|Sunday, July 26, 2015|
|Where O Where Have The Pelicans Gone...|
|Where are all the pelicans?!?|
Anybody but me notice how few pelicans we are seeing this summer? Their long lines, skimming atop the waves or flying over the dunes have been constant companions all day long, year after year. On every morning and afternoon drive from Colington Road down to the gallery in Nags Head, I’m always accompanied by at least one, and sometimes several, lines of pelicans—until this year. We always see fewer of the adults as nesting season begins, but what I affectionately call “the teenagers”—second and third year birds who are not yet mature enough to mate but do feed and fly on their own—are always present in good numbers. By this time of year, as eggs hatch and baby pelicans grow and need to be fed regurgitated fish by their parents, we always see lots of parents flying up and down the beach too.
So where the heck are they?
The short answer—at least in part—is Ocracoke. “Our” pelicans, that is, the large colony that has been nesting and roosting on a dredge spoil island in the sound, west of Oregon Inlet, did not nest there this year in their usual numbers. Instead, the colony of pelicans on a similar island off Ocracoke has grown to a huge size this year—about 1,000 nesting pairs! Presumably at least some of the pelicans that nest here joined up with that colony. Since each nest typically holds two to four eggs (average clutch size is three eggs), and since pelicans are colonial birds that typically nest, roost, and fish all together, my theory is that most “teenagers” flew south along with the adults. “Why?” is a harder question to answer. Perhaps our colder-than-usual winter, with the sound freezing in mid-February, prompted them to seek more open water south. Perhaps the presence of 150+/- White Pelicans (instead of the 20-40 we have seen during the past five or six winters) were a factor, since I observed both White Pelicans and Brown Pelicans together feeding the same low water at the Pea Island ponds in early winter.
Whatever the reason, I hope that as the baby pelicans grow, the parents who usually reside up our way will be prompted to fly their broods back north. We will have to wait awhile to see if that happens—baby Brown Pelicans take from 71 to 88 days to fledge, according to The Birders Handbook. Given that pelicans’ eggs are not laid at the same time and don’t hatch all at once, this means some pelican chicks won’t be airborne until nearly three months from now.
How do I know these birds went to Ocracoke? For the first time in ten years, I had a rare chance to help band baby pelicans a couple weeks back. The impact of being in the presence of several thousand pelicans, plus hundreds of terns, is hard to describe and hard to convey even in a series of photographs (but I’ll try!) The main sound from the island is the call of the terns; adult pelicans are mostly silent. The pelican babies make a sort of guttural grunt, kind of a cross between a croak and a barking frog. Baby pelicans have no down or feathers when they hatch. Their eyes open soon after hatching. I noticed ten years ago, and noticed again now, how tender young siblings are with each other. Older birds seem to be protective of younger ones and the chicks huddle together as they await the arrival of a parent with food. Both moms and dads are involved in nest building, incubation and feeding young. In Florida, you can see pelicans nesting in mangrove trees; here, most nests are shallow, grass lined scrapes in the sand or occasionally atop a grassy clump. One bunch of nests was clustered in a sandspur field, and one young pelican had numerous sandspurs stuck to its growing feathers! We carefully removed all those so at least the bird was more comfortable for the moment. We also spotted one family of Snowy Egrets, a colony of Great Egrets, a couple of gull parents and chicks and two White Ibis chicks—which look nothing at all as you would expect!
Regular readers know how much I love pelicans (okay, okay, I love everybody, but I do have a special bond with pelicans) and also how often I spot hearts. I was the only one who noticed that at one certain age, as the baby pelicans are losing their white fuzzy down and beginning to grow their juvenile long brown/gray feathers, the pattern of those feathers on their backs above their wings, forms a perfect heart. Once I spotted the first heart, I realized all the birds of that age had the pattern. For me, seeing dozens of those hearts was like walking through a living, breathing field of “I love you’s.”
So while we all wait to see if, and when, many of “our” parent pelicans return, I hope these images of colony life, Brown Pelican style, will delight you as much as they do me.
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|As impressive as the view was when I stepped ashore, I was not prepared for the sheer numbers of pelicans I would soon see.|
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|Many parents were still incubating eggs. Notice how close together the nests are! I call this, The Nursery. |
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|Now you can see the beginnings of what will be their downy feathers. They look now like baby dinosaurs (or plucked chickens). What I noticed most is how precious they are with each other. |
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|Parent with downy chick. ("Chick" seems too tiny a word for a baby pelican. At this age they are plenty big already!)|
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|Being surrounded by hundreds of pelicans at a time is an experience I will remember the rest of my life. |
posted by eturek at 1:40 PM
|Sunday, July 12, 2015|
|I say often, I am in the right place at the right time. I’ve said it here, for your reading. I say it as please and thank you both; I say it as intention in advance, and as thanksgiving, in gratitude. Again and again, right place, right time. My zenfolio website’s “About Me” section concludes by saying that I find my greatest joy in serendipitous encounters in the wild (photographically speaking—and that’s among my greatest life-joys too). |
All that said, I hope you can imagine my growing dismay when I began having opposite experiences: right place, wrong time. Right time, wrong place. Right place, but no time to get there, so I missed out. Last year in my morning journal I described feeling out of rhythm, as if I were off the beat and unsure how to regain my intuitive sense of synchronicity, of being led.
