Thursday, August 11, 2011

brown pelican ~ 08/11/11 ~ Wharf No. 2

It's taken me a while to sort through the different plumages of brown pelicans. It hasn't helped that many online sites and books have color and range descriptions that vary from each other and differ from my own observations. I have a suspicion that the color discrepancies are mainly due to the different subspecies of brown pelicans. Plus, some reputable sites (e.g., Cornell and The National Wildlife Federation) state brown pelicans migrate to central California for the winter. Hmm, really? Well, they are in Monterey during the winter, but based on my posts here on Nature ID, brown pelicans are most abundant from May to October. Of course, with all the heavy cold fog we've had lately, anyone could mistake summer for winter, right?

From what I've seen, juveniles have a brown head, neck, and back, yellow-dipped grey bill, and an obvious white belly, although it could be easy to miss if they're turned away. The first one above was quite the cute poser.

adult post-breeding California brown pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis californicus

I believe most adults have a dark body, including belly, ranging from brown to grey. Now, here's where it gets tricky - the adults have various color combinations from the neck up, depending on the time of year and maybe subspecies.

The adult color combination I've seen most is the post-breeding/chick-feeding version. The head is always white and sometimes has dark specks. The front of the neck is also white, but the back of the neck can be dark brown or grey as shown above. To see pictures of very distinctive brown hindnecks with grey bodies, see my May 21, 2009 post. They all look like they have a smear of orange lipstick on their grey bills.

I have yet to photograph a non-breeding pelican with an all white neck, which I think I've seen here in Monterey. I suspect I can catch them during late fall through winter. Many online pictures show yellow heads and sometimes yellow or orange bills.

The most elaborate color combination would be the breeding adult with a red throat pouch that often extends to the bill, yellow head, dark brown hindneck, and yellow base of foreneck. However, I have found online photos with black throat pouches, no brown hindneck, an even white bellies, but, again, those may be different subspecies or misidentified photos.

It may be unlikely that I'll be able to photograph a breeding adult around these parts. Don Roberson of Creagus and author of Monterey Birds recites a 1973 Baldridge paper documenting brown pelican nests on Bird Island at Point Lobos from 1927 to the last nests seen in 1966. Due to DDT use and its ban, El NiƱo conditions, and other factors like outright slaughter of thousands of pelicans by commercial fishermen, brown pelican populations have fluctuated dramatically over the past century. The US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered in 1970, 3 years before the Endangered Species Act was signed. It was delisted due to recovery in 2009. In 2000 breeding behavior was observed at Point Lobos, but according to a recent e-mail from Don there have been no successful nests since 1966. They breed in southern CA and northern Baja.

I've mentioned before that we rarely get to Point Lobos mainly because it is hugely popular and often too crowded for my hiking preferences. Plus, if you try to sneak in there before the posted times, they will fine you something like $250. For close-up viewing of pelicans, I stay in town, get out before the tourists wake up, and see them at any of the 3 piers/wharfs: Coast Guard Pier, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Municipal Wharf No. 2 as shown above.

ps 08/22/11 - We saw a couple all white-neck pelicans today. It looked like there was a shadow of the brown hood still. I wonder how many molts brown pelicans need to go through to get to each distinctive plumage stage. I'm hoping the pictures turned out.


Jennifer said...

Pelicans are one of my favorite birds. They look like little flying dinosaurs to me.

Allison said...

These are such quirky fellows. What a great post.

Matthew said...

Watching them dive into water that doesn't look nearly deep enough for them, those bills particularly, is always startling. Couldn't get enough of it in the British Virgin Islands last winter when there were a couple in the little bay we overlooked.

Joe said...

I love that pelican. They are so cool.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Jennifer, I'm always reminded of the last scene in the first Jurassic Park movie of pelicans flying low over the water, a reference to archaeopteryx.

Allison, do you see any kind of pelicans on your side of the world?

Matthew, lately it seems most of the pelicans I see are wet and shivering. There's been some concern about compromised pelican feathers possibly due to pollution in the waters.

Joe, again, congrats on your new blog!