Brown Pelicans – Palace of Fine Arts – San Francisco

When the winds are strong, they swoop in over the Palace like parachutists — born with the gifts and instincts of canopy pilots. If you watch birds in the Bay Area, you’ve likely seen these squadrons on either side of the Golden Gate Bridge, thousands of Brown Pelicans streaming back and forth across Alcatraz, heading through the gate to the Pacific, bending around Lands End and the old Cliff House … or catching the currents back over the bridge and toward the Alameda breakwater. In the middle, some stop to rest, and bathe, and fish in the shallows of Crissy Marsh.

Brown Pelicans Over the Palace of Fine Arts SF

A bird expert friend educated me on just how massive the pelican roost is at Alameda Point’s Breakwater Island. I’d seen birds there in silhouette, shooting with my telephoto. But, until our conversation, I didn’t realize just how many pelicans regularly roost there, and how important a location it is for this species. In 2018, a crew counted 8,086 Brown Pelicans on the breakwater (source: Golden Gate Audubon).

Brown Pelicans in San Francisco Sunset

The pelicans in these images are part of this Bay Area mass. On a recent night, the fog came in over the hills instead of through the Golden Gate, and the muted sunset created this painterly matte. I was shooting at ISO2500-3200 which added a bit of grain.

Brown Pelican Over the Palace of Fine Arts SF

I love pelicans in the landing position, feet down. They roll with the wind and drop into the marsh, one after the other, splashing in with their flock mates and a few American White Pelicans who loaf alongside.

Brown Pelicans are a miracle of survival and conservation. They came close to extinction. In these massive displays, having defied that unthinkable fate, they still (and always will) take my breath away.

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