Pelicans in Flight

Image: Brown pelican in breeding plumage soaring above the ocean, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 410 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500 sec, ISO 800, hand-held.

Brown pelicans make great subjects for practicing birds-in-flight photography, a skill in its own right. After spending the early morning hours in San Diego capturing images of these birds sitting and preening, we moved on to photographing them in flight as the light improved.

Image: Brown pelican juvenile preparing to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 122 mm, f/8.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The ocean made a great background for these birds and we worked on photographing them from all angles. I had wanted to capture a pelican head-on as shown in the photograph below although catching them from the side allowed for greater appreciation of the size of their wings and bodies.

Image: Brown pelican in breeding plumage soaring above the ocean, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500 sec, ISO 800, hand-held.

Because of the dark cloudy weather, my camera settings were not quite ideal for fast-moving wings. I needed a fast shutter speed for capturing the movement, but in order to have the correct exposure, I had to use a wide aperture (low f-stop) to let in as much light as possible into the camera sensor. This did not give me as great of a depth of field as I would have liked for a large bird up close like this, but it allowed me to increase my shutter speed so that I could capture the head and body in focus while it was flying through the air.

Image: Brown pelican in breeding plumage preparing to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 145 mm, f/2.8, 1/1250 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

When these birds began their landing sequence, their wings flapped faster than when they were soaring, so at times, I had a little bit of blur on their wing tips. I didn’t mind this so much as long as the focus on the eye and head was sharp. The slight blur in the wings also helped to demonstrate movement in the image.

Image: Brown pelican in breeding plumage preparing to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 150 mm, f/5.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

As the pelicans went through their landing sequence, we practiced capturing images of them with their wings in various positions.

Image: Brown pelican in breeding plumage preparing to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 135 mm, f/5.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

We also spent time photographing the pelicans from the front as they landed on the cliffs ahead of us. This non-breeding adult, as indicated by the white head and neck, was in full landing mode with the churning sea in the background.

Image: Brown pelican preparing to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 145 mm, f/5.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

It landed with perfect grace and rested along the cliffs until it decided to go back out to search for fish.

Image: Brown pelican preparing to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 145 mm, f/5.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

From a slightly different angle, this breeding adult approached us head-on and I was able to capture a little of the background to add a sense of place to the image. The ocean waves were much stronger the second day we were visiting the cliffs, causing the pelicans to land higher on the cliffs, much to our delight.

Image: Brown pelican in breeding plumage preparing to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 120 mm, f/5.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

Occasionally, the pelicans landed close to or on top of other pelicans, angering them as shown by this breeding adult snapping at the juvenile landing on the cliff.

Image: Brown pelican juvenile prepares to land, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 70-200 mm at 190 mm, f/3.5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held.

We finished up the trip with a visit to the beach to watch and photograph the shorebirds and surfers. What we didn’t realize until then was that the pelicans “rode” the waves just as the human surfers did. It was a pretty sight to see the waves crashing just behind the pelican as it moved along the shore.

Image: Brown pelican in breeding plumage soaring above the ocean, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500 sec, ISO 800, hand-held.

We even had a beautiful goodbye as these 5 pelicans soared over a wave crashing onto the beach.

Image: Brown pelicans in breeding plumage soaring above the ocean, San Diego, CA. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 290 mm, f/7.1, 1/2500 sec, ISO 800, hand-held.

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