A Great White Pelican caused some ruffled feathers on Thursday after it escaped from Fota Wildlife Park on Little Island in Co Cork and flew as far north as Arklow, Co Wicklow.
The bird was spotted near Nineteen Arches Bridge on the Avoca River by local woman Elaine Murphy and wildlife photographer Sean Garvey. The sighting initially caused some excitement as there has never been a sighting of a wild pelican recorded in Ireland.
One of the largest flying birds in the world, the Great White Pelican generally weighs about 10kg and has a wingspan of nearly 3m. It is typically found in swamps and shallow lakes around Southeast Europe, Asia and Africa.
The bird is awkward on land, but it can fly for a whole day and night without stopping, covering distances up to 300 miles. It is also surprisingly light for its size because of air spaces in its bones and under its skin.
Despite its ability to cover large distances, Birdwatch Ireland spokesman Niall Hatch said it would be a rarity to find one in the wild so far north.
“There has never been a true wild pelican recorded in Ireland,” he said. “However we have been getting reports of pelicans sporadically for the past three years or so, near the south coast.
“All the previous reports have related to the captive birds at Fota Wildlife Park. These birds are kept there but their wings aren’t always clipped so they can fly freely, which is a little unusual. My suspicion would be it is one of those, but it is hard to be certain.
“In August 2018, two of them turned up at Tacumsin Lake in Co Wexford. They had coloured plastic rings on their legs, which was very suggestive of captive origin, and it turned out they had escaped or flown away from Fota Wildlife Park.
“Birds do unusual things. There is no accounting for what they will do. The closest Great White Pelicans get to us is the Balkan Peninsula. They are capable of flying long distances and are free flying birds, but it would take a lot for one to migrate as far north as this.”
The suspicion was confirmed by Fota Wildlife Park animal care manager Declan O’Donovan who said one the park’s male pelicans is currently missing.
“It is one of ours,” he said. “We have one of our two males out at the moment, and we can see a blue tag in some of the photographs.
“Normally we tend to clip them to keep them within the park. This one just got a bit of flight underneath his wings and was able to pop out. He comes back to us on a regular basis and we feed him.
“He will spend a few days up around Wicklow. He’ll then come back in to Fota, and pop out to the harbour.
“We have a sort of plan in place to catch him when he comes back. It doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, but we will catch him and once we do we’ll clip his feathers and he’ll be back with his buddy.”
The Great White Pelican eats about 1.5kg of fish each day, catching food using its pouched beak, which can expand to hold nearly 13 litres of water. It also eats crustaceans and ducklings on occasion.
It spends most of its time in water and tends to choose reed beds or small islands near freshwater lakes when it is looking to establish a safe nesting area. Pelicans often breed in large colonies of between 40,000 to 50,000 pairs in the wild.