About a week ago, I wrote about a brown pelican I’d seen on the beach at Little Talbot Island State Park, who seemed to old to properly catch a fish any longer. He’d lain down in the water and worked to scoop up what ever he could find in the shallows. It was very interesting, if a little sad.
Well, walking on the beach today, there were bait balls just off shore, and the birds were making good use of them.
The brown pelican probably has a 5 foot wingspan and weighs 30 pounds. They’re big, and as graceful as they can be skimming literally inches above the waves on the water, or riding the ridge lift along the dunes and condos on the beach. Today, they were hunting. This sequence of pictures, which I wish were in just a tad sharper focus, give you an idea of how they fish.
Scanning the water, when they see a fish, the bird pulls up and literally stalls like and airplane. They’ll fold up their wings behind them and fall like a dive bomber into the ocean. This is almost exactly the picture I wanted, thought I would have been just a bit cooler if I had gotten it just as the beak was hitting the water with most of the head still visible. But that’s not what I got, even with the auto shutter release. This is pretty cool, though.
When you’re fishing offshore, one of the things you look for is birds working the bait balls. A bait ball is basically a school of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of little fish that may have been schooled up by bigger fish. Big predators like kingfish and tarpon will school up bait fish and go on a feeding frenzy. Sometimes you can see the water looking like it’s literally boiling because the little fish are jumping out of the water trying to escape the big fish. It’s often a futile effort, because the birds are working the air superiority angle, and the big fish are prowling like submarines. Not a good place to be on the food chain.
It’s an amazingly graceful thing to watch. The pelicans and terns zigzagging back and forth across a little patch of sky, pulling up into a stall, then dropping like stones into the ocean. They pop up, sit briefly on top of the water, then take off to try again. The terns and gulls have a much easier time getting off the water than do the pelicans, which seem to lumber back into the air. But once they break the surface tension, achieve rotation speed, and tuck away the landing gear, they’re wonderful fliers.I shot about 150 frames today. I’ll get most of them posted on Flickr hopefully yet tonight. Over the summer, I’ll have to work on getting these guys in a bit better focus. I may have to go to (*gasp*) manual.
UPDATE: Photos are posted on Flickr. Enjoy.