Fast forward to June 2015 and I was still having that sense of being off balance, with my rhythm uneven. I experienced that most recently with several trips to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, on the Dare County mainland, one of my favorite places here. I’ve gone over looking for bear, hoping to see and photograph (with my appropriate telephoto lens) a mother with cubs. Other local photographer friends have seen cubs at closer range, last year and this, but so far I’ve had few experiences of seeing cubs at all, much less in decent distance to photograph. It’s an experience I’ve been longing to have, watching a mother with baby bears. Those who know me well know that I rejoice when others have wonderful encounters and experiences, so I haven’t begrudged anyone else their special moments. I just wanted to have some of my own, too.
All of this “off-the-beat” experience eventually led me to introspection, and to wondering if there was some larger message here that I was also missing. I like to find meaning, or make meaning, and I need my life’s parts as well as its wholeness to have meaning. All of this was rolling around in my gut like a too-spicy pizza when I went to Alligator River two Sundays ago. As before, I drove up and down familiar roads and saw only a couple of bears, w-a-a-a-y off. I didn’t even see the birds that E.M. Corsa and I saw when we went over there together recently. Nothing, nada, nicht, nein, zilch.
By my last drive back up the road, I was at that point of discouragement that led me to ask a fundamental question. It’s a question I’ve asked before in other eras of my life, and I happen to think it’s a good question to ask: am I even supposed to be doing this? Are these the photographs I’m meant to be making? Am I supposed to be doing something else? What matters most to me in my life is that I am “on purpose,” that I am living the life I’m meant to live. Sometimes that quest has led to minor course correction and sometimes, as with buying Yellowhouse, it’s led to a major shift in direction. So here I was, driving with no bear, asking that question again. Quick as my thought came an answering question: what makes your heart sing? That was easy to answer: wildlife. Being in the presence of critters and birds. Having experiences with them, special connecting experiences. The only other thought I had was Joseph Campbell’s quote, “follow your bliss.” All well and good, but mind you, the sun is dropping, the evening is getting duskier, and I’m seeing no bear. Just when I am almost at the turning point to get on the road leading out of the refuge, I spot a dark shape up ahead, walking atop a berm alongside the road, at fairly close range. At last, a bear! I resist the temptation to goose the engine and speed up. I have deliberately been driving slowly and methodically, in part not to frighten any animal that might be out foraging. No, I said, I’m going to ease up on this bear. If I am meant to have its picture, it will wait for me. Wait it did and I was able to pull alongside where it was walking. In several steps it came to a spot that had, between the bear and the road, some water. The bear stopped there and I was able to see the bear’s head’s reflection in the water below while it stopped on the bank above! Bear Lake, I thought to myself, clicking away. I was thrilled. Then the real magic happened.
The bear strolled away from the spot but turned around after a few steps and came back. This happened a couple of times, and then the bear came on down the bank (bending over a little shrubby tree in the process) and got right in the water! He proceeded to soak, stretch, blow bubbles, scratch a sore spot on one ear (which I don’t think helped any, given the size of his bear claws), turn his back to me and shake himself off, ease back down to soak some more. All this was repeated several times. I could tell he had several small sore places, little cuts or scratches on his body. None looked quite as serious as the spot on his ear.
Earlier in the evening, I’d been passed several times by vehicles that evidently wanted to travel a whole lot faster than I did. But now, it was just me and this big boar bear. We made eye contact several times. I photographed through my open window and eventually stood up with my car door open in order to steady my long lens, hand-holding. My newest camera body boasts great high-ISO/low light capability and this situation tested that claim. As you will see below, it performed very well. Eventually the bear climbed out of the water and slowly made its way toward a wooden blind that sits on a trailer on Milltail Creek Road. There, it stretched up, gnawed at the wooden corners, shook some more, and scratched its head, belly and back on the blind. I could see how huge it was. A couple other cars had some up behind me at this point and I was able to point to where the bear had gone. When it was finished with the blind, it dropped again to all fours and sauntered off. I thanked it multiple times during the entire encounter and happily let it go its way. The cars behind me sped around me, eager to get out of the refuge and I followed them out more slowly. The sun had given a beautiful glow in the western sky and I saw a glimpse of that in the last canal on the way out. When I stopped there, to try to catch my breath and process emotionally what I had just witnessed, I heard distinctly in my mind this sentence. It was spoken gently, but firmly, and when I wrote it down the next morning in my journal, I wrote it as I do here, with every word capitalized, to convey the emphasis I felt as the words came: Don’t Ever Doubt Your Purpose.
This is what photography is for me. It’s a larger life. It’s a focused life. It’s a shared, connected life—made more precious every time I get to pass that connection along, as here, with you. So I have to ask: what makes YOUR heart sing?
posted by eturek at 11:01 PM