Birding Column: Christmas With the Pelicans

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
December 23, 2003

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News BirdWatcher every fortnight or so.

On May 9, 2002, I was doing fieldwork north of Goleta, California, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and suddenly, what should fly past me but three brown pelicans—on a triple bunk bed in the air.

But fly isn't really the right word. Coast is closer to the truth, for they didn't flap at all! They just coasted by me at eye level, perhaps 200 feet (60 meters) above the beach, and continued south until they disappeared from view.

I vowed right then and there to get a closer look at these pelicans at my earliest opportunity. As it happens, I didn't get this opportunity until December 12 of that year, when I spent the morning photographing the brown pelicans at the Redondo Beach Pier, amid the fishermen, the locals, and the tourists.

As the pelicans landed on the wood posts that were placed along the railing, I was able to easily approach to about 33 feet (ten meters) for full-body shots of the birds, and to as close as ten feet (three meters) for close shots of the birds' heads.

The birds didn't seem to mind at all. In fact, they seemed to take pleasure in looking me (or rather, my camera) right in the eye—and believe me, they have a piercing glare! Remarkably, if I got too close, the bird would simply elevate off of the post and take to the air in that graceful fashion that only a pelican can exhibit.

A week later, on Christmas Day, I arrived at the pier at 8:00 a.m. in order to take advantage of the early morning sunlight, and after taking some long shots of the pelicans and cormorants that were just getting their day started on the breakwater rocks, I concentrated on the "early pelicans" that had arrived on the pier before their brethren—eager to mooch some bait off of the anglers or just to watch the people go by.

After a couple of hours, I got my "money shot"—an adult brown pelican in full profile, sitting calmly on a wood post, looking almost like a saucer with a head on it. But in the background, the top of one of the old-fashioned, green lampposts that line the pier is visible (though blurred), showing clearly that this wild bird is peacefully co-existing with man in close proximity.

If there ever were a great Christmas gift, this was it.

Footnote: In 1923, William Leon Dawson wrote of the brown pelican in his book The Birds of California, as follows: "Symbol alike of the sea's strangeness and of her prodigality, there is perhaps no other bird whose appearance would so perfectly assure the landsman that he had arrived as this uncouth Adonis of the oceanfront, the California Brown Pelican…For what, after all, is more adroit than the flight of a Pelican? With three or four leisurely strokes the bird acquires a momentum with which he can glide with incredible accuracy just above the surface of the water. Or if he is hunting at a higher level, the bird is able to check his momentum, to put on brakes midair, in less than the distance of his own length, and to plunge with the speed of thought upon his finny prey."

Previous columns by The Birdman of Bel Air:
New Bird-Watching Column: "The Birdman of Bel Air"
Bird-Watching: The California Towhee, Boldly Bland
Bird-Watching Column: At Home With Hooded Orioles
Birding Column: Scrub Jays Go Nuts for Peanuts

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