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Several Strange Things Pelicans
Do with Their Beaks
September 12 2008
December 6 2006
Probably edited it out, but I asked the Universe yester for an Esther Williams Synchronized Pelican Fishing display. Imagine my startlement when I hove into view at Sunset today, and there they were. Gray day made exposures strange, but I met another photog and we talked about birds and photography — and watched in amazement as pelicans in formation swept their target fish back and forth across the shallows, dipping and gulping and straining. In unison for awhile, then every pelican for itself.
Have more pictures than anything to say for a change, so I'll just let them do my talking. (This is a mix of several shoots, showing a step-by-step but disconcertingly in different directions, as the pelicans fish en mass.
TABJ readers have seen pelicans do lip stretches before and will probably see them here again. I don't know anybody else who can do anything like this, then fly away, and it's way too strange not to shoot and shoot and shoot when they do.
These shots are a little closer than usual, with more "tongue" detail, and don't you just love that little hook on the end of its beak that's usually not so noticeable?
Then this. Everybody's chin itches, but not everybody can pretzel their bodies and reach their tiny orange feet around to scratch it without toppling over. And look so elegant doing it.
Meanwhile, there were pelicans doing what pelicans do. Which are sometimes amazing to watch. And the mystery of which is male and which female. Anna guessed the females have pink beaks and the males are yellow-orange.
January 11 2007
Even this is not that much of a tele shot. I used to think pelican beaking like this was combatative. But now I'm thinking it's gentle, a little romantic, like touching, a courtship behavior. Wish I could tell them apart better, so I could follow them through spring. They leave in April.
January 3 2006
October 28 2007
Except for two bands on one pelican's left leg and two big white birds balancing on their right foot, today's entry is about beaks. Pelks don't have hands, so they have to use something to establish dominance. Beaks are it in the persuit of pecking-order.
Not an uncommon occurrence, nor that I've got an image of it. What's different this time, besides the details from being so very close when it happened, is that I managed to capture some of the more elusive between expression expressions, some of which surprised me, as you will shortly see.
Little details like that round protrusion at the back of the beak that I've never seen before. Heretofore, I thought they just bent the lower mandible back over their chest. This is more than that. What or why I don't know yet.
Another new shape for this photographer. It does resemble a teapot, huh?
That little cut-off hosey thing a tongue? Or what?
(In the following, I'm green and, as usual, Betsy is amber.)
Betsy Baker emails: "Some
great action shots you've been getting lately. I particularly liked the one
of the coot running over the water and the ones of the pellies stretching their
bills & pouches. That truncated tube inside the bill might be the place
where excess salt (for when the birds are on salt water, such as the Great
Salt Lake breeding grounds) is excreted.
Nat'l Geo page about pelican bills: www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0606/feature3/learn.html
Or, it might be one of the flap-like openings of the epiglottis (see 2nd para of Pelican notes starting at bottom of first page below), tho I doubt it -- it's too centrally located: elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v045n01/p0037-p0038.pdf )
Unless it's the very short tongue (though it certainly doesn't look much like a tongue, does it?)
I think it does. Or at least the
lump behind the tubular protrusion looks very tongue-like.
Here's the most detailed description I have found of the anatomy of the pelican, and having scanned that part of this account (by J. J. Audubon himself), I'll be darned if I think I saw a description of that little tidbit, in spite of the fact that he and his companions killed several birds in order to be able to supply such a detailed description. Perhaps if you read it more slowly than I did?
Kinda frustrating, but I haven't been able to come up with anything definitive yet.
More than a hint what's going on in there. Imagine the fear of a fish trying to escape a line of these maws seining after them in shallower ad shallower water.
Additional examples of Pelican Beak Stretches from last month.
Leads me to believe a portion of the lower mandible is rigid, then the rest of it dangles, wiggles, stretches and opens incredibly wide.
See how floppy the pelican on the right's forward, lower mandible becomes?
October 18 2007
Though not quite in the unison I've come to expect, these pelicans are engaged in the time-worn pattern of their fishing outings. Swim, dip forward till the whole head is under, wings balancing and legs and butt showing in counterbalance.
