Heads up, fine followers of The Headlands Report, because one of my favorite seasonal rites of passage is now underway.
Pretty much homely, awkward and gangly on land; surprisingly elegant and acrobatic in flight; always improbable-looking and unquestionably prehistoric: the California brown pelican is returning to the Bay Area. They're back!
Isolated individuals of Pelecanus occidentals californicus stay local for the winter months, but most head south to the Channel Islands, Mexico and South America, and the lagoons of Baja California to court, breed, hang out with the California gray whale and do whatever else pelicans do down there. Now is the time to watch as they glide north by the hundreds into their summertime digs: the productive waters of the Gulf of the Farallones.
I was at Marshall's Beach the other day, looked up and saw my first V-shaped brigade of the year. It was two or three brigades, actually, 10 or 12 birds a piece, still decked out in their gaudy winter plumage. Together they soared on outstretched wings, motionless, using the updraft near the cliffs to swoop northward. It brought a smile to my face.
Before long a few were dive-bombing the ocean, as there seemed to be some sort of food just below the surface. That sight made me remember the time I sat with a handful of friends on the bluffs at Steep Ravine and watched as, oh, I don't know, maybe 200 pelicans had themselves a bonafide feeding frenzy extra-oridnaire! If you've never seen a feeding frenzy it's a sight to behold: a crazy flurry of big-ass birds flapping, rising, wheeling, careening, swooping, soaring, eyeing, veering, rocketing, plunging, diving, fishing, disappearing, surfacing, bobbing, eating or coming up empty, then doing it all over again. The spectacle lasted for twenty minutes, yet how there were no mid-air collision I'll never know. We were awestruck; to this day it's still one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican!
- Dixon Lanier Merritt, 1910
So look skyward, people, and notice the magnificent pelican. The return of the pelican to our clime. Lots of them. And remember, like a naturalist for the Oceanic Society told me one day at the Farallon Islands: "Whenever you see a pelican you are seeing a modern day miracle. By the 1970's they were on the verge of extinction, almost annihilated by DDT and other pesticides. But they're back. With us again."
I can't remember, but this may have been the same naturalist that stumbled excitedly about the rocking boat while three blue whales surfaced right next to us, over and over, so close I could have jumped on them. It was freaking awesome. We had an intimate encounter with the largest animal to ever roam the earth, but her excitement wasn't over the whales. It was over a teeny-tiny bird also within sight: "Oh my god, look at that," she yelled, "a rhinoceros auklet...two of them!"
Birders are, well, obsessed.
Until the next time.
Peter J. Palmer
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Brown Pelican Facts
Genus/Species: Pelecanus occidentalis
There are 5 subspecies:
P. o. californicus (California)
P. o. carolinensis (Eastern)
P. o. occidentalis (Carribean)
P. o. murphy (Pacific)
P. o. urinator (Galápagos)
East coast: Nova Scotia to Venezuela and the mouth of the Amazon River.
West coast: British Columbia to central Chile and the Galápagos Islands.
The brown is the smallest species of pelican but is still a big bird, with a wingspan of almost 8 feet. It is the only pelican known to hunt for food by dramatically plunging headfirst into the ocean from above.
It is a coastal bird, preferring warmer, shallower seas and estuaries, rarely venturing far inland or more than 25 miles out to sea.
The brown pelican is the national bird of Barbados and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and is the state bird of Louisiana.