I have spent a great deal of time over the last ten years photographing cranes, herons, and geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. During that time, I have often thought of expanding my horizons to learn more about other birds, so I was delighted when the opportunity presented itself to photograph Brown Pelicans at La Jolla Cove near San Diego, California.
One of the first things that struck me about these ungainly creatures was their humorous behavior when they take a break from skimming the waves looking for dinner to rest on the bluffs along the shore. They can often be found in the company of cormorants and their interactions are sometimes pretty funny.
This one went through a series of gular gymnastics as a Double Breasted Cormorant looked on. The cormorant seemed unimpressed as the pelican turned himself nearly inside out.
Perhaps the most recognizable of the pelicans’ behavior is the stretching of their gular pouches in what has come to be termed the head toss. It’s not really a toss, but more of a steady extension of the neck until the bill is pointing straight up and the pouch is stretched. This is necessary to keep the pouch flexible and healthy. The trick in photographing this activity is catching a bird that is separate from all the others and in full view.
When you witness a head toss without knowing the reason behind it, you could be excused for believing these birds are a bit off kilter. Perhaps they’re howling at some unseen moon, or performing a weird pelican variation of the sun salutation.
Sleeping is a function that these birds perform with amusing inventiveness. The one-eye-open posture is one of my favorites. It’s as if they can’t quite trust that it’s safe for them to drift off. These two may have made a deal that they take turns napping and guarding each other.
And here is perhaps the most unique balancing act I witnessed over three days of watching these unpredictable creatures. He remained in this exact position for over an hour before standing to stretch his pouch.
One thing I have learned from all the time I have spent photographing birds is they are often synchronous in their movements and behavior, and pelicans are no different. These two were grooming on the bluff at La Jolla Cove. Even their feathers are in sync.
Four pelicans walk into a bar, one could care less, one thinks it’s all quite amusing, one is a bit embarrassed, and one is spoiling for a fight. Their antics endeared these birds to me. Watching them go about their daily routines had me smiling to myself almost constantly. I came away with a formative, but indelible image of these graceful, awkward, serious, comedic, eccentric birds.