On the Fly – A Wonderful Bird

A look at the wealth of bird life in and around Martinez, what to look for and where

This week’s column was supposed to be about pelicans, but it’s turning out to be about confusion. First, there is the poem from which the title came:

 A wonderful bird is the pelican,

His bill will hold more than his belican.

He can take in his beak

Food enough for a week,

But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

I thought the famous American poet Ogden Nash (1902–1971) wrote this, but it turns out the less famous poet and humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt (1879–1972) wrote it. It’s a memorable limerick, but he got something wrong. Pelicans do catch fish with those huge bills, but they don’t store them. They swallow their catch right away, except when some other bird comes along and swipes it.

Usually we see pelicans along the Martinez shoreline this time of year—I’m hoping they’ll arrive by the time this column appears. If they do, they’ll probably be congregating on the large sandbar west of the marina and near the wreck of the Forester, or gliding along as if there were no gravity. I wonder how far a pelican can go on just one flap of that nine-foot wingspan.

This year, maybe because of the weather, there were pelicans here earlier. You can see them in the first photo, taken at our very own duck pond on May 1. These are American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos), not to be confused with brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), which are the ones we usually see at the coast. Well, I always thought all pelicans were coastal, but it turns out that many white pelicans spend their summers in huge colonies inland, at freshwater and brackish lakes from Salt Lake to the Northwest Territories. They winter at the Pacific coast and the Gulf of Mexico, but not at the shore; they prefer lakes and estuaries.

What are they doing here, then? The National Audubon Society reports that pelicans have recently been summering at Suisun Marsh and may eventually begin to breed there. So I guess they come over to Martinez when the fishing’s good. Unlike brown pelicans, they don’t dive for fish, they just swim along and scoop them up. That’s what they were doing in May. I saw three of them floating along side by side, looking like something from a carousel. Slowly and gracefully, they would dip their bills into the water in solemn unison and then lift them back out again, let the water drain out, and swallow the fish they caught. White pelicans fish in groups like this when they can, driving the fish along and to each other. According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, “capture rates are highest during coordinated fishing.” How do people figure things like this out? The pelicans like perch, chub, trout, carp, crayfish, and large salamanders.

It’s not altogether surprising that pelicans would summer at Suisun Marsh. Before the streams of the Central Valley were diverted for agriculture and development, it was a three-hundred-mile expanse, from Chico to Visalia, of interconnected ponds, marshes, and pools. Tulare Lake, which no longer exists, was the largest freshwater body in the West, at eight hundred square miles. American white pelicans bred there as late as 1941 and in the sloughs of the Sacramento River.

The Internet is full of unexpected pelican sightings around California, and there is that good news about the Suisun Marsh. My friend Lynn has been seeing and photographing pelicans along the river near Chico this summer. There are so many factors that affect the behavior of wildife, from predictable weather patterns to climate change, to changes in the species they prey on (and vice versa), from degraded habitats to improved circumstances. So it’s hard to say, but maybe our increased awareness of the importance of wetlands is paying off. Let’s hope.

Chris Kapsalis June 25, 2011 at 11:29 PM
I remember when I was young in Chico a man said look. He pointed up and said that was a California Condor, and that it would probably be the last time I ever saw one. Sad. It was. I was up in the hills above Chico and a Bald Eagle flew by about 300 feet above me just soaring along, off to who knows where. We were hiking and saw a Red Tail Hawk come down and grab a rattle snake right in front of us. It was too heavy and it dropped it. Then cam back and grabbed it with his foot and bit it in two and carried off half of it. Amazing. I remember when I was young the endless formations of water birds flying above. Thousands of them. You hardly see that anymore. Canary in a coal mine comes to mind, because birds tell us first if something is wrong, and something is wrong with the health of earth right now. And fish do as well. We need to listen. We need to notice what it is telling us. And we cannot lose these wonders of nature.
Tamara Gerlach June 26, 2011 at 03:50 PM
Great article and pictures Jeannine. Thank you for the reminder to enjoy the beauty all around us in Martinez. We are so fortunate to have a vibrant waterfront...and echoing Chris, let's pay attention and keep it that way. Love the limerick even though it is factually flawed :)
Scott Williams June 26, 2011 at 04:08 PM
Wonderful article Jeannine. We saw a whole flock of pelicans flying above our marshes last week when we were kayaking out there. I don't know if they were browns or whites, but they were majestic, like a little squadron of planes all flying in formation. Beautiful. And thanks for the limerick. I didn't know it was of American origin as my English grandfather used to say it to us kids when we were young. Like so many of his little poems, I assumed it was British.
Lisa Gorrell June 26, 2011 at 04:47 PM
I saw the white pelicans in the marsh on a trip to Davis on the Capitol Corridor train last month. What a beautiful sight as they flew in unison along side of the train.
Jeannine Gendar June 26, 2011 at 07:44 PM
Thanks for the comments, everyone! And they did show up today, right on the duck pond.
Lynn Jacobs June 26, 2011 at 08:22 PM
Nice, Jeannine. I have so enjoyed watching these guys out on the river. They are so very social, and just seem to be talking everything over as they stand there on the sandbar. I love the video you included!


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