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Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Obsession of Pelicans

It is almost impossible to look toward the river these days and not see a pelican.  Brown Pelicans fish along the river all day long, sometimes flying so low that their primary wing feathers barely clear the water, and sometimes rising high into the air and then plunging into the water beak-first, twisting as they dive and popping up facing the opposite direction. In a previous post, I noted that a group of pelicans is called a squadron, a pod, a scoop, or a pouch.  Sometimes I think that the collective noun for my pelicans should be obsession, for that is what they seem to have become for me!)

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).

A small group of  White Ibises caught crabs in a small inlet.   (The collective noun for a group of ibises is a congregation or stand or wedge.  I'll say that we saw a stand of ibisis.  These guys were standing but also hopping and shuffling and probing in the shallow water for small wiggly crabs like the one grasped in the beak of the ibis in this photo. Click to enlarge if you can't see the crab.You can tell it has just been caught because the churned up bubbles are still on the surface of the water. )

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.


KaHolly said...

Doesn't that sound heavenly?! I wonder what it would be like if they hadn't made all those changes to the habitat to accomodate man's needs. I wonder if there is a group in TX that you could find out more about the pelican with the red pouch. Do you subscribe to any TX Rare Bird Alerts? I saw a long-billed curlew on a visit to S. TX in the spring of '06, but it was so long ago, I need to see another one or two!! I certainly enjoyed today's post! ~karen

ksdoolittle said...

I love the doors stop photo! I've awarded you a Sunshine Award. Check the details on my blog and feel free to pass it on.

Mary C said...

Hi Kay -- I didn't realize that the brown pelican here in CA shows a different color pouch (assuming that is when it's in breeding plumage?). I'll have to be more observant next time when I visit either Santa Cruz or Monterey -- that's where I usually see the brown pelicans. I've seen white pelicans in various geographical places -- I've seen them at the Bosque del Apache as well as here in CA. I usually see them more in bayland waters whereas I usually see the brown pelicans out on the ocean, near the shoreline. Are the white pelicans more like "fresh" water birds?

Kay said...

Hi, Mary--Yes, I think White Pelicans are more commonly on lakes and shallow lagoons or bays such as the Laguna Madre near us. When a cold front comes through in the winter the White Pelicans move up the river from the bay and we see them from our windows. Some will stay for the summer but most go north. Brown Pelicans are on the ocean side of South Padre Island and White Pelicans on the bay side. Let me know if what you observe about the breeding coloration of your California Brown Pelicans.
Thanks for your comment!

Kay said...

I forgot to say that we are now (April) seeing many fewer Brown Pelicans on the river. (Our river is brackish, a combination of fresh and salt water.) They have probably moved on out further toward the bay where they nest on islands and spoil banks (we are about 10 miles from the Laguna Madre by river).