While Central American migrants face resistance and rejection at Mexico’s borders, Lake Chapala warmly embraces hordes of refugees coming here from northern latitudes.
I’m not talking about all the homo sapiens who appear at this time of year, increasing our traffic woes, clogging supermarket aisles and, on the bright side, injecting lots of currency into the local economy.
No, the reference is to our winged winter visitors, particularly the American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) that have fled the frosty provinces of central Canada and northern U.S. states to take temporary refuge at Mexico’s largest lake.
While other migratory birds are discrete additions to our wildlife population, the majestic pelicans stand out as they paddle along the shoreline or soar across the sky in a distinctive “v” formation.
These giant birds, known as North America’s largest flying species, start arriving around the end of October to remain until late March. The adult birds may grow to over one and a half meters in length, with wingspans stretching as much as 2.7 meters and weights tipping the scales at 11 kilos.
Local people nickname them borregones for their plump white bodies and grouping habits that bring to mind flocks of lambs floating in the water. Easily spotted swimming in close proximity to Chapala’s Malecón, they provide endless entertainment to residents and visitors alike.
Graceful in flight, the pelicans look rather clumsy as they land in the water, barreling in with wings flapping and large webbed feet stretched out to brake the touchdown. It’s an amusing sight to watch.
Equally engaging are the birds’ unique eating habits. Unlike coastal brown pelicans that dive bomb into the sea to catch fish, white pelicans feed while swimming, plunging their long and expansive orange beaks into the water to scoop up prey. They commonly practice cooperative foraging, clustering around fish detected below the surface or driving them towards the shallows to facilitate capture.
Pelicans, like human snowbirds, take a shine to Lake Chapala for more than its mild winter weather. The easygoing lifestyle here is just as appealing. The birds instinctively know they don’t have to work too hard to fill their bellies. Fishmongers from the local market come to the Malecón most days to offer them a free lunch of fish guts and leftover scraps.
More spectacular still is the feeding frenzy that goes on in Petatán, a small town located on the lake’s south shore near the Jalisco-Michoacán border. The place is a center for commercial fishing processing plants, producing tons of discarded wastes daily (except Sundays) for sumptuous pelican banquets. Hundreds of hungry birds congregate at the shoreline, politely taking turns to gobble up hearty meals.
Birders and nature lovers should get a kick out of a day trip to Petatán while the enchanting borregones are in residence. To get there from the north shore, drive through Jocotepec to the junction with the highway leading to Jiquílpán and Morelia. Turn left and pass through Tuxcueca, Mismaloya and Tizapán, continuing 20 kilometers farther to the entrance to Petatán. Bear to the left at all intersections to reach the waterfront.