WICHITA, Kan. -- The pelicans have returned to central Kansas.
They're polar bear-white, with 9-foot wingpans and waddle clumsily on land on feet the size of ping-pong paddles. But when they reach water they can swim like Michael Phelps, and in flight they soar with more grace than a swan.
Robert Penner calls them the "Boys of Summer" because they return to Kansas in July and August.
"We always have some through the summer, but now's when they're really starting to come back (from northern breeding grounds)," said Penner, the Nature Conservancy of Kansas avian programs manager. "I guess there are some people who don't know we have pelicans in Kansas, but we have quite a few of them out here today."
About 9,000 pelicans were at the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, near Great Bend last Tuesday morning.
As fall nears, those numbers will increase, as will the number of places people can see pelicans in Kansas.
Penner said the record for American white pelicans in one place in the state was 50,000 birds at Cheyenne Bottoms several years ago. It won't be long before there will likely be pelicans at most reservoirs and lakes in the state.
"White pelicans definitely have a "wow" factor because they're so big, much bigger than a bald eagle," said Mike Rader, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism wildlife education coordinator. "They have the biggest wingspan of any bird in Kansas."
Kansans have watched white pelicans for generations. Max Thompson, retired Southwestern College biology professor and ornithologist, saw them on the Arkansas River in Cowley County in the mid-1950s. As a boy he heard stories of them being seen before that.
"We've always had them passing through in the spring and fall. Quite a few used to show up on the Arkansas River when I was a kid," Thompson said. "They'd land on river bars but they usually didn't stay very long back then. Once we started building the large bodies of water they could stay and do some fishing. Now we get and hold quite a few migrating pelicans. We're getting a few that stay through the winter."