American White Pelicans of the Great Basin

During the winter months I miss seeing large flocks of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) soaring in the thermals, in the past few weeks I have been delighted to see them again.

American White Pelicans soaring on a thermal over the Great Salt LakeAmerican White Pelicans soaring on a thermal over the Great Salt Lake – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 640, +1.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 200mm, natural light

It is hard to explain to a person who has never seen American White Pelicans circling on the thermals how amazing it is to see a large flock seemingly disappear from the sky and then a split second later see them reappear. It is just a matter of their body angle at certain times that makes them nearly invisible as they turn but it sure feels magical to me.

I photographed the pelicans above soaring on a thermal over the Great Salt Lake from Antelope Island State Park last week. There were three separate flocks soaring at first but all of them joined together as I watched and photographed them. American White Pelicans are known to soar to high elevations when soaring in the thermals, they can become invisible to the naked eye and to a person using 10x binoculars.

American White Pelicans lifting offAmerican White Pelicans lifting off – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/2000, ISO 500, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Early this week I spent some time camping at Locomotive Springs, a very desolate, arid and uninhabited area north of the Great Salt Lake and many miles west of I-15. The area is managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) that is only accessible by gravel roads. I photographed these pelicans as they lifted off from one of the springs near the campsite. While the springs are natural they have been altered (improved?) by the BLM and fish are stocked in some of them.

Fluffed up American White PelicanFluffed up American White Pelican – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/2500, ISO 640, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

There is a large breeding colony of American White Pelicans on Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, approximately 10 to 20% of the entire population of American White Pelicans breed in that area.

Because the Great Salt Lake is too saline for fish to live in the pelicans fly from Gunnison Island to locations such as Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (aka Bear River National Wildlife Refuge) about 30 miles to the east to find food. The freshwater areas there do contain fish and large numbers of American White Pelicans can be found there.

*Access to Gunnison Island is restricted to protect the nesting birds.

The pelican in the image above has not yet gone into breeding plumage, it does not have the “horn” or “carbuncle” on the bill typically seen in breeding American White Pelicans. I photographed this pelican from the auto tour route this past Monday at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

Adult American White PelicanAdult American White Pelican – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/3200, ISO 640, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

This adult American White Pelican; also photographed this past Monday at the refuge, is in breeding plumage as indicated by the “horn” or “carbuncle” on the bill and the solid white head.

During the summer American White Pelicans are commonly found at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, often they can be seen in large numbers feeding in the impoundments, along the marshes and while along the road to the refuge on the Bear River.

I’m glad that the American White Pelicans are back in Utah. Seeing them always delights me.


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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.


  1. Great images Mia! Thanks for sharing.

  2. You had really sweet light for the top image, and the detail on the bottom two birds is great!

  3. Mia, The American White Pelicans are some of our favorite birds to watch. There is a large flock that live on Otter Creek. We spent last week there and had quite a treat when we came around a corner and spooked a about 25 birds. They took off right in front of us and landed just over the reeds.

    Thanks for the information on their breeding attire. Now I have more to look forward to.

    • Sheila, when these big birds take off together it is a wonderful sight! I enjoy watching them often here in the warmer months. Thank you for your comment.

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  5. Beautiful photos of the gorgeous White Pelicans! They are always a treat to see. I have never seen one in the breeding plumage; that looks quite interesting.

  6. Very nice Pelican shots. Love the ruffled feathers shot!

  7. Wonderful photos Mia, I saw white Pelicans fly over me while on the trail in one of the city parks and got photos too, not nearly as nice as these but I’m hoping to see them again this year.

  8. Absolutely stunning photos. I love the pelican reflection in the water on the one shot. And I had no idea pelicans grow a bump during breeding. It’s amazing the things we learn on these great blogs we follow. Thanks Mia. Have a great weekend. Carol

    • Carol, thanks for your comment on this post. American White Pelicans are neat in breeding plumage, the carbuncle is interesting. I hope you have had a great weekend!

  9. Lovely photos. Would love to bird with you sometime. My husband and I live just south of SLC. I’m sure you could teach me a thing or to about photographing birds. I’ve just stumbled upon the hobby, myself and am so green.

    • Thank you Lisa, both for visiting my blog and for commenting. In the beginning of bird photography it is great to go to locations where there are plenty of birds nearby that are very nervous, like along the Jordan River Trail, birds there are used to people being around, or some of the local ponds. Then practice, practice, practice. Review each image and make notes of what worked and what didn’t in regards to light, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation.

  10. Beautiful photographs! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing the first time they flew overhead here in Boulder, Colorado!

    • Susie, the first time I saw American White Pelicans in Colorado I was near Grand Lake on my way to Rocky Mountain NP, at first I thought they were Snow Geese until they flew lower. They took my breath away. Thanks so much for visiting my blog and commenting on these images.

  11. Wonderful photos Mia! I saw a small flock (10 maybe?) of American White Pelicans riding the thermals high above Bosque del Apache NWR last time I was there. It was a lovely sight, although they were too far away for good photos.

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