Fugitive pelican takes refuge in Conowingo


June Vaughn peered through a telescope to scan the rocks below the Conowingo Dam for a pink-backed pelican.

That's right, an East African pelican.

The female pelican, which escaped from the Baltimore Zoo last month, has taken up a roost at the dam on the Susquehanna River. It's now attracting dozens of bird-watchers from across the region.

But zoo and dam officials advise people who want to see the bird not to get close to the pelican because the rocky perch at the base of the dam is treacherous for boats.

The surprise visit by the pelican has delighted bird-watchers from Delaware to suburban Washington, Vaughn said.

The bird-watchers, equipped with binoculars and telescopes, line up at the dam's observation decks early in the morning and late at night to catch a glimpse of the pelican, Vaughn said.

"We had one guy who just dropped his job and came from Montgomery County," said Vaughn, a Conowingo resident.

The environmental science instructor also noted that a Newark, Del., woman offered to pay to have the pelican set in the sights of a telescope, which Vaughn was happy to do. "I didn't charge her, though."

The pelican also caught the interest of Conowingo dam and plant workers and fishermen who frequent the dam, Vaughn said.

At the time Vaughn was searching for the wayward pelican last week, the bird was not in sight.

The pelican, which is mostly white and gray, is hard to find during the day because its colors blend with the rocks it rests on until nightfall. At night, the bird feeds on the river's fish.

"She blends in so well with the rocks," said Vaughn, who leads bird-watching classes at the Conowingo Power Co. dam. "She looks just like one of the rocks when she is tucked. . . . I keep my eye on her."

Believed to be between 2 and 3 years old, the pelican fled from a new den facility May 3, before zoo-keepers had a chance to clip its wings.

It was first spotted on May 19 at the dam, 36 miles away.

The zoo brought in eight pelicans for its new African Watering Hole exhibit last November, zoo spokeswoman Jane Ballentine said. The pelican that escaped is 54 inches tall, with an 8-foot wing span.

Zoo officials are developing a plan to recapture the pelican, but believe it is safe at the Conowingo Dam, where it has plenty of food and protection among the river's rocks.

"Apparently, she's having a ball," Ballentine said. "She poses no threat. The only danger for her would be from humans."

In the past, the dam has had other surprise visitors, such as black-legged kittiwakes, golden eagles and harlequin ducks, Vaughn said.

Blue herons, bald eagles, osprey, orioles, warblers and songbirds are regulars at the dam.

"[The pelican] doesn't seem to mind the other birds at all," said Vaughn, who has been a bird-watcher for about nine years. "She mingles right along with them.

"She's in good hands. If I was a bird, I'd fly to Conowingo, too."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad