Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pelicans in Orange County

American White Pelicans resting after fishing at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Mature Brown Pelican in breeding plumage perched on the footbridge at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

Orange County has two species of Pelicans:  Brown Pelicans which prefer the ocean and saltwater environments, and American White Pelicans which prefer fresh water environments.   They are not hard to tell apart.

During Fall and Winter you will find American White Pelicans in large bodies of water, and sporadically in small, or even tiny neighborhood parks.   As long as there is a body of water with fish, and they can fit in it, American White Pelicans will visit it.   Brown Pelicans with the spectacular dives from high above the water usually need much larger bodies of water.   The Brown Pelican and the American White Pelican both show up in mixed saltwater and freshwater environments like Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica.  But you will also find both in the large ponds at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary which is not far from Upper Newport Bay.   If you go far inland, any pelican you see will most likely be an American White Pelican.  However, both American White Pelicans and Brown Pelicans can also be found at the Salton Sea.  

Physical Appearance

American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, Double-Crested Cormorant, and two American Coots.  The gray bird in the water and the brown bird on the far right are both Brown Pelicans  resting at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary.   Pelicans are often found hanging out with cormorants and other birds. 

The first thing you notice in the picture above is how much bigger the American White Pelican is than the Brown Pelicans.  The Brown Pelican is large at 50" long with an 84-inch wingspan.  Yet as big as the Brown Pelican is, the American White Pelican is even bigger at 62" long with a 105" wingspan.  When you see them standing close together, it is plain which is which.

 Immature Brown Pelicans on the left.  Mature Brown Pelican on the right.

While I have seen Brown Pelicans  perch on wooden railings, fences, posts, and even street lights.  I have never seen the huge American White Pelican perch on anything so flimsy.   Mostly their feet are on solid ground when they are not swimming.  And while you will often find a lone Brown Pelican perched or sitting down on the ground near water, you will most often find that American White Pelicans gather in groups on the shore of a lake or on a sand bar in an estuary.   They fish in groups, fly in groups, and hang out together in groups.   American White Pelicans are just more gregarious than Brown Pelicans.

The American White Pelican is all white except for black primaries and wing tips which are mostly seen in flight.   Mostly when they swim, they appear all white.


Brown Pelicans favor salt water and estuaries with mixed water. American White Pelicans prefer fresh water or estuaries.



American White Pelicans, heads down, scooping up some fish.

The foraging techniques of American White Pelicans and Brown Pelicans are so different that if you only saw them foraging and did not see their plumage, you would know which species you were observing.  The American White Pelican swims on the surface of the water and sticks its head down like a dabbling duck to scoop up fish.   It often forages in groups that can reach over 5o individuals. American White Pelicans fishing together look like synchronized swimmers as they swim, stick their heads in the water and come up all at the same time. It is something to watch.  I have seen non-birders stand mesmerized at the sight of a large synchronized group of American White Pelicans feeding.  I have had amazed park goers ask me, "What are they doing?"   They can put on quite a show.

American White Pelicans  fishing cooperatively.

Brown Pelican about to dive down into the waters of Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve for a catch of fresh fish. You will never see an American White Pelican  fish this way.  

Brown Pelicans fly up and dive into the water scooping up fish as they hit the water.   Sometimes, they do not fly high at all, but at other times they fly high above the water and splash down into the fish.  Although they may fish with other Brown Pelicans, it is every bird for itself.    Their strong power dive stuns the fish they then scoop up.   Their dramatic, aeronautical style of fishing attracts as much attention as the synchronized swimming of the American White Pelicans.

Immature Brown Pelican with a pouch full of fish.  

Two mature Brown Pelicans take off for another round of fishing.

Brown Pelican bomb-dives into the water. 


Brown Pelicans can be seen bomb diving the water by the Bolsa Chica footbridge most frequently in Fall and Winter.   Parents and their kids and photographers and the cameras stand on the bridge just watching and snapping pictures as the Brown Pelicans fly up and splash into the water over and over again. 


 American White Pelicans soar high in the air sometimes, flying long distances to feeding areas.   These American White Pelicans are soaring over San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary--a very common sight.

American White Pelicans usually fly in a "V"" or a "J"  formation.  And they fly in groups--sometimes quite far to obtain food.  They soar high in the air where their white body with black tipped wings are sometimes mistaken by non-birders for gulls.  It isn't uncommon to see American White Pelicans flying overhead in Southern California even in the San Bernardino Mountains.   Because they fly so high overhead, these huge birds can look seem like a much smaller bird flying much lower.  Sort of an optical illusion.  So when you see white birds flying in formation overhead, take another look.  You may be looking at American White Pelicans.   They soar on thermals, and it is not unusual to see them circling and higher  and higher before heading out for their destination.

Mature Brown Pelican flying low over the water at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve moves up slightly to cross the footbridge.

In groups or alone Brown Pelicans can be seen flying low over the ocean waves or over the water in an estuary.   They are often seen flying in lines low over the ocean.  Sometimes you may see them flying in a V formation.   They do not soar at high altitudes.


The American White Pelican is present in Orange County in very small numbers in scattered locations all year.  They increase in numbers in the Fall and Winter.    Seeing a lone American White Pelican or two  is unusual, but not unheard of at any time of year in Orange County.   During Fall and Winter, the population significantly swells with wintering American White Pelicans.    It is during Fall and Winter that large groups of American White Pelicans are often spotted.  The Brown Pelican population also increases in Orange County during Fall and Winter, but individuals and small groups of Brown Pelicans are present all year and more frequently seen than the American White Pelican.

You can find American White Pelicans in any large or small body of fresh water in the Fall and Winter.   Any park with a stocked lake no matter how small can become a fishing hole for the American White Pelican.   So large regional parks like Mile Square Park and small neighborhood parks like Carr Park or the even smaller Greer Park can sporadically host a meal for a group of American White Pelicans.   Other than Fall and Winter, American White Pelicans are hard to find in the OC.
So the next time you see a pelican in Orange County, observe the size, the coloring, the feeding techniques, and the flying style.   You will be able to easily identify the species of pelican you are seeing.  Have fun birding in Orange County, California.

Places to find Brown Pelicans

 Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

 Large ecological reserve on Pacific Coast Highway.

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Old hunting club belonging to the IRWD and the Sea and Sage Audubon Headquarters.
Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve aka Newport Back Bay

 Estuary in Newport Beach.

Salt water environments and estuaries.   These are coastal birds flying low over the waves.   Drive up and down the coast and you will see them most of the year in varying numbers.  Fall and winter see the numbers swell with migrants.

Places to find American White Pelicans

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Large ecological reserve on Pacific Coast Highway.

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Old hunting club belonging to the IRWD and the Sea and Sage Audubon Headquarters.  

Huntington Central Park

Large park bisected by  Goldenwest.

Mason Regional Park

Irvine Park with a large lake.    

Carr Park in Huntington Beach

Small neighborhood park with a lake.

Greer Park in Huntington Beach

Neighborhood park that is cut in two pieces by McFadden.   The small , southern section has a lake that is frequented by ducks, geese, egrets, herons, gulls, white-faced ibises, and rarities that show up from time to time.   On occasion, the lake is visited in Fall and Winter by American White Pelicans.

Carbon Canyon Regional Park

Regional park with a large, stocked lake.

Upper Newport Bay Ecological Preserve

Upper Newport Bay Ecological Preserve is an estuary where salt and fresh water mix as the tides flow in and out.