Sunday, October 30, 2016

Urps, Burps, and Splashes: Brown Pelicans and Harbor Seals

Bandon Oregon ... at the mouth of the Coquille River:  October 23 

It has been about three weeks since the last hot day of summer, but I’m still savoring every cool, damp day that comes along.  This morning was mostly grey, damp, hardly any wind, and cool, but not cold.  We hiked a path at a coast campground in the morning and now, after lunch, have parked on the jetty at the mouth of the Coquille River, just across from the Bandon Lighthouse (correctly known as the Coquille River Lighthouse).  I jump out of the car full of expectation. The sky is still grey and damp.  A breeze is just starting to kick in.  A quarter of a mile away I see big breakers stumble into an aqua roll as they crash into the shoreline.  Their sound is muffled, blown away by the breeze.  

The pelicans are here!  I see at least a hundred brown pelicans: on the river, perched on rocks and pilings, and a few in the air.   When I look towards the ocean I see half a dozen more trickling their way south along the coast.  These fly by the mouth of the river and head to Table Rock, a big island just off shore.  It is hard to find a pelican along the Oregon coast in the summer time.  They nest far to the south, but, after nesting, many come north for late summer.  Now it is time for them to head back to warmer waters. 
Five pelicans come flying upriver and splash down across from me and next to half a dozen other pelicans.  It is splash and bath time.  Water flies as their monstrous large wings whop the water.  Lots of head dipping and ruffled feathers.   
Three more join.  The pelicans still have most of their breeding colors – their gular patch (throat) is red; lemon yellow glows on their heads; their upper bill is reddish and their lower bill is dark bluish grey.  Beautiful!  Soon the bright colors will dull until the next breeding season.

I realize there is a pattern to what is going on in front of me.  Every so often a small group flies in from the coast and on up the river where they splash down in front of me.  After a through splashing in the relatively fresh water (versus the salt water of the ocean) the pelicans lumber back up into the air.  Brown pelicans are a heavy bird. They are the smallest of the pelicans, even so they weight up to twelve pounds and can have a wingspan of eight feet.  Big!  Their long wings give them the amazing ability to fly just above the surface of either the big waves or the river with only an occasional flap. 

Off goes one, splashing with his webbed feet until he is air born.  But he doesn’t head back to the ocean; instead he flies a little farther upriver joins about a hundred others where low tide has exposed multiple rocks and old pilings. The one I’m watching, along with three buddies, splash down near the rocks and quickly climb onto the rocks.  Time to preen.  Keeping feathers in good shape is an important of part every bird’s day.  The pelicans take their time fluffing and buffing. 

Near the pelicans a harbor seal is acting in a most peculiar way.  He come up tail first and crashes back down.  At first I think it is just an anomaly.  Three or four big thrashes, and then all is quiet again.  But there he goes, doing it again.  Lots of seal grunting going on over there too:  grunts, belches, burps.  Noisy fellows.    Twenty or more harbor seals are hauled out on low rocks nearest the river channel. 
The tide is coming in, easing the seals off their rocks one by one.  I chuckle at how the seals try to stay as long as possible on their haul-out rocks.  They look like fat potato chips curling their tail flippers and head up more and more, trying to keep tender parts out of the water.  Finally one wave, just a little higher than the last floats the seals off one by one.  The seal on the highest rock is last to go.  Seals are well insulated, well prepared to cope with the cold Pacific water; but they obviously enjoy their cozy sleepy time too. 

I switch back and forth between seal watching and pelican watching.  Pelicans continue to fly in for a quick bath on the river, then fly over to the low rocks for the fluff and buff time.  Finally, small groups of pelicans head back out to the ocean, probably heading to Table Rock where they can safely spend the night.   The preening spot is a busy place, but the numbers of birds doesn’t change much.  Some come.  Some go.  Herrmann’s gulls and western gulls are out there too.  The seals keep on splashing and growling.  I’m still wondering what that is all about. 

Dale and I concentrate on the scene before us for a good two hours.  Still grey, but then the sun lowers just enough to send brief rays of sunshine slipping underneath the clouds above.  Suddenly the water is bluer, the yellows and reds on the pelicans glow, and the lighthouse is warmed.  The lighthouse was painted cream and rusty red just a few years ago after years of being white.  These are the original colors of the light house ….. beautiful in the late afternoon sun. 

At home note:  After several seals were washed off the rocks I saw three were out there thrashing and splashing.  I realized there must be a reason for this behavior I had never seen before.  When I got home I looked up seal behavior.  It is seal breeding season.  Harbor seals are well known for their underwater vocalizations and thrashing behavior during courtship – always something new to learn. 


  1. Thank you, Elva, for sharing such wonderful paintings, photos and an interesting post! Best wishes, Sadami

  2. We canceled our participation in this year's brown pelican survey because of the predicted wind storm. It was terrific to read your journal and see the sketches.

  3. Love those pelicans. Always fun to watch. Wonderful lighthouse/pelican painting and stories! Would be interesting to see the harbor seals' gyrations.

  4. Wonderful paintings of the Pelicans. Used to see a lot of them at the beaches in CA. And seals too. Fun to see your pictures here age read about them.

  5. Elva, just wondering if you read a blog by Julie Zickefoose?

    1. Hi Jeanette ... I have her book, "Letters from Eden" which I like very much. ... and I just went to her blog, thanks to you. I'll have to spend more time there.

  6. I enjoy BOTH your blogs very much :-)

  7. A very interesting post Elva. I really enjoyed your keen observations. Learned quite a few things too.