Sunday, February 21, 2010
A Pouch of Pelicans
When you were a kid, did you learn that poem, "A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill will hold more than his belican..."?
I can't remember who wrote it (though I do know it wasn't Ogden Nash) or how the rest of it goes, but I do agree that the pelican is a wonderful bird. On days like today I find that silly rhyme running through my head.
I've spent the day watching Brown Pelicans. I love to see them fly over the river, watch for fish, and then dive in the water with a twisting motion, hitting it hard enough to make a loud splash. Sometimes two or three pelicans will be fishing together and dive at almost the same time. As they enter the water, they fold their wings and go in beak-first. The twisting motion must continue underwater, for they always come up facing opposite of the direction they went in. They slam in hard and come up fast. If their dive is successful, they stretch their throats upward and you can often see a fish filling out the pouch before they swallow it. Mullet and menhaden fish are their preferred food (according to what I've read) and we definitely have those in the arroyo. (Menhaden are the silver "shiners" that fishermen net up for bait, and mullet are the silvery fish that jump out of the water, sometimes in a series of three or more leaps. People don't like to eat either menhaden or mullet, but the pelicans certainly do.)
Yesterday the bird in the photo above made a loud splashing dive just out from the dock as I watched from the porch. I wasn't specifically looking for pelicans and at first I paid little attention to it. But something seemed different about this bird. I kept looking at it, first as it ate the fish it caught in its dive and then as it paddled around for awhile. I noted that it was in breeding plumage, a yellow/gold on its head and dark brown on the hindneck, but that wasn't the difference I was sensing. Lots of the pelicans I'd been watching for the last couple of weeks had that.
It wasn't until I looked at the photos I'd taken that I realized what didn't seem right: its gular pouch was not dark brown or gray as most of the Brown Pelicans I see, but a surprising red. I checked several field guides. Most didn't even mention this coloring at all, but the couple that did identified it as a fieldmark of the pacific or California subspecies. This guy might be a long way from home! I don't know how many of "our" pelicans have this coloration--but it is beautiful!
Today I watched for Brown Pelicans all day so that I could get an idea of how many had the red pouch--and I only saw one. It may be the same one I saw yesterday, of course. I saw dozens of the birds flying and floating and diving but only one that looked the same as the photo above. I'll keep watching. Tomorrow we may go out to the bay where there will be many more birds to compare.
One last Pelican note--while reading about them on the internet, I found out that a group of pelicans is called a pod, a pouch, a scoop, or a squadron. I especially like the last two designations. I've seen White Pelicans fish at night on the river, strongly paddling in a v-formation, scooping their beaks back and forth in the water almost in unison, "herding" the fish to the birds in the back. That was definitely a Scoop of Pelicans! Tonight I saw a scoop of 34 pelicans, and at last I got a (rather fuzzy) night photo.
What does this look like to you-- a Pod, a Scoop, or a Squadron of Pelicans?