Great White pelican at Theale

6 Dec 2001 | Andy Swash

As I was driving towards Theale Gravel Pits in Berkshire at 17.10 on 10th May 1998, I noticed a large black and white bird soaring high over the Fox and Hounds pub. Having stopped the car and grabbed my binoculars, my initial thought that this must be a White Stork was quickly dispelled when I realised that the bird was in fact a pelican. I was immediately able to eliminate the possibility of the bird being a Dalmatian or Pink-backed Pelican on the basis of its conspicuous black secondaries. Wanting to rule out the possibility of it being an American White Pelican and being keen to spread the news, assuming it was a (Great) White, I called my friend Rob Still on my mobile phone. From Rob's quick perusal of his reference books it soon became clear that the bird was the European species and at 17.20 he informed a number of people locally; they in turn spread the news more widely.

I kept the bird in view continuously and managed to get a number of photographs when it flew directly overhead. Amazingly, at 18.00 the pelican was joined by a Black Kite (the first record for Berkshire) and the two birds spiralled together for about 10 minutes before the kite moved off to the east over the M4. It was not until 18.15 that other observers began to arrive in force. Unfortunately, all bar one had just missed the 'spectacle' of the two birds flying together, although they were able to watch the pelican still soaring over the pits.

The pelican stayed in the air after it was first seen for about an hour and a half, circling over the gravel pits in a light north-easterly wind, before landing briefly on the water on Main Pit. Very soon after landing it was seen off by a Mute Swan, quickly gained height and spent a further hour and a half soaring around, covering quite a wide area. At 20.10 the bird again landed on the water - this time on Moatlands Pit - but again was soon seen off by a Mute Swan, having been harried by a number of Common Tems. At this stage it was possible to discern a blue-grey upper mandible and extensive pink skin around the eye (further confirming that it was not an American White Pelican). The bird was in immaculate condition and was unringed. It was noticeably wary when on the water and was a very accomplished flyer.

But where did it come from? Doubts are always raised when a Pelican is seen at large in the UK, since the official line is that all the records to date relate to birds in circumstances where there is reason to doubt that they occurred in a truly wide state. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that when the news of the bird was broadcast on the pagers and Birdline a 'rider' followed stating that "there are five free-flying White Pelicans at St. James Park in London". This undoubtedly put many people off from travelling to see it.

I have subsequently discovered that there are in fact no free-flying Great White Pelicans in Britain, let alone in St. James's Park (where there are indeed 5 pelicans - but 3 are pinioned Great Whites, 1 is a pinioned American White and 1 is a free-flying Pink-backed). Those who were lucky enough to see the bird and have since had their hopes dashed of adding it to their British List may take heart from this.

But even more excitingly, I have been advised by Andrea Corso in Italy, who has considerable experience of ageing Great White Pelicans, that the Theale bird was in fact in first summer plumage. This is apparently evident in my photograph of the bird, which was published in Birding World (Vol. 11, page 165); the critical features being the rather narrow tertials with pointed tips and the small black tips to the tail feathers. (These features can clearly be seen on the other photographs I took of the bird.). The chances of a first summer bird being an escapee is very slim indeed. If I were a betting man, 1 would wager that those who made the effort to see the bird will be pleased they did when the BOURC eventually passes its verdict. Notwithstanding such deliberations, it was a cracking bird!

© 2000 Andy Swash