Photographing California Brown Pelicans at the La Jolla Cliffs

By January 31, 2022February 22nd, 2022Pelicans, Wisdom

My thoughts and recommendations for photographing California brown pelicans in La Jolla. Updated December 2021.

Update 2015: Guide to Photographing Pelicans in La Jolla (a PDF, this has a lot of info but cameras have come a long way since then, plus I no longer use flash on birds).

Update 2022: Recommendations for flight photography and head throw settings at the bottom of this page.

If you like these photos, you can also see lots more blog posts from past sessions photographing California brown pelicans in La Jolla. Or, I’ve got a gallery of some keepers on my website, but most of the good ones from the last couple years I have not even gotten around to captioning and putting the web yet: California Brown Pelican photo gallery. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

A morning visit to the cliffs of La Jolla to photograph seabirds is on the list of many California photographers. Note I did not say “bird photographers”. This location is appealing because good seabird photographs are easily achieved here, to the extent that shooters like myself with modest bird photography skills can have really productive sessions and in a single visit can generate a variety of strong images to add to their collections. Bird photographers come from throughout the country to train their lenses on these special birds and the scenic coastline of La Jolla, and for good reason. I was once reminded of this when I happened to share the cliff top with a large workshop group of bird photographers. The intensity of their efforts was considerable. I photograph primarily ocean subjects, including coastal birds. Among seabirds I find the California race of the brown pelican particularly attractive and fun to watch, so when I am in La Jolla shooting it is the pelican that gets most of my attention.  (I also love albatrosses, boobies and terns.)

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage.
Image ID: 15371
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The best time to visit the La Jolla cliffs is during the winter months, sunrise through mid-morning. The California brown pelican displays it most colorful plumage from late December through February, punctuated by a dramatic red throat pouch. Typically, winter mornings in San Diego offer clear skies and good sunlight conditions for photography, and if you are fortunate the wind will also be in your favor (i.e., offshore) when you are there. If you can manage to time your visit during the week you will probably share the small cliff top area with fewer people than if you visit on the weekend. As you will see, the fewer photographers occupying the limited space on the cliffs, the better. Upon arriving you may not find many pelicans on the cliffs, or none at all, or a whole crowd of them. Regardless, move slowly so that the birds that are there can become used to your presence and are not shocked into taking flight. Pelicans that are on the cliffs are there to rest, and if they are flushed they will likely settle down on another cliff and not return for quite a while, if at all.

Brown pelican. This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red gular throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican. This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red gular throat pouch.
Image ID: 15123
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The waxing light before sunrise can offer pleasing pastel-colored backgrounds again which to frame up gulls and pelicans. I often see photographers combining pastel-colored ambient light with a bit of strobe fill. This is a delicate balance of light and is made difficult by the need for high ISO (e.g., 400) to freeze the wings with shutter speed. However, the high ISO means you must not underexpose to avoid excessive shadow noise. Don’t be afraid to meter so that the clear dawn sky, with the sun at your back, is at +2 or more stops, decreasing gradually as the sun rises. A Better Beamer can be helpful to increase the throw (distance) of your flash, and a bracket serves to position the flash off the axis of the lens to avoid.

Direct sun will light the reach cliffs and birds about 30 minutes after sunrise proper, being blocked for a while by La Jolla’s Mount Soledad behind you. You will find that you can frame up the resting and preening pelicans that are standing on the cliff edges with attractive frontlighting — the type of lighting I prefer — by ensuring that your shadow is pointed directly at the birds. As in portrait photography, front lighting with a long lens serves to flatten and simplify the subject in a flattering way. Pelicans are contrasty, with coloration ranging from pure white and hot yellow and red to deep gray and black; side lighting is just too harsh for my taste.

A brown pelican preening, reaching with its beak to the uropygial gland (preen gland) near the base of its tail. Preen oil from the uropygial gland is spread by the pelican's beak and back of its head to all other feathers on the pelican, helping to keep them water resistant and dry. Adult winter non-breeding plumage showing white hindneck and red gular throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