Filling pouches with whatever's down there worth catching. Au juice.
What looks, at some distance and in sunlight, like bright white, is not necessarily so. Notice the owie on the end of this swimming pelican's beak, just before the raised and circling hook. Look at the thin, semi-circular texture of its lower mandible — the one that stretches till next Tuesday when it's full of fish. And the brown, perhaps muddy ends of its lower feathers as it swims closer to further inspect the lone photog standing on the pier that's been partially repaired then drowned under water in this week's flood. This beak has been through some serious abuse..
October 12 2007
The reason there's so little detail in this shot is that the bird is waaaay out in the bay. Looks like it's dredging for fish and has caught something.
But what it has caught does not resemble a fish. It's flat and long and dark with a point at the bottom end. The pelk's lower mandible is stretched out all out of proportion for such a little thing.
Nope. Not a fish. In fact, it looks like a large feather. Why did this pelican go to the bother of catching a feather? Once it caught the feather, why is it now flipping it in its beak while expelling the water that came with the feather?
And now, after having caught the feather and flipped it in its beak to get it lengthwise instead of sideways, why has this silly bird now opened its beak as wide and far as it possibly can with the feather stuck in the middle. Surely not for decoration. Is it retching?
If this bird has actually attempted to swallow this feather, has it now expelled it? How is the bird holding the feather in place like this. And, of course, why?
October 20 2006
After our annual visit to the state fair, we visited the pelks at Sunset Bay and saw more beak stretching. I hope the last time I'll have to feature that particular activity. Just I've been waiting for this particular stretch. I knew they did it, seen other people's pictures. Seen them do it before I was as quick as I sometimes am now. And this is what it looks like.
October 17 2006
November 20 2007
Ya jest nevah know waz gonna yappen. So I take what I can take, then hope for something a little different. Today the two clouds of white feathery pelicans helped my plight by doing some basic and advanced beak stretches. Then, when I tired of the yap action, along came something even more exciting. And, in focus!
Here's a view of beak we usually don't get to see. Or want to, much.
Pelican eye view.
There's a certain length of rigid lower mandible holding the rest of it, uh, up.
This is not a simple, still photo. It's one of a very fast series of shots as this pelican wiggle-woggles its pouch.
This is another of a series of stretches.
And a pancake pouch wave.
The whole progression is quick, usually in the same order, although the first two are sometimes interchanged.
All of which is sometimes accompanied by a pouch hoop stretch between 2 and 3.
Then the bird returns again to preen mode, or swims out to the other cloud of pelks. The wiggle-waggle, however, does not always proceed into the rest of these motions. Sometimes I can guess which bird will do it next. But most of the time it's a surprise, so I keep watching, watching, watching with the camera uncomfortably ready, lens at wide zoom, hand grasping it over the top, so I can quickly twist / zoom in on one pelk stretching.
November 6 2007
After shooting at the lake today, I went on a long, wild tour of art spaces I'd never been to before, and I nearly forgot I'd shot any birds today. (When I say that that way I often remember the birders' patron saint, who, in order to study and draw birds, actually killed them first. My "bullets" are digital files and don't hurt birds. Most of the beak-stretches I've shot have been from the other side, not showing the bird's upper beak, head and eyes. So this was a new view.
Not that I planned it. I was lucky enough to see its head go up, and I just started clicking away.
I never know what these things will be about until they're in place. Then I rewrite them a dozen times. Out there, I shoot what I see, rarely preconceiving, and it's way too difficult to get any of these guys to pose. I do look for certain things, but today's original targets were elusive. When I met Anna at the Boat House later, she suggested we drive around to Sunset Bay.
Within seconds two, three and more of them were engaging in various forms of lower mandible stretching. As if they knew we were coming and had saved up. Note the second whole pelican from the left's expanded chin uplifted.
Index of Pages
text and photographs copyright 2008 by J R Compton.
All Rights Reserved. No reproduction in any medium without
specific written permission from the writer or photographer.
Thanks always to Anna.
No reproduction without specific written permission.
Formerly "The Addlepated Birder's Journal"