Want to Come to a Pelican Party?
March 31, 2017 ~ On a recent trip to the Texas City Dike, a group of Brown Pelicans came in against the wind to land on the exposed wave barriers near the largest boat ramp. It is the site of some long-gone establishment devastated by Hurricane Ike and one of our favorite places on the dike. Bill Maroldo worries they will remove the rusted barriers someday, but I think they are spending their budget on dredging and dune building. But, for now it is a perfect place to sit on a crate with your tripod rig and catch the birds landing and leaving almost at eye level.
As the Brown Pelicans landed and preened one after another, I started noticing how different they looked due to age and breeding transitional stages. In general, the breeding adult Atlantic Brown Pelicans have a dark brown neck and nape, white head with yellowish face and a pale bill with dark throat pouch. The non-breeding adult has a white head and neck. The juvenile birds are dull gray-brown all over, with white belly and dull yellow-gray bill; the pouch gets darker as they age. This is per CornellLab Ornithology All About Birds. Be careful with your Googling about pelicans as some articles seem to be written for the Pacific race of birds that develop a red pouch during breeding season.
We talked about breeding plumage in Brown Pelicans in an earlier blog, where I discussed that our Brown Pelicans are of the Atlantic race. About 10-15% of the Brown Pelicans we see on the Gulf Coast have bright red pouches during breeding season due to introduced birds of the Pacific race to boost population during the DDT days and/or natural progression of the Pacific race across Central America and then up the Gulf coast of Mexico and to Texas.
This might have been one of the youngest Brown Pelicans that came to the barriers. Brown Pelicans are born white and develop brown feathers as they age. This youngster has gray feet and legs, white belly and solid brown eyes. His bill is light gray with some yellow and his gular pouch looks dark from this angle.
Here is another youngster because they are just so cute. His pouch looks rather light as the sun shines through it. This one's feet look to be a bit darker and he has a nice sprinkling of brown feathers along his flanks. Or her flanks. The males are 10-15% heavier than the females but I doubt there is any size difference when they are this young.
This growing bird has darker brown feathers and is developing a whiter head. Note that his feet are now black and his eye is blue but he still has a white belly. His pouch is not dark gray but rather olive. Or greenish-black.
This is a non-breeding adult. The yellow head is there, blue eye and his belly is now brown. But he is lacking the dark brown streak down the back of his head and neck. He has some dark feathers peeking through, so maybe he is working on it. If he is transitional, then he better hurry. Our Brown Pelicans start laying eggs on islands off the coast in February with records of eggs from that month to as late as July. Most pelicans are incubating eggs by mid- to late March. By late May most eggs have hatched and white-feathered flightless young dominate the colony. (from the Texas Breeding Atlas).
Brown Pelicans can breed as early as two years, but most are three to four years old before they find a mate.
This one definitely has the rich brown streak and all the other markings of a breeding adult... except his head is completely white instead of the characteristic bright yellow face. And his pouch looks greenish-black.
The one has the brown back of neck stripe with dark coloration extending to the front. There is a small yellow spot at the base of his neck, and his forehead and face is bright yellow. His pouch is dark greenish-black. He has black feet and bright blue eyes. This is definitely a breeding adult Brown Pelican Atlantic race according to all the literature.
So is this one with his bright golden pouch. Yes, I know the light can play tricks, but his bill looks lighter than the one above and in all the images in the series (even with the light coming from the other side), the pouch is more of a gold than the darker greenish-black on other breeding pelicans. Bill Maroldo has photos from years past of Brown Pelicans with distinctive golden pouches.
And here he has obligingly turned to show you the requisite rich brown neck stripe. And the pouch looks more gold than dark green at this angle, too.
And this preening breeding adult with red pouch is one of the few with Pacific race genes. We look hard for them at Texas City Dike and other places and do see a few.
He was doing some strange scratching here but you can get a good look at his red pouch. The uppermost part of the pouch is olive green. Or greenish black.
These three Brown Pelicans were watching the fishermen clean their catch at the first boat ramp at the Texas City Dike. The first bird is classic Atlantic breeding plumage, the middle bird has the rare Pacific red pouch and the bird on the right has the brown neck stripe, but his head only has a smidgen of yellow. Their long bills look to have the same coloration.
Makes me wonder about the white-headed Brown Pelicans with the brown neck stripes. Is the yellow face the last to change? Doesn't seem to be the case with the one I showed you above that has a yellow face and obvious signs of growing brown feathers on his neck. Or her neck. Do the males and females change plumage at different rates? Or is the yellow face related to actual incubation?Non-breeding Brown Pelicans have completely white heads and necks. Are these without yellow heads transitioning out of breeding plumage? I have seen them transition out, but it is always much later in the summer. Too many unanswered questions. Do you have any answers?
We can safely say there is enough variation in the Brown Pelican plumage during the breeding season to keep you busy getting shots of each kind. Or just concentrate on group shots like the pelican party above.
I notice on Facebook that a lot more folks are going to the Texas City Dike to photograph birds. It is a fun place and pretty dependable. The Laughing Gulls are starting to mate and the terns are beginning to show breeding colors and behavior. If you want to read up on terns in preparation of a trip, try A Tale of Three Fishes. I photographed that action the end of last April, so you have some time.
Have you made a trip to the Texas City Dike? Did you go during the week so you don't have to pay the fee? or deal with all those fishermen? Let me know in the comments below.