A brown pelican preening, reaching with its beak to the uropygial gland (preen gland) near the base of its tail. Preen oil from the uropygial gland is spread by the pelican’s beak and back of its head to all other feathers on the pelican, helping to keep them water resistant and dry. Adult winter non-breeding plumage showing white hindneck and red gular throat pouch.
Image ID: 18209
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Framing individual birds against a distant, out of focus, pleasing blue or green ocean backdrop is dead easy. The key to creating a defocused background is to place a relatively uncomplicated background at a great distance relative to the subject. In La Jolla the pelicans are 15-50′ (5-15m) from you while the background cliffs, waves or blue ocean range from a hundred yards to a mile away or more. With distance ratios like that it is possible to stop down to f/8 or f/11 to hold depth of field on the subject with a 500mm lens and still achieve a defocused background, making the subject’s edges appear especially sharp. Take advantage of soft background and leave negative space in some of your vertical compositions to allow for that cover shot that will allow you to retire early. Before the sun climbs too high it is possible to put a catchlight from the sun in your pelican’s eye, or to maximize the visibility of water droplets on a pelican that has just returned from the water. To do this, position your subject so that the sun is directly behind you and low. If the shadow of your lens lies just to the side of your subject, you are in the right spot.

Focus on the eye! I try to put critical focus on my subject’s eye in all of my wildlife photographs, and pelicans are no exception. The eye of an animal, especially in a portrait composition, is an anchor for the viewer. Invariably and naturally, when first viewing a photograph a viewer’s glance is immediately drawn to the subject’s eye. For this reason the eye must be tack sharp and well-placed. Once that is achieved, use what depth of field is available (given the available light and choice of shutter speed and ISO) to try for sharp chest, head and neck details, knowing that depth of field with super-telephotos is notoriously small and that some near or far detail may be a bit soft.

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage.
Image ID: 15122
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

For best flight shots I hope for a clear horizon and offshore morning breezes, so that the pelicans approach the cliffs upwind and are frontlit as they fly directly toward the lens. In this way their faces and undersides are illuminated as they spread those huge wings to soar and land. It is tempting to shoot frames as they fly past, and I have certainly shot my share of those. But back at the editing table I find that in nearly every case side lighting produces an image that is too harsh and gets tossed. If you do not have offshores don’t despair; often upon approach to the cliffs the pelicans will wheel and make a second pass before deciding where to set down, especially if the cliff is already crowded with pelicans or people. Take advantage of these loops to obtain the angle you need.

When shooting pelicans in flight in La Jolla the background will quickly change from bright sky to deep blue ocean water, whitewash and waves to brown sandstone cliffs. These situations will fool your light meter and, if you are shooting in one of the automatic modes, will often produce blown head and wing highlights or an underexposed bird. Metering on a neutral area such as a grey guana-covered rock, works well for me. In a pinch I will set my exposure so that the palm of my (caucasian) hand is at +1.

California brown pelican spreads its wings wide as it slows before landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican spreads its wings wide as it slows before landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 18228
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

 

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch.
Image ID: 15124
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Head throws, where your pelican stretches its throat and lifts it bill straight up in the air, are the most distinctive and amusing behaviors among these birds. It seems that most of the photographers I’ve talked with at the cliffs are keen to get a good shot of a pelican’s head throw. It’s not too hard, you’ll get it if you are willing to put in some time and stand ready. Any pelican that is standing and has its eyes open is a good candidate to throw its head back. I’ve seen a single individual do it five or six times in the course of just a few minutes. Head throws are as contagious as sneezes among a group of pelicans. If you see one do it be ready for his neighbor to do it too. Take a few test frames and check your histograms for blinkies ahead of time, so that it is simply a matter of framing it up when you see the pelican’s head drop down and back first, before being swung straight up in the air. Heck, with today’s ultra-fast motor drives and focusing systems, the camera practically takes the photo for you. Think about the right focal length for where you are standing. You’ll need to be wide enough to contain about twice the height of a standing pelican to include the entire bird when it is tossing its bill up.

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch.
Image ID: 18044
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelican, showing bright red gular pouch and breeding plumage with brown neck. This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican, showing bright red gular pouch and breeding plumage with brown neck. This large seabird has a wingspan over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, due largely to predation in the early 1900s and to decades of poor reproduction caused by DDT poisoning.
Image ID: 15153
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Don’t forget to shoot some details of the birds, but don’t approach them so closely that you spook them off to do so …

California brown pelicans fly in formation, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelicans fly in formation.
Image ID: 18232
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelicans rest and preen on seacliffs above the ocean. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red-orange gular throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelicans rest and preen on seacliffs above the ocean. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage with brown neck, yellow and white head and bright red-orange gular throat pouch.
Image ID: 18261
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

… and get some frames of the groups, if you can line them up.

