Recent Pelican Migrations to LBL Provide Unique Bird Watching Opportunities in Western KY

Sep 3, 2019

Although pelicans are normally associated with coastal areas, more and more of these large, big-billed birds are making a seasonal home in Land Between the Lakes. LBL lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, visits Sounds Good to discuss the recent influx of pelicans in western Kentucky. 

"Over the years, more and more pelicans have been moving into our area and sticking around that they're kind of hard not to notice. A few years ago, someone did a Google satellite view of Barkley Bridge just before the old bridge was destroyed, and there was just white dots everywhere. Somebody counted and there was 5,000 of them. So I mean, this is a significant migration that's going on here, just like the hummingbird migration's going on now. You just don't see that kind of concentrated wildlife in our area except during certain times," Pollpeter explains. 

This recent influx of pelicans is unusual, given their normal habitat is around coastal waters, and they usually winter in the southern United States and Mexico. "In other parts of the country, it's probably not as neat because they are a large aggregation type species. The Florida coast, the upper Midwest, Yellowstone -- those places you're going to see large concentrations of these birds, so they're kind of moving through," Pollpeter says. "But the fact that these birds are staying [in Land Between the Lakes] more and more, and you're seeing them from September, October, all the way into April -- and even some during the summer months -- is pretty unique [for Kentucky]." 

When asked whether this change in habitat is due to climate change, Pollpeter says "my personal theory is that it has to do more with a reservoir. There's probably some climate change involved in everything that involves wildlife, but the fact that [LBL] has created these reservoirs made it easier for [the pelicans]. A lot of wildlife want to do things that are easy for them. Where's the easiest meal? Where's the easiest place to rest? Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley provide that. They don't freeze as much anymore, the waters aren't as cold, so that's probably climate related." 

More pelicans in Land Between the Lakes offers greater opportunity for the bird-watching community to observe species not typically present in the western Kentucky area. "Particularly in Kentucky, we're probably one of the better sites to come see lots of pelicans, and a lot of times, you can see them up close at some of the different viewing locations," Pollpeter says. "It's one of the largest birds in Kentucky. They have a nine and a half foot wing span in some cases. They weight twenty pounds and are five feet long."

"Their behavior is kind of interesting. When you see a scene of pelicans, you often see three, four, five hundred of them at a time. They are very social. They often hunt socially, communally. You may have seen on programs like Planet Earth, the fishing with dolphins and whales doing the bubble netting, where they kind of surround the anchovies into this big giant ball, and then they all cooperatively eat together. Well, pelicans do something very similar," Pollpeter explains. "They kind of round up the little tiny fish, the minnows that you see in the lakes, they kind of round them up towards the shore to the shallow ends and as they do so, they scoop them up at that particular time. They're dependent on each other to do that. Their bills are so sensitive that they can actually do this at night, too. So if you see a group of pelicans kind of in a circular fashion, that's what they're doing, they're rounding up their prey."

"You're going to see pelicans on both lakes, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, but Lake Barkley -- in my judgement -- is the better of the two because it's a little bit more shallow, a little bit easier for them to hunt, it also has more exposed sandbars during winter pool. So off of Lake Barkley State Resort Park is a great place, Barkley Bridge, Barkley Dam -- [these] are some of the places on the outside of Land Between the Lakes. Now, if you want to see them in Land Between the Lakes, the nature watch area around the Nature Station is by far the best during the months of November, December, January, and February."

"Any place that you're going to find large flocks of pelicans, you're going to see a lot of other species kind of gathering because that means it's a good feeding area. So, you're going to see eagles, you're going to see these double crested cormorants, which is a relative of the pelican, you're going to see lots of ducks. Then you're going to see other animals that you don't really expect to see around those birds, which are some of the predators like bobcats and coyotes that run in the shorelines looking for an easy pick off. So when you do come across these large aggregations of squadrons of pelicans, you're going to see a lot of life around there."

For more information on the Land Between the Lakes Nature Station, visit their website