The California coast is an amazing place with many species of birds. As I walk along the beaches by my house I often see cormorants, grebes, plovers, willets, marbled godwits, sandpipers. I run into several species of gulls and, of course, the California Gull, many of which breed at my favorite place in the world, the magical Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra. My favorite of all, though, is the brown pelican. These beautiful birds can be found on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. I’ve been fascinated by them my whole life.
A few interesting facts are that their only breeding sites in the United States are on West Anacapa Island and Santa Barbara Island, they can dive from as high as 60 feet above the water, they can live to be about 40 years old and they can hold two gallons of water in their pouch.
What interests me the most, though, is the way they fly. They are incredibly graceful in the air. They glide inches above the water’s surface and can fly “nap of the earth” (actually, nap of the water) unlike any aircraft. They see their target, aim and dive fast and true.
Pelicans can be hard to photograph. Seeing flocks of them in the air is beautiful. However, flocks don’t ordinarily make an interesting photograph. Making a good wildlife image requires that you get close to your subject, have a long lens or both. So the question is: how do you get close to a flying pelican? The answer is simple… climb a bluff. Of course, the easier option is to go where you can walk onto a bluff high enough above the ocean to be at eye-level with a pelican. Either way, you have to be careful and a fear of heights doesn’t help. The California coast has hundreds of places that allow the necessary access. I use a tripod with a ball head that provides me with stability and the ability to pan through a scene. It doesn’t matter if you use film or digital. I use both. Give it a try. The risk is worth it.