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updated: 3/27/2014 7:02 PM

American white pelicans stop in Fox Lake on the way north

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  • White pelicans have gathered on Fox Lake on their migration north

      White pelicans have gathered on Fox Lake on their migration north
    courtesy of James Sayre

  • The American white pelican, seen here on Fox Lake, is among the largest birds in North America.

      The American white pelican, seen here on Fox Lake, is among the largest birds in North America.
    courtesy of James Sayre

 
 

Another batch of impressive birds has set up temporary quarters on Fox Lake, causing residents and photographers to take notice.

"My neighbor called and said, 'You wouldn't believe what's out here,'" said Nadine Norton, who lives at Leisure Point along the western shore of Fox Lake. "They're massive."

Said to be among the largest birds in North America, the American white pelican weighs about 16 pounds and has a wingspan of nine feet. Besides its size, according to the National Audubon Society, the bird is distinctive for its "conspicuous white body, and the improbable proportions of its large bill and pouch."

At one time, a pelican sighting here would have been remarkable, but now they are being spotted throughout Illinois, experts say.

"Their flyway tends to be a little bit further to the west," said Tom Clay, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society. That shift began about 20 years ago, perhaps as a result of flooding in 1993. "For whatever reason, their migratory pattern changed a little bit. What used to be an unusual bird to see here has become a more common bird to see here."

The white pelican arrived in Fox Lake about two weeks ago on the migration to Canada and northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They were attracted, like bald eagles before them, to the same area of open water where Nippersink and Fox Lake meet.

"Open water is a dinner plate," Clay said.

Currents have kept the offshore strip ice free despite the harsh winter, and that has attracted the foraging visitors and provided onlookers with a continuous aerial display.

"Most of them (pelicans) migrate along the Mississippi River but you get these offshoot flocks," said Mark Hurley, an environmental educator with the Lake County Forest Preserve District. "Most people don't even know they're around."

Clay said the breeding range is more into the Dakotas, but white pelicans are making appearances throughout Illinois and have become a topic of conversation. He said nesting sites have been confirmed in far northwest Carroll and Jo Daviess counties in Illinois.

Graceful flyers, white pelicans don't plunge like the Brown pelican but will fly in circles to make their way to the water. There, they form a circle in a cooperative effort to concentrate the fish and then dip their heads in for a meal.

"They're really fun to watch," Clay said.

Norton said it is the first time in her 10 years here that white pelicans have stopped in this neighborhood,

"There's tons of them. We saw, I daresay 200 at least," said Jim Sayre, a Libertyville resident, who with his wife, Joan, specialize in wildlife photography and participate in presentations, workshops and outings. The couple took more than 1,000 pictures of pelicans during a recent visit.

Birders say white pelicans have been passing through for years and have been reported before at other spots in northern Lake County, including Lake Marie near Antioch.

"Right now, across the state, everybody is talking about them," according to Clay.

In any case, the four- to six-week migration season is set to get into full swing, he added, which should provide even more interest.

"It's been quite a winter up here for bird watching," Norton said.

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