A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


The American White Pelican is the larger of the two pelicans that visit Sonoma County mainly in the summer and stay through late autumn, the other being the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). White Pelicans begin to arrive usually around mid-May and typically stay through the end of November, with a few birds hanging on into the winter months. Numbers are lowest in February, March and April and highest in August, September and October. Common at Bodega Bay and along the coast generally, but may also turn up at freshwater ponds further inland. Mostly feeds on fish, which it catches from the surface of the water, unlike Brown Pelican, which will plunge from considerable heights, like a tern, to catch fish in spectacular dives. Small flocks may fly in lines or V formations. Sometimes seen circling high overhead, like a raptor. White Pelican often forages cooperatively in small groups and may be seen roosting in larger groups (of 60 or 70 birds or more).

Unmistakable. Easily identified by its large, orange, pouched bill. Distinguished from Brown Pelican by its much larger size and its color--white rather than brown. American White Pelican is one of the biggest birds present in North America (it may have a wingspan of as much as 9.5 feet, or 2.9m, making it as large or larger than our biggest birds of prey). In flight, the black flight feathers stand out in strong contrast to the rest of the white bird (below). In breeding condition, adults have a keel-like growth about two-thirds of the way down the ridge of the upper bill. Immature birds (as in the photo below) have variable grey and black markings on the head, neck,  and back. Adults are all white, except for the bill and black flight feathers.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 21

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 86

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 102

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 110

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 118

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 22

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 55

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 99

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 72

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 54-55

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 18

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 38

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 78

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 84

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 47

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 112

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 97

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--American White Pelican



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


For comparison: Brown Pelican (immature) in flight, Bodega Bay, September 13, 2012

American White Pelican in flight, showing contrasting black flight feathers

Place-to-Play Park, Santa Rosa, October 10, 2012

Young American White Pelicans

Note the brown and grey on the heads and backs

American White Pelican, North-end Bodega Harbor, September 27, 2011

American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated June 5, 2013

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County