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Pelicans, pelagic trips and Harlan County Lake

On Monday (23 March) I had a great time assisting with a national media tour highlighting American White Pelicans and birding at Harlan County Lake.  The event is part of Harlan County Tourism’s Pelican Watch and Homecoming Celebration.  I served as a bird expert during the “pelagic trip” portion of the tour.  Clem Klaphake and Lauren Dinan also participated in this capacity.  This was yet another chance to help show off Nebraska’s birding opportunities to visitors, most of whom came from out-of-state.

The term “pelagic trip” will be readily identified by birders as oceanic birding trips targeting seabirds.  Pelagic trips in this part of the world are a tongue-in-cheek reference to boat birding trips on large inland lakes.  Jocularity aside, birding from a boat can be excellent because it provides access to areas that might be off limits through the usual landlubbing.  Plus, it is just fun.  Harlan County Lake Association’s free boat trips are yet another great birding and birdwatching opportunity here in Nebraska.

Obviously the focus of the boat trips and the celebration is American White Pelicans.  Good numbers of pelicans do stopover at Harlan County Lake during migration and this is a great way to get up close and personal with these big birds.  Fellow NGPC employee and birder T.J. Walker aptly described American White Pelicans as the avian version of a B-52 (the plane, not the alternative rock band) on NET’s Nebraska Stories.  Large water bodies do attract a unique diversity of birds and, occasionally, a genuine vagrant seabird.

Making a trek down to Harlan County Lake is a worthwhile stand-alone trip.  Since this destination is less than a hour’s drive from the central Platte River, though, swinging down to see the pelicans is a nice add-on to any trip to see Sandhill Cranes in central Nebraska.  Below, I share several photos from Monday’s pelagic trip on Harlan County Lake.  We got great looks at pelicans, but also got some nice looks at some rare gulls.  If you want more information about the Pelican Watch and Homecoming Celebration, click here.

Boats on Harlan County Lake
The media tour flotilla on the open water of Harlan County Lake.
American White Pelicans
American White Pelicans resting along the shore at Harlan County Lake.
Harlan County Lake media tour
The Harlan County Lake pelagic trip sidling up nice and close to some American White Pelicans.
American White Pelican
An American White Pelican with a double bill “horn”. The protrusion on the bill  is comprised of fibrous tissue and is grown by birds in breeding condition. Based on the size of this bird’s horn, this bird looks like a male pelican.  I have not noted many pelicans with a “double horn”, but I also may not have looked close enough.
Glaucous Gull
Pelicans are a great sight but boat trips provide a great opportunity to see other species of birds not readily visible from shore. Glaucous Gull are rare in Nebraska and are always nice to see. We got great looks at this Glaucous Gull from the boat.
Great Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gulls are rare, but Great Black-backed Gulls are even rarer. This second or third-cycle bird was a nice find.  Like many rare bird sightings, it often difficult to get a great photo, but a decent photo is good enough to confirm the identification.

As always, good birding!

Nongame Bird Blog

Thanks to Pat Underwood, the Harlan County Lake Association, the captains of the vessels, Harlan County and the pelicans. 

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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