Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pelicans at Plat I: November 30, 2011

Plat I ( ‘I’ is pronounced “eye”) is a little reservoir about twenty miles from where I live. All summer the reservoir has a nice supply of water. In mid October the Sutherlin ‘water master’ draws the reservoir down exposing a vast expanse of mudflat with a fraction of the water. In winter the reservoir catches heavy rains and keeps large areas of Sutherlin’s valley from flooding. The surplus of water can then be released in an orderly fashion. In the spring the reservoir is allowed to fill and provides water for irrigation. Meanwhile a variety of shorebirds, cranes, herons, waterfowl, and raptors enjoys the habitat.

Several great blue herons have their necks craned skywards when we arrive. A cormorant flies over. That couldn’t have spooked the herons, so I get out of the car and scan the sky – a golden eagle soars above.

Three white pelicans when we arrive. Soon seven more join them. Three years ago three white pelicans surprised us by hanging out and enjoying Plat I’s plentiful fish supply. The next year five pelicans came for a few weeks. This year we have ten!
The pelicans swim along the near edge of Plat I, feeding. They seem to be having good success. Brown pelicans usually plunge for fish from high over the water, but white pelicans fish from the surface. It always surprises me the shape of the two species is so similar, yet their feeding habits are so different. The white pelican is a much larger bird. It weighs about twice as much as a brown pelican and its wingspan is nine feet, one of the largest spans in the bird world. White pelicans normally swim in a group, herding fish, dipping their heads into the pond’s murky water and filling their large gular pouch beneath their lower mandible. The gular pouch is the flexible skin that hugs the pelican’s lower mandible and can expand to hold nearly three gallon of water. The trick is to suck fish in when filling the gular pouch. I watch a pelican as he dips, fills, and then drains the water from his pouch. I know he has caught a fish when he tips his bill upwards and gives a little extra flick as he swallows.

I get out my sketchbook and start out sketching peeps -- least sandpipers. They are bathing near me, little tiny egg beaters whirring away, sending a fine spray of water flying. They remind me of chickadees whirring away in our bird bath.
In the distance a louder sound grabs my attention: Whop! Whop! Flop! Whop! It sounds like Mama Sasquatch learning to swim. But no, it is something considerably smaller. Just a white pelican taking his bath.
After a thorough wetting the pelican swims to shore and starts to preen. After soon suns slips low over the reservoir, highlighting his whiteness.

The group of pelicans fishes their way towards some egrets. They are chasing egrets! One after another a pelican swims up to an egret. I think they were trying to pull tail feathers -- just like ravens sneak up to tweak an eagle’s tail feather! One pelican is enough to push one egret. One by one the egrets leave the area where they had been fishing and fly over to the southern section of Plat I.

Once the egrets have been cleared out peace settles in. Several common mergansers swim together. Cormorants preen along the muddy shoreline. All too soon a great blue heron gets too close to the pelican’s preferred feeding spot, it takes several pelicans flapping and chasing to move one great blue heron. The heron squawks and croaks as he splashes off, giving the pelicans 100 yards of space.

Evening's chill is seeping in. Time for us to head home.


  1. What wonderful sketches, Elva! And I learned a lot more about white pelicans - I'm so used to the habits of our brown pelicans here in SW FL. I love the graceful beauty you caught in the wings of the golden eagle as well, such delicacy!

  2. Elva, your sketches are great fun! I loved reading about the pelican bullying the others in the area.

  3. I missed this somehow. I love pelicans. We used to see them at the Beach in CA a lot ..I have yet to see one here. I will have to go read this all again but the art work is wonderful as usual. Do they ever go to the duck pond near by?

  4. Very nice, looking forward to following your blog