I’m a lazy birdwatcher. The only effort I’ll put into watching our winged neighbors is hauling in the feeders at night so their supply of sunflower seeds doesn’t disappear when the bears swing by.
While tramping around in the woods trying to track down a grosbeak or veery has payoffs, most times I’d just as soon look out the kitchen window in the morning at the chickadees, nuthatches and finches while I have a cup of coffee. There are exceptions to this sluggish approach however, and the reward comes from being at the right place at the right time, in this case, sitting on a dock on a lake, or motoring along in a boat and watching pelicans.
American white pelicans are big. Don’t expect to tame one and have it land on your arm. Adults usually come in at 14 pounds but can be as much as 30 — no light weight for perching. They eat a lot. In fact, from hatch to first flight, parents have to come up with 150 pounds of fish to satisfy young bird appetites. While crows gather in murders, these birds get together in briefs, (not going there), scoops (entirely appropriate), squadrons (just made for V formations) or pods (way before it was a trendy name for safe groups during a pandemic).
My wife is nuts about them. Unlike white pelicans that scoop, the brown pelicans dive when they feed, folding their wings and plunging spectacularly into the water to grab lunch. Numerous are the times we’ve sat on a beach or dock of the bay on the east or west coast watching the bigger cousins skim the surface of a cove or inlet. It's tough to find a more graceful bird in flight inches above the water.
Years ago, when a friend and I went to the Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods, we took advantage of a midday break to cook a shore lunch. As we cleaned fish and set up a Coleman stove for frying, two pelicans made a low-level pass across the area, barely moving their wings, gliding above the dappled water.
They lifted to the treetops and continued skyward to meet up with some of their mates. Their flight took them to an altitude where thermals boosted them higher and higher, gliding in lazy circles. The play of cumulus clouds, sun, sky and circling, black-tipped wings created a moment when it seemed all natural elements converged. We sat there, silent. Then the birds disappeared into the clouds.
On my wife’s next birthday, I decided to get a tattoo, something completely out of character. Of course I chose a pelican in flight. The reveal came at dinner that night with friends, outdoors, on a lakeside veranda. After I peeled off the sterile bandage on my upper shoulder, her response was, “That isn’t real, is it?” I nodded in the affirmative. She laughed and said, “The kids will never believe it.” And they didn’t.
So when I knock down the first cup of coffee in the morning after staggering out to the garage to hang the bird feeders up by the kitchen window, I may be looking at chickadees, but I’m thinking pelicans.
Doug Lewandowski is a retired counselor, educator and licensed psychologist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.