Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
American White Pelican - Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
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General Comments This spectacular and huge species, which nests in the Great Plains and the Western states, has undergone a dramatic increase in numbers in the Southeast in the past few decades. Until the 1990's, there might have been only one or two reports in the state of the American White Pelican for a given year, usually at various inlets along the coast, and typically just a single bird. However, by the 2000's, flocks numbering up to several dozen have occasionally been seen, most frequently at Pea Island. Numbers typically are largest in winter, but with the increase comes birds spending months at a time along the coast, even now in midsummer. Most birds favor shallow lakes and impoundments while in the state, though a few birds forage in shallow tidal water, especially near inlets. Despite their seemingly impossible-to-miss appearance, the species is easily passed over when amid flocks of Tundra Swans, a frequent associate in North Carolina.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank S1N
Global Rank G4
Coastal Plain Migrant and winter visitor, most frequent along the northern coast and Tidewater; increasing. Coastally, rare to locally uncommon (such as at Pea Island) but increasing. Mostly late Oct to early Mar, though recorded in all 12 months; very few records in Apr and the first half of May. However, several recent (2013) counts in summer (Jun and Jul) of 20-21 birds at Mackay Island NWR (Currituck) and Mattamuskeet NWR (Hyde). Majority of records are from the Outer Banks (especially Pea Island and Hatteras Inlet) and Lake Mattamuskeet. Very rare to now rare along the southern half of the coast. Casual far inland, with two old reports of single birds: Clinton (Sampson), 28 Aug 1954; collected at Bunnlevel (Harnett), 23 Sep 1924 -- plus a flock of 20 at Auman Lake (Moore) on 12 Mar 2018. Peak counts: 200, Pea Island NWR, 16 Nov 2014; 125, Pea Island, 28 Dec 2015; 100, Pea Island, 11 Dec 2016. Peak counts away from that refuge -- 75 at two sites near Davis (Carteret), 20 Jan 2018; 49, Lake Mattamuskeet, 31 Aug 2013.
Piedmont Rare (but increasing) migrant and winter visitor, with at least 35 reports. Most are from large reservoirs, early Sep to mid-May, with a peak in records in mid- and late Nov. Becoming regular in early spring below the High Rock Lake dam (Davidson and Rowan). Peak counts: 72, below High Rock Lake dam, 7 Mar 2019; 65, High Rock Lake dam, 3 Apr 2018; 50 there, 19 Feb 2019; 49, Belews Lake (Rockingham), 7 Apr 2015; 43, Lake Hickory, 27 Oct 2013; up to 20, High Rock Lake dam, 17-20 Feb 2017.
Mountains Casual to now very rare (since 2000) migrant, with at least eight records, all from the southern mountains. Late Feb to mid-Jun, with a majority of records in May. Peak counts: 40, Buncombe, late May 1889 (5 collected); 28, photographed at Lake Junaluska (Haywood), 22 Mar 2015; 18, Lake Julian (Buncombe), 16 Jun 2014; 15, Lake Julian, 11 Apr 2004.
Finding Tips Fortunately for the birder, individuals of this species often linger for a month or more in NC. Formerly, Hatteras Inlet had been the site of most frequent sightings, especially at islands in the inlets. In recent years, the impoundments at Pea Island have often had small groups in the cooler months, as has Lake Mattamuskeet. Once the Tundra Swans appear in late Oct or Nov, the normally conspicuous pelicans can be hard to spot amid the flocks of swans! Outside of these places, the birds can appear nearly anywhere, especially around inlets or at islands where Brown Pelicans roost. Inland records have been greatly increasing, though birds typically stay at a reservoir for only a day or two at a time.
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Attribution LeGrand[2019-08-14], LeGrand[2019-06-26], LeGrand[2018-11-09]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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