Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Eastern Brown Pelican

There are four subspecies of brown pelican, two of which are found in the U.S.: (1) the California brown pelican, found along the Pacific coast of California, and (2) the Eastern brown pelican, found along the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. The adult brown pelican has a grayish brown body with a dark belly, a white head and neck, and a yellow crown. During courtship their colors become more vibrant: the chest and head colors become golden, the yellowish gray eyes turn blue and the skin around the eyes turns pink. Only the California brown pelican has the throat pouch turn bright red with a darker chestnut hind neck. The Eastern brown pelican gets a black throat pouch and rarely any red.  

Note the colors on these two Eastern brown pelicans in the pictures above (white head and neck with yellow crown and dark belly) and then compare them to the California brown pelican during mating season here. The California brown pelican shows a more vibrant yellow crown and the distinctive red on the pouch and darker chestnut hind neck which distinguished the subspecies.
Of eight species of pelican, the brown pelican is one of only two pelican species that dive for food (the other is the Peruvian pelican).

While visiting Sanibel Island, Florida and the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge I came across a group of Eastern brown pelicans involved in what looked like synchronized diving. As I watched them over the course of about twenty minutes, I was joined by people from 15 or 20 different cars, all stopped to watch the amazing display. At one point three of the pelicans formed a small tight-knit group. They would arise noisily out of the water at the same time, flapping their wings furiously, would get about 50 feet in the air, and then dive-bomb into the water, bill first, all at the same time, still grouped closely together. The water would explode, then boil and churn with activity, then the pelicans would arise fully to the surface again, only to duplicate the ritual again in short order. It was one of my most fun bird watching experiences ever.
Three brown pelicans grouped closely together.
Arose out of the water at the same time - the wake of the third is just visible to the bottom right of the photo.
After getting some height, they dive-bombed together, bill first, back into the water.
The water boiled and churned with activity.
Then they returned to the surface, sifting through the contents in their bills, before collecting themselves and starting the same ritual all over again. 
I loved to watch the pelicans in flight. The large wings quite capably carried their big bodies and huge bills quite gracefully.

Note the dark belly.

Then to seem them tuck into a "W" kamikaze formation, bill first piercing the water, was spectacular. 

After seeing such acrobatics, it does not seem quite right to see one standing squat and immobile, Chris Christie like, on a mud flat. 


  1. Chris Christie like? Ha ha!
    "A funny old bird is the pelican..."

  2. "....His beak can hold more than his bellican"