Hundreds of American white pelicans have landed on the Mississippi River shores and on nearby lakes during spring migration to the north.
Over the last week, there have been sightings at Carthage Lake, on the riverfront in Montrose, and near the lock and dams along the Mississippi River stretching from Keokuk up to Wisconsin.
"They are just magnificent," said Jeannine Eltrich of Salem who happened to see the birds in Montrose. "Of the many things you expect to see in Iowa, the pelican is not one of them."
She and her husband were sitting along the Mississippi Saturday when they saw a flock of 75 or more birds on the water; without binoculars, they weren't sure what the birds were until they realized they were similar to the brown pelican that lives along the coasts (Eltrich's husband is originally from California).
"It was a large group of them," she said. "They travel in groups and they were scattered all over (the river)."
"This is the first time I've ever seen them out there," she added.
According to Chuck Fuller, local amateur orinthologist, the White American Pelican comes up through Keokuk, Fort Madison and Burlington and up to Saylorville and Lake Red Rock.
"They are here for about a month a year," Fuller said. With one week already gone, Fuller said the number of pelicans will start to dwindle within a week, but a few will hang around for a while.
"They do not nest here in Iowa," Fuller said, "though a few stay here all summer in Fort Madison. They are the non?breeders."
Of the pelicans that have landed, many are breeding at this time.
"If you look at a pelican this time of the year, on the top of their bill is a knob," Fuller said. "That shows they are breeding. When they come back in the fall ? and they will come back in October November ? the knob won't be there because the breeding is done for the year."
Between April and June, the female pelican will lay two eggs, states Greg Wolf, Clinton County Conservation Board Interpretive Naturalist in a report, and both mom and pop pelicans will incubate the egg that will hatch after one month.
After 60 days, the baby pelican will start flying and will stay with the flock through the fall migration south. On average, a pelican will live 10 to 15 years in the wild.
To feed, white pelicans eat fish and lots of it.
"They will get in the water and herd together to catch fish," Fuller said, noting that it's the brown pelican that dives from the sky to catch fish. "I'm not sure what they are eating here, but it's probably shad. They are in big numbers this time of year."
In addition to gizzard shad, white pelicans east carp, chubs and shiners, and occasionally salamanders, crayfish and aquatic insects, Wolf stated. In one days time, the bird can eat up to three pounds of fish.
To catch fish, the pelicans open their beaks and fill their pouches with water and food. Tilting their heads, they strain the water from their beak, leaving the fish behind ? and no, they don't store them for later.
The birds themselves weigh between 10 and 20 pounds, Wolf states, and they are 4?feet long with an 8 to 9?foot wingspan.
"They are one of the largest aquatic birds," he stated. "The white pelican has the longest beak in the world, reaching a total length of 20 inches."
Though the pelicans are large, their bones and skin have air sacs in them, making them very buoyant.
Their size is part of the reason Fuller can't miss them when he's out looking for other birds.
"I'm not specifically looking for them, but it's hard not to notice them," he said. "I was downtown looking out a church window this morning and there were a number of flocks going up the river."
The flocks he has seen have numbered in the 100s, but on Carthage Lake, it's not a stretch to say there are 1,000, he said.
"All my life I've been watching birds," Fuller said, but he's been doing it seriously for 35 to 40 years. "I would recommend (for people) to see the pelicans while they have a chance."
The best viewing sites, Fuller said, are Lock and Dam 18, the Fort Madison area, Montrose river front and the Linger Longer park, and Keokuk Lock and Dam 19.