Wayward White Pelican Makes Rare Appearance on Martha's Vineyard

Aug 30, 2017

White Pelican in flight.
Credit Mark Faherty

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I'm damned if I see how the helican!

So goes the most famous limerick that Ogden Nash never wrote. 

It was actually written by American poet and birder Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910. And beneath his clever word play is a biological truth—the pelican’s bill can indeed hold more than his belly can. But what does this have to do with you, my Cape and Islands radio audience, in this last week of August?

Well, you may have a chance at seeing one of those improbably huge pelican bills for yourself, as a wayward American White Pelican was making its way through the region this past week. First spotted by a Mass Audubon birding group in Scituate on the 25th, presumably the same bird was found by a couple on Martha’s Vineyard the next day. Unsure of the ID, they alerted some local birders, and the cavalry soon arrived at Black Point Pond in Chilmark to identify and photograph the mystery bird. And while most pelican sightings on the Vineyard are of well-known local biologist and birder Matt Pelikan, this was indeed the actual feathered version—an American White Pelican.

Weighing in at up to 30 pounds and with a nearly 10 foot wingspan, these B-52-sized white-and-black beasts are among the largest of flying birds. They breed in huge colonies in remote prairie wetlands in the interior of the continent. When it’s time to migrate south to coastal wintering areas, they form big, shockingly synchronized squadrons where all birds soar in the same formation, facing the same way, as if they practiced for weeks. It’s a sight burned into my brain from having witnessed it in places like Mexico and Texas, where large numbers both winter and pass through.

Here in New England they are a rare sight indeed, though the Outer Cape has a scattering of records, including several immediately following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. They don’t typically stick around long, no more than a day or two or rarely up to a week, so this bird may have moved on by now.

But there’s plenty else going on in the bird world right now to get you out there looking. The shearwater spectacle continues on the Outer Cape, with another cool 15,000 Great Shearwaters reported along the beach at Race Point this past weekend, and thousands more at North Beach in Chatham and other east facing beaches. And the exceedingly rare South Polar Skua continues to make unusually frequent appearances, especially at Race Point, where two more individuals turned up in the last week.

A slow and subtle but definite trickle of migrant warblers has also been evident lately. I’ve seen slightly early Wilson’s and Cape May Warblers in the last week, and a Hooded Warbler was seen in Falmouth. A favorite of mine among the late summer and fall songbird migrants, the Dickcissel, has been reported at a feeder in Nantucket as well as in Sandwich and Falmouth. Look for this locally uncommon western prairie breeder in weedy fields but also at bird feeders, where they blend in surprisingly well with House Sparrows.

And don’t forget to keep your hummingbird feeders stocked up, as your local youngsters and adults alike are fattening up for migration in the next few weeks. This is also when interesting rare hummingbirds, like Rufous Hummingbirds from the western US, might start to show up on the Cape.  Who knows, maybe you can even coax that pelican to visit your yard. I’d recommend a sturdy platform feeder and about 10 pounds of mackerel. I’m sure your neighbors won’t mind...