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Rare Bird Alert: American White Pelican Spotted Flying Through Chicago

By Justin Breen | December 29, 2016 5:31am | Updated on December 30, 2016 10:43am
 A white pelican flying through Chicago earlier this year. One was spotted in Lincoln Park on Tuesday.
A white pelican flying through Chicago earlier this year. One was spotted in Lincoln Park on Tuesday.
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Jeff Skrentny

CHICAGO — Michael Graff had to do a double take when he saw an American White Pelican flying in Lincoln Park — not in Florida — on Tuesday.

The veteran birder of more than 30 years has seen about 585 species of birds but had never seen a wild white pelican within city limits until Tuesday.

"Most of the sightings I've had of white pelicans have been on trips to South Florida," said Graff, who saw the pelican flying over Lake Shore Drive just east of Lincoln Park Zoo. "I have seen that species many times; I've only seen white pelicans in the north four or five times."

RELATED: Exhaustive coverage of the birds living in and passing through Chicago

Graff wasn't able to get a photo of the pelican, but earlier this year, city birder Jeff Skrentny was able to capture a pic of one of the birds in Chicago. Skrentny said he's seen white pelicans four times within city limits in 11 years of birding.

In the past 10 years on eBird, a citizen-based bird-tracking site, there have been about 50 sightings of American White Pelicans within city limits. Most of those have been on the city's far Southeast Side, but there have been others at Montrose Harbor, LaBagh Woods, Downtown, Hyde Park, along Lake Michigan and the South Side.

White pelicans are among the largest birds in North America, with bodies up to 5 feet long and bills that can reach 14 inches. Their wingspan can reach up to 9 feet, according to Illinois Natural History Survey.

They live along U.S. coasts and reside as far south as the island of Trinidad. The Nature Conservancy of Illinois said 10 years ago seeing any white pelican in the state was a "rare sight."

But the birds now make annual migrations to Illinois and have large populations in Clinton Lake and Carlyle Lake in the state. Some, according to the Nature Conservancy, have nested along the banks of the upper Mississippi River in the state.

Earlier this year, a group of hundreds of white pelicans invaded Lake County.

Unlike brown pelicans, white pelicans don't dive to catch prey. Instead they wade in shallow water and use their pouches to find food. The INHS said white pelicans will often work as a group to corral fish.

Below are pelicans seen in north suburban Antioch in March, 2016.

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