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The Daily Bucket is a place where we post and exchange our observations about what is happening in the natural world in our neighborhood. Each note about the bugs, buds, and birds around us is a record that we can refer to in the future as we try to understand the patterns of nature that are quietly unwinding around us.

If you opened this diary to learn about Big Bird's efforts in Iowa to re-elect our president, I have bad news for you: it isn't about that. (On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen IS campaigning for Obama in Iowa today!)

It is about big birds in Iowa, and specifically about the biggest birds, the pelicans.

All my life I've lived in the Midwest, and I've rarely traveled to the coasts. The first time I saw pelicans was in September 1999, when we traveled to Novato, CA for my cousin's birthday party. While we were there she took us on outings to wine country, to the small airport from which she flew, and to the beach. Pelicans! Brown pelicans soaring, feeding, skimming the waves. Their broad wings and nimble flight enchanted me.

Imagine my surprise when, on returning to Iowa, I saw pelicans soaring over the Iowa River as I drove to work! I couldn't believe my eyes at first, especially since these pelicans were shimmering white in the morning sun, not muddy brown. But yes, pelicans.

They've been something of a totem for me ever since.

Why are they in Iowa? provides some information:

One of the most anticipated events for birders in the Middle Mississippi Valley is the annual migration of the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). During their migration south from nesting areas in freshwater lakes in the northern United States and southern Canada the pelicans arrive in the region beginning in early October with the last leaving in early November. The pelicans make a return trip from the Gulf of Mexico where they winter along the coast from Florida to Mexico. The pelicans arrive in the Middle Mississippi Valley beginning in March and stay in the region for three to five weeks when the last pelicans depart in early April. The prime times to see huge flocks of these magnificent birds are mid-March and mid-October.

The American White Pelican, one of two species of pelicans in North America, is one of the world's largest birds.  They can weigh as much as 30 pounds and have wingspans that can reach 110 inches. Adult birds are primarily white except for its black-edged wings that are visible in flight. It has a long neck, a long, flattened orange bill with an expandable pouch and short orange legs with big webbed feet.

American White Pelicans are highly social and live in large, dense colonies. Flocks may work together in groups to encircle and driving their prey, usually small fish or crustaceans, towards the shore where they are easier to catch. The American white pelican doesn't dive into the water for its food like the brown pelican. It floats on the water and scoops up fish and water in its pouch and then holds its heads up, drains out the water, and then swallows its food.

One of my favorite sites, the Cornell lab of Ornithology, has more:
American White Pelican numbers have been increasing steadily at a rate of about 3.9 percent per year from 1980 to 2003. On their nesting grounds, pelicans are very sensitive to human disturbance—people, boats, and low-flying planes can cause the birds to leave their nests, exposing eggs and young to excessive heat and predatory gulls. They are also shot, either illegally for trophies or in an attempt to protect fish stocks (although American White Pelicans typically do not eat commercially valuable fish). In the 1960s, when the pesticide DDT was widely used, pelicans produced thinner eggshells. Because pelicans tend to nest on islands where they are safe from mammalian predators, altered lake levels (flooding or drainage) can render their breeding habitat unsafe. According to NatureServe, populations are of particular concern in California, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and British Columbia, Canada.
(Seriously, check out Cornell's video and audio pages. You can hear the calls and for most birds, see them in action.)

Jim and I have been out a number of times this fall to find them. A couple of weeks ago we saw a small flock resting on the reservoir as we drove by, but we weren't able to stop and watch at the time.

On Monday this week we headed to the river again, hoping to find them before the majority make their southward journey.

On the way there we spotted a bald eagle high overhead, and below it, a red-tailed hawk. The difference in scale was easy to see with both in the same frame. The eagle's wingspan ranges from about 72 to 90 inches, with the female's in the larger range. The red-tailed hawk wingspan is substantially smaller, from about 43 to 57 inches. Again the broader span belongs to the female.

