Soon, Iowa will be hosting thousands of American white pelicans on their way from Canada and the northern Midwest to Mexico, the southern US and Central America.
“What’s really neat is a lot of people in Iowa don’t realize that we have pelicans coming through Iowa. And not just a few, but in very large numbers,” said Doug Harr, president of Iowa Audubon, a bird conservation group.
And that’s why the Pelican Festival is held at the end of August every year.
This year, the festival is this Sunday, Aug. 27, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Coralville Reservoir in the Hawkeye Wildlife Area.
“It’s really an awesome sight to see when large numbers of them are in the air,” said Karen Disbrow, events coordinator for the Iowa City Bird Club. She organizes the festival as one of the board of directors and a former club president.
Disbrow said she’s hoping for 2,000 or 3,000 pelicans at the reservoir. In past years, near Saylorville Lake in Polk County, she said they counted as many as 5,000.
‘What the heck were those things?’
In the spring and late summer, American White Pelicans migrate through Iowa, stopping at reservoirs to take advantage of the fishing and bulk up for their trip.
Younger pelicans who aren’t able to mate yet will often stick around in Iowa, so Disbrow and Harr said it isn’t uncommon to see the birds throughout the summer.
But few people realize what they’re seeing.
“Sometimes people say they see these white birds out on the lake. They’ll ask different people who know something about birds, ‘What the heck were those things?’” Harr said.
To help people see the birds, the Pelican Festival offers telescopes and binoculars for people and some guidance for what they’re seeing, whether it be the awkward take-offs, the graceful flying or the communal fishing (where pelicans team up to herd fish into one area).
What to expect at Pelican Festival
Disbrow said the festival isn’t big enough for food vendors, but people are welcome to bring their own. Water and snacks will also be available for a free-will donation.
Harr will do two instructional talks at the beginning and the end of the festival so people can learn more about the migration, habitats and mating patterns of pelicans. There will also be a live peregrine falcon presentation. Disbrow will also do presentations about bats and about bees and beekeeping.
There will also be face painting and other exhibits such as the Prairie States Mushroom Club, Iowa Wildlife Federation, Eastern Iowa Beekeepers and a number of other conservation and bird-focused groups.
“It’s a great opportunity to see a really magnificent bird,” Disbrow said. “To watch them take off, they kind of get up and they kind of walk on the water. They run on the water, and it’s not very graceful, but it’s very interesting to watch.”
A big comeback for pelicans
Another reason the birds deserve celebration, she said, is because they’ve made a big comeback in recent years. Lead in the water, hunting and more humans in their habitat decreased the population for a long time.
“This whole thing is really a lot of fun,” Harr said. “ (It’s) to get people involved in the outdoors, and just understand how important a natural environment is to Iowa to have things like pelicans come in.”
The festival used to be held in Jester Park, but the area they used started to fill with soil and attract fewer birds, so organizers moved it to Coralville. For the first couple of years in Coralville, turnout was around 200 or 300 people.
“And then when we had one that got canceled by some real bad weather and then the next year, not as many people showed up. And then about three years ago, we had to cancel one because of the pandemic,” Harr said.
The festival takes place in August because the pelicans move more slowly in the fall and they’re around for longer compared to the spring, Harr said.
“They’re here through September. Sometimes we’re seeing them way into October, November. And every winter, below each of the big dams on the reservoirs, we’ll very often see a handful of them stay all winter,” he said.
Disbrow said the last week of August is the best chance to see the most pelicans.
“Instead of just having 700 or 900 birds, we could have possibly thousands of birds,” she said.
by Nikoel Hytrek
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