CARTERVILLE — A decade ago, a white pelican sighting at Crab Orchard Lake would have been headline material.
Times have changed markedly as Crab Orchard provides a rest home to the huge birds, which have an eight-foot wingspan, each spring and summer. The pelicans spend about a month in residence each fall on their southward migration to Florida and the Gulf Coast.
Then, they return each spring as they make their way back to the breeding grounds in the American Great Plains, British Columbia and Manitoba.
“It started out about six to seven years ago, if not longer, we had maybe 100 or so,” said Neil Vincent, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife ranger at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. “I think we’ve peaked at about 3,000 one time. The last count we did was Oct. 16, there were 1,240. We had them at four different locations.”
From the time the first birds arrive to their departure, they are normally in the area about four weeks.
Vincent said the first pelicans arrived in the refuge in late September, so they could be here another week or so. In the spring, they normally arrive in early April.
“When they first came it was a big thing,” Vincent said. “Now, it’s kind of like, ‘It’s about time they showed up.’”
Although the birds can be seen at various locations around the refuge, there are some areas where pelicans are more likely to be seen.
“Usually the Wolf Creek Area is pretty good, and the Cambria Neck area is usually a good place,” Vincent said. “They are the easiest places to get to. If you’re on a boat, Turkey Island, it’s a submerged island, that’s always a hangout.”
The white pelican is the largest bird to use the refuge.
The pelicans feed in packs, herding fish in shallow areas. At Crab Orchard, they are frequently spotted with other fish-eating birds such as double-crested cormorants and gulls.
“At one time this spring, on Route 13 on the east side of The Haven there were the pelicans, cormorants and about 100 gulls,” Vincent said. “There must have been a huge school of shad there.”
Rend Lake is another popular destination for the white pelican.