The pelican in the photograph above floated for awhile after its dive, spinning on top of the unusually still water that reflected a nearly perfect inverted image. About five minutes later, two other pelicans flew by at medium height, in their flap-flap-flap-glide, flap-flap-flap glide rhythm, and the bird joined them.
I wrote about the pouches of these ponderous birds a couple of weeks ago when I began looking specifically at the colors of the adult pelicans in their breeding plumage. The feathers of their heads have turned golden on top and dark brown on the back of the neck. I'm still looking carefully at the pouch color of every Brown Pelican I see, trying to determine how many of them have the red pouches usually attributed to the California subspecies. (The pouches of the Atlantic subspecies that you would assume birds here on the Texas coast to be is usually a brown or dark olive color.) I see one such bird with the red gular pouch at least once a day -- but only one bird a time--which really doesn't tell me how many there actually are. The pelican in the photo above, taken from our dock, has the red pouch I'm talking about, opened wide just after the bird has scooped up a mullet. Stretched like this, the pouch is not quite as dark red at it appears when the bird is at rest, but you can nonetheless see that it is redder than the pouches of most of our Texas Brown Pelicans.
Last Friday we took the boat out, heading a few miles downriver toward the Laguna Madre, the "Mother Lagoon" between the south Texas coast and South Padre Island. I counted Brown Pelicans as we went along, losing count a couple of times but seeing at least fifty. Only one of the birds we saw was red-pouched.
That's it in the back of the picture below, behind the one that has its head straight up, stretching its beak and pouch. I read that they do this stretching exercise to keep their pouches supple for scooping up meals.
These guys, lined up on a neighbor's dock, must be tired from making so many of those twisting, turning plunge-dives.
I've noticed an apparent range of sizes in Brown Pelicans. Notice how much larger the one on the right seems to be than the other three.
This one reminds me of one of those old fashioned decorative doorstops---you would pick it up by the beak and prop it in front of the outside door to keep the wind from slamming it shut.
Not only have the Brown Pelicans gone through their seasonal changes in appearance, but so too have the American White Pelicans. In late winter they grow strange fibrous bumps or keels on their upper beaks. The color of the beaks change from yellow to pale pink and then bright orange. This white pelican floated placidly in the river not long after the the departure of the brown one pictured at the top of this post. Notice the river water is rippled now. It seldom stays as glassy still as it was early that morning.
On our boat trip downriver (we never made it as far as the bay) we scouted out not only pelicans, but other wading birds as well. A Long-billed Curlew waded in the shallow water along the edge (above).
The Arroyo Colorado, once an ancient tributary of the Rio Grande River, is now surrounded by agricultural fields. Below the Port of Harlingen it has been dredged and widened for use as a shipping channel off the Intracoastal Waterway. But small inlets and "old Arroyo" loops remain, wonderful places to ease a shallow-water boat into or paddle a kayak along. A narrow border of native scrub along the edge retrieves for a small space a remnant of habitat that once extended across the valley.
Sitting quietly in a boat in the shallow waters of a little inlet, you can watch a stand of ibises catch small wiggly crabs and pretend the arroyo scrub forest extends for miles and miles beyond the river.