she said. “They get up to a certain level and just coast.”
According to Joe Nocera, a research scientist with the Ministry of Natural Resources, the bird, an American white pelican, was an unlikely sight, but more of a “happy coincidence” than a complete shocker.
“It’s kind of neat to see one on a small inland lake like that,” he said. “But there are a few breeding populations in Northwestern Ontario, so we often get reports of pelicans in this area in the fall because they are migrating.”
Nocera said the birds usually arrive in the Gulf of Mexico or its Pacific coast by mid to late October.
Loney said she heard of sightings recently in Killarney, which was confirmed with a quick internet search.
She said she thinks the pelican flew over her house the night before.
“I saw something fly over that had a huge wingspan,” she said. “I thought maybe it was an eagle.”
According to Nocera, the impressive bird can grow to be up to 30 pounds with a wingspan of an adult male reaching about six feet.
She said it is her belief the bird she took a photo of was a juvenile.
“He appeared not to be in adult plumage,” she said.
Loney has been an active bird watcher since she was a teenager and currently helps Bird Studies Canada with the local bird count.
Nocera was unable to confirm whether the bird was male or female because of the time of year.
“The males have bright orange on their bill during breeding season, but it falls off in sheaths after the season is over,” he said.
Nocera said the orange is used as a breeding signal to attract females – the brighter the orange, the healthier the bird, and therefore more desirable by females for mating.
Pelicans breed in Northwestern Ontario in late May with chicks being fledged in late July. The females lay up to two eggs each season. He said the birds often remain at the breeding site in social groups for most of August before heading south. Once there, he said many of the birds don’t come north again until they are sexually mature at about four years of age.
Nocera noted the American white pelican is listed as a Threatened Species in Ontario.
“They are a non-huntable species, not just here, but everywhere,” he said.
He said, at last count, there were about 12,000 individual pelicans in the province with most of those residing in the far Northwest corner near Lake of the Woods.
“They’re often vilified for the belief they compete with sport fishermen, but that’s not true,” explained Nocera. “They eat what we call ‘rough fish’ like small perch and minnows that we don’t eat. They don’t go after things like trout and walleye.”
The sighting was a welcomed thrill for Loney.
“I’ve never seen one before,” she said. “It was incredible.”