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I have been fascinated by Pelicans since first encountering them as a young boy raking moss on reefs in Massachusetts Bay. As a teenager in the dunes of Florida, I would marvel at Pelican echelons soaring the surf line and laugh at the brazen ones walking, stalking, and robbing bait buckets on the piers.

I’m also a fan of how air reacts with wings, especially close to the ground when you try to milk every last erg of energy, staying aloft just a tad longer by using ground effect. You do that a lot in a sailplane, but nowhere near as well as Pelicans or Petrels (good name for a kayak!) Every time I went to sea, or visited the coasts, time was set aside to watch Pelicans. And they always were brown, until one day while I was sailing across a small reservoir, out on the Colorado plains. Across my bow flew a bunch of White Pelicans. Some had dark wingtips. They looked like pelicans, soared like pelicans, fed like pelicans. But white?

Actually White Pelicans are quite common in a few places in the USA. Here are a few facts about them from Wikipedia:

  • The American white pelican rivals the Trumpeter Swan as the longest bird native to North America. Both very large and plump, it has an overall length of about 50–70 inches (130–180 cm), courtesy of the huge beak which measures 11.3–15.2 in (290–390 mm) in males and 10.3–14.2 in (260–360 mm) in females.
  • It has a wingspan of about 95–120 in (240–300 cm). The species also has the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird, after the California Condor. This large wingspan allows the bird to easily use soaring flight for migration. The wing chord measures 20–26.7 in (51–68 cm) and the tarsus measures 3.9–5.4 in (9.9–13.7 cm) long.
  • Body weight can range between 9.2 and 30 lb (4.2 and 13.6 kg), although typically these birds average between 11 and 20 lb (5.0 and 9.1 kg).
  • Plumage is almost entirely bright white, except the black primary and secondary feathers which are hardly visible except in flight. From early spring until after breeding has finished in mid-late summer, the breast feathers have a yellowish hue. After moulting into the eclipse plumage, the upper head often has a grey hue, as blackish feathers grow between the small wispy white crest.
  • The bill is huge and flat on the top, with a large throat sac below, and, in the breeding season, is vivid orange in color as is the iris, the bare skin around the eye, and the feet. In the breeding season, there is a laterally flattened “horn” on the upper bill, located about one-third the bill’s length behind the tip. This is the only one of the eight species of pelican to have a bill “horn”. The horn is shed after the birds have mated and laid their eggs. Outside the breeding season the bare parts become duller in color, with the naked facial skin yellow and the bill, pouch, and feet an orangy-flesh color.
  • Apart from the difference in size, males and females look exactly alike. Immature birds have light grey plumage with darker brownish feathers on its nape. Their bare parts are dull grey. Chicks are naked at first, then grow white down feathers all over, before moulting to the immature plumage.

Pelicans are fun to photograph from a kayak. When you photograph birds and wildlife from a kayak, you need one that’s rock-solid stable. You’ll never get a good shot if you’re tipping or rocking while you’re snapping. You also want a kayak that’s comfy since you’re likely to be waiting quite a while for a good shot. The same stability and comfort that make the Rogue such a great choice for beginners make it super for wildlife photography. So I naturally turned to my Rogue when Jackson Kayak’s Sean Morlely asked if I’d be up for posting about White Pelicans.

Single white pelican. Photo by Butler Cox

In search of white pelicans, My wife Laura and I set out for the Colorado plains, where I’d spent time with these birds back in the 80s. Soon I was hunkered down behind good cover, comfortably situated in the Rogue, cameras ready. I didn’t have to wait long.

I wasn’t using a tripod so the Rogue’s steady stability was a huge help, especially as I was shooting zoomed way out to absurd focal lengths where images can get pretty jittery (some of the shots below are superzoomed to about 950mm!) A big advantage shooting from the Rogue is that you’re more a part of the environment, down low, not sticking skyward like a predator. So, as long as you don’t make noise, things may happen. They did and here are photos of America’s most unique birds.