Day 157: Pelican Patrol

Big year birding runs into another local rarity.

June 6, 2015, Ithaca, New York — Tim Lenz, an eBird programmer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I were a couple dozen miles from Ithaca this morning, looking for my yearly Swamp Sparrows at a wildlife refuge called Montezuma, when Tim got a text message about a rare bird: A Brown Pelican, unusual anywhere in New York state but nearly unheard-of inland, had turned up on Cayuga Lake!

I’ve seen thousands of Brown Pelicans this year, including a bunch this week in Oregon, but I could tell Tim was getting twitchy. It became clear that, for both our sakes, we needed to go see this rarity before continuing with the big year quest. So, we abandoned Montezuma for a quick pelican side trip.

A slightly stressful but fascinating search followed. Cayuga Lake is 40 miles long but relatively narrow, and many birders from Ithaca positioned themselves along the southern end of the lake, keeping in touch by text messages. Someone reported the pelican flying south, then someone else spotted it going north past a different spot. A fisherman told us he’d seen it an hour before we arrived. The bird seemed to materialize and disappear at random intervals.

Finally, Tim got a breathless phone call from Marshall Iliff and Tom Schulenberg, who were watching the Brown Pelican cruise south along the lakeshore. “Get down near the yacht club in the next few minutes!” they said, and Tim and I headed for Cayuga Lake’s southeast shore to get ahead of the bird. We waited a couple of minutes, and, sure enough, a Brown Pelican suddenly appeared on the horizon, heading directly toward us. It flapped right over our heads and we watched it fly all the way to the lake’s southern tip, where it then spiraled upward over Ithaca, apparently looking for an exit. Tim sent out an update, and people in the city ran out of buildings to look upward. One guy said he saw the pelican from the Farmer’s Market, and some students watched it fly right over the Cornell University campus, which must have been an odd sight indeed.

Satisfied with the pelican twitch, Tim and I returned to a more relaxed search for American Black Ducks and other common New York birds. Today’s events typified the American birding scene: In the past couple of weeks, I’ve gone out of my way for a Tufted Flycatcher in Arizona; a Cassin’s Sparrow in California; a Hudsonian Godwit in Oregon; and this Brown Pelican in New York—even though none of them were new year birds for me. It’s hard to go looking for common stuff when a local rarity turns up.

New birds today: 12

Year list: 2745

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