Tofino birdwatching: Brown Pelicans in Tofino
by George Bradd, Tofino
The Brown Pelican is a graceful flier and they fly in loose lines low over the ocean surface. At a height of three meters they will suddenly fold their wings in and make a twisting plunge into the water. They are quite acrobatic and young pelicans make many unsuccessful crashes before they learn to fish with skill. Beneath the surface of the water their huge skin pouch opens and captures small fish. Once they surface, they strain the water from their pouch and trap the remaining fish. When pelicans feed, gulls or frigate birds may try to dive at them and rip fish right out of the pelican's pouch. Sometimes a pelican captures too large a fish, and must struggle to release the fish.
During the 60's in California Brown Pelican populations reached rock bottom as the birds were producing fragile eggs that shattered and cracked due to DDT. Since the ban on DDT, pelican populations have slowly rebounded although countries like Ecuador and Columbia continue to use deadly pesticides in agriculture that affect pelicans in those areas.
Pelicans are large birds weighing 8.2 lb. or 3740 grams. Juvenile Brown Pelicans are brown on their back and head with a white stomach. The adults have silver backs, dark stomachs and a pretty white head. In breeding plumage they have a yellow forehead and bright red bill. Brown Pelicans are normally rare in southern coastal bc waters but this summer over 100 were spotted in one day in waters surrounding Tofino.
Every year for the past 5 years the number of pelican sightings in Tofino is increasing and this year was a record count. Reports from Southern California tell of young pelicans starving because of lack of fish. Most of the birds seen in Tofino this year were adults, perhaps indicating these were birds that failed to nest this year.
Brown Pelicans nest on islands off the Pacific coast from the Santa Barbara Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz) south to Tres Marias Island in Mexico and also the Galapagos in Ecuador. The Tofino birds were probably from California.
An influx of adult pelicans during the same season when young birds are starving indicates that the fish species the pelicans eat were not present and warmer ocean water is the cause. Last year the warmer temperatures caused a massive breeding failure of many west coast seabirds. This year the poor pelicans got hit.
So if you see Pelicans off Tofino, stop to enjoy their beauty, but pause to think about why they are here, and maybe get involved in measures to reduce climate change.
George Bradd operates Just Birding, a Tofino company specialising in birdwatching tours. Visit www.justbirding.com
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