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Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis

PelicansPelicans are gifted uglies; a cross between a dinosaur and a ballet dancer. There are two species of pelicans in North America: the white pelican from Europe and the brown pelican. All the pelicans you will see on the Wharf and all along our western and southern coasts are brown pelicans, although the adults in full breeding plumage are remarkably colorful. They have a bright red swath under the briar pipe-shaped bills, with bright yellow topknot and a white head.

The white pelicans are found on lakes and streams throughout the interior of the country and are not nearly the aerialists that the brown pelicans are. The white pelicans, though larger, herd fish in a ring and make a swipe at them. Our coastal brown pelicans are like dive bombers. They spy glinting fish from 40 feet above the water, roll, and plunge straight down through the water netting the fish in their big lower bill-pouches.

Pelicans seem wise, perhaps because they are silent. Unlike the always screeching herring gulls, pelicans never make a peep.

Brown pelicans have been listed as endangered species due to the cumulative ravages of the chemical DDT, but have made a good recovery. They are mostly southern state birds, but seem to be extending their range northward. In the last summers, large numbers of them have adopted the Wharf as a colonial roost as they follow the anchovies into the area. By winter, they retreat before the storms to southern California and Mexico.

Shearwaters, family Puffinus

ShearwatersBird migrations are generally amazing, but the story of shearwaters is especially impressive when you sit in the middle of their mass movements.

There are four species of shearwaters and they are usually dusky brown to black. They appear in our area in summer as part of an enormous trans-Pacific gyre.

Sooty, Short-tailed, Pink-footed, and Buller's shearwaters nest in New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania. They travel across the entire Pacific twice in a great annual figure-eight up to Japan and Asia, across to Alaska, down the American west coast to central California by the million. From there they head west across the ocean past the Fiji Islands and back to Australia and New Zealand.

Their numbers can be overwhelming. They often mass at summer sunsets between the Wharf and the Harbor entrance. Decades ago, many dropped out of the sky on Capitola, causing quite a stir. The Santa Cruz County Sentinel reported it.

Alfred Hitchcock, who liked to vacation in Santa Cruz, sent the clipping to his studio in Hollywood as a suggestion for a story, to result in the film, The Birds.

Gulls and gull-like birds

SeagullsThere are many species of gulls in our area. It takes a little practice to distinguish them since they all seem to be the same white color.

Easiest to distinguish are the Heerman gulls, Larus heermani, especially in breeding plumage, because they have bright red beaks, dark backs and white throats.

Most ubiquitous around the Wharf are the herring gulls, Larus argentatus, a number of pairs which nest under it. Most of the large-sized, dull gray gulls seen here are the adolescent offspring of the white ones. The herring gulls are the one with the loud screeching sneeze of a call, a red spot on their beaks, and yellow eyes. They are all white, with gray backs and black tipped wings.

Other gulls in the area are mew gulls, ring-billed gulls, western gulls, and California gulls, Bonaparte gulls, Sabine's, Thayer's, and Franklin gulls. Other gull-like species are kittiwakes and several species of terns.


There are a number of shorebirds in our area. The common tendency is to call them all sandpipers, but this is only one species of many. We also have sanderlings, plovers, phalaropes, godwits, curlews, willets, turnstones, and oystercatchers.

A bird book is an excellent guide.

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© 1997 Michael Harris, Under the Wharf Magazine & Photography, 831-469-0443

Last updated: 8/3/2009 5:00:33 PM