Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

The Pelican Purlieu

I remember seeing an American White Pelican only once before. In May of 2014, I saw one crossing high above Union Bay. I remember thinking it looked like it was heading for Greenlake. I wonder if it was actually headed for Whidbey Island.

I spoke with Emily Martin while walking through the Arboretum last week. She mentioned that white pelicans have been seen repeatedly on Whidbey Island. Apparently they arrived around the end of Spring. My Sibley field guide shows white pelicans as a rarity in Western Washington, so I was immediately inspired by the idea of seeing them. 

Emily also sent me a link to an informative report on pelicans in the South Whidbey Record. The author quoted Dennis Paulson's suggestion that drought and climate change may be pushing pelicans to search for new breeding habitat. I also happened across a 2014 post by Dennis where he discussed white pelicans.

On Saturday afternoon, I finally got the chance to observe the white pelicans. Some were feeding occasionally but most were just preening and cleaning. Often they were slapping their partially-folded, nine-foot-long wings against the water. Which certainly seemed like an odd and very noisy way to take a bath.

They also tended to rotate and rub their heads over their backs and shoulders. 

Note: Given an average human physique, massaging your shoulders with the back of your head may not be a reasonable goal. Although, I occasionally see people who appear to be attempting the feat.

I suspect the pelicans must have a had a satisfying and successful morning of fishing, given their early afternoon focus on grooming. 

The tight-knit flock seemed surprisingly comfortable with a relatively small amount of personal space...

 ...especially given the size of their wings.

Even in a civil society occasional disagreements occur.

From this angle we can see a grey-brown dusting on the plumage of the bird who just arrived. I am uncertain whether the bird is changing into or out-of the darker plumage. In either case, the bird is not shy about wanting a dry place in the sun.

I found it almost shocking to see how easily the bird lifted it body into the air. I suspect it must have been the mighty wings that propelled it - rather than the those stubby little legs.

I find it interesting to note how the lower jaws appear to almost disconnect from their heads. Clearly, pelicans have some uniquely odd physical abilities. The white pelicans and their cousins, the brown pelicans, both seem to have to same basic body plan. Surprisingly, it is their behavioral differences which I find most obvious - even more than their contrasting colors.

Last Monday, after a number of days in the Olympic rainforest (which I plan to discuss more in a future post) my friend, Rob, and I stopped by Rialto Beach. The wind was blowing, the rain was spitting and the waves crashed against the shore. Nonchalantly, skimming the surface of the water were brown pelicans.

Occasionally, they would achieve a height of 20 or 30 feet before diving into the water.

The third bird from the previous photo left only a splash as it disappeared below the surface.

At Deer Lagoon, the white pelicans and their surroundings appeared calm, sunny and sedate.

They paddled about rather slowly and occasionally scooped up fish, usually with their heads completely below the surface. Only once was I able to observe an open and extended pouch.

Even then, I could not be sure if the dark spot in the pouch was actually a little fish or just piece of seaweed.

At Rialto Beach, the acrobatic brown pelicans floated past in the troughs between the waves. 

They seemed to be surfing. Without even flapping their wings, they were apparently transported on the air which was being pushed in front of the waves.

At Deer Lagoon, the acrobatics seemed limited to the single, 'pushy' pelican.

The objections to the pelican's intrusion appeared obvious - but without any real attempt at physical restraint or violence.

In fact, the bird who was pushed into the water appeared unperturbed. Plus, the bird on the left gets distracted and morphs its objections into to a personal back rub.

The white pelicans seemed surprisingly peaceful.

Maybe when you have a nine-foot wingspan, and the strength to go with it, you have to accept that a peaceful co-existance is actually your best shot at survival. 

I began wondering why these birds are white. It makes sense to me that the brown pelicans need camouflage to hide them from the predators who lurk below the waves, but how is being white beneficial? My theory is that in the past the white pelicans must have layed eggs in places where there was snow on the ground. During Spring in Canada or inland on either side of the Rockies their white feathers would then provide excellent camouflage. If my logic is correct, it seems obvious that these birds do not really belong around the practically snow-free Salish Sea.

On the other hand, maybe prior to climate change the area around the Salish Sea was not so snow free as it seems today.

Later, as I was leaving, and already quite some distance away, the pelicans decided to leave the salt-water, fly over the dike and land in the 'fresh' water. No doubt there are less predators to deal with at night, when you are in the middle of a huge, muddy lagoon.

Even in the air, the pelicans flocked together.

I was surprised at how close the could fly, without clipping their wings and sending themselves tumbling out of the sky.

Ultimately, they formed themselves into a single, perfectly-spaced line and flew directly over my head. 

They were so close I could only photograph one at a time.

If climate change is forcing these majestic creatures to look for new breeding locations, I feel like we should do whatever we can to help them. As for me, I could be riding my bike and taking the light-rail more often and driving less. Maybe this winter I will build a rain garden to keep the rain from running off our roof and polluting Puget Sound. Runoff washes oil, fuel and antifreeze into the water and kills young salmon and other fish on which the pelicans feed. 

I keep thinking my next car should be electric. I realize it would be using hydro-electricity, which does impact fish, but electric vehicles can also be sourced from solar, wind and other carbon-free options. I believe, future generations deserve to live in world with plentiful fish and pelicans.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where our water flows to the Salish Sea!


PS: If you are like me, and purlieu is a new word for you, here are some links to definitions which should get you in the right neighborhood:



  1. Congratulations, Larry, on your highly successful pelican quest at Deer Lagoon! The photos are wonderful.

    1. Dan, Thank you! I can admit to being fairly disappointed on Saturday morning just after dawn. I arrived just in time to see the pelican disappearing to the south. By the time I got the camera out they were all gone. Lucky for me, by the afternoon they had returned. I hope your busy Friday went well!

  2. Great post. I saw the whites over on the Columbia River, in the fall. It was a long time ago, but they are so big it was obvious what they were.

    Great photos.

    1. It is wonderful to have them nearby - to have our lives intertwined. I'm sure you agree that we need to focus on restoring healthy fish populations if our children and grandchildren are to have similar opportunities.

  3. Fabulous photos. I've lived part-time on Whidbey for 35+ years and never heard of White Pelicans being seen there. I never thought I'd see such a dramatic change in temperatures either. If you're a voter, vote yes on Initiative 732 which will tax carbon and lower the sales tax.
    Live green and prosper, Alan Roedell, Seattle and Langley, Whidbey Is.

    1. Alan, Thank you! For your comments and for caring about nature and the environment! Larry