Tracking American White Pelicans

Hundreds of American White Pelicans are disappearing from eastern Oregon and reappearing in Washington’s Puget Sound. Now, two citizen scientists are taking it upon themselves to track these changing flight patterns.


Hundreds of American white pelicans are disappearing from Eastern Oregon and reappearing in Washington's Puget Sound.

Now two citizen scientists are taking it upon themselves to track these changing flight patterns.

Here is the story.

Matt Kershbaum and Sue Ehler have a summer ritual.

Every other week...

We come down and we set up our spotting scope.

We get out our data sheets and a hand clicker.

I call it a tallywacker.

And the citizen scientists count the herons of Padilla Bay.

You are seeing sometimes in the neighborhood of 500, 600 birds.

It's extraordinarily difficult to count in your minds.

What was your total count on that one?


210? Okay.

This estuary in Northwest Washington is home to thousands of birds, including the largest breeding colonies of great blue herons in the Pacific North West.

Counts like these serve as an annual checkup.

We watch all the species that are here and kind of used to who is who.

So they were some of the first to see the new arrivals.

Matt and I are coming to do our survey.

He throws on the brakes.

He goes, 'There they are!'

And there's 11 pelicans, just, I mean, they were like next to here.

And it's like seeing aliens arrive.

I mean, they aren't here.

The American white pelican's range stretches across much of the country, but it doesn't touch Western Washington.

It's just unprecedented for them to be here, so something really unusual is happening.

Of course, we're just, you know, we are having a blast.

Okay. I found the pelicans, and they are right by the boat.


Wow. Okay.

White pelicans are conspicuous birds with their 9-foot wingspans and long orange bills.

They are just bizarre, I mean, in a neat way.

They are different from brown pelicans, a more common summer visitor to coastal Washington.

Those are the ones that dive for fish.

White pelicans take a team approach to feeding.

Oh, they are doing the synchronized swimming, the ballet, yes, they are.

Oh, that's cool.

At first, they counted just a handful of pelicans.

Then we had like 30, and then there were 50.

I mean, finally it was up to a 100.

And then reports started coming from all over the region.

We got reports that came from Barkley Sound, Canada.

One at Lemieux.

From the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound and north into British Columbia.

During the summer, the region's white pelicans normally stick close to a few major breeding areas farther south and east.

But with parts of Oregon and California enduring another year of severe drought, some of their best-protected breeding grounds have gone dry.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has reported failed breeding colonies for two years.

So the pelicans in Puget Sound could be pioneers searching for a suitable site for a new colony.

One place they seem fond of is a small lagoon on Whidbey Island.

I counted 135.


Yeah, well, this is a first for them to be here.

Joe Sheldon has never seen pelicans in almost 20 summers living here.

Seeing white pelicans in Western Washington is unusual.

Seeing a 180 white pelicans in Western Washington is unheard of.

Sheldon is a retired professor of ecology.

He says that pressures of climate change could be at play.

You might describe these as a climate refugee, if indeed Malheur has dried to the point where they can no longer feed and breed there.

Pelican colonies across the country have indeed been shifting north by about 200 miles over the last 50 years.

But it's too soon to say if these pelicans are just Puget Sound tourists or new summer residents.

So will they come back?

We will wait and see for next year.