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© Clark Grell | Lincoln Journal Star
American white pelicans — and one out-of-place brown pelican — enjoy the warm waters of the cooling pond at Gerald Gentleman power station near Sutherland.
Last Saturday, my alarm sounded at 3:45 a.m. and I rose out of bed in order to make the three-hour drive to Sutherland Reservoir to "twitch" a brown pelican.

For nonbirders, "twitching" is a British birding term meaning to chase after a previously located (usually rare) bird. Brown pelicans are typically found in coastal areas, but birds occasionally wander inland. The brown pelican I was chasing was found by Stephen J. Dinsmore and Kevin Murphy on Dec. 26. Nebraska's other seven documented sightings, as well as the vast majority of inland records from other states of brown pelicans, are during warmer months. Thus, a brown pelican in Nebraska is notable, but one in winter is crazy.

It seems most likely this particular brown pelican is from the Gulf Coast, perhaps Texas. Any part of the brown pelican's normal range is at a minimum a thousand miles from Sutherland Reservoir. It's impossible to know when this bird left its familiar coastal haunts to fly inland. The explanation for why this bird ended up at Sutherland in winter, and possibly why it is still alive, is easier to understand.

Sutherland Reservoir has a cooling pond, which receives water from the Nebraska Public Power District's nearby coal-fired Gerald Gentleman power station. The constant infusion of warm water into the cooling pond keeps the water open even during the coldest winters. This human-created environment allows several fish-eating bird species, including American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and great blue herons, to overwinter at this site when they might otherwise migrate south to warmer climes or perish.