Some call him Harvey, others prefer the more exotic Da Vinci, but we’re not even sure it’s a “he.” We do know that on Dec. 11 a brown pelican made an appearance at the Clinton ferry dock, the first pelican ever recorded in Saratoga Passage. Immediately, reports of the juvenile pelican hit the birding hotwire. I high-tailed it down to the dock and easily spotted it perched atop the pilings on the south side of the south ramp. Later, this crowd pleaser headlined as the first pelican recorded on a Whidbey Island Christmas Bird Count.
Adult brown pelicans are four feet long with bulky brown bodies, white heads and rich chestnut brown on their long necks. Young Harvey had an all-over brown body with a few flecks of white on the back.
These birds have a very long gray bill with a large pouch of skin that can hold three gallons of water. The birds plunge-dive headfirst into the water to capture prey in their long bills, which act like a net to scoop up water and fish. When they emerge from the dive, the water drains out the sides of the bill. The successful hunter then tosses back its head and swallows the fish whole.
Gulls may gather around to scavenge prey and often steal it out of the pelican’s pouch. In fact, they will perch on the pelican’s head and wait for just the right moment to grab a fish. And the pelican itself may snatch food from other seabirds and hang around docks for handouts.
So why is there a brown pelican where we haven’t seen them before? There are several possible contributing factors.
This species is very common along the outer Pacific Coast from South America on up into Washington as far north as Grays Harbor and in smaller numbers all along the Washington coast. Beginning in the late 1990s, the occasional brown pelican was recorded off the west side of Whidbey, usually in July and August. Since then, they have wandered into Puget Sound more frequently. This is the first one to stick around Whidbey for more than two days.
I never learned if it was accepting handouts, but visitors often feed the gulls from the ferry. Even without handouts, the pelican could have been attracted to the ferry dock because of the presence of other sea birds.
Large rafts of scoters hover around both the Clinton and Mukilteo docks while gulls perch atop pilings and cormorants sit on the water and dive for food. The brown pelican likely knew that if other birds survived in the area, it might find food as well.
There is speculation that temperature changes in the coastal waters down south where the birds are more abundant (perhaps the result of climate change) are sending the pelicans north in search of food.
Unlike most all other birds that incubate their eggs by warming them with a brood patch on the breast, brown pelicans stand on their eggs to keep them warm stretching their webbed toes around the eggs. The adults take turns incubating the two or three eggs for about a month.
In the first half of the 20th century the presence of the pesticide DDT caused the shells of some birds to become thin. The pelican’s incubation strategy made them vulnerable to cracked eggs and severe declines were reported across the birds’ range along both the East and West coasts. The bird was listed as endangered throughout its range in 1970.
Now, with much of the DDT removed from our environment, more eggs are hatching and chicks fledging and the population has sprung back. Brown pelicans were removed from the endangered species list and today the population exceeds historical levels.
It appears that Harvey has moved on; he hasn’t been sighted for a couple weeks. My guess is that the feeding was not dependable at the ferry dock and the bird has wandered somewhere else.
We are only beginning to understand the interactions and reactions of the complex natural world. Climate change adds an additional layer of uncertainty. Harvey’s appearance can’t help but alert us to how sensitive birds are to changes in food sources and climate. Perhaps he is reminding us to renew our efforts to create and preserve a clean and healthy environment.
Maybe he’ll return sometime soon.
Frances Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.