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American White Pelicans Establish Breeding Community on Maryland's Eastern Shore

From popular tourist attractions to lesser-known areas, Dolores shares destinations in Maryland as well as regional day trips.

American White Pelicans at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland

photo by Charlie Lentz

photo by Charlie Lentz

The American White Pelican is a magnificent creature, a large white water bird 55" to 70" tall with a 9 foot wingspan. Large and easily recognizable, the American White Pelican has all white plumage except for the black that shows up on their primaries (the longer feathers on the wing edges) in flight. They do not dive, like Brown Pelicans,but fish, bobbing to the surface of the water to capture small fish in their formidable 13" - 14" bills. White pelicans often work together, beating their wings on the water to drive small fish into shallow waters.

American White Pelicans breed and nest in brackish inland waters and lakes of Northwestern America and Western Canada, appearing in breeding colonies in March or April. During breeding season, a bump appears on the upper mandible of both male and female American White Pelicans and the breast feathers take on a slight yellowish hue. Two or three eggs are laid in a shallow nest lined with reeds. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs. Young American White Pelicans fledge in one month but remain in the care of their parents until fall migration in September or October.

Historically, American White Pelicans breed in Canada, from British Columbia to Mackenzie and western Ontario, wintering in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California. So, what are they doing in Maryland?

American White Pelican

wikimedia commons; photo by Mike Baird;

wikimedia commons; photo by Mike Baird;

In the past several years, small groups of American White Pelicans were spotted at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore, causing great excitement for birders. While birdwatching can be viewed as  a quiet pursuit, featuring leisurely drives along wetland roads, or slow walks in the woods, the sighting of a rare or regionally unusual bird can be quite a thrill. 

During 2007, sightings and reports of American White Pelicans on Maryland bird forums were met with caution. If you claimed a sighting, that report went up for review. Due to the fact that Maryland is not in the customary range for white pelicans, a sighting would obviously seem questionable without a photograph or a similar posting by a reputable bird watcher in that area.

American White Pelican

wikimedia commons; photo by Mike Baird;

wikimedia commons; photo by Mike Baird;

I am a casual birdwatcher. I had better get a real good look at a bird in order to identify it. If I don't get a perfect view, or have my sighting confirmed by someone else, I do not count the sighting.

Face it, some people are excitable and drawn to novelty, hoping for the thrill of a regionally unusual bird and may exaggerate the field marks of a routine sighting.

In 2009, my husband and I spent several hours on several visits staring over the wetlands at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, looking at distant white blobs, only to see that they were swans. Beautiful yes, but not the American White Pelicans that we hoped to see.

American White Pelican in Flight

(wikimedia commons; photo by Alan D. Wilson;

(wikimedia commons; photo by Alan D. Wilson;

In 2010, the popular Maryland bird forum, Maryland Osprey (which no longer exists) did not put sightings of the American White Pelican at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge up for review. Confirmed reports had been so frequent that the American White Pelican have been accepted as reasonable sightings.

On Easter Saturday, 2010, my husband and I slowly cruised the edges of the beautiful, brackish marshlands at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. The scenery is so lovely that it does not really matter to me if I spot anything remarkable. Sightings of Great Blue Heron and Bald Eagles are so common, a birdwatcher can plan on seeing them. The flat stretches of dark water punctuated by stands of loblolly pines and wind rippled marsh grasses are beautiful. It is what Maryland looked like hundreds of years ago before the asphalt and strip malls that line our congested highways.

Then, out by a grassy point, I spotted a splash of brilliance on the overcast day. Several American White Pelicans splashed, flapping their wings and tossing those formidable beaks, while others rested on the shore. Snatching up the binoculars, I spotted two breeding adults, notable for the odd looking bump on the upper mandibles.

Not only were 24 white pelicans shining so brightly on a marsh in Maryland, but they were in full breeding mode! We could not believe our luck. The joy of seeing these beautiful creatures is indescribable. My husband and I sat for some time enjoying the spectacle.

Two mallards passed in front of the group. The ducks only served to highlight the size of the pelicans. The mallards looked tiny compared to the majestic White Pelicans.

