American white pelicans were spotted congregating on Upper Twin and Lower Twin Islands last weekend. The large flock of over a hundred pelicans could be heard squawking and seen perched on rocks between the Twin Islands likely staging up to head back south, according to DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor Steve Piepgras.
According to the DNR, one-fifth of American white pelicans make their way to Minnesota and nest for the summer.
“There are always pelicans during the summer (on Mille Lacs Lake), but you usually don’t see them in a larger group like this,” said Peipgras. “They are likely adults or juveniles that have moved into the area in the last couple weeks for staging (the gathering of flocks to migrate) and resting before migrating back south.” Giving the disclaimer that he is not an ornithologist, he added that they will likely head out late September or early October as they are not very cold tolerant birds.
Pelicans spend winter along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico and typically return to Minnesota in early spring as the lakes and rivers thaw.
You’ll recognize the pelicans, who are among the largest birds in the world, by their bright white plumage, having a nine-foot wingspan, and a bright orange bill. The birds were once threatened species, but due to conservation efforts and federal regulations, they are making a comeback. From 1878 to 1968, Minnesota had no reports of nesting pelicans. In Minnesota, pelicans received help in the form of monitoring, habitat restoration and technical guidance from the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program. Their comeback has been gradual, and they remain one of Minnesota’s Species in Greatest Conservation Need, says the DNR. There are an estimated 22,000 pairs of pelicans that nest on seven lakes across the state, according to wildlife biologists.
Pelicans prefer shallow lakes with islands which are ideal for nesting grounds, and that may be why they have spent a fair amount of time on Mille Lacs Lake. The birds were reported on the lake earlier in the summer as well.
Though the walleye seem to be abundant on the lake, according to reports, Peipgras said pelicans typically fish shallow water, primarily feeding on baitfish and smaller minnows.
The DNR says that pelicans typically live in large colonies and use teamwork to gather food, grouping up and swimming in a semicircle to herd their prey into shallow water before scooping up fish and water in their beak pouch.
The DNR also advises pelican-watching from afar as the birds are particularly sensitive to human disturbance and are easily scared off of nests which could lead to nest and egg abandonment and nest failure.