After spending the winter down in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of pelicans have made their yearly return to the Fort Saskatchewan river valley.
A small flock of the large white birds was spotted several times last week gliding above the city’s stretch of the North Saskatchewan in search of food.
American White Pelicans return to their Alberta breeding grounds in late April every year, migrating north after wintering in the Gulf of Mexico and the Texas Gulf coast. Colonies of the birds nest on islands in lakes around the province, venturing out to scoop minnows, perch and other fish from nearby bodies of water.
According to Gordon Court, provincial wildlife status biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks, the birds were once a rare sight in Fort Saskatchewan and the rest of the province. Alberta’s pelicans were nearly wiped out due to large-scale improper use of the pesticide DDT, which caused thinning and weakening of the birds’ eggshells, hampering their ability to reproduce. An early 1970s ban on the chemical eventually took the birds off Alberta’s endangered species list.
“They've made a terrific recovery over the last 20 years or so and we're starting to see them much more often throughout Alberta,” Court said. “We see them foraging in these small groups, even out on the river when they come out to forage. So that's what people are probably seeing when they see groups of them in the summertime.”
With their large bills and black-tipped wings that span up to six feet or more, the birds are hard to miss. They are extremely light for their size and incredibly good at soaring and gliding on warm bubbles of air.
“This is what people see often when they're looking up and see those small flocks. That's what they're doing. They're riding the bubble. And then they're just dropping to where they're going. So just like a glider pilot, they're finding the warm air rising and then they're using that to get where they're going.”
Now listed as a sensitive species in the province, pelicans remain at risk of having their breeding sites disrupted. The birds currently have colonies on islands in Miquelon Lake and Lac la Biche. Newly hatched young birds are very vulnerable to death from exposure. The province has non-disturbance protocols in place to protect the birds, with signs put up in breeding areas warning people to keep their distance.
The pelicans will migrate back south in mid-September. In the meantime, people can watch for them in local rivers and lakes, on suburban storm ponds, and elsewhere in the province on the Bow River or at Calgary’s Inglewood bird sanctuary.
“They are a great part of Alberta's biodiversity and should be celebrated. We came close to losing them or could have lost them and they're back, and great things to watch,” Court said.