It’s hard to imagine traveling to Baja California without thinking of the Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis. This ubiquitous seabird inhabits the entire coastline of Baja California and the Sea of Cortez (And other coastal areas in the Pacific and Caribbean) and is often seen flying in long elegant formations, with their wingtips just touching the cresting waves or perched on a panga preening their ruffled brown plumage.
Worldwide there are seven species of pelicans. The Brown Pelican is unique among them due in large part to their feeding strategy – it is the only pelican species to dive from the air into the water to catch its prey with its specialized beaked pouch. Other pelicans use an on-the-water group strategy to trap fish when feeding. For many Baja traveler’s there’s nothing more entertaining than watching Brown Pelican’s perform their sometimes graceful, sometimes ungainly dives while attempting to catch a meal.
Brown Pelicans form colonies, usually on islands, and build nests in small bushes or on the ground. The nests are made of small sticks and are usually flat rather than cupped like nests of other birds. During nesting season they produce one to four eggs which the adults incubate, not with their breast as with other birds (using what is known as a brood patch), but with their webbed feet. After hatching the young are dependent on parental care - The parents regurgitate their catch to feed them until they are able to leave the nest and feed on their own.
In 1970 Brown Pelicans were listed as Endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to heavy use of DDT in the mid 20th century. The DDT caused thinning of the pelican’s eggs shells and, because of the unique incubation strategy described above, many eggs were crushed or cracked causing a population wide and near total failure to reproduce.
Since the ESA listing and banning of DDT in the United States the Brown Pelican has recovered dramatically and its numbers have reached, if not exceeded, its former numbers. Along coastal California and Baja California it is estimated that there are over 70,000 breeding pairs. Due to this recovery, the U.S. Interior Department in early 2008 proposed a delisting of the Brown Pelican from its ‘Endangered’ status – A delisting also supported by prominent scientists who have studied the Brown Pelican over the last several decades.
The best time to observe Baja’s feeding pelicans is in the early morning or late evening, up to and just past sunset. If you’re lucky, you can simply sit on the beach and watch the show take place right in front of you. If the pelicans are feeding in the distance a pair of 7x35 or 8.5x42 binoculars will help get you closer to the action. (More on Baja bird watching techniques in a future Baja Insider Eco Tale).
Because of their prominence along coastal Baja, Brown Pelicans may easily be taken for granted. Pelicans, however, can show the inquisitive Baja traveler the richness of the sea and estuarine habitats they depend on as well as the evolutionary uniqueness that has allowed them to survive for at least 30 million years. They also now represent an eco-political success story - A story that will hopefully be told to the next generation of Baja travelers.
By Greg Joder