June 20, 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

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