American white pelicans in silhouette against the pre-sunrise glow at B.K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area.

Recently, several thousand American white pelicans dropped in to B.K. Leach Conservation Area (Lincoln County) to feast on the abundance of fish left in the area’s waterways following this year’s extreme flooding from the Mississippi River. I found out about the pelican-a-palooza from my friend Brenda who had viewed a video that my friends Andrew and Chrissy had posted on the MOBIRDS listserve. Hey, sometimes it pays to know people!

By Thursday morning I couldn’t resist heading up to Leach to take a look for myself, not only because I’ve always loved watching and photographing these huge, awkward-looking birds but also because “American White Pelicans in Missouri” is the subject of a feature story I’m working on for Missouri Conservationist. My scouting trip resulted in three more mornings of “pelican immersion” at Leach, a labor of love that I’ll never regret.

Day One (Thursday):  

As I said, my adventure started last Thursday morning with a scouting trip. I made a late departure in the rain around 6:30 AM and immediately found myself behind a slow-moving and frequently-stopping school bus. By the time I reached Leach almost two hours later I had encountered every school bus in Franklin, St. Charles, and Lincoln counties. The experience made me appreciate my 3:30 AM departures when it’s mostly just me, Sirius radio, and the open road.

When I finally arrived at Leach, I drove around the area for a while to see what was what, and talked to my friend Kevin, the local Conservation Agent to obtain the latest intel on the pelicans. I soon had a plan for Friday morning so I headed home, stopping at Busch Conservation Area on the way back to visit some old friends and co-workers. I don’t get by my old workplace too often so it was nice to catch up.

Day Two (Friday):

I woke to my iPhone alarm at 4:00 AM, wolfed down a bagel and a glass of OJ and began the 87 mile drive to B.K. Leach C.A. By the time I made it to the roosting site it was almost daylight and steadily raining. The pelicans were already heading out to have breakfast by the time I settled in and the light was terrible due to the rain and overcast. Finally, I covered my gear and just sat and watched as thousands of pelicans lifted off from the wetland pool.

Day Three (Saturday): 

The weather prediction for Saturday was “clear and cold” so I knew it would be my first good chance to photograph the pelicans. I left the house at 3:15 AM at picked up my buddy Bill along the way. We were settled in to my hide by the wetland roost a full hour before sunrise. It was a memorable morning as the sky was full of stars and meteors. Although we knew there were several thousand pelicans directly in front of us, we couldn’t quite make them out with our binoculars in the dark. At one point, I told Bill that all I could see was a long peninsula of land out in the pool but no pelicans. Finally, we realized that the “land” we were seeing was actually the pelicans, which rarely make a sound by the way. At that point I told Bill, “Game on!”

Our hide for the morning was facing east directly into the sun so I could make some images of the pelicans in the orange glow of sunrise. As you can see from the featured image I was not denied. About 30 minutes before sunrise many of the pelicans lifted off to feed and passed right through the aforementioned glow. The result was a stunning series of silhouettes, which I made with my 300 f/4 lens. The darker vertical lines in the images were actually tall reeds that lined the shoreline in front of us. Bill thought they added something to the compositions and I think he was right.

Another silhouette, this time of three pelicans a little closer to our position.

By the time the sun finally cleared the horizon I had so many silhouettes in the bag that I could have packed up and returned home with a smile on my face. But we stuck around, of course, to enjoy the pelicans all awash in the pink glow of a clear Missouri morning.

American white pelicans, stacked up like cordwood at our feet.

Later in the morning the pelicans began to depart in small groups for feeding areas.

Although the pelicans could see us in the morning light, they didn’t seem in a hurry to depart. Actually, the entire group waded our way, closing the distance between us by half! When we finally decided to call it quits for the morning, there was still a large group of pelicans in the wetland, probably a thousand birds. Wow! What a morning!

Day 4 (Sunday):

My plan for Sunday morning was a repeat of the previous day with one exception: I would shoot from the opposite side of the wetland with the sun directly behind me. When I settled in to my turkey chair over an hour before sunrise, the setting moon was right across the wetland over the pelicans. It was a joyous sight to behold but I failed miserably at trying to document it in some way. When the moon finally disappeared under the western horizon I was almost relieved to know I could relax for a while and quit worrying about capturing it in some way.

A little before sunrise I began to see a golden, almost yellow, glow over the pelicans. The scene was so sublime I was somewhat daunted by my responsibility to adequately capture it with my lens.

American white pelicans awash in sunrise gold.

The huge group of pelicans appeared content most of the time but every once in a while a ruckus would erupt.

Later, as the golden light endured, small groups of pelicans began to lift off from the group providing nice opportunities for flight shots with my 500 mm lens.

Small groups began to head out for breakfast in the golden light.

The pelicans gave me ample opportunities to practice my flight shooting skills.

When the golden light finally gave way to morning bright, I started packing my gear for the walk back to the 4Runner. Before leaving the area I wanted to make a stop where I had seen the pelicans feeding on one of my previous trips.

A feeding frenzy in one of the area’s fish-filled waterways.

I was happy to capture a feeding frenzy on may way out Sunday morning even though the golden glow of sunrise was long gone. The white pelicans were white again!

My four days with the pelicans turned out both invigorating and productive. I plan to use some of the images in my upcoming presentation at the Trumpeter Swan Conference. Pelicans and swans just go together nicely, in my opinion. Now it’s time to focus on other photographic endeavors such as ospreys, kingfishers, otters, whitetails, and fall landscapes. I’m so glad to say, “My work is never done.” Where would I be without it?

Happy Naturing,


Note:  Watch for my feature story in the November issue of “Missouri Conservationist,” a photo essay on the raptors of St. Louis.

Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Website/Gallery/Print Information: Here

America is beautiful. I vote to keep it that way.





8 comments on “Pelican-A-Palooza!”

  1. Enjoyed all of that!

  2. Stunning photographs.You earn every one!!

  3. Love the images! Thanks for your love of nature and for all you do to spread it with others!

  4. They are truly surreal in their quietness, aren’t they? Andy and I both had the same wish- to capture them with the moon somehow – but failed, too. So fun that you mentioned that, kindred spirit. I’m so glad Brenda told you about them. I adore that woman! We all have to get together sometime this fall for food and spirits! What a delight to find you writing and photographing my favorite birds. There is nothing like seeing the sky suddenly filled with these slow swirling white magicians that disappear before your very eyes, then suddenly reappear. One of the funniest stories of my life happened when I was very young and told people in the city I thought I saw pelicans overhead and them thinking I was nuts – until I got older and found out most folks never notice winged things – and that I had indeed seen pelicans. Yes, Virginia, there are White Pelicans! – Chrissy

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