We’re winding up the year sharing the most popular — and we hope most compelling — Flying Lesson stories from 2020. Most of the posts are profiles of bird encounters, including this story of a Great White Pelican that transfixed north Florida birders early this year when the species usually found in Africa and Europe showed up in the U.S. We’re posting one of the highlight pieces each Sunday this month.
It wasn’t a Great White Shark, but for Florida’s best birders, it may as well have been. When the first reports hit that a Great White Pelican – usually found in Africa or India – had been spotted in a wildlife refuge near Titusville, well, you can imagine what happened next.
This is one of the largest birds in the world with a wingspan that can reach 12 feet. And even though it has the strength to cross an ocean without stopping, people couldn’t quite believe it had somehow landed in Florida.
The first photo in early February showed a distant bird that looked like the American White Pelican, only much bigger with a striking orange and pinkish tint. There’s also a diamond-shaped patch of day-glow orange over its eyes.
Then came several sporadic sightings around the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a vast wilderness spanning 140,000 acres with one 7-mile road winding through. More often than not, the reports were of dashed hopes and a flock of regular pelicans seen from afar.
But the sightings persisted, and Florida Facebook birding sites lit up with speculation about the pelican’s whereabouts. So without much to go on, we drove up from our camping spot an hour south of Titusville to see if we could find this guy.
We knew we were on the right track when we arrived on Black Point Wildlife Drive early this morning and came across a string of birders lugging powerful scopes and cameras. Everyone was looking for a large flock of American White Pelicans, where our avian celebrity was supposed to be embedded.
“Nothing so far,’’ reported the first birder, who’d traveled two hours from South Florida. He’d had a tip that the flock was on a remote island at the north end of the refuge, so off we went.
When we stepped out of our truck, we saw four people gathered at a far corner of the beach with all their birding firepower aimed at an island more than half a mile away. (Beverly estimates the combined value of binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras at $28,000, but that’s a story for another day.)
We drew closer, and sure enough, at least 50 white pelicans and assorted other birds could be seen huddled on the shore.
One man we met earlier had his scope trained on the center of the flock. And there it was. A large blob with feathers emitting a faint orange glow. He was asleep and mostly hidden.
We could truthfully say we’d seen him – or a at least a tiny speck of him. Not quite the thrill we had imagined.
And then after 20 minutes or so somebody shouted, “Get ready. I think they’re gonna move.”
Sure enough, in ones and twos the American Pelicans, cormorants and gulls began to take off.
In a stroke of luck we’ll never forget, the pack zoomed across the bay toward our beach. The air filled with circling birds that slowly landed in the water just 30 yards in front of us. However, The Great White Pelican stayed put, and you’d have thought our team’s ball was at the one yard line: “Come on, you can do it.” “Get up off your lazy butt and fly.”
Here’s a video of the scene:
As the bird rose, you could see how much bigger he was, its trademark pinkish orange coming straight at us. After 30 seconds, he disappeared behind another island. Everyone froze.
Then he made a grand entrance from stage right, pausing over the water before settling into the pack. As if to protect a foreign dignitary, cormorants and American White Pelicans surrounded him on all sides.
Here’a a full gallery of our Great White Pelican’s arrival in front of us:
Ten minutes later the birds lifted off again and returned back out into the bay. Among the last to go was our Great White Pelican, giving us a direct view of his magnificent profile before vanishing once more.
Our band of birders had grown to a dozen people. Things got quiet as we began to leave and several latecomers pulled in.
“Don’t tell me. They just left, right?’’ said the first to run up.
He wasn’t the only one to miss out. As we drove back out on the dirt road, a steady flow of cars passed, racing to the beach as the word spread of the Great White Pelican’s appearance. We felt like we had indeed just seen the Great White Shark.
Here are a few more photos from our day with the Great White Pelican: