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Many locations have spectacular wildlife observation opportunities and the Eastern Sierra can claim one of them. If one wants an awe inspiring experience with Sandhill Cranes, a winter trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, will not disappoint. If your taste runs to whales, a pelagic trip in fall or spring out of Monterey, CA will produce several species, many up close and personal. Some exciting wildlife observations involve one mammal, a Mountain Lion or Marten, or one fish, “it was THIS long!”, or one bird, a Golden Eagle stooping on a Sage Grouse. But the Eastern Sierra’s biannual event, in March and April and again August to October, involves thousands of very large and very graceful birds…the American White Pelican.

In early April 1998, we were driving south on Hwy 395 towards Big Pine when we noticed oncoming traffic pulling off the highway, en masse, onto the shoulder. We assumed an emergency as people were exploding from their vehicles but then realized that they were pointing into the sky and some were grabbing cameras to take pictures. Quickly we pulled off to see what could make a dozen car owners decide to do the same thing simultaneously. As we looked into the clear blue sky we had a second or two where we saw nothing and then, magically, an apparition of silvery-white dots formed and sharpened to show thousands of white birds with large yellow bills and black wing tips…pelicans. The crowd could be heard claiming that they’d never seen such a beautiful ballet…ohhhhh….so many birds at once…such grace and timing…ahhhhh…how did they not bump into each other…amazing! Too soon the flock of over five thousand birds continued moving to the north to their breeding grounds and disappeared. There was no way to know if these birds would breed as close to us as northeast California or northwest Nevada or were going to continued further north into western Canada.

white pelicans in flight above the owens valley

The American White Pelican

is among the largest flying birds with a wingspan of 8-9 feet and weighing in at 11-20 pounds or more, with males slightly larger than females. They winter in the southwestern U.S., Gulf States, and Mexico. In March 1987, 40,000 pelicans were recorded at the Salton Sea and Patten, McCaskie, and Unitt (2003:82) estimate that one-third to one-half of the entire population of American White Pelicans spend the winter there with most of the balance of birds in western Mexico and the Gulf Coast of the southeastern U.S.

The Eastern Sierra is a reliable region to view these graceful giants in migration. The many reservoirs and lakes provide resting and eating zones and the mountains provide the thermals necessary for these large birds to get airborne. They are diurnal migrants and often can be seen in the early morning at Tinemaha Reservoir and Crowley Lake. If undisturbed they linger in the morning as they wait for the sun and mountains to work their thermal magic. They exercise their wings, first a few birds, then more, and then almost the whole flock at once. Then one bird is airborne, quickly followed by a small group, then many small groups, and then the entire flock. The sound of thousands of wings straining to lift their heavy bodies is not something one will ever forget.

white pelican swimming

At Tinemaha Reservoir in spring, they move towards the north end until between 0830-0930 when their muscles are warmed and stretched and the thermals are beginning their elevator ride up the mountains. Once the groups become airborne, there is a period when the sky seems filled with chaotic patterns of whirling and swirling subgroups flying directly at other subgroups and then becoming a part of another group. As they soar the thermals generate lift and seemingly without any effort the pelicans begin to gain altitude, the groups coalesce into organized units, V’s are formed of 40-80 birds, each riding the bow wave of the one in front of it. After a time, the leader of the V allows another to become the bow to plow through the air creating a smoother path for those that follow and the former leader will choose a spot further back in line to take a well-earned rest, yet maintain his position within his group seemingly without effort. In a surprisingly short time, the uplifting and inspiring performance is over as the birds reach altitude and aim their internal compasses north leaving the observers awe-struck and wishing it has lasted longer…but the pelicans have miles to go before they sleep.

white pelicans in the air, in shifting formations

With no headwind to hinder progress or tailwind to assist, the average speed a pelican flies is about 35mph. Late afternoon will find the flocks from Tinemaha Reservoir north of Reno, NV. If their breeding home is Anaho Island at Pyramid Lake, their trip is almost completed. If they are inbound to breeding grounds in British Columbia or Alberta, another couple of days may be required.

Both sexes fly together in these flock although pair formation does not take place until they reach their breeding grounds. Two eggs are laid, although the first to hatch is frequently the only one to survive and incubation lasts about 30 days. American White Pelicans do not breed until they are three years old. In their first year, 41% will not survive and in their second year 16% will perish.

a white pelican in flight

American White Pelicans are often reported in the Eastern Sierra during the summer. These are probably failed breeders or sub-adult birds that are not old enough to breed. As time, our worst enemy, flies by, it will not be long before we see the first Vs returning from the north and in the late afternoon the birds begin breaking out of formation over reservoirs or lakes to settle down for the night. In the morning they begin the ritual to get their bodies and wings ready for another day of flying. Before we know it they are gone, taking with them a magnificent avian performance, and leaving behind memories and stories of what once was.

Guest post by Tom and Jo Heindel, Eastern Sierra Audubon Society Find more articles like this here.

All photos by Tom & Jo Heindel, and Aaron Johnson.

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3 days ago

Heading into the weekend dreaming of backcountry lakes... which is your favorite?
#DreamNowVisitLater #KeepBishopSafe
Thank you Instagram user @kimonlhi for this spectacular shot!!
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Heading into the weekend dreaming of backcountry lakes... which is your favorite? 
#DreamNowVisitLater #KeepBishopSafe
Thank you Instagram user @kimonlhi for this spectacular shot!!

Comment on Facebook Heading into the ...

Would have guessed Split Mtn, but have only flown over these mountains twice.

Too many to choose, the higher and more remote the better

Saddle Bag Lake. ❤️

Blue lake! The best, at least I know of~!!!

I need a good-looking tour guide(male) to show me around on my next visit. 😉🐈😷

So beautiful. I miss being up there.

Mt. Aggasisz? I probably butchered that spelling.

Blue Lake

Blue lake❣

Sabrina

Dorothy Lake

Horton Lake

Dorothy and Mildred

Beautiful

Beautiful

Upper Lamarck

Beautiful

That’s beautiful.

Nice 👍

Ruwau Lake, Tyee Lakes, upper Lamark lake, Blue lake, & Little Lakes Valley.

Terra Rankin

Lake.

Any part of Bishop is fine, I JUST WANT TO BE THERE TO ENJOY THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE! 😀❤️😄💙

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4 days ago

Our friends at Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association welcome everyone to stop by for in-person visitor service plus a great selection of area maps, books and more. They do a great job of helping our guests recreate responsibly!Thanks ESIA for providing helpful information and advice to visitors on responsible recreation in our region! ... See MoreSee Less

Our friends at Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association welcome everyone to stop by for in-person visitor service plus a great selection of area maps, books and more.  They do a great job of helping our guests recreate responsibly!

5 days ago

Community: a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals (Oxford Dictionary)
We are grateful to our COMMUNITY locally and afar, for loving and supporting BISHOP and Inyo County. ❤️

Here is a little glimpse of how our community has pulled together over the past few months:
www.bishopvisitor.com/eastern-sierra-covid-stories/
... See MoreSee Less

Community: a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals (Oxford Dictionary)
We are grateful to our COMMUNITY locally and afar, for loving and supporting BISHOP and Inyo County.  ❤️

Here is a little glimpse of how our community has pulled together over the past few months:
https://www.bishopvisitor.com/eastern-sierra-covid-stories/

Comment on Facebook Community: a feeling...

The community stories are wonderful

The big deal when I was growing up was going to the Tri-County Fair rodeo, taking in a movie, and having dinner...all over Labor Day. Then there were the trips from Mammoth to Bishop to go to the grocery store, topped off by a stop at Schatz for sandwiches and to buy bread. What a wonderful place!!!

Used to watch movies at this theater back in the early 70's. Great memories wonderful town. I visit just about every year and enjoy the old school vibe. My parents started AYSO soccer in Bishop. I used to bicycle down the street as a kid, drop a fishing line and pull out lots of trout.

No Bishop does not need a Walmart mart or another supposed better grocery store. We do not have the people to work them. Plus we have new buildings that weren't supposed to be built and a whole mess of empty buildings. We want to keep it a small town feel.

I was sorry to hear that the JC Penny store closed there. I used to work there when I lived in Cali. I had the most wonderful coworkers and the best boss ever!!! Bishop will live on in my heart forever.

Remember Jill Kenmont👍👍

Great little town Bishop is, leave it alone. My mom graduated from Bishop High school, we went to Bishop many years for Christmas with my Grandparents

I was born in Bishop and moved out around 1990. I've moved all over California since then, and no matter where I moved to I always wanted to go back. Some day... Maybe when my kids are all grown and out of the house I'll take my wife and dogs and move back...

Great town. can't wait to come visit when things calm down. Missed Mule days and our family reunion at the lodge but we will be back

Looking forward to visiting as soon and we can! We love Bishop!

Love Bishop! Just passed thru Monday on the way back from Yosemite!

Bishop is in one of the most beautiful settings on Earth. The eastern Sierra and the Owens Valley will persevere.

I love that Bishop is a smaller town. It part id it s charm for visitors. Needed some items last trip , found them in town and what friendly people !! And you should fit your town , not always for the town to fit you.

3 yrs ago we just started driving , landed in Bishop, stayed several days, just loved that trip, no fish but who cares .... 😍🎣🚗💨💨

best town in California

We believe in Bishop. Stay well. <3

Between 1934 and 1939, I spent some Saturday afternoons watching movies at the theatre in Bishop - think the Hollands owned it then - one of the Holland boys was in my elementary school grade. Best wishes to all.

Bishop is fine the way it is.

Please don't change! I love you the way you are!!

We would like to keep it that way, but there are a lot of people coming into the area now who are leaving their trash on the ground & putting graffiti on any available surface. Do that S... at home, not in our town.

You have no idea how badly I need to visit You Bishop.

Saw it has been 100 degrees up there.

Play my brother Danny scene Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at that theater years and years ago

Lived here in the early 80’s

Soon as possible.

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6 days ago

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Comment on Facebook 1451682461820094_2725270674461260

Love Bishop been there a couple times I can’t wait till I go back to visit 😊👍

love bishop

Was there many times.

Live there and love it

Love Bishop!

Love Bishop.

wish I still lived there

I’m a Hoosier that loves to visit Bishop!

Love Bishop too!

Gateway to heaven or as close as you can get

Been in bishop twice. ❤️ both times

It's beautiful, clean, but, to darn hot 😎😎😎😎

Love Bishop. Born and raise there

My home town

Does anyone know if they are having the car show in October this year?

we just move out here and we need a store to buy home stuff like target or even walmart 😤😫

Be there on 22sd for a week of camping and fishing creekside RV park

Is the KMart there out of business?

Make this a sticker for purchase.

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1 week ago

Bishop’s beauty continues to amaze us. 😍

#keepbishopsafe!! Thank you!!

Photo by Sean B Plunkett
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Bishop’s beauty continues to amaze us. 😍

#keepbishopsafe!! Thank you!!

Photo by Sean B Plunkett

Comment on Facebook Bishop’s beauty ...

So beautiful. Love Bishop and miss it so much.

Gorgeous photo! Stay safe my friends! We hope to see you in 2021!

So beautiful, love your site 🙂🙂❤❤

So beautiful. A field of Lupins.

Beautiful only 108 degrees

So Gorgeous! 😍

Beautiful!

Gorgeous!

Beautiful

Beautiful

Absolutely beautiful

Love the flowers...but need to get rid tourists...we have followed all the rules..NO TRAVELING..NOT YET...but are counties get more C-19..please leave and take your 🗑 with you

Awesome!!! Sean plunkett

Very beautiful picture

Pretty Hot right now but Beautiful ❣️

Beautiful

Beautiful

Beautiful.

What plant is this?

Andrew Peterson

Eileen Stephens

So beautiful

Beautiful picture

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