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Who knows how long the American White Pelicans will remain in Maryland, so far off the path of their usual range? Why the white pelicans have made themselves at home at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Maryland is a mystery; but those magnificent birds are causing quite a stir in the birdwatching community.

2012 Update

In the Fall of 2012, a dozen White Pelicans bobbed on the cold water at Blackwater. The holiday weekend and beautiful weather attracted many bird watchers. Cars and bikes were pulled to the edge of the narrow roadway as people trained their binoculars on a dozen White Pelicans.

American White Pelicans and Tundra Swans at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Friends of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

  • Friends of Blackwater NWR - Gallery
    Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, is a major stop on the Atlantic Flyway. Gallery and visitor information

Check Out Charlie's Beautiful Photos of Maryland Birds


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on August 07, 2011:

akirchner - Hi, Audrey! Oh, I voted for you already but did not know about the finals next week. Will support you for sure. It's easy to fall in love with those gorgeous birds - they are so dramatic.

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on August 04, 2011:

How awesome - I didn't know you did a hub on this, too~!! I've been trying to tell folks that they are not endangered yet but since they have been diminishing in Canada, I'm so glad to see them alive and well ANYWHERE~! Great hub as always, Dolores! If you feel so inclined, come vote for me next week in the finals! I'm still taking seems I've fallen into bird love with the pelicans and I can't quit going up to visit malamutes are getting pretty mad about it!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 27, 2010:

Ben - the amazing thing about our white pelicans is that this is not a rebound. White pelicans have never, as far as I know, been in Maryland. Thanks for dropping in!

Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on May 23, 2010:

Great article, I love these true to life stories of natural rebounds, especially in light of our recent antiquated energy disaster in the Gulf. I saw a few pelicans somewhere in the south Dolores, was it Florida? Beautiful creatures, something unusual about their gate and personality. I enjoyed your reverie about the area as well, you and your husband sound like a great compliment to one another during your outings.


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 19, 2010:

ethel - believe me, I was stunned. I never expect to see white pelicans here in Maryland. Thanks for stopping by!

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on May 17, 2010:

What stunning birds

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 14, 2010:

carolina - thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

sally - white pelicans do not dive. The brown pelicans dive. They are the ones we see off the Atlantic coast putting on a real show. I guess the white pelicans what with their size and brilliant white color, their huge yellow beaks think that they don't need to entertain us. Their incredible beauty is enough! (haha) Thanks for stopping by, hope you get to see the white pelicans.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on May 12, 2010:

Thank you for showing me the difference between the brown pelican and the white. I am not a birder, but I do enjoy watching.

Years ago, when I lived in California, I saw pelicans diving and feeding off the coast. I was amazed by their tenacity, skill, and grace.

It's news to me that there's a white pelican who doesn't have this diving behavior.

I'm not far from the Eastern Shore, and so I hope to make a visit soon to see these beautiful birds for myself.

Thanks for an awesome Hub.

carolina muscle from Charlotte, North Carolina on May 12, 2010:

very cool hub!!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 11, 2010:

loriamoore - bird watching can be difficult, but it does hone your observational skills. I always have trouble with the little ones. Thanks!

akirchner, I love that prehistoric look of the pelicans and GBH too. In Maryland, we have brown pelicans, but I remember back in the 1980's when they just started to show up here along the Atlantic coast, they were unusual. Now, we see them all the time. But the white pelicans were amazing!

Lindsay, thank you! I love to check out wildlife stories too. Actually seeing white pelicans here in Maryland was quite a thrill.

Lindsay Godfree on May 11, 2010:

Wonderful article! So complete with photos, video and books links and news. It just couldn't be better. I hope to do as well. I do love the wildlife stories!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 10, 2010:

2patricias - don't you have gannets over there? I am thinking that gannets are often mentioned in British novels set on sea coasts. We have gannets off our Atlantic coast, wonderful birds to watch. Thanks for checking out my hub!

david - I thought that I'd have to head over your way (quite a trip) to see white pelicans. It was and is a real thrill to see them here. Thank you for leaving a comment!

loveofnight - I am pretty sure they saw a white pelican last year off Fairfield which is sort of near Fort McHenry. I don't know if they've seen one this year. Thanks!

katie - well, I don't think they are coming to your pond, haha. My niece had a pond and every time the GBH came to snatch a fish, her daughters would start screaming and crying so she got rid of the pond. katie, your pond sounds just beautiful!

