On a narrow stab of Pismo Beach the waves come in a palm-flat wash, all gold in the tops, where the green sea meets a dazzle of sand.
Over the long swell, low as a breeze, brown pelicans arrive as is their custom. They land running on their feet. They turn into the wind. And then begin their evening preening.
Screening their feathers for the least unkempt, the slight misalignment that might deflect their path of flight. When it matters most. That tight control wings in an origami fold as they plunge, headlong, into the wide-ranging ocean; when whitecaps are torn free and they disappear into the foaming; or the calm so flat it shatters into shards. Oh the little fishes pooling beneath, drawn into a tangled ball to confuse what upwells from the blind deep; they had no idea how easy it would be for pelicans to unwind the Gordian knot of them, sharply from above.
The sun is lower now, and lower still. Pelicans blink in the horizontal light. They stretch each disparate part:
Legs long as ballerinas and the toes of their webbed feet pointing.
Wings like awnings cranked out as far as they will go.
Their mouths agape like inflatable funhouse doors, yawning, the strange translucent pouch slung from the hard lower bill stiff as the gaff on some imaginary sailing ship, one that sails on air…
Now the short takeoff into the wind. Brown pelicans low over water, as night settles in like wetted silk. Sure as a binnacle compass they will find a safe roosting place, a shoal of rocks, somewhere out, that cannot be seen from the high point of the shore.
Brown pelicans, in their great size and fantastical appearance (retrofitted pterodactyls?) are particularly out of place on land. And yet flight seems as unlikely for them as it does for turkeys. But if the turkey is a creature of the sky devolving into a creature of the ground, the brown pelican is moving the other way. See them airborne and you know they were made for the air, as clouds are made for air.
Their movements are slow, and smooth, their balance easy. Even their yawn is softness and elegance. And in the takeoff they are weightless. They spread their wings, then three steps into the wind, and up and away.
When pelicans feed it is another side of them all together. Folding into a hard dive, toward precisely where they intend, they crash through and bob to the surface again with their bills stuffed with fishes and the water seining out.
Despite these skills, sometimes pelicans prefer a shortcut. Guy Thériault of Parks Canada tells me he has seen pelicans bedevil fishermen in a very creative way. On a visit to one of Florida’s offshore islands, he watched a pelican that appeared to have an injured wing plop down in front of a man who was fishing. When the fisherman went to investigate a second pelican swooped in and stole the fish that fisherman just caught!
And the “injured” pelican? Gone. No doubt to find his accomplice, then on to another easy mark.
Mark Seth Lender’s fieldwork and travel are arranged exclusively through Destination: Wildlife TM. If you would like to visit the places Mark has been, you can contact them at www.DestinationWildlfe.com. Lender is the author of the illustrated children’s book, Smeagull the Seagull, A True Story, www.Smeagull.com.