It's a Bird! It's a Pelican! It's the Mexican Airforce
a Tofino birding article by Adrian Dorst, Tofino
Where are those hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer? I wonder, as I look out my window at the drizzle on this day in late July. Global warming? No sign of it in this neck of the woods, or so it would appear. The arrival of southern birds at our latitudes, however, suggests a different story, particularly the now almost-annual occurrence of Brown Pelicans.
Brown Pelicans are large coast-dwelling birds that sustain themselves by diving for fish. Anyone who has spent time in Mexico or Central America has undoubtedly seen them loafing on boats and pylons and beaches, or skimming low over the water, often in large flocks. Once, while boating in Bahia Magdalena, Baja, my Mexican skipper, noticing my interest as a squadron of pelicans passed overhead, looked up and proclaimed, "Mexican Airforce", then laughed. The comparison didn't seem entirely far fetched as these birds have a habit of flying in long string formations, gliding more than they flap. Their method of catching fish is to dive from a height, sometimes a hundred feet or more, and plunging beneath the waves into a school of small fish. With the bill partly open, the flexible pouch of the lower mandible balloons into a net with which to catch its prey.
One might think that in initiating the plunge, the pelican would fold its wings as most diving birds do, but Brown Pelicans dive with wings out, probably to maintain greater control, and only fold their wings back just before entering the water. Anyone witnessing these aerial displays cannot help but be impressed.
Brown Pelicans are found on both the east and west coast of North America. On the Pacific coast, they are found from southern California southward in winter, but in spring and summer the species pushes northward up as far as the mouth of the Columbia River on the Oregon/Washington border. Historically, individual birds or small flocks, were known to wander farther north. As early as 1888, a Brown Pelican was seen at the mouth of Seymour River in Burrard Inlet. And on 18 July, 1913, a single bird was seen near Port Hardy. Four Pelicans were seen at Race Rocks on 8 August, 1939.
On the west coast of the island, the first sighting (of which I am aware) was of one seen off Long Beach on 28 July, 1979. By the early and mid-1980s, there was a noticeable upsurge in sightings. Indeed, one could call 1983 the first "invasion year," with sightings at Port Renfrew, Cape Beal, Carmanah, Pedder Bay, Race Rocks and Oak Bay. One flock was said to consist of at least two dozen birds. This upward trend has continued throughout the nineties and into the new century, with flocks of upwards of 50 birds being seen, particularly off the West Coast Trail. Day counts of up to 200 birds have been recorded off Carmanah Point and Port Renfrew.
In the Clayoquot Sound area, pelicans are also being reported more frequently, usually by the skippers of whale-watching boats. Only yesterday I heard of a sighting of 9 pelicans by whaleboat skipper Michael Mullen. And last year I received a report from the lighthouse keeper at Lennard Island who has a birds-eye view of the ocean. He was watching 22 of the birds resting on the water. On one occasion, I was stunned to see a Brown Pelican perched on the gunnel of a small boat at the Weigh West Marine Resort. These birds have such a strong association for me with Mexico, I had to wonder: Had global warming arrived in Tofino?
The reason for their appearance in British Columbia waters is probably two-fold. In the 1950s and 60s, the widespread use of ddt as a pesticide caused breeding failure by thinning the eggshells, resulting in a catastrophic decline of birds in the northern part of their range. Once the pesticide was banned on this continent, the population rebounded. Concurrent with that rebound, ocean temperatures have been rising, particularly in El Nino years, encouraging the birds to migrate northward. The records of the past two decades suggest that this species will be with us more and more as climate change increases and waters become warmer. Don't expect tropical Macaws to make an appearance here anytime soon, but if climate scientists are correct, pelicans will probably be with us from now on. Soooo, if you happen to be sitting in your deck-chair, sipping a Pina Colada and you spot a flock of pelicans, before you run to the medicine cabinet for a valium, realize that you are not hallucinating. Relax, have another sip, and enjoy the view. It's only the Mexican Airforce.
Adrian Dorst offers guided bird walks and guided nature hikes in the Meares Island rainforest. Call him at (250) 725-1243 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tofino birdwatching guide Adrian Dorst's article on the Brown Pelican off the coast of Tofino.