We spotted a flock of pelicans as we drove along and then crossed the river, and it took a couple of tries to find a place to watch them. Jim pulled into the drive of a private marina. As he turned in, he was amused to find this tree, leaning on and engulfing the metal guard rail. We wondered how many years it had taken to get to that point.

The marina is small but provides dry storage for several dozen boats, some speed boats and others pontoon-style house boats. There is a ramp for easing them in the water, and docks for mooring. We wandered out onto a broad dock to see the pelicans drifting to the left of our view as they rested in the river. It looked like several dozen, but nowhere near the hundreds that are known to move through during a migration.

I wish we'd been able to get closer. Here is a photo a friend of ours took a couple of weeks ago, in the same vicinity:

We waited patiently, hoping the birds would lift in flight. While we waited, another large bird, a great blue heron took off from the rim of the marina waters.

Soon we saw three or four pelicans flapping their wings, rising up off the waters and into the air. As they found a warm thermal, their ascent looked like they were riding a long, spiral escalator. Soon they were joined by more, and then more, until most of the flock was in the air.

In September 2011, Jim took this video on another outing:

While the pelicans circled in the sky above us, we also saw this flock of birds, circling lower. Do you know what they are? Their wingspan is substantially smaller than the pelicans, but we couldn't get much sense of scale because of the height. I wondered if they were bald eagles, but I could not find any pictures or video of them flying in a grouping like this, though they do roost in large groups.

As mentioned above, I think of pelicans as something of a totem for me now. In a writing class I took this fall, we were asked to write an "origin myth." I used the pelicans as inspiration. Here is my myth:


Sky dominated my view, expansive and welcoming. Flyers found air space at varying levels, like planes directed by hidden air traffic controllers. Swooping low, barn swallows performed touch-and-go exercises. Higher, clouds of blackbirds undulated almost across the horizon. They signaled cooler weather coming, but it was not fall yet. For now, clear, indirect light silhouetted the birds against pale blue.

At ground level, thistles reached tough and tall upward. Goldenrod, flowering heads brushed lengthwise, reminded me of ancient brooms, worn down from years sweeping the stone hearth. Queen Anne’s lace had curled into tight clusters, pregnant with seeds waiting to spill forth.  

Pelicans were back, flying so high, wingtips reflecting the late afternoon sun. They looked like confetti drifting slowly in a circle, until they wheeled and changed direction, moving closer in view. For me, the pelicans’ appearance always seemed like a gift. Now, with such perfect timing, the pelicans must be a good omen.

I needed a good omen. The year was difficult in many ways, full of extremes, joy marred by illness and tragedy. The cancer and anorexia were merely death threats. The murders were unbearable and incomprehensible, tearing the fragile scrim, the illusion of safety.

I flew, too, but I flew alone. As with the pelicans above me, it was easier to fly than walk, my body awkward and unbalanced on the ground. Like Icarus, I used my wings to escape. Unlike him, I flew low, skimming the rooftops and crowns of trees. The view from above, in motion, removed details I needed to ignore. Instead I could focus, just on moving forward, and then on landing safely.

The sun shifted and blackbirds and pelicans moved on. As the leaves curled and fell, as dew on the dried maize reflected morning light, death hovered around us. The sky became broader still, opening through stark bare branches.

Waiting, I still flew. Crows bossed during the day. In the evenings they settled, scores in stands of trees, chattering odd noises like rusty hinges.

I posed no threat to them, did not disturb them from their roosts, even while I prepared to make my own. Landing, nesting, I had flown past the sorrows of the summer, though they were visible to me when I turned.

Flying snow, flurrying, melting; the fall did not readily concede to death. The rising sun brightened the sky, warming the earth again. And on that day, I gave birth to a flyer.

Fledged now, soon he will fly like the pelicans, broad wingspan carrying him higher, beyond view. Leaving and returning, a good omen.

Thank you for reading. Tell us about what's going on in your area. Also please tell us where you are located.

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Thu Oct 18, 2012 at 08:10 AM PDT.

Also republished by J Town.

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