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Lake Norman wildlife watchers spot pelicans out of place

MOORESVILLE Looking out a back window of her Lake Norman home last month, Phyllis Miller noticed something she’d never seen in her 14 years on Wisteria Lane: What appeared to be four white pelicans.

At first glance, “it looked like a white blob floating on the water,” Miller, 54, said.

Then she and her husband, Don, went outside for a closer look and almost couldn’t believe it. So Don, 60, snapped pictures of the birds with his Nikon DX80 camera.

“They were just floating out there for 20 minutes, just floating down the lake,” Phyllis Miller said of seeing the pelicans between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on June 16. “They were just so cool to see.”

And, as it turns out, a rarity on North Carolina’s largest manmade lake.

Longtime fishing guide Gus Gustafson, who writes a weekly Lake Norman fishing column for the Observer’s regional sections, said he’s never seen an American white pelican in his decades on the lake.

“Amazing,” Gustafson said when the Observer emailed him a copy of the picture.

Taylor Piephoff, whose Piedmont Birding column appears in the Observer, wrote in 2010 that he’d seen a flock of the birds just once on Lake Norman, in Lincoln County.

On Friday, a biologist with Duke Energy confirmed the birds were white pelicans, after the Observer also emailed the picture to company spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Green for confirmation. Duke Energy manages the lake under federal license.

“He said we have been seeing more and more white pelicans (and brown pelicans) in our Carolinas Service area,” Green said in an email. “They have traditionally been a coastal bird but are now moving inland to the larger reservoirs especially during late summer and spring/fall migration periods.”

Green said Duke’s biologist has seen American white pelicans on both Lake Norman and Lake Keowee in South Carolina. Duke Energy’s Oconee Nuclear Station is on Lake Keowee, which is near Seneca, S.C., in the northwestern part of the state.

The American white pelican is one of the largest birds in North America, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website. While the bird winters along the coasts, it breeds only inland on lakes, the website says.

White pelicans weigh 16.4 pounds and measure over 5 feet in length, with a huge 9-foot wingspan, according to the National Audubon Society.

While brown pelicans dive for fish, the white pelican instead dips its head underwater to scoop up fish, according to All About Birds. Several white pelicans might fish cooperatively, moving into a circle to concentrate fish, and then dipping their heads under simultaneously to catch the fish, the website says.

In September 2012, Piephoff confirmed a brown pelican just west of Interstate 77 in Davidson. A handful of brown pelican reports from Lake Norman and Lake Wylie over the years had gone unconfirmed by the local birding community, he wrote.

Sightings of both brown and white pelicans have been rare over the lake’s 50 years. But the presence of such large reservoirs in the Charlotte area “greatly increases the potential for rarities to be found,” Piephoff wrote in 2010.

The Millers live off Yacht Road, which is off Brawley School Road in southern Iredell County and leads to Lake Norman Yacht Club.

Miller said she never saw the white pelicans again. But she has other wildlife to admire, including red foxes that traipse through the couple’s yard and a deer and her fawn that are hanging out of late.

Marusak: 704-987-3670; on Twitter: @ jmarusak.
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