Single in Hamilton? So is this rare pelican in Cootes Paradise

An American white pelican spotted in Cotes Paradise is odd on several levels. The birds don't normally fly this far east. They also don't migrate at this time of the year, and they're usually in colonies of thousands.

In 2009, there were reports of a pelican nesting in Lake Superior

This pelican was spotted in Cootes paradise and posted to Rob Porter's twitter on June 11. (Rob Porter)

An American white pelican has been spotted in Cootes Paradise — an unusual sighting on several levels.

The birds don't normally fly this far east. They also don't migrate at this time of the year, and they're usually in colonies that number in the thousands. Which means the bird that strayed into southern Ontario is either a failed breeder or a non-breeding bird that has gone astray from the herd.

Hamilton's pelican is a single bird, just minding its own business, taking the summer off to fish.

"This is an unusual sighting but they do wander," said Chris Risley, a bird and mammal specialist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. "The American white pelican is a rare species in southern Ontario, but it does nest in the northwest near Thunder Bay, Lake of the Woods and Lake Nipigon."

The closest of those nesting spots is some 500 kilometres away, but ministry reports on the endangered species list their traditional nesting habitats more than 1,000 kilometres from Lake Ontario.

It leaves Hamilton's pelican, which can fly up to 30 kilometres in a day, roughly 17 days of travel away from the closest colony and double that to where the normal nesting grounds would be — which is exactly where it should be for this time of year.

"It's not completely unexpected but it's a neat bird for the bird watchers to see," Risley said from the ministry's Peterborough office.

The bird was spotted fishing in Cootes earlier this month, by photographer Rob Porter.

A ministry report from 2011 listed the last known population estimate of pelicans in North America at 134,000. Risley said 10 per cent of that population nest in Ontario in remote islands. The bird migrate to the southern United States in the winter, but only go as far as the Atlantic coast when it is as south as Florida.

Since the bird is alone and this far east, well off track of the normal migration path, Risley said Hamilton's pelican is either a failed breeder or not breeding for some reason. Colonies can reach up to 30,000 birds, so seeing one alone is not common.

Matt Reudink, an assistant biology professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kelowna, B.C., said there has been an eastward shift of the birds, but it's unclear why at this point. He said the population has rebounded from near extinction in the early 1900s.

"This is something we've seen across North America," Reudink said of the eastward shift. He studied the pelican's colony patterns, and how the birds mix between separate colonies. 

"This time of the year, you could end up having birds who tried to breed and unsuccessful and are just wandering a bit," Reudink said.

Pelicans are easily recognizable with their white body, black tipped wings and large beak used to hunt fish by bobbing or dive-bombing the water.

Environment Canada mapped the pelican's habitat (in red), migration (in blue) and wintering (in yellow) in this 2009 map:

This 2009 Environment Canada map shows the migration of pelicans, with their nesting in red, migration in blue and summering in yellow. (Environment Canada)

Their habitat grazes the Great Lakes, and in 2009, there were reports of a pelican nesting in Lake Superior, far south of typical nesting grounds which have been as far north as James Bay in Ontario, and regularly in the Northwest Territories.


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