Pelicans are large birds that do not particularly look special when you see them along the coast. They tend to blend in easily with the coastal environment, and seem to hang out near fishing piers, shipping channels and marinas hoping to snatch up some fish left behind by fisherman. Although they are quite sizable birds, they never really draw much attention while sitting on top of mooring poles near bridges and inlets. They are quite abundant in numbers, which makes it hard to believe that they were severely threatened some decades ago.
The Brown pelican nearly disappeared from the North American landscape during the late 1950s and early 1970s. The abundant use of pesticides that ended up in the food chain nearly wiped out the complete population. In 1970 the brown pelican was added to the endangered species list in the US, which eventually led to a ban on the use of DDT in 1972. Since the mid 1980s the pelican population has increased in numbers again and reached pre-pesticide numbers by the late 1990s. When they were fully delisted in 2009, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill threatened the Gulf Coast pelican populations again. As with many species, human intervention is ultimately responsible for the decline in numbers. It has been estimated that more than 700 adult and immature pelicans die each year in Florida alone from entanglement in sport-fishing gear.
Although their appearance and behavior at first sight does not seem that spectacular they do have some great characteristics. Brown pelicans are great swimmers and very skillful fliers, but on land they have an awkward gait. They usually fly in V-formations or lines just above the water's surface on their way to fishing grounds. The fishing technique they apply is unique to the brown pelican. Brown Pelicans mostly eat small fish that form schools near the surface of the water. They perform spectacular dives from as high as 65 feet over the ocean and enter the water with their heads first. As the pelican plunges into the water, its throat pouch expands to trap the fish, filling with up to 2.6 gallons of water. Before swallowing their prey they drain the water from their pouches, while gulls or terns often try to steal fish right out of their beaks. It is quite funny to watch.
There are plenty of interesting characteristics about a pelican, if you think about it, but they really never come to mind when you see one motionless posing on a pole. For some time I thought about how you can look at an ordinary pelican and think: that is actually a very cool bird.
You have to go beyond the ordinary to see the extraordinary. The way to do that is to constantly change your perspective and look for situations that are different from what we are comfortable with. We are all conditioned to think along defined patterns, but there is always more than one right answer to a situation. You have to find it. It is the angle and focus that changes your perspective, and makes you view a scene quite differently.
With photography we have the tools to play around with those elements. Do we want to create a story telling image with all the elements sharp or do we focus on one element that needs to be sharp and sticks out against an otherwise soft background with pleasant colors. Both are right answers, and can be very compelling.
Often times, when you experience a situation for the first time, you tend to fall back on defined thinking patterns, which makes it difficult to go beyond the ordinary. How often did you photograph the obvious picture, or trophy shot? We all do that many times, but you have to push yourself to see the things that are not that obvious or in plain sight.
If you are willing to change your perspective and use the different focal lengths in your camera bag, you are well on your way to see things differently and see different things that you were not even aware of.
The Brown pelicans on the Pacific coast are more colorful than their counterparts on the Atlantic coast. Especially during breeding season from December until August when their bill pouches color bright red and orange, whereas the atlantic pelicans are more brown and greenish. Although the image above is a typical portrait, the background is different from what you would expect it to be, which in my opinion makes this image special. I photographed this pelican on the cliffs of La Jolla, where the typical image is a pelican with a blue ocean background. Here I had to change my shooting angle away from the ocean and line up a solid piece of green vegetarian.
On a windless morning at Estero Lagoon the water becomes a mirror and gives you great opportunities to do something with the reflections. In the images above, a group of pelicans was floating around waiting for fish to be tossed in their direction. I moved into the water and lowered my tripod to get a low angle perspective to completely blur out the background and foreground and solely focus on the floating pelican. It was just waiting for the second pelican to drift into the frame to create a nice juxtaposition.
After you have taken the obvious images of pelicans posing against a blue ocean background, it is tempting to try something totally different. Close-ups or detail images give you a complete different perspective on the same subject. It is often a matter of experimenting before you find the right angle that works. Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
Sometimes it is also a matter of being ready for the right moment. It is often difficult to predict when action will occur, but if it does you should not be fiddling around with your equipment. Studying the behavior of wildlife will give you clues as to when you might expect the action. Brown pelicans can spend quite a long time preening their feathers in the sun after their return from an early morning fishing trip. Once they are done, they often times throw their heads up in the air to clean their bill pouches. This happens always unexpected, takes two seconds, and will most likely be a pelican that you did not have in focus. Never stop trying. The first time I photographed at La Jolla I did not get any head-throw images.
In the pre-dawn the sky often turns pink, which is again a very unusual background color. I wanted to use this opportunity, which does not last very long, to create a nice pelican portrait. Here the challenge was the angle in order to position the pelican against the pink sky. The bird needs to be higher that the photographer as you need to point your lens up to get the pink background and lose distracting elements. That is no easy task on the steep sandstone cliffs. As there is not much light around this time, you find yourself working with very slow shutter speeds in combination with long focal lengths.
The above image is a typical La Jolla image with a pelican against the blue ocean background. Although it is a "dime-in-a-dozen" image, the pose is what makes this image stand out. A preening pose with the head parallel to the image sensor and the bird positioned well back in the frame to give him enough space on the right.
This golden pelican image is all about color for me. In the late evening light I saw the reflections from apartment buildings in the water. The breeding colors of the pelican complemented the reflections. Now it was a matter of putting the two together and creating a different image. It took me quite a while to position myself in such a way that I had the pelican and the reflections lined up in perfect order. I had to move inches to the right or left, move a little bit back to be in the right spot. Than it was just waiting for the right moment to take the image. It is all about seeing the individual ingredients and try to bake a cake with them.
In the two images above I used a longer focal length to get a closer look at the subject. You start to see amazing differences in the birds. The pelican resting on the cliffs had a complete white head and neck, and the other had a white neck and orange bill pouch. Both were standing out in the crowd and were worthwhile to photograph as they brought something different to the table. You want diversity in the images that you take.
Changing focal length in an instant will help you to capture action moments when they occur. A zoom lens is a great tool to accomplish that and provides the flexibility to frame the subject in the appropriate way. Especially, if you are hand holding the lens, you can move around quickly and change your perspective and shooting angle on the fly. The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens with Internal 1.4x Extender is the lens that I used most of the time with the pelicans.
I love the comical poses of the pelicans, they really have the ability to look goofy and make you smile. Just by taking the time and effort to create different perspectives, you learn so much more. All of a sudden the ordinary pelican becomes an extraordinary bird, and you fall in love with it. Every time I pass by a pelican, who is patiently waiting for a left over fish meal near the local ocean inlet, it puts a smile on my face. I changed my perspective and I have seen things differently.