Most of the time, I measure “progress” in terms of what I’ve done, accomplished, put behind me in a day. “Forward” and “onward” seem to be the twin pillars of my existence, whether they apply to criminal cases I’ve worked on at my job, making progress on my next children’s book, getting enough exercise to justify that chocolate bar I had for lunch, or visiting the grandkids.
But there is a temporary lull all of a sudden. While I used to multi-task during lunch by running errands, grocery shopping, or walking to lose a few pounds, for the past few weeks I’ve had just one destination, and one goal. I sit on the same bench every time, in the same place, and just sigh. Because the white pelicans are back. And it is not an open-ended visit.
Until a few years ago, I didn’t even know white pelicans existed. The only pelicans I had ever seen were brown, and in southern places like coastal Georgia. And so when I caught sight of some white pelicans soaring over a marsh in southern Wisconsin several years ago, the logical part of my brain overrode my first impression when I recognized their distinctly joyful flight. It took me weeks to find out that my heart had been right all along in that first flicker of recognition. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about that phenomenon and called it “Blink.” I wrote an essay and titled it “Pelican Lessons.”
But still, I had never seen them up close. In fact, I hadn’t seen them again, ever, anywhere. And then they showed up without warning in Sheboygan.
I’ve been working in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and loving the nearby Lake Michigan shoreline for seventeen years now. I finally moved here two years ago after selling my empty nest. I thought I knew everything that the shoreline had to offer—beautiful sunrises, a profusion of birds (loons, bald eagles, cormorants and mergansers) and other wildlife, epic big skies, crashing waves, incredible ice formations in winter.
But three summers ago, a flock of white pelicans—who normally use the Horicon Marsh far inland for their summer breeding grounds—landed at a promontory called “North Point” and caused quite a stir. The point, a shoal jutting into the lake from a curve in the shoreline, is a place where on any given day you can see a collection of ducks, geese, seagulls, terns, sanderlings and other birds vie for a calm spot off the waves that pound the shore. And next to them, white pelicans stand out like elephants at a puppy farm.
They are literally the biggest birds I’ve ever seen, with nine-foot wingspans and long yellow or pink bills with rubbery pouches. When they float, they look like inflatable feathered rafts. On the promontory, nestled cheek by jowl as they preen and stretch and groom themselves, they are absolutely comical to watch.
But oh, when they fly…be still my heart. They are sublime, poetry in motion, and more.
If geese fly across the horizon like lumbering cargo planes, and herons fly with the delicacy of prima ballerinas, and sandhill cranes appear—with their elongated necks and twig-like legs trailing behind them—like prehistoric cave drawings brought to life, then pelicans soar and maneuver like angels.
The US Navy’s “Blue Angels,” in fact.
Once aloft, webbed feet tucked tight to their short bodies, they fly with a precision that is breath-taking to watch. A group of three, or four, or five will wheel and swoop, glide and dive, change positions and rise against cotton-candy clouds with the sunlight gleaming blindingly off their white feathers edged in black. Inky wingtips spread delicately like a flourish, adding to the impression that all this is nearly effortless.
A straight line a dozen or more across will form, gliding only a foot above the water, wingtips to wingtips, a dramatic line of white chevrons edged in black, coming in like a line of bombers for a landing…or not. They seem like mythical creatures come to earth to amuse us and amaze us and remind us that while we may have invented mechanical flight, we still cannot mimic theirs entirely.
And so I show up at North Point these days, as often as I can, to drink in the splendor of watching these amazing birds fly by and over me, gliding on air currents and then, with a few wing beats, soaring against the sun. My friend Linda McAlpine, who recently retired and moved to Sheboygan, has been similarly enchanted, and so we’re sharing her photos here with you.
Eventually, they will have moved on to their summer breeding grounds, and I will resume my exercise walks along the lakefront. But for now, I’ll just sit and stare, and consider myself lucky for the chance.