Archive for June, 2012

June 20, 2012

June 26, 2012

Although some of “our” brown pelicans are born and raised in California’s Channel Islands, most of them come from Baja, Mexico. In May I filmed their nesting islands in the Sea of Cortez, where Dr. Dan Anderson and Mexican colleagues counted pelicans of all ages. Thousands of them lined the shore, hundreds bathed in the coves, scores looked down at our boat from the ridge lines. It felt truly prehistoric.

Judy Irving in Baja

The islands of San Lorenzo and Guardian Angel are a “pelican’s dream” — the birds are generally unmolested by humans, unperturbed by predators, and in a good year, never get too hungry, because of healthy anchovy runs. These strange and exotic scenes could have taken place millions of years ago, and in fact I will probably use them to illustrate pelicans’ lives before they came in contact with humans.

Because I accompanied a scientific census expedition, I also filmed the biologists’ activities. Dan Anderson has been coming to these islands for over 40 years, keeping track of Baja’s brown pelican population, and it is largely because of him that we can make factual statements such as “they fly from Baja to British Columbia” (radio telemetry), or “the numbers in Baja have stayed about the same, while the Channel Islands pelicans nearly went extinct” (due to DDT).

Science focuses on overall animal populations rather than individual birds, and data collection can sometimes appear to be a bit invasive. The biologists weighed pelican chicks by hanging them upside down from a strap attached to a scale. Dan says it’s like getting a shot at the doctor’s office; it’s annoying, but it’s over quickly and it’s beneficial. On this trip, they weighed and measured about 50 chicks out of thousands, and will extrapolate how well they’re growing this year from that data.

Scientist Weighing a Pelican Chick

Surprisingly, after the chicks endured being held upside down they sometimes stayed close by. It was so hot, they preferred the shade of a human to immediate escape. So I guess the annoyance was in fact temporary. Here’s a young bird standing next to Dan, who had to be  gently pushed away after awhile.

A Pelican Chick Seeks Shade


April 6, 2012

June 26, 2012

All hell broke loose when the herring started spawning along the Sausalito shoreline in mid-January, with gulls, pelicans, and fishermen vying for the same catch. Here’s a shot of 2 pelicans acting like fishermen, pulling up the net! It was hard to extract the herring, but now and then one pulled loose. The fishermen got by far the most fish. Competition for herring and sardines is getting worse, with the pelicans losing out to commercial fishermen.

Feeding Frenzy at a Herring Net

Two trips to the Channel Islands in February and March resulted in a Valentine’s Day sequence of pelicans building nests and mating at Cat Canyon on Santa Barbara Island, and a sequence with Laurie Harvey counting nests from a zodiac near Frenchy’s Cove, at Anacapa. Laurie manages to fit pelican nesting surveys in with 11 other species she’s keeping track of, including Xantus’ murrelets and ashy storm petrels, who nest in sea caves and rock crevices.

Laurie Harvey

Back in San Francisco in mid-March, I screened almost an hour of rough-edited clips to 90 people at a packed Audubon event, and got good feedback. Although this was not an official rough-cut screening, the first third of the movie has a basic structure now, and the screening helped me conceptualize how “Act II” should develop. I’ve been enjoying the editing process, benefiting from all the logging and transcribing that came before.

Pelican Nests on Santa Barbara Island

January 13, 2012

June 26, 2012

Mark and I volunteered again for the Channel Islands National Park over New Year’s, walking the trails on Santa Barbara Island and watching for the return of the pelicans. Although not many have arrived yet, the island is ready for them: After three years of native plant restoration it looks lush and verdant, with yellow coreopsis flowers just starting to bloom.

In December, the Mary A. Crocker Trust awarded “Pelican Dreams” a $10,000 grant, and the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment agreed to match it! We are extremely grateful for this support, even as we seek additional funding. On the wish list is a new, small, high-speed/slow-motion HD camera like the Phantom, with which we could shoot pelican dives from under water, as well as pelicans soaring with surfers at sunset. These images are important in a film whose title includes the word “dreams….”

Judy on Santa Barbara Island

November 27, 2011

June 24, 2012

Rachel Carson wrote of a “silent spring” in which no birds would sing in her classic, paradigm-shifting 1962 book, predicting by several years what biologists found on Anacapa Island in 1969: hundreds of pelican nests with crushed eggshells, all due to DDT. Adult pelicans had eaten DDT-laced fish, which interfered with calcium production, making shells so thin that when parents tried to incubate them, they crushed them instead.

