BEAVER DAM — Chris Stavropolus is in the know.
He spends six days a week behind the counter of Chili John’s Cafe, which has been in his family since 1920. So, little happens in this city that doesn’t get mentioned in the former pool hall where Coney Island hot dogs smothered in chili and onions are served.
Most weekdays, as the lunch rush subsides, the flat-screen television above the cash register is tuned to General Hospital.
Stavropolus, however, was surprised to learn last week that Beaver Dam Lake is teeming with American white pelicans. Some of his customers, though, know all about the fish-devouring birds.
“When I see pelicans, I know there’s fish over there,” said Mark Kamerling, who has lived on the lake for 10 years . “Every night there’s a few flotillas floating along the shoreline looking for a snack.”
Wisconsin is increasingly a nesting spot for the pelicans, which can weigh around 16 pounds with wing spans more than 8 feet. They also should not be confused with the brown pelicans seen on the ocean.
Both species of birds are efficient at gobbling down whole fish with their mammoth beaks and pouches but capture their prey differently. Brown pelicans will dive for their meal, but white pelicans are known for fishing in groups while floating on the surface. They’ll eat about 4 pounds of fish a day each.
The state Department of Natural Resources reports American white pelican colonies on Cat Island near Green Bay, on islands in Lake Butte des Morts near Oshkosh and, since the mid-1990s, Horicon Marsh, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the country.
Sadie O’Dell, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, said this year there are about 400 pairs of nesting pelicans on the marsh. They can occasionally be seen along Highway 49 east of Waupun, but their nests are typically on islands buried deep in the marsh.
“The habitat is suitable for them and the foraging so they were able to get established,” O’Dell said. “We’ve been used to seeing them for a while, but they’re a highly visible species that people get excited about.”
The population of American white pelicans is growing at more than 3 percent a year, according to a report in the most recent issue of The Passenger Pigeon, a quarterly publication from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.
The authors, including Sumner Matteson, state avian ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, say the pelicans’ range is expanding eastward from Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Minnesota. In 2013, Wisconsin was home to eight nesting colonies totaling 4,123 nests.
Before 1994, there was no evidence of American white pelican breeding in Wisconsin in modern times. In addition, the report said the increase in Wisconsin may also be responsible for pelicans breeding in Michigan, where 17 nests were recorded in 2007.
There may be no easier or more accessible place to spot a pelican than Beaver Dam Lake.
Dozens of the birds have been calling the 6,542-acre lake in Dodge County their summer home since about 2000. The lake is shallow, with a maximum depth of 7 feet. The fishery includes walleye, large mouth bass, northern pike and pan fish.
Also common are carp, which frequent the shallows near the lake’s southwest side where the pelicans have their nests. Pelicans aren’t fussy eaters, and carp are a big part of their diet, O’Dell said.
When State Journal photographer John Hart and I arrived at the Waterworks Park boat landing on the southeast side of the lake, the wind was pounding into the boat ramp.
Some pelicans could be seen floating nearby. A white lump in the distance made it easy to determine where to point the bow of my boat, which was uncharacteristically free of fishing gear.
Joining us on the excursion was Jeff Bahls, an avid duck hunter, a retired John Deere Horicon Works employee and, for the past eight years, president of the Horicon Marsh Bird Club.
Bahls, 54, had a pair of binoculars strapped to his chest and was wearing a T-shirt reading “Life is simple. Eat. Sleep. Bird.”
“Everybody seems to love them (white pelicans), especially when they fly in the big flocks,” Bahls said. “They’ll get on a thermal, and they’ll circle and circle. They’ve been received really well.”
Unlike Canada geese, which foul parks and lawns with their droppings, the pelicans typically stay away from populated areas. The vast majority of their land treks are limited to their nesting island, located in a fairly isolated part of the lake. The pelicans arrive in May and depart for fresh water habitat near the Gulf of Mexico in late September or early October, Bahls said.
At this time of the year, the island is brimming with young pelicans, old enough to swim but unable to fly. We kept our distance from the island but even at more than 150 yards, scores of the birds began scurrying into the water. It didn’t take long for the large young flock to group up and begin paddling in the bay. Above, older pelicans circled, while other adults swam nearby.
A few dead carp we had seen on the surface just moments earlier were quickly consumed.
“It’s neat to watch them feed,” Dahls said. “It’s getting much more common to see them. I have seen and heard of them on the Rock River and even on the Madison lakes. They’re definitely spreading out.”
Beavers are common on signs and lawn ornaments in this city, where the public high school mascot is the Golden Beavers. The city’s name came about when settlers in the mid-1800s discovered a beaver dam on a creek that flowed into what is now the Beaver Dam River.
After we got off the lake , we searched Beaver Dam to find something that made reference to pelicans but came up empty. But the excitement for the birds remains, nearly 15 years after their arrival.
“They’re like buses flying in formation,” said Mary Jo Budde, who works at Kornely’s Craft & Hobby Store downtown and whose parents live on the lake.
Budde said the birds’ takeoffs and landings are not graceful, but when they fly, “they’re pretty. They just glide.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.