On Saturday morning, my alarm sounded at 3:45 a.m. and I rose out of bed in order to take the three-hour drive to Sutherland Reservoir to “twitch” a Brown Pelican. For non-birders, “twitching” is a British birding term meaning to chase after a previously located (usually rare) bird. Brown Pelicans are typically found in coastal areas but birds occasionally wander inland. The Brown Pelican I was chasing was found by Stephen J. Dinsmore and Kevin Murphy on 26 December 2014. Nebraska’s other seven documented records, as well as the vast majority of inland records from other states, of Brown Pelican are during warmer months. Thus, a Brown Pelican in Nebraska is notable, but one in winter is crazy.
It seems most likely this particular Brown Pelican is from the Gulf Coast, perhaps Texas. Any part of the Brown Pelican’s normal range is at a minimum a thousand miles from Sutherland Reservoir. It impossible to know when this bird left its familiar coastal haunts to fly inland. The explanation for why this bird ended up at Sutherland Reservoir in winter, and possibly why it is still alive, is easier to understand. Sutherland Reservoir has a “cooling pond”, an impoundment that receives water from the nearby coal-fired Gerald Gentleman power station which is owned and operated by the Nebraska Public Power District. The constant infusion of warm water into the cooling pond keeps the water open even during the coldest winters. This human-created environment allows several piscivorous (fish-eating) bird species, including American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and Great Blue Herons, that are common in Nebraska from spring through fall to over-winter at this site when they might otherwise migrate south to warmer climes or perish.
Even though it is unknown what caused this bird to fly inland, the reasons for my migration on Saturday morning are straightforward. I have seen close to 400 bird species in Nebraska, but Brown Pelican was not on my state list. The importance individual birders place on maintaining life, state and even county lists and finding and chasing rare birds is varied. Some birders may view driving hundreds of miles to add one more “tick” to a list as silly and even superficial. Others know all about early mornings and long drives filled with anticipation as to whether “the bird” will still be there when the sun comes up. Both perspectives and all forms of birdwatching and birding are perfectly valid. The hobby, pastime or pursuit is whatever one wants to make of it.
I easily relocated the Brown Pelican among a small group of American White Pelicans Saturday morning, as can bee seen in the photos, below. Luckily it was a relatively mild day. When temperatures are very cold stream rising from the relatively warm water of the cooling pond will reduce visibility, making it impossible to see what birds are present.
As for the Brown Pelican, it will be interesting to see what becomes of it. Since it has survived this long and appeared healthy on Saturday, it may be able to endure the Nebraska winter. It seems unlikely this bird will move from its winter refuge before spring, though. Where it may eventually go, no one knows. As for me, chasing the Brown Pelican was the creamy center to a full day of birding on a January day. I tallied 59 species for the day, including other good birds including Barrow’s Goldeneye, Thayer’s Gull and Ferruginous Hawk.
Had it not been for the twitch, I might have spent Saturday cooped up indoors, sprawled out on a couch, watching football. Having a twitch was the best thing for my well-being and the next 3:45 a.m. wake-up cannot come soon enough.