An American white pelican and three double-crested cormorants on the St. John River in Grand Isle on July 5, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Liz Morneault

GRAND ISLE, Maine — Perhaps the reputation for good fishing along the waterways of  northernmost Maine is what brought an American white pelican so far from its usual flight path.

The bird was spotted on a rock in the middle of the St. John River near the Grand Isle boat landing Tuesday morning, where resident Liz Morneault took a photo of it along with three double-crested cormorants perched in the sun on a nearby river rock.

“I was just waking up, and I always look out the back window toward the river, and I grabbed the camera,” Morneault said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

American white pelicans are rarely found in Maine and tend to spend their time west of the Mississippi River or wintering in Central America or Florida, bird expert Bob Duchesne said. Duchesne is a board member of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter and a columnist of all things birds for the Bangor Daily News.

“They don’t venture to Maine very often, but they do sometimes,” Duchesne said.

Morneault was so enthralled by the pelican sighting that she and her 4-year-old granddaughter hopped on the family all-terrain vehicle and headed closer to the river to get a better view of the wayward bird.

In the excitement of the moment, the four-wheeled ATV with old tires got stuck in the mud along the riverbank, but Morneault managed to snap a clear photo of the four birds.

Duchesne said cormorants are common to the area and they and the pelican were most likely all hunting for a morning meal in the St. John.

“They are all fish eaters, so are comfortable together,” Duchesne said.

The pelican has a large pouch with which it can take up a bunch of minnows at once or any other slower moving fish easily grabbed. But it would not qualify for a spot on the leaderboard of the Fort Kent International Muskie Derby for which the St. John River and its tributaries are famous, Duchesne said.

The pelican was not likely in any danger of being eaten by a muskie, although a baby pelican may not have fared so well if it came across one of the large fish, he said.

Duchesne said the pelican probably wandered to Grand Isle by itself and was not at risk for being so far north.

“It has a very big range actually. It’s not even allergic to cold weather and can sometimes get well up into Manitoba for instance. It can fly long distances. It has big wings and was probably not uncomfortable at all,” he said.

Duchesne has been a bird enthusiast since he was in first grade, around 65 years ago.  

He keeps a list of all the birds he has seen in the state, which he said is somewhere around 320 species so far, but does not include an American White Pelican.

Duchesne has visited northern Maine many times and spent much of last winter in Aroostook County as a volunteer doing surveys of bird nesting for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“Don’t sell Aroostook County short,” Duchesne said. “There are a lot of good birds and a lot of good places to go birding. People just don’t know how good it is.”