THIS BIRDING LIFE: A Brown Pelican Feeding Frenzy

Story and Photos by Budd Titlow

A brown pelican soars high above the surf below that is boiling and churning with thousands of small fish. © Budd Titlow

A brown pelican soars high above the surf below that is boiling and churning with thousands of small fish. © Budd Titlow

If you’re an avid birder and/or photographer, I’m going to tell you about something that is the most fun you can have—as they say—with your clothes on! Here’s what happened.

I drove to Alligator Point’s Bald Point State Park this past Mother’s Day. I hoped to find flocks of shorebirds feeding on extensive tidal flats—since that’s what I typically see when I go to Bald Point. After pulling into the park’s northern end, I walked out to the beach. While I didn’t see much in the way of shorebirds, I did notice a flock of brown pelicans plunge-diving just past the surf line. The problem was, the pelican feeding activity was about one-half mile down the beach to the south. So I drove to the southern end of the park and walked out to the beach again. This time I could see the pelicans were about one-quarter mile back to the north. I took one more shot and drove back to the park’s middle lot. Jackpot—the pelicans were now just a hundred yards or so away from me.

As I walked down the beach toward the birds, I noticed an interesting phenomenon just beyond the breakers. The water’s surface was literally boiling with the frenetic activity of thousands upon thousands of small fish. Putting two–and–two together, I realized that this was what the pelicans were feeding on. So I stopped, prepped my camera for live action, and waited. Sure enough, here they came—right toward me from both directions. About 50 brown pelicans in all that were engaged in a display of aerial bombardment that would make any military squadron commander beam with pride. In fact, the activity was so fast and furious that I had trouble deciding where to point my camera. Two pelicans here—three over there—several more cruising just above the waves. And all were performing their kamikaze-like slanting crashes down into the water about every thirty seconds.

After zeroing in on his selected prey, a brown pelican crashes into the surf to first stun and then scoop his next meal. © Budd Titlow

After zeroing in on his selected prey, a brown pelican crashes into the surf to first stun and then scoop his next meal. © Budd Titlow

Here’s why brown pelicans make such spectacular crashing dives into the surf. They don’t actually scoop fish into their bill pouches when they hit the water. Instead, they use the force of their big and bulky—for birds, at least—bodies smashing down into the water to stun fish. Then they scoop up their disoriented finny prey, drain the water from their pouches, and gulp the fish down.

Plus there’s this interesting tidbit: According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” web site, a brown pelican—making dives from as high as 65 feet—always tucks its head and twists its body to the left to protect its trachea and esophagus—found on the right side of the neck—from the force of the impacts. Aha, now I understand why I can never seem to get a square-on photo of a diving pelican actually entering the water!

Other birds often contribute to the fun of a pelican feeding frenzy. Some of the avian world’s most skilled opportunists, gulls like to hang around the feeding pelicans and then steal fish right out of the pelicans’ pouches. In a comic twist, gulls may even perch on the pelicans’ heads while pilfering their prey.

Brown pelicans are now commonly seen along our Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, this bird is another species that we can thank Rachel Carson and her landmark work, Silent Spring, for saving from the brink of extinction. Because of the elimination of the scourge of DDT, we all now have the opportunity to experience the delightful bliss that comes from watching a brown pelican feeding frenzy.

 

About Budd Titlow

A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist, Budd Titlow is an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer/author currently living in Tallahassee, Florida. He has authored four books, including PROTECTING THE PLANET—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1633882256), BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), and SEASHELLS—Jewels from the Ocean (ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3). He is currently writing weekly birding photo-essays for the Tallahassee Democrat, teaching ecology-birding-photography courses for Florida State University, and serving as President-Elect of Apalachee Audubon Society. Budd’s work is featured on his web site (www.buddtitlow.com).


 

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