Best Places to See White Pelicans

There are plenty of things to love about Florida, but white pelicans are one of the most spectacular sights to behold. See them before they migrate north

By Robin Draper March 3, 2014

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Exquisite large birds glide gracefully along the shoreline just inches above the water. If you weren’t looking through binoculars, you’d think you were watching a flock of swans. But these beautiful birds are white pelicans.

Distinctive with snowy white feathers and pink-tangerine colored bills, they are often seen flying and swimming in groups. Shy in nature, they avoid open water and prefer isolated areas, congregating close together while remaining less social than their cousin, the brown pelican.

There are plenty of things to love about Florida, but when the white pelicans arrive, they are thought by many to be one of the most spectacular sights to behold. Much like spotting other Florida wildlife such as dolphins or manatees, they often elicit similar shrieks of delight.

White pelicans arrive in the fall and stay until late spring. So, now is your best chance to see them before they leave on their northern migration.

The brown pelican, often spotted on boat docks, concrete pilings and nesting on mangrove islands, serves as one of the state’s most iconic images, right up at the top of the list with sunshine, beaches and palm trees. Brown pelicans float near fish cleaning tables and waddle along piers and docks. They are also known for their acrobatic plunges, more like a “dive-bomb” head first into the water, filling their spacious bills with a fresh catch.

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White pelicans on the other hand usually find safer, less traveled environments, such as estuaries, lakes, mangrove islands - often within geographically protected areas.

If you are able to get close enough to white pelicans to observe them, you’ll notice their unique food collection techniques. Working as a team, they collectively herd their prey, fluffing their wings to assemble and gather the fish.

One of the largest birds in all of North America, they possess an impressive nine-foot wingspan. In flight, their black wing tips are revealed (folded under while they are swimming) as they fly gracefully in formation.

While these snowbirds are seen throughout the state, there are many known (and lesser known) places where you are likely to find white pelicans.  Since they frequent less traveled places, you may want to go with a local eco-tour operator, as they often know where to find them.

Recently, Authentic Florida readers shared where they have sighted these elusive white pelicans. Depending on where you are located in the state, here are some recommended tips and locales for viewing.

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South Florida Locations 

Along the coastal areas, (but not open water), you’re likely to find white pelicans within lagoons, harbors or protected areas where they usually take refuge from crowds.

Bradenton - Cortez Village (off the Star Fish Seafood Company or Cortez Kitchen), Robinson Preserve, Anna Maria Island (bayside)

Marco Island, Cape Romano

Sarasota– Myakka State Park, the Celery Fields, Benderson Park, Sarasota Bay

Placida - Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve, Gasparilla Sound, White Pelican Island (see below)

Punta Gorda – Alligator Creek Preserve

Sanibel Island – J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Pine Island – Matlacha, Bokeelia (Pine Island Sound)

Everglades City– 10,000 Islands, Chokoloskee

Flamingo – Everglades National Park

Best Viewing 

On Florida's west coast, near Placida, White Pelican Island is known to have the largest population of white pelicans in the southeastern United States. Located within the Gasparilla Sound, as part of the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve (stretching from Sanibel Island to Englewood along Florida's southwest coast), this “liquid park” serves as a protected environment for sea life, fish nurseries and bird rookeries.

The best (and only) viewing of white pelicans at White Pelican Island is by boat. One of the local outfitters, Boca Boats provides cruises that include a view of the island. If you do not want to go by boat don’t fret, oftentimes you can still find white pelicans by heading to the fishing pier at Boca Grande Causeway. Just before the toll bridge you can pull off and park and walk out on the fishing pier to view the white pelicans swimming nearby. Close by is a charming little fishing village of Placida and a dock for viewing the pelicans. You might want to watch them from Placida's Fishery Restaurant while enjoying some fresh Florida seafood.

Wherever you are this is the time of year to see white pelicans. They will be migrating soon, so consider getting out before they leave. And when you do, whether it is your first encounter, or one of many, you are guaranteed to be just a little awestruck by these magnificent winged creatures.

For more on authentic ideas and travel, go to Authentic Florida and be sure to sign up for Authentic Florida's free E-News, a bi-monthly newsletter featuring the latest Florida travel, food and living ideas.

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