The Pelicans of Tenkiller Ferry 

Text and Photography © Ron Day

For the past several years, American White Pelicans, making their first appearance on Tenkiller Ferry Reservoir, have captivated the interest of  residents and visitors.  In autumn, during migration, these graceful birds arrive at the north end of the reservoir and join loons and gulls in a protracted feast on shad, an abundant baitfish in the lake. As many as two to three hundred pelicans eat, preen, and sun themselves on the water over a period of a few months, before departing for points south. I have extensively photographed these majestic birds, and in the process, I've developed great respect and admiration for them.

Over the years, I've learned that the American White Pelican (Pelecános erythrorhynchos) is a social bird.  They group their nests together in colonies, and are known to use the same nesting sites for many years.   They are wary and startle easily. Therefore, a remote island or undisturbed peninsula in a lake is normally to their liking.

        White Pelicans on Peninsula

Unlike its cousin the Brown Pelican, the American White Pelican inhabits fresh water lakes and rivers. About half of all White Pelicans in North America nest in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The White Pelican was removed from the national threatened species list in Canada, in 1987. In British Columbia, however, "in recent decades the number of pelicans has dropped drastically because of the use of pesticides, human disturbance, and the draining of wetlands."

    White Pelican in flight over Lake

The White Pelican  winters from central California to the Gulf Coast, and from Florida south to Panama.  Their stop-over for a few months at Tenkiller Ferry is apparently a leg on their trip to wintering grounds further south. Some years their visit to this lake lasts longer than others. Extremely cold weather seems to trigger their departure.

When photographing these birds, I use a 500 mm telephoto lens with a 1.7X teleconverter, which provides a focal length of 850 mm. This magnification allows me to observe the pelicans up close, and watch in detail many of their daily activities. The wingspan of the White Pelican is 108  to 110 inches (9  feet), and their body length is 60 inches (5 feet). They weight, on average, 16.5 pounds. The way they maneuver their large bodies so gracefully through the air is simply breathtaking.

These large birds normally live between 12 and 14 years. A few have lived for 30 years. Their coloring is primarily white with black primaries and black outer secondaries. Adults have a long orange bill and feeding pouch. Immature birds have a gray to flesh colored bill. During the mating season, the White Pelican develops a lump (fibrous plate) on its bill.

          White Pelican in Flight, Lake Tenkiller

This species does not dive into the water for food like the Brown Pelican. Rather, it generally prefers to fish in more shallow water where it can scoop up to 3 gallons in its pouch, and strain out young fish, salamanders, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates. If food is not readily available, these birds are known to form a feeding line in shallow water, and "herd" prey towards the shore by slapping their wings on the surface of the water. At Tenkiller Ferry, however, most of the pelicans feed in deeper water on schools of shad driven to the surface by hungry white bass. When pelicans observe that gulls have located shad on the surface, they promptly fly over, lower their large webbed feet, and ski in to join the feast. They consume up to 3 pounds of fish a day.

     White Pelican in Flight at Lake Tenkiller

The American White Pelican is very efficient aerodynamically. It is not unusual, when powering a boat into a head wind, to observe a few pelicans flying into the wind with you, at speeds up to 35 mph, and doing so effortlessly, gliding along about a foot above the white caps.  

As each autumn approaches, I anxiously await the arrival of the pelicans at Tenkiller Ferry. Their return signals the beginning of a new season of photographic dreams and opportunities with one of the most noble birds on earth.

 [ See more pelicans in the White Pelican Gallery. ]