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Pelican Whisperer

The four Taiwanese girls had never seen anything like it, but to be honest it was a first for me as well.

I’m around California brown pelicans a lot, and I know juvenile brown pelicans can have a difficult time adjusting to life away from the security of their mothers and the nest.  When it comes time to strike out on their own it involves learning how to fly and diving to catch food on their own.  Whenever I see juveniles sitting on the water and they’re plunging their scissor-like beaks into the ocean, I know they haven’t perfected the art of soaring and diving for pouches full of fish.

A lot of juveniles become disoriented, exhausted and starve.  If they aren’t fortunate enough to reach rehabilitation centers up and down the coast, they may succumb to nature’s brutal reality.  On the other hand some are just plain curious as they’re growing up.

ChuckGraham_PotatoHarbor_IMG053Late last spring I was leading a kayak tour to Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.  I was leading four Taiwanese girls from the East Coast, who happened to be competent paddlers on the 6-mile round-trip kayak tour.

Potato Harbor is an idyllic natural anchorage near the southeast end of the largest isle off the California coast.  Its entrance is a haven for hundreds of California sea lions, Brandt’s cormorants, black oystercatchers, seasonal elegant terns and year-round brown pelicans.  Occasionally I’ll catch a glimpse of a peregrine falcon soaring overhead.  The rear of Potato Harbor has a small beach when the tide is low enough and a natural oil seep oozes from beneath the swath of cobble and driftwood crammed in the rear of the cove.

Years ago some guides scavenged some driftwood planks in the rear of Potato Harbor and constructed a sturdy little, 7-foot-long bench wedged into a rocky knoll overlooking Potato Harbor.  It’s a nice, convenient lunch stop after paddling to Potato Harbor.

On this day the four Taiwanese girls and I were the only ones there. Perched on the driftwood bench for lunch, I was fielding a bombardment of questions about the Channel Islands National Park, answering the best I could about the natural history surrounding the volcanic archipelago.

As far as I can remember they hadn’t stumped me just yet, and that’s when the juvenile brown pelican swooped in and landed on the plank we use as a table about 18 inches across from us.  Try to imagine all the superlatives in Taiwanese as the pelican landed, its 7-foot-wide wingspan outstretched before us.Brown Pelican - Chuck Graham

Initially the four Taiwanese girls were afraid of the Teradactyl dinosaur-like seabird, clambering behind me and each other waiting for it to supposedly attack.  Brown pelicans however are very docile.  Can’t think of any way they could hurt someone.  In the past I’ve rescued several on the beach, and once one cut me with the spur at the end of its long beak.

This one only seemed curious.  To quell their fears I got up and sat right next to the pelican.  It didn’t move an inch.  Instead I began stroking its chest and then its broad wings.  Finally, I began scratching the back of its fuzzy head.  When I did that it slowly closed its eyes, its head fell back and it took a siesta at Potato Harbor.  Needless to say the Taiwanese girls were quite impressed taking pictures and even filming the spectacle.

Eventually the juvenile brown pelican came out of its sleepy island trance and flew off toward the entrance of Potato Harbor choosing to roost on a knobby sea stack.  Apparently it grew bored with us and longed to socialize with seabirds of the same feather.

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