Spring break for the birds

Fifteen or twenty years ago, this would have been an unlikely sight.

Dozens of American white pelicans, or rough-billed pelicans, as they’re also known, are currently resting at Nelson Lake in Batavia.

The lake has become an annual stopover for these birds. Their visit to Kane County is temporary as they migrate north for the summer.

“As ice is eliminated from the various ponds and lakes, [the pelicans] slowly move northward,” said Jon Duerr, who served as director of the Kane County Forest Preserve for 19 years.

“When they find a location — obviously this being one of those that satisfies their need for food and resting — they will spend [time] there. Once they’ve made a decision it’s warmed up and it’s worth trying, they’ll move on to a lake maybe 300 miles north from here.”

Duerr says pelicans like these usually live approximately 20 to 25 years.  So it’s not unusual that birds from this clan would remember Nelson Lake and know to return to it year after year.  And as it gets warmer, he said, more will arrive.

“This is quite a spectacular site to see these,” Duerr said. “And we’re only seeing the vanguard. There’s only about 50 birds here today.  It will get up to about 250 birds in probably another week to 10 days.”

It’s like spring break for the birds. The pelicans arrive in the spring as early as March and stay for a couple of weeks, swimming, dunking their heads in search of a good meal, and swooping around overhead for some exercise.

Drew Ullberg with the Kane County Forest Preserve District says creating natural habitats for wildlife is part of the district’s mission.

“We take credit for managing the land, but the animals we don’t really control,” Ullberg said. “But we like to feel that we’ve done a decent job managing the areas, creating habitats they can utilize.”

The district has planted hundreds of acres of prairie to help maintain the area.  And earlier this week they conducted a controlled burn, something Ullberg described as a cost-effective way to manage the land.

“Fire is a natural component of the landscape, but just because of decades of suppression, our natural areas have suffered,” Ullberg said. “So we’ve done a lot of work and a lot of training of staff to conduct burns to really improve the health of these areas that we’re in charge of.”

And now the attractive habitat is drawing attention from wildlife lovers.  The annual migration has become something of an event for locals and appointment viewing for bird-watching enthusiasts, or “birders.”

“We’re out here because this is an annual event and it’s a chance to show my grandchild what’s real and what’s exciting in this world,” said Sue Campbell.

Denise Zimmerman said she comes every year. “This is about my third year and it’s quite exciting because they are just coming through for maybe a two-week period and they don’t come back on the fall migration,” Zimmerman explained. “They just do it through the spring migration.”

Tamara Brenner, an anesthesiologist from the western suburbs, became an avid bird watcher three years ago after a visit to Africa — but now she says she doesn’t have to travel far to get her bird-watching fix.

“I’ve known about the pelicans for the last three years and I knew they would be coming soon,” Brenner said. “I’ve actually been coming for the last few weeks. There were a few out here on March 18, and this is about the third time I’ve been back.  Today there were five.  They flew away while I was watching.  They’re very cool to watch when they’re flying.”

The Kane County Audubon Society said, “If you never leave the house this year to view another bird, make an effort to see these.”

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