The Dance of the Pelican

Image: Brown pelican walking on a cliff, San Diego, California. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 190 mm, f/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

During the two recent morning photography shoots in San Diego, we caught glimpses of the Brown pelicans walking along the cliff ledges. Their walk was more of a dance with their careful foot placement and use of their wings to steady their balance.

Image: Brown pelican walking on a cliff, San Diego, California. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 190 mm, f/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

They gracefully lifted one foot and then the other to move forward along the edge. It was quite a display as they timed their wings and feet in a synchronous movement.

Image: Brown pelican walking on a cliff, San Diego, California. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 190 mm, f/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

As this non-breeding adult (as indicated by the white head and neck feathers) made its way to the edge of the cliff, it kept its focus and attention on its movements.

Image: Brown pelican walking on a cliff, San Diego, California. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 190 mm, f/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

Eventually the pelican stopped and readied its wings for its eventual liftoff.

Image: Brown pelican spreading its wings on a cliff, San Diego, California. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 145 mm, f/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

The launch began with a squat and a stretching of its wings high overhead to generate a force when the wings descended during the liftoff.

Image: Brown pelican beginning to launch on a cliff, San Diego, California. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 150 mm, f/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

The last bit of this sequence of images involved the feet stretching on tiptoe before liftoff. Then this magnificent bird launched into the air, flying out to sea on a hunt for a morning meal.

Image: Brown pelican launching off a cliff, San Diego, California. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 145 mm, f/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

I’ll continue to share more about San Diego in the next few posts. They should still be around if you are in the area! 

You can view these images individually in my portfolio located here.

San Diego Beauties

Image: Brown pelican, San Diego, CA. Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/320 sec, ISO 1000

I’m taking a short break in my tales of the Antarctic to bring you a little bit of San Diego’s wildlife. This past weekend I joined some friends in San Diego to explore the abundant birdlife in the area. This is a great time to go visit the Brown pelicans that have changed into the breeding plumage for the next couple weeks. They are quite stunning with the various colors and richness in the reddish-brown skin along their throats and necks. Those with yellow heads and red necks are prime for breeding as shown above. We saw some with white heads and necks and learned that they are considered non-breeding adults, such as in the image below.

Image: Brown pelican non-breeding adult, San Diego, CA. Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 360 mm, f/5.6, 1/320 sec, ISO 1000

We spotted some juveniles in the colony as well. They were easily recognized due to the lack of color change in their feathers around their heads and necks.

Image: A juvenile Brown pelican rests on a cliff, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200mm at 200 mm, f/8.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 500

It was mostly cloudy both days over the weekend with some rain on the first day, so the light was quite low. Many of the birds spent the morning preening their feathers on the cliff edge.

Image: Brown pelican preens, San Diego, CA. Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/200 sec, ISO 1000

The way they could contort their heads and necks to reach their backs or under their wings was impressive and allowed me to focus once again on the lines and curves of their bodies in my images.

Image: Brown pelican preens, San Diego, CA. Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 400 mm, f/7.1, 1/400 sec, ISO 800

Even the juveniles were focused on their task to ensure they preened all their feathers.

Image: Brown pelican juvenile preens, San Diego, CA. Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 420 mm, f/5.6, 1/250 sec, ISO 1000

Occasionally, we caught a pelican stretching before take off. This stretch was quite a process and happened so fast that it was hard to capture the full sequence on camera. The series below are different birds that I was able to photograph in the various stages of the neck pull. In the image below, the pelican begins to stretch its head back and push the extra pouch of skin in its throat forward.

Image: Brown pelican beginning a neck stretch, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200mm at 175 mm, f/8.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400

It then lifts its head up and fully stretches the pouch of skin as it cocks its head back. This pouch of extra skin is used for scooping up fish that it catches and then swallows.

Image: Brown pelican beginning a neck stretch, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200mm at 200 mm, f/5.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000

As it continues to stretch its head back, the skin pouch begins to cover the head.

Image: Brown pelican performing a neck stretch, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200mm at 150 mm, f/5.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000

Eventually the throat pouch covers most of the pelican’s head before it ends the stretch and returns back to normal. Shortly after this event, we saw each of these pelicans fly away, possibly in search of its morning meal.

Image: Brown pelican performing a neck stretch, San Diego, CA. Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/400 sec, ISO 500

I’ll continue to share more about San Diego in the next few posts and I encourage you to go visit these amazing birds if you are in the area!

You can view these images individually in my portfolio located here.

Emperors on their feet

Image: An adult Emperor penguin, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 280 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

On their feet, the adult Emperors stood 3.5-4 feet tall. We often found them resting upright and observing the scene of the colony. It was an incredible sight to see on the pure white ice with blue icebergs in the background. Their method of transitioning from gliding on their stomach to standing was quite comical. They often put their beaks into the ice to brace themselves and then used their flippers to push against the ice until they could generate enough force to lift their bellies.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin trying to stand up, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 240 mm, f/8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

They then lifted their head and rocked back onto their feet, occasionally taking a mouthful of ice with them as they stood upright.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin trying to stand up, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 300 mm, f/8, 1/3200 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Sometimes when they had enough strength, they were able to push themselves vertical without the use of their beak or head. You can see this process in the video below.

Once they made it on their feet, they frequently stretched fully, allowing us to get a true grasp of their 4-foot stature.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin stretching tall, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/8, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

We also captured glimpses of them shaking and ruffling their feathers. It was quite a sight as they turned their heads back and forth several times with their wings spread out to the sides.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin shaking, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 340 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

As described in an earlier post, there was a lot of preening time, typically when standing. It gave me an opportunity to photograph the beautiful curves in their feather coloration.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin preening, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 250 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Their balancing acts were quite impressive as well. I never saw one fall during these preening sessions although I did see some stumble a few times when traversing the sea ice.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin preening, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 230 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When they walked, it wasn’t always with the grace of some of their poses. At times, they were hunched over as if in deep thought.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin walking, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 210 mm, f/8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Other times, they were a bit more upright. When the background scene added to the overall composition, I zoomed out a little and waited for just the right moment to capture them with their foot out during a step.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin walking, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 250 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When the penguins paused in their walks, I watched for pleasing backgrounds to add to the images. It gave me a chance to include some of the actual land of Antarctica, as you can see on the left in the image below. Although we were walking around on a hard surface, I had to keep reminding myself that I was walking on water and that the ocean was beneath me.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 270 mm, f/8, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

At times, the penguins climbed the icebergs and posed on them. Although the Emperors were the highlight and main reason I was there, I enjoyed the textures in the ice and tried to capture that in my images.

Image: An adult Emperor penguin on an iceberg, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Despite their down-to-earth manner of getting up and walking, they were truly majestic.

You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.