Article and Photography by Cynthia Hedgecock, Field Contributor
I am fascinated by pelicans. Watching their incredible plunge diving is as exciting to me as watching the Blue Angels flying team, and much quieter. Their awesome ability to skim just inches above the waves and water, seemingly forever, is mesmerizing. But in years of watching pelicans, I had neither heard of nor seen stalking behavior.
I recently witnessed this remarkable pelican behavior at Famosa Slough, a 37 acre wetland in San Diego, California. The slough is flushed by salt water from a river channel and by rainwater from the surrounding uplands neighborhood. It is a shallow, marshy area, mostly protected by fencing, with trails for the public. Nearby apartments and traffic are close but the birds ignore them. The slough serves as a protected flyover, and is a nesting and feeding area for many species of birds, including the California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus).
The water depth is tide dependent, as the slough is fed from a side channel from the San Diego River as it leads out to the ocean. The slough also receives rainwater from the surrounding neighborhood, but drought conditions in San Diego make this a minor contribution. The slough is bisected by a busy street, which serves to separate two distinct areas – the 12-acre northern channel portion and the 25-acre southern portion, which is more pond-like. The southern portion was acquired by the City of San Diego in 1990. Both areas are accessible to the public by a trail, and the restoration of native habitat is actively underway. See www.famosaslough.org.
The Brown Pelican is the smallest member of seven species of pelicans; the California Brown Pelican is one of two United States subspecies. It was listed as endangered in October, 1970, when the eggshells became so thin from DDT ingestion by the parents that the eggs would be crushed in the nest before the babies would hatch. Thanks to environmental efforts, DDT usage has been severely restricted and the California Brown Pelican is now seen all over the California coast.
The pelican is easy to locate and identify, measuring about four feet from bill to tail, with a seven-foot average wingspan. It is one of California’s largest marine birds. The birds weigh between eight and tw elve pounds, and must push off the water with their webbed feet as their powerful wings lift the heavy body into the air.
In the well-known plunge diving behavior, the pelican circles his hunting area from high above, soaring on wind currents. Amazingly, he can see his prey through the reflective water surface, sighting reflections off of the silvery scales of the fish below. After spotting the fish, the bird becomes an arrow, pointing downward with his long beak, wings tucked up tight and feet pointed backwards. He pierces the water with an audible splash, the impact cushioned by air sacs in his chest. He uses his pouch to scoop up the fish and swallows it whole after rising to the surface of the water.
In shallower waters, the pelican uses a totally different technique which I call stalking or lunge-diving. When the water is deep enough to paddle, the bird advances until choosing his prey, then rises into the air high enough to extend his wings into a full “V”, then arches and with his pouch open and head turned sideways, he lunges into the shallow water and comes up with his fish. The pelican seems to capture his fish sideways and then extends his neck and pouch and tosses his head until the fish is reali gned and can be swallowed. The fish is not always cooperative!
On the shallower mudflats, the birds are actually walking on the mud, through the water. They stalk their prey with stealth. They lower their necks and pouches down into their body and then extend the neck forward along the water until a fish is sighted. Then the wings rise for stability and the head and neck shoot into the water to capture the selected fish. Again, the head and pouch rise until the fish can slide down the gullet.
Pelicans are wonderful birds to photograph in action and I always enjoy finding a location where they are actively feeding and flying. Famosa Slough is particularly beautiful in the late afternoon light, and as I am currently restricted to a 75-300mm 5.6 IS lens with my Canon 40D, the birds are not too far away with careful focus and a steady tripod. However, they move fast, and can quickly overfill the viewfinder when directly approaching the photographer. Automatic focus is often too slow and manual focus is an awkward art while panning and opening the lens simultaneously!
Keeping the eye in focus is a challenge, and just when you have it set, the bird lifts off to feed in a far off area! I find the AI servo function too slow and use the center point AF to focus on the eye, with varying success. I keep practicing.
For the photographer, the early morning or late afternoon light here coincides with feeding time. When the water is still there are beautiful reflections.
In the morning, the inflow area is crowded with herons and egrets, cormorants and ducks. Thousands of baby fish can be seen at the water’s edge. Across the highway, in the north part of the slough, an old rotten bridge sits where it on ce crossed the channel, and makes a picturesque reflection with the herons and smaller birds that ofte n sit on or under it. There are more reeds and plants on this side; the pelicans prefer the pond area on the south side. The hour before the sun slips behind the s urrounding buildings also seems to be a time when the pelicans have less competition from herons and egrets.
Friends of Famosa Slough report nearly 180 bird species have been sighted. Commonly observed are the California Brown Pelican, the Giant Egret and other egret species, the Great Blue Heron, the Green Heron, and the Little Blue Heron. Others include the Belted Kingfisher, the osprey, several terns, cormorants, avocets and stilts and many, many ducks , The water quality is regularly tested and reported as good. And in the midst of rushing cars, fire engines, and busy people, the pelicans have adapted their behavior to stalk the silvery bounty of the shallows.