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Steamboat Magazine

The Pelican Brief

03/18/2016 09:48AM ● By Dan Greeson

White pelicans are a familiar sight during summer months at Stagecoach Lake. Photo by Douglas Wipper.

By Douglas Wipper

During Yampa Valley’s summer months, a surreal scene sometimes plays out at Bella Vista Estate’s open-air pool. When music is played from the estate’s large outdoor speakers, a group of winged visitors– white pelicans– will often hear the melodies and pop by for a visit.

“Believe it or not, it’s rock’n’roll that draws them in,” says David Josfan, Bella Vista’s owner.

“The pelicans come up in groups and they actually circulate around the music,” Josfan says, laughing. “Sometimes as many as 10 to 12 of them will come up and circle.”

These flying giants – the second-largest birds in North America – can be spotted at more Yampa Valley locations than just Bella Vista’s pool. Venture toward Oak Creek during the warmer months of the year and you may notice white pelicans cooling their wings in Stagecoach Reservoir’s calm waters. 

White pelicans glide through the air with incredible steadiness on their broad, nine-foot wingspan. The bird’s grace and agility are even more impressive when taking into account its hefty 30-pound bodyweight. White pelicans can be easily identified: broad, white wings tipped with black feathers, a bright orange beak with a large pouch and orange, webbed feet. Look for these birds during the summer months at the southern end of Stagecoach Lake, or soaring high above the valley in formation.

There are only 15-17 white pelican nesting colonies left in the entire United States and one of them is right here only 30 miles from Steamboat Springs at MacFarlane Reservoir. White pelicans are colony nesters, congregating together in large groups when the time comes for breeding and nesting. It’s no surprise that these birds choose the bountiful seclusion of MacFarlane Reservoir for this purpose. 

The white pelicans build their nests by scraping out a depression near the reservoir’s shore and filling this depression with twigs and reeds. The birds arrive at MacFarlane Reservoir in March or April and begin nesting between early April and early June. During breeding season, both males and females grow a tall, rounded bump on the top of their beaks. This bizarre growth falls off by the end of breeding season.

Female pelicans lay clutches of one to six eggs but usually just one of these chicks will survive to adulthood. From the time these eggs are laid until the young can fly, about three months will have passed. 

To feed, white pelicans circle together in groups of a dozen or more in shallow water. What happens next looks astonishingly like a synchronized swimming routine, as the birds dip their beaks into the water in one united motion and corral the fish into each other’s pouches. This remarkable behavior is called a “scoop,” which is also a name for a group of white pelicans. In deeper waters where their prey can dive out of reach, the co-operative “scoop” method doesn’t help the pelicans, so they prefer to fish alone.

With their wide flat bills and big orange pouches, pelicans trawl the water for food as they swim. They scoop up about four pounds of fish, salamanders, frogs and aquatic invertebrates per day.

When they leave the Yampa Valley in the fall, white pelicans climb to massive altitudes and soar on thermal currents to their southern wintering grounds. There, open water and small fish populations can sustain them over the winter months.

Habitat protection will give the white pelican a much stronger chance to survive in the future. The white pelican’s numbers have recovered as a result of stricter environmental protection against shoreline erosion and against the use of pesticides near breeding and wintering sites. These majestic birds are still threatened by some fishermen, who see pelicans as a fish-stealing nuisance. Many birds have been killed as a result of this mentality. 

Let’s hope the Yampa Valley will always be a summer nesting ground for these giants of the sky. We are beyond privileged to have the rare opportunity each summer to view the second largest bird in North America. 

Video courtesy of Douglas Wipper