Birders Flock to See Pelican on Natco Lake

A rare American white pelican was seen floating around Natco Lake in Union Beach, a former clay pit that is now an undisturbed haven for local wildlife. Photo by Sam Skinner

Since word got out that an American white pelican was spotted at Natco Lake Tuesday, people have been flocking to Union Beach to catch a glimpse of the rare bird.

Big and white, with a distinctive pouch for scooping up fish and a funny knob on its orange bill, the bird has been sighted multiple times by members of eBird.com, a popular website for local birders.

Rob Fischer of Hazlet is among the bird enthusiasts who have been thrilled by the sight of an American white pelican in Natco Lake. Photo by Christina Johnson

“When I came here the other day there had to be nine people,” said Rob Fischer of Hazlet, a retired earth sciences teacher, who returned to the lake Friday morning. Two days earlier, he said, cars were stopping along Route 36 and Rose Lane and police had to nudge traffic along, he said. Fortunately, Fischer was able to score his shot that day from the lot of a used car dealer off the highway.

Rob Fischer’s image of the American white pelican, taken from the Route 36 side of the lake.

If Sandy Hook wins the prize for unusual shorebird sightings, then Natco Park is the local runner up. Over the years, eBird members have reported sightings of 150 different species at the lake, many of them migratory birds. The 90-acre nature preserve is accessible from the Henry Hudson trail. Just in May, birders have recorded sighting cormorants, terns, yellowlegs, Cooper’s hawk, great egrets, yellow-crowned night herons, glossy ibis, woodpeckers, fish crows, among many others.

The bald eagles next on top of a tower on Rose Lane in Union Beach, overlooking Natco Lake.

They also witnessed a pair of opportunistic osprey take over a bald eagles nest on top a tower overlooking the lake, near the International Flavors & Fragrances building on Rose Lane, and settle in. Then the eagles returned home and dramatically chased off the osprey. High drama!

On Tuesday, when Monmouth County naturalist Sam Skinner got the word a white pelican had been spotted earlier that day on Natco’s brackish water, he headed out with his camera, a little doubtful he’d see it.

Skinner parked at the end of Rose Lane and Johnson Avenue and walked to the lake to start the search. It wasn’t so hard. He found the big bird calmly swimming around, trailed by a group of double breasted cormorants. “He seemed comfortable swimming back and forth across the lake,” adding he didn’t really know if it was a male or female – they look alike.

“We get pelican sightings periodically, almost every year now in different locations in the state,” said Skinner. “This year they were reported in the Meadowlands, in Brigantine – in the Forsyth Wildlife refuge – and at Sandy Hook. One year, seven of them flew into Sandy Hook and next morning they got up and flew south.” Skinner said they breed in Ontario and fly south to Mexico for the summer. It’s possible it might have landed here because it had become disoriented, or been blown by storm winds. White pelicans are related to the grey pelicans, which can be seen in Barnegat Bay area.

A few years ago Fischer observed a pair of pelicans at Natco, he recalled. He returned Friday for more memorable pelican-watching moments.

This time, it was having fun watching the feeding strategy of the lone pelican versus the fish-eating ducks.

“I think he steals fish from the mergansers,” said Fischer, with a chuckle. “They catch the fish, he harasses them. They let go of the fish, he goes over, picks it up and swallows them himself. Easy.”

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