Katie McMurray from Ohio on May 10, 2010:

I know the blue heron do and I thought of that after it flew away... I added plenty of good layers of rocks for hiding. I don't think the smart bird noticed the pond as i planted two japanese maples around, one over hanging the falls to the pond and the other much larger at the side. It's always an honor to see such wonderful birds. I would love to see an American White Pelican in real natural life. Thanks and Peace :)

Loveofnight Anderson from Baltimore, Maryland on May 10, 2010:

fascinating.....i'll have to keep my eyes open for these guys the next time i am out bird watching.

davidisaiah on May 10, 2010:

I love white pelicans. I live in Oregon,near the Lower Klamath Lake Wildlife Refuge. I am also near Klamath Lake. About two hours ago I saw a group of White pelicans fishing near the shore of Lake Euwana, which is at Veteran's park in Klamath Falls, Oregon. How wonderful that they are creating colonies on the Maryland Shore as well.

Peaceful Observations and Life!

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on May 10, 2010:

Wow! what amazing birds.

We live on the (English) coast and see a variety of seabirds, but never these.

There is a colony of kittiwakes on the seacliff where we live. We don't know why they have chosen this spot - they are a fairly rare breed of gulls - but they return year after year. And always to the same stretch of cliff.

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on May 09, 2010:

They are such beautiful birds! I have seen them once or twice in my lifetime and remember the brown pelicans in California where I grew up. They amaze me much as the great blue heron (can you tell I'm possibly a bird watcher?). The pelicans are another of those prehistoric-like birds that you just watch and marvel at their striking beauty. I especially love the white ones though because they are so brilliant! Glad for your sighting!!

loriamoore on May 09, 2010:

What beautiful birds! I get my sea birds mixed up sometimes, but I'm getting better at it and appreciating them more.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 09, 2010:

Nellie, I was blown away my own self. I sure never expected to see white pelicans right here in the Old Line State and the sight provided quite a thrill. Thank you for stopping in!

Good to see you, Richard. Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

katie, I love Great Blue Heron, they are so majestic. But you'd better watch out - they love dining on koi! Thanks for reading my hub!

Maita - why thank you, darlin' - how sweet of you!

DAL - it's so neat to have a new bird show up, but when it's something as large and dramatic as a white pelican, well even more so. Thanks!

Dave from Lancashire north west England on May 09, 2010:

Hi Dolores, a fantastic informative hub about this beautiful bird, glad to have shared this part of your wildlife with you.Lets up their success continues.

prettydarkhorse from US on May 08, 2010:

beautiful, I also love birdwatching, I dropped by here to greet you, Happy Mothers Day, Maita

Katie McMurray from Ohio on May 08, 2010:

Bird adapt in amazing ways as do most creatures. I was setting enjoying by zen garden two days ago, watching the koi in the pond when a huge blue herring flew over...I enjoyed you report on American White Pelicans and their breeding community in Maryland.

Richard Francis Fleck from Denver, Colorado on May 08, 2010:

A great hub with a nice first-person account of a sighting. That must have been very exciting, indeed. Thanks, Dolores.

Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on May 08, 2010:

I'm blown away! What a thrill to see this!!! I'm impressed at the birds' skill - knowing to join forces to beat wings on the water to herd the fish to shallow waters. Is that remarkable or WHAT? Nothing dumb about those birds! And so magnificent! I've voted this hub UP for sure! Thanks for sharing!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 08, 2010:

Varenya - I thought I was going to have some kind of attack -I was so excited! Thank you!

Sage - amazing birds. I'd seen them years ago elsewhere, but to have them come to Maryland is like a gift! Thank you!

Sage Williams on May 08, 2010:

And an American beauty he is. Very interesting hub, I love birds of all type. It was really nice to read about this on the Eastern Shore. I am amazed at their wing span.

Great Job,


Varenya on May 08, 2010:

Loveable hub! Must be an amazing experience to see so wonderful birds...I hope they will survive for long time as they did till now!

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