My winter adventure in the 501 pelican hunting

Story and photos by Linda Henderson

Well, it is here, another year. I am always excited to see what is in store when we flip the calendar from December to January. Hopefully, the year will be filled with blessings, new possibilities, and adventure.

Speaking of adventure, here is one to enjoy during the chilly winter months. Have you ever driven over the Arkansas River Bridge on Interstate 430 in Little Rock and noticed the large white flock of white birds? That large flock is migrating American white pelicans. In recent years, Arkansas has become a winter resting spot for the giant birds. The adventure I suggest is to take a day during January and see if you can find these huge white birds in a waterway in the 501.

The Arkansas River corridor has become a winter home for the world’s largest aquatic bird. Every winter right before Christmas, these birds make their way to the McClellan-Kerr Dam Navigation System. Then, they spend the winter on the estuaries of the river and the lakes within the river’s tributary.

They often travel and forage in large flocks called pods. The pelicans breed and nest in the spring and summer months in the upper north of the United States and Canada. During the winter, they normally migrate to the Southern U.S. or Mexico. In the past, a few birds found Arkansas to be a wonderful place to spend winters, and every year, they return and bring other members of their pods.

Despite the size of these large birds, they are graceful flyers. Adults can weigh 30 pounds and can reach a height of 4 feet with a wingspan of 9 feet. The bird is white, except for the tips of its wings, which are black. The most distinguishing characteristic of the bird is a large orange bill. The bill acts as a collection device for fish and water. The bill can hold up to 3 gallons.

Pelicans are fascinating to watch up close. They fish by swimming as a group in a “u” shaped line. They push fish into shallow water by beating their wings into the water. They swim toward the fish and scoop up fish and water into their bills or pouches. The birds will then hold their heads up and allow the water to drain out and swallow the fish.

The best places to see the birds in the 501 are the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock and Lake Conway near the Highway 89 bridge, and occasionally they may be found on Lake Beaverfork near Conway, Lake Overcup near Morrilton, and Harris Break near Perryville. Right outside of the 501, they can be viewed on Lake Atkins near Atkins and Lake Dardanelle near Russellville. While they are swimming and feeding, they can be found close to the shore in shallow water. The best time of day to view the big birds swimming and feeding is early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

So, plan a winter adventure, go pelican hunting in the 501.

Linda Henderson
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