White pelicans flock to Bayou Plaquemine

PETER SILAS PASQUA ppasqua@postsouth.com
A flock of American White Pelicans float down Bayou Plaquemine recently. The birds numbering in the hundreds have been seen along the bayou to the Intracoastal Canal for the past month. 
POST SOUTH PHOTO/Peter Silas Pasqua

PLAQUEMINE - There has been something unusual happening in Bayou Plaquemine the last couple of weeks that hasn’t been seen before.

American White Pelicans numbering in the hundreds have turned the bayou into their feeding grounds all to the delight of residents who live along it.

“The white pelicans have been phenomenal,” said Bayou

Road resident Rita Lynn Jackson. “They float down the bayou and then fly back in the afternoon. It is just an awesome experience because they have a plan and they have a leader. We have been so blessed to have an opportunity to see that.”

Jackson has videotaped the flock floating down the bayou pass her home in what seems like double and triple file for as far as you can see.

“It was a like a parade but sometimes they would just sit behind my house for hours at a time and feed,” Jackson said.

Jackson is not alone.

Carol Ann Marionneaux sees them as well by her home further down the bayou near Crescent Elementary School.

“It just looks like they are gliding like swans or something,” Marionneaux said. “Sometimes, they fly around and put on a show. We had never seen any white pelicans at all much less that many of them at one time. It is very unusual.”

Marionneaux recalled a single brown pelican called “Pierre” that lived in the bayou for a couple of years nearly 30 years ago but never a flock of the birds.

Both birdwatchers have also noticed there is also a larger abundance of egrets, wood ducks and geese than usual but no species outnumbers the white pelican.

“It is almost comical and really something to see,” Jackson said. “I have only seen maybe a half dozen in the bayou from time to time but this year for some reason there are hundreds.”

The pelicans arrived about a month ago according to the watchers and can be seen at different times of the day although it is believed

they begin their day near the Plaquemine Lock before making their way all the way down the bayou to the Intracoastal Canal.

“There were so many of them,” Marionneaux said.

“They would form a long line and sometimes it would break for a few minutes and you see some others coming through. I was extremely surprised. I had never seen that before in my life.”

It is believed an overabundance of shad is what has attracted the large number of birds. Jackson said a fishing duo in a bateau recently came away with $400 worth of shad in one evening of fishing with a hoop net.

Still, the shear number of birds has many wondering and guessing. One of North America’s largest birds, the America White Pelican is distinctive for its nine-foot wingspan, conspicuous white body and improbable proportions of its large bill and pouch.

Despite their size, they are graceful fliers, with flocks soaring high in the air and wheeling in unison. And they may be seen cooperatively foraging in shallow waters where they are tolerant of human observation at a respectful distance.

It is no secret that the LSU Lakes have been the site of many large white pelican gatherings over the past decade and Jackson thinks they could be the same group.

“I used to work at LSU and it was something the students and faculty all looked forward to every January,” Jackson said.

“When they fly back in the afternoon, I joke that they are heading back to class at LSU.”

Dr. Alan Afton, LSU professor and U.S. Geological Survey Louisiana Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit assistant leader, believes they may be the same birds.

“I would guess there is an ample food supply,” Afton said.

“That is why they are there. They are real social feeders.”

Afton recalled studying the birds feeding in the Mississippi River near Missouri, Illinois and Iowa.

“They will float down the river in a long line along the shore in the shallows and then all of sudden both ends of the line will come around and they will form a circle,” Afton said.

“Then they will all start feeding as they push that circle smaller and smaller.”

Afton also remembers a colleague studying the birds’ food habits in North Dakota found pairs bringing fish to their nests that were tagged 150 miles away all in one day.

“It is possible,” Afton said of the birds being the same ones seen on the LSU Lakes. “They make pretty long movements but are found all along the coast in high numbers so it is hard to say.

“They are real efficient flyers and take advantage of thermals so it doesn’t cost them a lot of energy to make long distance moves if the currents are right so they could very well be.”

Whether they are the same flock would take more investigation but all agree it is just a matter of time before they move on as the seasons turn.

“As soon as it starts to warm up and the ice begins to melt they will head back north to their breeding grounds,” Afton said.

Marionneaux also said she hasn’t seen them in such great numbers of late. 

“If they are gone for good, I hope they come back next year,” Marionneaux said. “They were going to leave eventually because once the weather gets really warm, recreational boaters line the bayou.”

Jackson agreed.

“It is just a matter of time before they move on but living on that bayou is a dream,” she said. “It is just so beautiful and historical.”