The pelicans have returned to central Kansas.
They’re polar bear-white, with 9-foot wingpans and waddle clumsily on land on feet the size of ping-pong paddles. But when they reach water they can swim like Michael Phelps, and in flight they soar with more grace than a swan.
Robert Penner calls them the “Boys of Summer” because they return to Kansas in July and August.
“We always have some through the summer, but now’s when they’re really starting to come back (from northern breeding grounds),” said Penner, the Nature Conservancy of Kansas avian programs manager. “I guess there are some people who don’t know we have pelicans in Kansas, but we have quite a few of them out here today.”
About 9,000 pelicans were at the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, near Great Bend Tuesday morning.
As fall nears, those numbers will increase, as will the number of places people can see pelicans in Kansas.
Penner said the record for American white pelicans in one place in the state was 50,000 birds at Cheyenne Bottoms several years ago. It won’t be long before there will likely be pelicans at most reservoirs and lakes in the state.
“White pelicans definitely have a “wow” factor because they’re so big, much bigger than a bald eagle,” said Mike Rader, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism wildlife education coordinator. “They have the biggest wingspan of any bird in Kansas.”
Kansas better than ever for pelicans
Kansans have watched white pelicans for generations. Max Thompson, retired Southwestern College biology professor and ornithologist, saw them on the Arkansas River in Cowley County in the mid-1950s. As a boy he heard stories of them being seen before that.
“We’ve always had them passing through in the spring and fall. Quite a few used to show up on the Arkansas River when I was a kid,” Thompson said. “They’d land on river bars but they usually didn’t stay very long back then. Once we started building the large bodies of water they could stay and do some fishing. Now we get and hold quite a few migrating pelicans. We’re getting a few that stay through the winter.”
Thompson said American white pelicans nest on the Dakota prairies and northward far into Canada. There are some scattered breeding areas in the western U.S., too. To date there is no documentation of pelicans nesting in Kansas. They seem to be increasingly common throughout the year at places like Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Penner thinks the birds coming in July and early August may be those who didn’t nest successfully to the north.
Adults and young will be arriving shortly, and their numbers should build through September and hold well into November. Bird watchers know Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands complex as “pelican central” for Kansas.
Twenty air-miles away, Quivera, a federal wildlife refuge, is a popular place for pelicans, too.
“We’ve had pelicans every month of the year at Quivira,” said Barry Jones, Quivira’s visitors service manager. “There has to be open water in the winter, but we can count on having some all spring and summer long. Then, we get them migrating through in both the spring and the summer.”
Kevin Groeneweg, Wichita Audubon Society treasurer and field trip guide, said within a few weeks it should be common to see pelicans on most federal reservoirs in Kansas, like Cheney, El Dorado and Marion reservoirs. All of which are within an hour of Wichita.
“Pelicans are pretty much can’t miss at Cheney when they really get in, like in October and November,” Groeneweg said.
For now, look for them towards the north end of the lake where the water is shallow.
Pete Janzen, author of “The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hotspots,” said on a good day in October there can be 1,000-3,000 pelicans at Cheney.
Sometimes pelicans are even closer to Wichita.
“Lake Afton typically has a few pelicans during migration,” said Bob Gress, retired director of Wichita’s Great Plains Nature Center and professional wild bird photographer. “There are times we get them right on the river in downtown Wichita. They can show up about any place there’s good, permanent water with fish to eat.”
Big-time viewing opportunities
Pelicans use their immense nine-foot wingspans for more than just straight-line flight. Gress and others think watching a flock of pelicans gliding effortlessly on wind currents far above the ground is one of the best natural shows in Kansas.
Often they’ll spin in circles far above the ground. There may be several circles of pelicans stacked above each other, all circling in the same direction, for no other reason than because it’s fun.
“It’s something special to watch,” said Jones. “What amazes me is they don’t make hardly any sound. Except for a little wind noise on their wings you won’t even know they’re there unless you see a shadow.”
But pelicans aren’t as quiet when it’s time to feed. They’re one of the few species of birds that coordinate their efforts, using their huge wings to splash the water and drive fish to where other participating birds can catch them more easily.
“It’s really something to watch them crowd a school of fish together, often surrounding it and working them in towards each other,” Rader said. “They can handle some bigger-sized fish (up to two or three pounds) but they’ll take whatever fish happens to be there at the time.”
Some bird watchers have seen lines of more than 20 pelicans, pushing a school of fish towards shore. Few fish survive a pelican’s quick reflexes and three gallon pouch that allows them to scoop their food, while draining away any water before the fish is swallowed.
“They’re just all-around neat birds,” Penner said. “I enjoy getting the chance to watch my Boys of Summer.”
Where to see pelicans
Here are some of the better places to see pelicans in central Kansas. The birds are so large, and so white, they normally stick out. Use binoculars to get a good look at the birds.
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area
120 miles northwest of Wichita, eight miles northeast of Great Bend
Pelicans are currently at Cheyenne Bottoms by the thousands, with more expected. Pool 4B currently has the most, but pelicans are scattered through out. A slow drive on the gravel road that loops through the wetlands should produce plenty of sightings.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
86 miles northwest of Wichita, 15 miles northeast of Stafford
Pelicans are regularly seen on both the Little Salt Marsh and the Big Salt Marshes at Quivira. The road that goes past the visitors center at the south entrance should give good views of the little Salt Marsh. The Wildlife Drive at the Big Salt Marsh is one of the best places in the nation for watching wildlife. It’s also a great place to see pelicans, and thousands of other birds, against a nice Kansas sunset.
31 miles west of Wichita
There are probably a few pelicans already at Cheney Reservoir currently, up at the northern part of the lake. Going to the end of the state park’s Wichita Point, on the east side of the reservoir, should give a good view. Pelican viewing will get better at Cheney in late September into November.
23 miles southwest of Wichita, 10 miles southwest of Goddard
At 258 acres, Lake Afton is small enough that a quick drive around the lake should show if any pelicans have arrived.
Any of Kansas’ larger lakes, like El Dorado, Marion and Kanopolis reservoirs, will have pelicans this fall. The birds often rest on something like a small island surrounded by shallow water. A slow drive across the reservoir’s dam will usually let you know of any pelicans are on the main lake.