More pelicans than I’ve ever seen before in one place gathered on the North Basin at the minus .7 tide on a gray and cold Monday morning in August. The tide bottomed at 8:04 a.m., according to the NOAA table. By that time there were dozens of pelicans already present, and they kept on coming. Most of them scooped the shallow water with their beaks, catching prey too small to make a visible dent in their pouches. They were spread across the full width of the cove, with concentrations at either end. There was much flying back and forth.
At one point the bulk of them gathered on the west end of the cove. Then those in the rear hopscotched eastward to the front of the flock, and this continued in a chain reaction, until the bulk of them clustered on the east side. Then they reversed.
At almost exactly 8:30 a.m., even though the tide remained severely low, they decided they were done. As if on a signal, they took to the air, milled around a bit, and then streamed westward and southward in a ragged formation.
Getting an exact count of these birds on the water was hopeless, as they kept changing positions. But by looking at the video of the birds in the air, I counted 105, and that wasn’t quite all of them, but close.
I have to marvel at these birds’ communications. Somehow the seven pelicans I saw on the North Basin in June told some fellows about it, so that two dozen came in July. Then those recruited a few friends to make a gang of thirty for the big low tide in August, and those told all their family and friends to come back the next day in this feathered multitude.
Scientists long ago figured out how bees let each other know the location and quality of a distant flower; they do a coded waggle dance that every worker bee understands. Do we know how the Brown Pelican communicates the location, quality, and exact time of a great feeding opportunity to its fellow birds? Wikipedia is not very helpful, saying only that “Adult pelicans rely on visual displays and behaviour to communicate, particularly using their wings and bills.” OK, so what exactly does one bird do with its wings and bills to tell another: “Great feed at low tide in the North Basin on Monday at 8:04”? Inquiring minds want to know.