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A Rare Great White Pelican


A female great white pelican spreading its wings among other white pelicans on February 1. Photo by Roberta Schuldenfrei.

Courtesy of the Island Sun:

Hundreds of visitors descended upon the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge one morning earlier this month in hopes of spotting the rare great white pelican, a native of Africa, Europe and Asia who was previously seen visiting Sanibel last February.

According to refuge sightings volunteer Ed Combs, the great white pelican – which has a wingspan of up to 11.8 feet and can weigh as much as 33 pounds – returned to “Ding” Darling’s observation tower area on the morning of February 1.

But 24 hours later, with the refuge swarmed by tourist and resident birders, the uncommon fowl species was nowhere to be seen.

“It is far off its usual migration route,” noted Combs, “or it could be an escaped bird.”

The absence of the great white pelican, however, didn’t disappoint the group taking in the refuge’s semi-weekly Birds & Wildlife Tour. Led by resident volunteer docent Linda Parker, the tour provides expert birding advice and points out some of the local native plant and wildlife species for people following along in their vehicles, caravan-style.

“You need to look closely at that group of white birds,” said Parker during the first stop along Wildlife Drive. “At first glance, you might think they’re all the same species of bird, but if you pay close attention to some of their behaviors and subtle physical characteristics, you’ll see that there are actually four different species out there.”

During the 90-minute excursion, which is offered Mondays through Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. through April 23, Parker shared her knowledge of local avian species, native wildlife and flora found throughout Southwest Florida.

Using binoculars to get a closer perspective, birders celebrated spotting the refuge’s “signature bird,” the roseate spoonbill, pausing several minutes to watch it walk through the shallow brackish waters, dipping its beak into the water quickly before shaking it back and forth after capturing its prey.

Along the way, the group spotted several other bird species – including ibis, snowy egret, reddish egret, little blue heron, great blue heron, kingfisher, pied-billed grebe, anhinga, brown and white pelicans, osprey and green heron – as well as other wildlife including a periwinkle snail, mangrove tree crabs and mullet, which jumped from the water every so often.

Parker also pointed out some common plants found locally, including a giant leather fern, cabbage palms and three species of mangrove: white, black and red.

Kathryn and Jim Muirhead, visiting from New Hampshire with friend Patti Ark from western New York, all said they learned quite a bit during the tour.

“Ever since we came down in early January, we’ve taken this tour three times and even went on a few Audubon bird walks,” said Kathryn Muirhead. “We’ve been focusing a lot on our birding skills.”

“It’s fantastic the way that Sanibel cares so much about nature and preserving it,” added Jim Muirhead. “Every time we come back, it gets better and better… we just hope it doesn’t get bigger and bigger.”

For more information about programs and activities offered at the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, call 1-239-472-1100 or visit www.dingdarlingsociety.org.

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