The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge saw a rare visitor this week. Southwest Florida wildlife officials report a great white pelican showed up at the refuge Sunday and is about 4,000 miles outside of its home range.
The refuge, located on Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, is famous for its migratory bird populations. In fact, it is home to more than 245 species of bird throughout the year. But the arrival of this great white pelican marks what is believed to be the first North American sighting of the bird.
As somewhat of a celebrity in Southwest Florida, the stray pelican immediately made waves in the birding community, including among "Ding'' Darling staff, who quickly made the enormous but elegant bird their Facebook cover photo.
"It's the rarest of the rare," said Refuge Supervisory Ranger Toni Westland in a statement.
Among the top five bird species living at the refuge is the American white pelican, a true Florida snowbird, visiting only from late October through April; the mangrove cuckoo, a rare bird only found in Southern Florida; the reddish egret, a large-winged bird known for its comical habit of dancing as it chases fish of prey; the roseate spoonbill, a native, bright pink bird often mistaken for a flamingo; and yellow-crowned night-herons, who precariously build their nests above alligator habitats to ensure their hatchlings are safe from curious raccoons.
Comparatively, however, the great white pelican is much larger than "Ding" Darling natives. In a video released by the refuge, the pelican tourist can be seen bathing among neighboring pelicans and spoonbills.
Generally, great white pelicans are found in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. They are characterized by a long bill that has a red stripe running down the center. The great white pelican also has a giant elastic pouch beneath its lower jaw, extending to the base of its throat, which can hold a large volume of fish.
As a social and cooperative bird, the great white pelican fishes in the early morning and spends the rest of the day bathing in shallow water. Great white pelicans typically hunt in groups for large fish, such as carp in Europe and cichlids in Africa. Currently, the pelicans are under no threat in their home range and are listed as "least concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.