Welcome eye for vagrants
The pelican was a lone bird (they’re normally found in flocks) and it was on a wetland in Ireland, It spent some of the time in the air and some of the time on the water, fishing. In my dream I was quite excited by it and kept pointing it out to other people and lending them my binoculars so that they could get a better view.
When I woke up I was a bit puzzled by this dream and decided to do a bit of checking. The strangest birds sometimes turn up as vagrants in this country. Have we ever had a visit from a pelican? I soon found some excellent pictures of a great white pelican in Cork Harbour that were taken by a birder in 2014.
However, the pictures were so good that a close examination of them showed that the pelican had been pinioned at some time in the past —in other words its wing had been clipped. This indicated that it wasn’t a vagrant wild pelican but an escape from captivity — possibly from Fota Wildlife Park. The bird could fly, though not very well, and unfortunately it came to a nasty end when it flew into a wind turbine.
Great white pelicans breed in east Africa and some of them winter in the eastern Mediterranean so vagrants, blown off course by a south-easterly wind, are not an impossibility in this country. There are certainly several English records, though it’s never possible to be absolutely sure whether they are wild birds or have escaped from wildfowl collections.
However, there was another problem with my dream. There are about eight species of pelican in the world, scattered across tropical and sub-tropical areas. I am familiar with two of them — the great white pelican which I have watched many times in eastern Africa and the brown pelican that I know from the Caribbean. The bird in my dream was definitely a brown pelican, a species that’s much less likely to stray into Irish air space.
However, pelicans of all species are extraordinary birds. They are huge — great whites have a wingspan of 2.5m to 3m and a body weight of 10kg to 11kg. This is about the same weight as a large male mute swan and a slightly greater wingspan. Brown pelicans are the smallest species but they’re still pretty big. All species are unkempt looking birds and the huge beak with its pendulous pouch is slightly ridiculous.
The end of the beak is hooked and the hook is used to flip fish into the pouch, like an angler using a landing net. Pelican flocks will ‘herd’ shoals of small fish to concentrate them. The brown pelican is the only species that augments this fishing method by plunge-diving like a gannet.