- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - A pelican showed up in the area 30 years ago, and Floyd Sherrod remembers everyone going out to see it.

“People were surprised to see a pelican in Alabama,” said Sherrod, president of the Shoals Audubon Society. “Now, they have become increasingly more and more here. Within the last five, six years, they have started showing up in great numbers.”

Fishermen and bird watchers said several of the long-billed birds are frequently seen on the Tennessee River, particularly below Wilson Dam.

“I see them all the time while out patrolling the river,” Alabama Marine Police Officer Josh Bradford said. “It seems like there are always some out there.”

Tom Haggerty, chairman of the Department of Biology and a professor at the University of North Alabama, said bird counts show the population of the American white pelican is increasing.

He said the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey data indicate continental populations have increased at a rate of about 4 percent in the last 25 years and the species breeding range is expanding eastward.

“For example, in Wisconsin the number of reported nesting pairs has increased from two in 1994 to 4,123 in 2013. There have also been breeding population increases in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois,” Haggerty said.

He said until 2005, the American white pelican was considered a rare bird, not expected to be seen in winter in the Tennessee Valley.

“Our local Christmas Bird Count (Waterloo Christmas Bird Count) has shown a steady increase in the winter population during the last eight years or so,” Haggerty said. “For example, between 1985-2000, they were never seen, but in 2001, we counted 11 individuals, and in 2013 we counted 315. It will be interesting to see how many we count on Dec. 20.”

Haggerty said he suspects the increase seen in the winter population in the Shoals and in other locations of the Tennessee Valley is because of increases occurring in the breeding populations in Wisconsin and other eastern locations.

Sherrod said many of the birds migrate to the area and just stay here.

“There is a large number at the Wheeler (National) Wildlife Refuge,” Sherrod said.

Haggerty said the American white pelican prefer habitats that are relatively shallow, about eight feet deep. He said the birds often line up and forage, or make fish dives, together.

“Studies have shown that they have a higher capture rate when individuals coordinate their feeding,” he said. “Typically you will find the largest groups in these shallow water areas along the Tennessee River.”

Sherrod said once, while on a trip to Bankhead National Forest, he looked up and saw a flock of about 50 American white pelicans flying south.

“Since that time I (have seen) them over on Bear Creek and at the dam,” Sherrod said. “One of the most entertaining things to watch is seeing them float down river and then fly back up.

“It’s a big change from how it was years ago, when there were only a few here.”

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Information from: TimesDaily, https://www.timesdaily.com/

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