American white and brown pelicans on a sandbar together with stormy seas

Pelicans on a bar

South Carolina, USA

On a blustery day towards the tail end of a storm, the two species of pelicans that inhabit the coast of South Carolina take refuge on a sandbar. The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is found in much larger numbers along the coast, while the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus) is less frequently seen.

The American White Pelican is a huge waterbird with a massive wingspan up to 114 inches (290 cm) and weigh up to 317 oz (9000 g). They are largely western state birds, wintering along the Pacific and Gulf coasts, then breeding in lakes throughout the Midwest, West and Canada. South Carolina doesn’t even show up on maps of their range, although they have been showing up along the coast for years, and their numbers are increasing. Most of the white pelicans seen in South Carolina are juveniles, later migrating to the upper Midwest and Canada to breed as they mature.

Brown pelicans have wingspans up to 90 inches (229 cm), and are smaller, weighing up to 176 oz (5000 g). They have dark gray bodies with a white neck, and a pale yellow head that turns to bright yellow during breeding. These large birds live and breed strictly in saltwater habitats near the ocean’s coastline, rarely venturing more than 20 miles from the shore.

Beside their size and color, they also differ in their feeding habits. American White Pelicans scoop up fish by dipping their large beaks and pouches into the water, often working as a team herding fish into shallow areas. Brown Pelicans fly high into the sky and then plunge aggressively headfirst into the water. These dives stun the surrounding fish, which are then scooped up with their enormous throat pouch and swallowed whole.

This image is stitched together from a group of 8 images taken from a rocking boat with a 500 mm lens to avoid disturbing the resting birds. Photo © copyright by Dr. Edward Mikol.

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