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 often been seen, most frequently at Pea Island, and inland below the High Rock Lake dam. 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. Inland birds often forage with Double-crested Cormorants at lakes and rivers, even in rapids just below dams. 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. A group of 30 in flight over Greenville (Pitt) on 19 Feb 2022 was notable for a semi-inland locale. Surprisingly few well inland records, 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: 220, in flight over the Cape Fear River at Carolina Beach State Park (New Hanover), 14 Nov 2020; 200, Pea Island NWR, 16 Nov 2014; 125, Pea Island, 28 Dec 2015; 115, Pamlico River at the mouth of Broad Creek (Beaufort), 21 Oct 2021; 100, Pea Island, 11 Dec 2016; 100, Neuse River at Fairfield Harbour (Craven), 20 Nov 2021.
Piedmont Rare (but increasing) migrant and winter visitor, and possible winter resident at one site. Most are from large reservoirs, early Sep to mid-May, with a peak in records in mid- and late Nov. Becoming regular in late winter and spring below the High Rock Lake dam (Davidson and Rowan), but it is not clear if any birds spend the entire winter, as most records are from the latter part of winter into spring. Peak counts: 116, below High Rock Lake Dam, 15 Feb 2023; 96, Kings Mountain Reservoir (Cleveland), 30-31 Oct 2019; 96, below High Rock Lake dam, 3 Mar 2020; 72, at that site, 7 Mar 2019; 71 at that site, 24 Mar 2021; 65, at that site, 3 Apr 2018; 65 at that site, 11 Mar 2022; 50 there, 19 Feb 2019; 49, Belews Lake (Rockingham), 7 Apr 2015; 43, Lake Hickory, 27 Oct 2013; 40, Jordan Lake, 21 Oct 2022.
Mountains Very rare migrant, with at least 11 records, nearly all from the southern mountains; records and numbers increasing. Late Feb to mid-Jun, with a majority of records in May. Only record from the northern mountains appears to be a remarkable 35 in flight over Roan Mountain (Mitchell) on 30 Mar 2021. Peak counts: 58, in flight over Swannanoa (Buncombe), 28 May 2021; 40, Buncombe, late May 1889 (5 collected); 36, pond at Blue Ridge Community College (Henderson), 28 Oct 2020; 35 (see above); 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 usually have small groups in the cooler months, as occasionally does 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. The exception is that a flock stays for a month or more in late winter and spring below High Rock Lake dam.
Attribution LeGrand[2023-05-17], LeGrand[2023-03-19], LeGrand[2023-03-16]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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