In April, every so many years, I have seen wavering lines and V-shaped flocks, one after another, of low-flying brown pelicans migrating north along the Atlantic Ocean shores and beaches of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Those majestic birds were going to their nesting sites on islands along Atlantic coastlines, up to the lower Chesapeake Bay.

I am impressed with how stately those goose-sized birds are in flight. They fly swiftly with their heads over their necks, each one alternately flapping and gliding in unison with other ones in its airborne group, as if they are one bird.

Often, a whole line will gracefully rise and fall, each bird in its turn, as if the pelicans are avoiding obstacles in the air.

The handsome brown pelicans are exciting to see diving from about 60 feet into the ocean and its harbors and estuaries to catch fish, including menhaden and anchovies, in their ample pouches.

Each pelican flies along and intently watches the water for prey. When victims are spotted, each flying pelican abruptly turns downward and dives quickly, folding its wings back just before hitting the water with an open beak and a splash.

It scoops up whatever fish it can, bobs to the surface to expel the water in its pouch, and swallows its prey. Then it rises into the air for another dive and another fish.

The stately brown pelicans have webbed feet and 7-foot wing spans. In summer, they are mostly brown, with white on the neck and the back of the head and yellow on their foreheads.    

Hundreds of thousands of brown pelicans live and nest along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts of the United States. And about 2,500 pairs of them raise young on small, uninhabited islands in the lower Chesapeake Bay, which are the northernmost nesting colonies of brown pelicans along the shores of North America.

The Chesapeake Bay colonies began in the summer of 1987, possibly because of population increases of this bird farther south. Those population pressures pushed some pelicans farther north to find new nesting places.

Brown pelicans arrive on those lower Chesapeake Bay islands by early May every year. Each pair makes a cradle of piled-up, dead grass in bushes or small trees or on the ground among tall grasses.

The female of each pair lays two or three eggs in their grass nursery. Pelican parents feed menhaden and anchovies to their ravenous, growing offspring.   

The elegant brown pelicans are a joy to see in flight and exciting to see diving for fish. They are magnificent birds along our ocean and bay shorelines.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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