A Trio of Fisherman

Gulf Coast Oil Rigs

Gulf Coast Oil Rigs

Although the birdwatching is great on the Alabama gulf coast during spring migration, I have never really had the opportunity to take advantage of the fun.  I’ve always been too busy for one reason or another. However, during this past spring I found time and made a short visit to Dauphin Island and the Fort Morgan peninsula. 

One of the treats on the gulf coast is to watch the antics of the brown pelicans.  In this case, some of these birds were cruising around the Fort Gaines area just after sunset. I didn’t really notice if any of these birds were actually fishing at this late hour with its attendant low light levels – I was busy trying to operate my new camera, a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

"Damn the Torpedoes" - Admiral David G. Farragut

"Damn the Torpedoes" - Admiral David G. Farragut

Admiral David G. Farragut, commander of the Union naval forces during a critical portion of the Battle of Mobile Bay.   To find out more about this exciting time, you should visit the Fort Morgan State Historic Site Musuem

Also, you should be aware that The Hummer Bird Study Group, Inc., operates a bird banding station each spring and fall at Fort Morgan, AL.  

The Fish Finder

The Fish Finder

When I spotted this lone brown pelican perched on a jetty, I decided to try to ease into camera range.  In my experience, resting brown pelicans are typically relatively sedate birds and seem willing to pose for a photographer.  

Low Level Approach

Low Level Approach

As I was snapping away, the pelican launched off the jetty, flew low for 15 to 20 feet and then plunged into the water after a fish.  I was somewhat surprised at the low level dive as I had generally pictured pelicans diving with abandon (i.e., falling like a rock) from 10 to 20 feet above the water’s surface.  

Taking the Plunge

Taking the Plunge

Bill agape, the pelican plunged into the water and apparently scooped up a fish.  I guess if it works, don’t knock it.  

Down the Gullet

Down the Gullet

Some fish or fish-like creature paid the price for swimming in possible shallow water near an acceptable pelican perch.  For this individual, life as a fish was ending and life as a pelican was beginning. 

My dad, on an annual basis when we took our summer vacation on the Mississippi gulf coast, would recite parts of the ditty about the pelican.  I have seen the complete poem, but I don’t remember the author or where I have “filed” my reference copy. So, with appreciation and apologies to the author:

 “A wonderful bird is the pelican,
  His bill can hold more than his bellican’
  …  …
  I don’t see how the hellican.” 

Return to Flight

Return to Flight

After successfully ingesting its prey and contemplating a job well done, the pelican lifted off the water, flapped low over the waves in a circle and flew back to its perch.  

Touchdown

Touchdown

Brer Pelican settled gently on his perch to start the process all over again.    

Joined by Friends

Joined by Friends

After a few forays, the pelican’s apparent success attracted the attention of some of his friends. I didn’t notice where these birds came from.  They may have been perched nearby or they may have been resting on the water.   Whatever the case, they clearly recognized a potentially good thing and dropped in to participate. 

Waiting in Line

Waiting in Line

I was so pre-occupied with trying to take these photos that I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on at the time.  The significance of these birds’ behavior only dawned on me after I had returned home and was reviewing my files. All three birds participated in this feeding episode, but they generally took turns, didn’t squabble, and maintained their dignity. 

The Fish – Return Flight – Stand in Line Rotation

The Fish – Return Flight – Stand in Line Rotation

Initially one bird would launch off the jetty, take a plunge, scoop up a fish, swallow, flap off the water, fly in the approved circular approach pattern, land on the jetty, and take its place in line again. One after the other, the three birds did this until some unspoken agreement was reached and they began to dive in pairs or all three at once. I can’t remember if this was exactly how it happened (concentrating on photos you know), but this was generally the sequence.       

Swallow, Plunge, Watch

Swallow, Plunge, Watch

Although my camera has both video capability and the capability to take a multi-burst of still photos, those features were so new to me at the time that I didn’t know how to use them.  Were I to encounter a similar situation in the future, a video recording would do wonders to help in identifying the individual birds and their respective behavioral sequences.   I would be willing to compromise on the quality of any individual photo in order to record the entire sequence as it happened.  That way I could accept or refute my current working hypothesis that these pelicans were cooperating. 

Two Gulps and a Gander

Two Gulps and a Gander

At this point, the unspoken agreement has been reached and the period of multiple plunges has begun.  

Close to Shore

Close to Shore

I have no idea what the water depth is here.  I initially presumed it to be shallow because it was so close to the shore, but the concrete  jetty blocks may indicate the presence of a former landing dock.  

Your Turn

Your Turn

The bird on the left has taken the plunge and the forward-tilted body position of   the bird on the jetty indicates that it is about to launch as well.  
  

The Fishing is Good! Come on In!

The Fishing is Good! Come on In!

Three fish are in serious trouble at essentially the same time.  

Back to the Perch

Back to the Perch

The fishing pelicans are reloading for another multi-burst of their own.   

Calm Before the Storm

Calm Before the Storm

Sad to say, these brown pelicans are in for potential tar ball trouble, if they haven’t already experienced it.   

Good Luck, Little Buddies

Good Luck, Little Buddies

As a kid on vacation on the Mississippi gulf coast during the late-1950’s to mid-1960’s, I remember seeing the occasional brown pelican either on the dock pilings or flying over the gulf waters. I was mainly interested in American Civil War history then and I didn’t pay much attention to birds.  As a result, I don’t know what the relative population levels of brown pelicans were at the time. I do remember that brown pelican numbers were down during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and that dredge spoil disposal areas used as nesting islands had a beneficial impact on their population.  During the 1990’s and 2000’s, brown pelicans seem to have been relatively common to abundant. 

Hopefully the oil spill and tarball situation won’t be catastrophic for brown pelicans (and others), but the outlook seems potentially grim.

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