Pelicans test the Tagish waters

When Ron Tait first saw them floating on Marsh Lake, he thought they were swans. “More swans? What are they doing here?” he said.

When Ron Tait first saw them floating on Marsh Lake, he thought they were swans.

“More swans? What are they doing here?” he said.

Tait putted closer in his boat.

They must be cranes, he decided.

Again, he was wrong.

“I got my boat a bit closer and saw they were pelicans,” he said.

Tait started telling others about the big-billed birds.

“But most people didn’t believe me,” he said.

“So, I just let it go.”

Several days later, Tait saw the four pelicans again.

They were feeding at Tagish Narrows.

Soon after, Environment biologist Cameron Eckert’s phone started ringing.

Turns out the pelicans had flapped over to Nares Lake for the day to do some fishing.

Eckert drove to Carcross.

“They’re familiar birds, but they look completely out of context when you see them swimming in the Yukon,” said Eckert.

“You just sort of rub your eyes.”

It’s the first time pelicans have been spotted in the territory.

The birds probably got on the wrong migration track and are lost, he said.

“But you never know.”

There are an increasing number of rare and unusual birds showing up here.

“This tells us something’s up,” said Eckert.

“And we know climate change is going on in a big way in the Yukon, changing eco-systems.”

There are black terns breeding in the southeast Yukon, a pair of meadowlarks mated in Partridge Creek and double-breasted cormorants have been seen on Lake Laberge for the past 15 years, said Eckert.

“So, pelicans could set up shop here,” he said.

“That’s how satellite populations get started.”

Because of its proximity to coastal migratory routes, Tagish sees a number of rare birds, added Eckert.

 The American white pelicans are approximately 1,000 kilometres northwest of their regular breeding grounds, in central BC, northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories.

They’re usually flatland birds, said Eckert.

“But they could breed in any of our lakes.”

On Nares, the pelicans spent the night on a sandbar, safe from wolves, coyotes and other predators.

And they’re too large to be threatened by eagles.

With a 2.75-metre wingspan, pelicans are incredible fliers, said Eckert.

Pelicans look awkward on the water and particularly galumphing on land.

And with their guttural squawks, they aren’t the most elegant birds.

“When they’re perched, they look squat and bulky,” but when they soar, with those enormous black and white wings, they are stunning to watch, he said.

The four local pelicans are mature adults, and have been spending most of their time fishing at Tagish Narrows.

So far, there’s been no sign of nesting activities.

“They usually nest in a safe place, like an island,” said Eckert.

And they’re used to warmer water.

Pelicans tend to nest en masse, in colonies of over 100.

“They’re social birds,” he said, noting that they also fish co-operatively.

“It’s thought they may actually herd fish, following schools.”

Using their bulky beaks as nets, the pelicans swim along underwater scooping whole fish into their leathery pouches.

Tagish Narrows is prime fishing, said Eckert.

“So, even if the pelicans don’t find proper nesting conditions, they will likely spend the summer there loafing and feeding.”

If they were going to continue migrating, they would have left by now,” he added.

Pelicans have also shown up in Alaska.

“But there’s only a couple records of this,” said Eckert.

The bulky birds spend winters in the Gulf of Texas and usually migrate to the same spots year after year.

“They live about 20 years,” said Eckert, who isn’t ruling out the possibility that the pelicans might return next season.

Eckert urges curious pelican watchers to keep an eye out for signs of breeding.

And if they start nesting, it’s important to give them a wide berth, he said.