Observing and Photographing the Elusive Brown Pelican Head Throw Behavior

by Lori A Cash
April 02, 2021

Brown Pelicans

The brown pelican is the smallest of the pelicans in the genus Pelecanus and is a fish-eating waterbird. They are usually found in coastal areas, and their most widely seen behavior can be observed on beaches as a pod of brown pelicans fly and glide low over the ocean waves in a single file line. When the brown pelicans are not flying, they like to loaf around on docks, posts and pilings.

Although some people describe the brown pelicans as prehistoric looking, these birds are graceful and elegant fliers whether gliding low over water or high in the sky. This year I have spent a lot of time observing and photographing a pod of brown pelicans that have been hanging out on or around the old pilings at the Phoebus Waterfront Park in Hampton, Virginia. These brown pelicans have been great subjects to observe and to photograph in an assortment of their behaviors.

Brown Pelican Head Throw Behavior

One particular elusive behavior that the brown pelican often will display, but not as often photographed, is the head throw or bill throw as it is sometimes also called.  A pelican head throw behavior is when the pelican throws its head into the air while arching its back to stretch its neck and gular pouch. Apparently, as I have read and researched this behavior, it is not an often-photographed brown pelican behavior since the entire head throw is often over in a blink, just taking a few seconds to accomplish this stretch. I have observed this head throw stretch by this pod of brown pelicans at Phoebus Waterfront Park many times over the past few months and have been fortunate to photograph this particular behavior on several occasions.

The first time I photographed this display of stretching behavior, I was able to photograph a sequence of 5 images of a brown pelican in head throw as silhouettes as the sun was rising behind the brown pelicans. On this particular morning, I had arrived well before the sun started to rise over the horizon and was able to spend some time observing and taking mental notes of the behaviors of the pelicans as they began to awaken and rouse from their sleeping on the pilings. So, when I saw this particular pelican that I photographed in head throw, I noticed it started to arouse from its crouched down position on this piling just as the lighting of the sky was becoming quite intense and very colorful. So as the pelican stood up and began to stretch its wings one at a time, I began photographing this pelican as a full body silhouette standing on the piling. Fortunately, the piling was in a position where I could isolate this particular pelican from the many other pelicans on the other pilings.

As I was photographing this particular pelican, out of nowhere, the pelican began its head throw behavior. Since I had this pelican in my view finder of my camera and long lens mounted on a tripod, I began rapidly snapping away. Gratefully, my long lens is a Sigma 150-600mm, and because my lens is a telephoto lens, I was able to photograph this action of the pelican head throw in my frame.

The pelican started the head throw as it stood on the piling and began opening its very long bill with the gular pouch expanding under the lower mandible. Then quickly the pelican threw its head and bill up into the air with the bill opening even wider until its back is arched. Then when the brown pelican reached the end of this stretch it closed its bill while still up in the air, and as the head of the pelican began to come back down, the bill open up again with the gular pouch extended as the pelican’s head came right back down to its starting point. This head throw was literally just seconds long, over in a blink.

This pelican head throw was such an awesome thing to observe and photograph. Because I had my lens already on this pelican when it started the head throw, I was able to capture sharp and in-the-frame images by zooming out when the pelican began to toss it head into the air. Even though there was some luck in my part to capturing this behavior, I had observed the pelicans behaviors enough to anticipate that this brown pelican may exhibit this behavior.

Observation of this Pod of Brown Pelicans

In my many observations of this particular pod of brown pelicans hanging out on the pilings in Mill Creek at the Phoebus Waterfront Park, I have seen this head throw behavior demonstrated many times as part of their stretch routine that these pelicans perform. I have observed and photographed these brown pelicans very early in the morning, late in the evening and even some during the mid-day as some of the pelicans hang out at this spot during the day as well. I have observed this head throw behavior at various times of the day when the brown pelicans were standing or resting on the pilings, but not all the pelicans performed this behavior when they were stretching as some just stretched their wings. I am not sure why some do the head throw and some do not, but I do understand how it is a very difficult pelican behavior to photograph due to the head throw being such a very quick exhibit of behavior. Observing and taking mental notes about the pelican’s behaviors allowed me to be able to focus on this brown pelican as the pelican demonstrated the head throw behavior.

Learning and observing animal behavior is essential for capturing these types of beautiful exhibits of animal behavior. As a conservation wildlife photographer, I want to take beautiful and impressionable images that people will love, and I want the viewer to be inspired by my images and gain a better understanding and respect of these wild creatures of our natural world. Documenting these kinds of wildlife behaviors and sharing these powerful and beautiful images is crucial in inspiring people to love and appreciate the beauty of these creatures of our natural world.  

Copyright © 2021 Lori A Cash Conservation Photography, LLC

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