Flocks of American white pelicans return to many lakes in southern and central Minnesota soon after the ice is out.

The pelicans spend winter in the extreme southeastern U.S. and migrate to Minnesota mainly through the Mississippi River Valley. These massive birds have 9-foot wingspans, black flight feathers and large yellow-orange bills. Early in the breeding season, adults develop a raised vertical plate on their bills that is shed later in the year. It's hard to mistake white pelicans for any other bird.

White pelicans do not plunge from the air like brown pelicans seen along seacoasts. The birds scoop up fish as they swim. A group of them may herd fish into the shallows. Flocks of these pelicans can be seen soaring high overhead, riding the thermals and often circling in lines. I have seen white pelican flocks many times in spring as they make their circular glides over the Minnesota River Valley at St. Peter and high above Lake Waconia.

White pelicans are colonial nesters, preferring remote islands where the entire colony is secure from predators. They breed regularly on Leech Lake, Marsh Lake in Lac qui Parle County and Lake of the Woods. Pope and Faribault counties also are breeding locations.

Jim Gilbert's Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977. He is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.