Injured pelican survived harsh Alberta winter thanks to invasive fish species, says naturalist

A lone, injured pelican that was forced to winter in southern Alberta managed to survive thanks to a warm waterway and invasive fish species, says naturalist Brian Keating.

Sightings of the large white bird were reported all winter via online birding forums

A pelican with an injured wing was unable to migrate from Frank Lake, east of High River, Alta. (Mike Sturk)

After a CBC Homestretch listener brought attention to an lone, injured American white pelican in Southern Alberta that was unable to fly south this past winter, naturalist Brian Keating ventured out to find the bird and learn more about it.

And last Tuesday, alongside his wife, Keating located the pelican at Frank Lake, east of High River.

But by then, the pelican's lonely days were over.

It had linked up with others of its kind that had returned from the Salton Sea in southern California and other coastal waterways, bays and estuaries, said Keating.

The two American white pelicans were spotted at Frank Lake last week. (Brian Keating)

"There he was with with a new buddy ... he was no longer alone," he said Monday on The Homestretch.

The lone pelican had been spotted all winter long, according to online birding database eBird.

Naturalist Brian Keating thinks the injured pelican survived the winter by eating Prussian carp near the in-flow to Frank Lake that remains ice-free all year. (Mike Sturk)

Keating says it's unusual behaviour for the species, which usually escapes Alberta's harsh winters by flying south.

Photographer Mike Sturk says warm treated effluent from Cargill and the Town of High River keeps a small section of the channel to the lake free from ice. (Mike Sturk)

Keating says that, after talking with fellow Alberta naturalists Chris Fisher and Greg Wagner, he guesses the bird was injured by a natural predator (like a coyote or eagle), a hunter's buckshot or by hitting a power line. 

What he says is amazing is that the bird managed to find food, even during the February cold snap.

He says this can be explained by an in-flow to Frank Lake from the Town of High River's treated waste water. The water there flows all year and doesn't freeze, he says — letting the pelican access a food source.

Hundreds of Prussian carp, an invasive species, travel upstream, exhibiting spawning behaviour in a channel at Frank Lake, says Sturk. (Mike Sturk)

"A population of introduced fish called Prussian carp, which are in huge numbers in the lake, and they always are swarming around that in-flow pipe," said Keating.

Sturk says there is plenty of Prussian carp in the canal where the water flows into the lake. (Mike Sturk)

Prussian carp is a relative of goldfish that has come to be in Alberta because of illegal release, according to the Alberta government website.

In this photo, Sturk says, the pelican caught a pouch-full of Prussian carp. (Mike Sturk)

Keating says Wagner was able to confirm that the pelican "could sit on a rock beside the in-flow ... and when it got hungry, it would just lean over and scoop."

The bird was seen floating on the open water, even during the coldest part of winter, "lazily dipping his bill into the pond … and picking up the carp."

Here the pelican sits atop a muskrat house as it waited out the winter, says Sturk. (Mike Sturk)

As for the pelican's injury, Keating says the bird has been spotted recently taking short flights around the pond.

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch.



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