Egg affected by DDT

These iconic Channel Islands images helped launch the environmental movement, and led to the banning of DDT in 1972. Brown pelicans were declared “endangered” even before there was an Endangered Species Act. Last summer, in a garage in Grant’s Pass, Oregon, we retrieved 16mm footage of the Anacapa discovery, thanks to the son of the filmmaker, Dave Siddon. Here is a still from that footage, which we recently had transferred to HD files. The same DDT, on the ocean floor near LA, is now interfering with the nesting success of California condors, and the same scientist, Bob Risebrough, who discovered the problem in 1969 is now working on the condor issue, making history contemporary, and showing us how long-lived these contaminants actually are.

People who love pelicans in Morro Bay have started a new program called the “Fish to Farm Compost Project,” providing special garbage cans to charter fishing boats, so that when deckhands filet fish they throw the heads and skeletons in the can, rather than over the side. A composter picks up the cans free of charge, and makes fish compost that he sells to gardeners. This project solves a common cause of pelican mortality: Many die with large fish heads and bony skeletons stuck in their necks. In this image you can see the birds still hoping for freebies, and me filming from the dock. This simple, innovative project deserves to spread all along the Pacific coast.

Hungry Pelicans

This fall we again visited Morro, who now sports his full adult plumage. I have to say, not only is he a handsome bird, but Morro is fast becoming the star of this movie. Not quite free, because of his injured wing, but not captive either, because he can leave the yard if he so chooses, Morro has maximum freedom of choice. One of his choices is to perch on top of the chaise lounge. I’d wanted to film this, and finally got there at the right time. Morro is so comfortable in the yard that he has started getting curious about the buildings, too. More on that in the movie. I don’t want to give everything away!

Morro and Chaise Lounge

October 5, 2011

June 24, 2012

One of the images that launched this film and that stays with me is this: I was in the Marin Headlands, standing on a cliff in thick fog, listening to waves crashing below, feeling the wind. I couldn’t see a thing. Out of the whiteness soared a pelican, who flew past me silently, large and ancient, then disappeared back into the fog. The whole encounter lasted only a few seconds, yet I felt I’d had a glimpse of something mysterious and ultimately ungraspable, like life. Since then I have wanted to film that vision, because it also defines wildness for me. I’ve tried at that exact location with no luck; have tried at the Pt Bonita Lighthouse with no luck; have tried at the San Mateo coast with some luck, and will keep trying. You’ll see whether I’ve succeeded or not in the final film.

Pelicans in the fog

Besides fog, this past summer has been all about fishing. I knew that getting tangled up in fishing line with fish hooks stuck in your pouch is one of the most common pelican injuries seen by wildlife rehabilitators; but how to be there when it happens? I was location scouting at the fishing pier at Fort Baker, where I’d planned to film another pelican release, when a young bird who’d been floating dangerously close to a man’s fishing line suddenly lunged at it as he reeled it up, grabbing three hooks with three small silver fish. All of a sudden, that pelican was hooked and the fisherman didn’t know what to do. (Often they cut the line, and the bird is left in the water all entangled, to die.) I asked him to slowly pull the bird along the pier to shore, like a dog on a leash, and ran to get rescuers from WildCare.

“B-52,” named for her band, was a very lucky bird: She was immediately rescued; experts snipped off fishing line and extracted hooks from her beak and pouch, and after rehabilitation she was released at Tomales Bay. I got all of her story on film except the initial moments. Often in documentary situations you get pulled in, becoming more than just a bystander. You happen to be there, you’re needed, and you do it. “B-52” was the first pelican I helped save.

Pelican tangled up in fishing line

Other fishing-related sequences shot in July, August, and September include: pelicans being fed by Wacky Jacky’s crew and by charter fishermen at a fillet table, Monte Merrick rescuing a fish-oiled pelican from a north coast harbor island, and my own private release of a pelican I call “no name, no band” back to the wild at Shelter Cove. (Since no one else had time, and since I was driving that way, I volunteered. It’s fun to drive with a pelican in your car.) The bird, obviously, had no name and no Federal band. And that felt good: Back to the wild! Back to mystery.

Judy releases a pelican

July 7, 2011

June 24, 2012

When young pelicans are finished with their rehabilitation – they’ve eaten lots of fish, they’re waterproof, any injuries they’ve had are healed – sometimes Dani brings them to her yard for awhile, where they release themselves when they’re ready. They fly from perch to perch, higher and higher: from the cages, to the wooden gate, to the house roof, and finally to the sky, where they circle around, get their bearings, and soar west to the ocean, less than half a mile away. It’s a beautiful sight. Last week we filmed several birds releasing themselves, and recorded Morro’s reactions. He watched them take off, then hopped up on a banana palm stump and flapped his wings, making several short fly-hops to the grassy yard. It’s as far as he can go with his bad wing. In the photo above Morro has settled back into his afternoon routine as a yardbird, sitting on a small table next to Dani in the hammock, very interested in the stick she’s holding. A few seconds later, Morro grabbed the stick, shook it, and flung it away. I had no idea before I started this film how much pelicans have in common with dogs.

Dani and Morro

May 18, 2011

June 24, 2012

Pelicans have a seriously silly side, which Stephen McLaren captures in his photos of American white pelicans who’ve taken up residence in London’s St. James’s Park. I hope to be able to use several of Stephen’s photos in “Pelican Dreams.”

Strolling Pelican

We filmed another funny training session with Pardito at WildCare, where he did the “turn” successfully about half the time, but often looked quizzically at Mary and ending up nipping her leg.


In Cayucos, Morro is settling into his back-yard digs,  learning to play catch with Bill (the day I was there Bill threw celery stalks, then fish; Morro much preferred the fish). He knows he can’t fly, so instead he finds sticks to fling and tables to sit on while searching, literally, for his place in the sun.

Bill and Morro

A note: Lately we’ve been shooting full HD with a Canon camera, getting used to the settings and the fact that it records to files rather than film or tape. A whole new world.

March 15, 2011

June 22, 2012

Years before “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” I produced and directed another feature documentary (with Chris Beaver and Ruth Landy) entitled “Dark Circle,” about the nuclear industry. The film explains the links between nuclear weapons and power, and includes basic information about how nuclear plants work, how a core meltdown happens, and how likely that scenario is for California’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant. Diablo, like Fukushima in Japan, is an aging nuclear plant on an active earthquake fault, and its operator, PG&E, has applied for a 20-year license extension. If you haven’t seen “Dark Circle,” now might be the time. Click here.

“Pardito,” WildCare’s new resident brown pelican, is learning how to jump up, down, turn around, and follow Mary Pounder, Education Specialist, but when we filmed recently, Pardito seemed to have taught himself to bite Mary’s leg every time she said “turn”! It’s very funny, and will be a good sequence in “Pelican Dreams.” We’ll film another training session soon, and will follow Pardito to his debut appearance at an elementary school. Like Morro, he has an injured wing that won’t heal. Like Gigi, he spent some time at IBRRC’s pelican aviary, but could never fly high enough or strong enough to convince his caretakers that he could dive, catch fish, and function successfully as a wild pelican. Pardito is a mischievous young bird, “like a teenager,” says Mary, and will do well in schools, she hopes.


I visited my mom in Florida in January, and filmed at one of the oldest seabird sanctuaries in the country: Suncoast, on the Gulf Coast near St. Petersburg. Disabled adult pelicans nevertheless breed, nest, and raise young at the sanctuary, and when the chicks are old enough to fly, the mesh roof is removed from the enclosure and they fly to the beach nearby, coming back if they get scared or hungry, and eventually joining the wild flocks. I was thrilled to be able to get closeups of 2-and-3-week old babies at Suncoast.

Pelican Chick at Suncoast in Florida

December 2, 2010

June 22, 2012

Film critic Michael Fox recently posted an interview on the San Francisco Film Society’s web site entitled “Irving Glides from Parrots to Pelicans.”

And speaking of parrots, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” will be broadcast again on national public television: return engagement! The national airdate is Tuesday, December 28th. Check local listings; most stations will air it at 9:30 or 10 PM. For San Francisco Bay Area viewers, KQED scheduled the film on January 5th at 9:30 PM and KQED LIFE will show it on January 6th at 8:30 PM.

We’re pleased that the national PBS series, Independent Lens, extended its contract, so the film will be broadcast several more times over the next two years in addition to the Christmas week broadcasts. A short parrots-and-people update can be found here.

Upside Down Parrot

September 4, 2010

June 22, 2012

“Pelican Dreams” had its first high-speed HD shoot (120 frames per second) in the Channel Islands, focusing on young pelicans playing and diving. We got some dreamy sunset dive shots in Smuggler’s Cove looking toward Anacapa; see photo at left. Another shot I liked shows an adult and a fledgling flying together; when the adult takes an elegant dive the youngster flails around twisting in the air and dives too. They both hit the water at the same time. The adult gets a fish but the young one doesn’t. (“More to learn!” The little one is probably thinking. “I’m sticking with this big guy.”) They take off together into the sunset. Seeing the action slowed down by a factor of five revealed another way that pelicans can be compared to dogs: They wag their tails! After diving, after playing keep-away with a piece of kelp, while swimming or preening: I’d never really noticed how often they wag their wide, stubby tails.

Pelican Dive at Sunset