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Latest harbinger of early spring – pelicans!

"They are fun to watch," said bird watcher and St. Charles resident Scott Cohrs after he saw that the Pelicans are back at the Dick Young Forest Preserve on Wednesday, March 14, 2012. "It used to be April 1st every year they would show up but it has been getting progressively earlier every year." Cohrs said. The birds have been making their annual stop in the Fox Valley for about 10 years. "You don't get to see them that much in Illinois," he added, "They are just a cool bird." | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

Drew Ullberg knew spring had arrived when he saw the hulking white birds splashing around Nelson Lake in rural Kane County.

The migrating American white pelicans that plopped this week into the marshy pond don’t usually appear until the very end of March or early April as they fly north to their Canadian breeding grounds.

“It’s really early for them. There’s usually still ice on the water now,” said Ullberg, the chief of natural resources for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.

The first dozen or so pelicans he noticed presumably made an early exit from their Gulf Coast winter homes because the mild winter and spring mean their watery pitstops on the way north are ice-free and open, Ullberg said.

The lake in the midst of the Dick Young Forest Preserve is a familiar place for a group of the pelicans, which can weigh 12 pounds and sport eight-foot wingspans.

“They make it a regular stop. They use it to fish and rest,” Ullberg said, recalling how at times during the spring migration as many as 250 pelicans have been spotted at the lake.

Naturalists are seeing signs in the sky that other birds believe warm spring weather is here to stay.

Waves of migrating sandhill cranes passed through the Chicago area last weekend – another trip that typically doesn’t occur until much later in the season.

“It does seem like we’re getting a lot more birds passing through earlier this year,” said Tim Snyder, curator of birds and reptiles at the Brookfield Zoo.

He heard “hundreds” of the four-foot-tall cranes bugling as they flew over the region on their trek to Canada.

The warm weather and early migration could help boost the birds’ numbers, because the chicks will be born earlier and have more time to mature before they have to head back south, he said.

“The chicks are stronger for the fall [migration],” he said.

But there’s a risk the early returns by some birds mean their food supplies – including insect populations – won’t yet be abundant enough to feed all the youngsters.

And there still could be cold snaps that would stress the birds, Snyder said.

For Snyder, the final proof that spring has arrived ahead of schedule rests with a different, far less exotic bird he’s already spotted.

He saw his first robin on March 3 – weeks ahead of when he typically sees the bird.

“That’s unusually early for me,” Snyder said.