If you can remember back to the Gulf War, TV news showed us footage from nose cameras on the first generation smart bombs as they homed in and hit their targets. It is interesting to note we no longer are shown that type of footage, but that’s a different story. I shot a loose group of California brown pelicans hunting off Point Joe in Monterey yesterday, and it brought to mind those videos.
The pictures below illustrate how they hunt, still images reveal details you can’t see in real time. They find dinner not unlike smart bombs- first they visually acquire their prey. Then they transition from soaring into a high speed crash into the water. I’ve seen them just stop flying and fall from the sky, or they may gracefully ease into a dive. They hunt from different altitudes to match prey, sun angle and water conditions, from as low as a few feet off the surface to up over a hundred feet. At times they scream into the frigid Pacific completely vertical.
Before the dive they soar over their hunting grounds, which can be the open ocean, a bay or an estuary, looking for disturbances in the water’s surface or a more direct visual indication of fish. When they locate a likely area, which can easily be as big as 500 meters on a side, they patrol it back and forth, like mowing a lawn, or in lazy circles. On Elkhorn Slough they will find a spot of open water and work back and forth. They often hunt in small groups.
When seasonal schools of fish arrive in Monterey bay seabirds follow; cormorants, gulls, albatrosses, shearwaters, terns and pelicans. Each has their own hunting method and niche to fill.
One aspect of their hunting I was not aware of until I examined my images carefully is the rotation of their head as much as 180 degrees from the normal position as they strike the water. This enables them to keep prey in sight as they adjust the entry point up to the last millisecond, ensuring their beak is in the best position to trap the fish.
Unlike browns, their cousins the white pelicans are not dive feeders, they feed by cooperatively skimming small fish at the surface.
Whites are not seabirds, they feed inland, in lakes more than on the ocean, although I do regularly see them in harbors, bays and estuaries. They are considerably larger than browns but everything is to scale so the size difference is hard to appreciate unless you are close, but they are more wary of humans. If you ever get close, notice their bright orange legs, they resemble tree trunks.
Both species are very elegant animals, but browns are friendlier, more acclimated to civilization, much more tolerant and willing to share space with us. They can be found in harbors, bays, at river mouths and the open coast. Roosting is done in familiar locations, where they feel safest. If you know where to look they are easy to find, provided food is plentiful in the area. They can fly hundreds of miles a day and will follow the life cycle of the small fish they eat, moving up and down the coast.