White Pelicans Riding Thermals

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Have you ever seen birds fly in a spiral, going higher and higher?  They have discovered a weather phenomenon known as thermals.

A couple weeks ago, I was lucky to notice White Pelicans riding thermals for several days above Everglades City.

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White Pelicans and single Anhinga (far right) riding a thermal

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Thermals are updrafts of warm air that rise from the ground into the sky.  Birds will fly in a circular path within these columns of rising air and “ride” the currents to climb to higher altitudes while expending very little energy in the process.

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White Pelicans riding a thermal

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Some thermals may only last for a few seconds, others can last up to 10-20 minutes.  As thermals rise, they cool, eventually reaching the same temperature as the surrounding air.  Suddenly the thermal dissipates, and you’ll see the birds lose their momentum and form of flight.

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White Pelicans riding a thermal

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Each day that I saw them, it was in the afternoon.

Some close-ups….

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White Pelicans riding a thermal

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White Pelicans riding a thermal

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Watching these huge birds gracefully spiral up high in the sky was such a delight!

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44 thoughts on “White Pelicans Riding Thermals

    • Thank you, David! I only shared the one shot with the Anhinga in the thermal too, showing size comparison. One day, there were vultures and a wood stork trying to ride the thermal too, just outside the flock of pelicans’ spiral but still trying to stay in the current. 🙂

  1. Great photos and explanation Donna. The parascenders in our valley take advantage of the thermals or updrafts too. You often see them hugging the side of the valley to maintain their height.

    • Thank you, Mike! It was thermals/updrafts that the Wright Brothers discovered and used to get their ‘planes’ up in the air too. I couldn’t parascend/hang glide, I’d be too scared! I’ll stick with my gators…. hehe

      • I did a tandem ‘ride’ parascending once over Montreux. We went right out over the lake (Geneva/Lac Leman) which was a bit scary when you looked down. The guy then decided to do a ‘twirl’ without telling me and my stomach felt like it dropped about 4 or 5 inches with the G forces. We dropped like a stone apparently, but we soon landed safely in a field. I’m tempted to have another go around here as the views and photos should be amazing.

    • Thanks! Yes, if it weren’t for thermals, birds could not make the long distances they make during migration! I’ve seen vultures, hawks and wood storks doing it too. It is pretty cool!

  2. Wonderful photos, and great examples of riding a thermal! I witnessed the same thing with a group of white pelicans a few years ago at Flamingo, in the Everglades. I also see it daily as I look at the black and turkey vultures flying over our cove. I am always on the lookout for a stray bald eagle in the group, which only infrequently happens.

    • What a sight indeed! To see those large birds staying in form, spiraling up was so cool. When the thermal would fall apart, they’d fall out of form haphazardly. Then they’d try to reform and find a thermal again. I’ve seen vultures, wood storks, and birds of prey (even Ospreys!) ride them.

    • How’d you know, HJ?? hehe Actually the first day I saw them, I was laying in my lounge chair in our campsite, and looked up. Yes, my camera was laying on the table beside me. But out of the chair i came!! 😁 I didn’t want to miss watching it and the first photo was from that first thermal sighting.

  3. What a beautiful sight to see! I wonder if the Anhinga noticed he was in the wrong crowd? 🙂 I think I will pay more attention to the birds in the air next summer, to see if I can notice them riding thermals. Thanks for the explanation and these lovely illustrations.

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