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage.
Image ID: 15125
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

The cliffs are increasingly crowded with photographers (and visitors) each winter. When I would visit the cliffs after swimming the cove in the 80’s, I never saw another photographer there. In the 90’s there would be a few, and now it seems photographers, alone or in groups, are there most weekend mornings December through March. This is probably a good thing, as these birds are deserving of our appreciation, and for the most part the behavior of photographers alongside whom I have shot at the cliffs has been respectful of these special birds. However, if the birds are disturbed and fly off, the photo opportunities for everyone are lessened (not to mention the the disruption that the birds experience). I’ve seen a few people flush the entire flock, only to watch as all the departing birds settled on another cliff for the rest of the morning.

(The following paragraph is out of date, see below for my current gear and thoughts. ) You’ll want the longest lens you own for portraits and head throws. Some prefer to use shorter focal lengths and zooms (70-200, 100-400) for flight shots. Most of the better photos I have made the last two years at the cliffs were taken with a Canon 1Ds Mark II and 500 f/4 IS, on a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley II head. The perspective-crunching nature of a 500mm or 600mm, combined with the defocused background, is a combination I just love. A 70-200 f/2.8 or 300 f/2.8 with a 1DIIN is a good combo too, but I just don’t want to give up the pixels of the 1DsII or the crazy sharpness of the Canon 500 f/4. Keep in mind that if there are onshore breezes and surf, you may get some spray on your gear even while you are well atop the cliffs. Consider bringing a towel in your hip sack just in case. Since I often shoot around surf I carry a full-length Aquatech spray cover for my camera and lens.

Had enough after a few hours at the cliffs? I should mention that in addition to brown pelicans I have photographed gray whales, several species of cormorant, gull and tern, at least one osprey and a few great blue herons at the La Jolla cliffs. If you have seen enough of them too and you are ready to move on, there are a few fun places nearby you might want to consider. If there are waves, walking down the hill to the large grass park at La Jolla Cove may give you opportunities to shoot pelicans at water level flying above and in front of the waves, a composition that would be difficult to line up at the cliffs. You’ll want to shoot from the sidewalk at the edge of the park, on the low bluff just above the waves. Children’s Pool (a pocket cove with seawall) is only a half mile south, just a two-minute drive, and your longer lens is perfect to photograph the harbor seals there. Walk down to the sand and shoot low for the most appealing perspective of the seals. The sun reaches the seals at Children’s Pool later in the morning than it does the pelicans at the cliffs, so you can generally shoot both spots in good light in winter months. To the north, close enough that you can see both from the cliffs, lie Stephen Birch SIO Aquarium (10 minutes) and Torrey Pines State Reserve (20 minutes).

A handy link:

Google map showing cliffs, Prospect Blvd. and Coast Blvd.

California Brown pelican performing a head throw, with breeding plumage including distinctive yellow and white head feathers, red gular throat pouch, brown hind neck and greyish body, La Jolla

California Brown pelican performing a head throw, with breeding plumage including distinctive yellow and white head feathers, red gular throat pouch, brown hind neck and greyish body.
Image ID: 37635
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California brown pelican portrait with breeding plumage, note the striking red throat, yellow and white head, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican portrait with breeding plumage, note the striking red throat, yellow and white head.
Image ID: 37610
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Contemplative brown pelican portrait on overcast day, with surf and foam in the background. Breeding plumage with yellow and white head, red throat, brown neck

Contemplative brown pelican portrait on overcast day, with surf and foam in the background. Breeding plumage with yellow and white head, red throat, brown neck.
Image ID: 37638

Portrait of California brown pelican, with the characteristic winter mating plumage shown: red throat, yellow head and dark brown hindneck, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

Portrait of California brown pelican, with the characteristic winter mating plumage shown: red throat, yellow head and dark brown hindneck.
Image ID: 37711
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

A brown pelican preening, reaching with its beak to the uropygial gland (preen gland) near the base of its tail. Preen oil from the uropygial gland is spread by the pelican's beak and back of its head to all other feathers on the pelican, helping to keep them water resistant and dry, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

A brown pelican preening, reaching with its beak to the uropygial gland (preen gland) near the base of its tail. Preen oil from the uropygial gland is spread by the pelican's beak and back of its head to all other feathers on the pelican, helping to keep them water resistant and dry.
Image ID: 37725
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Ghostly California brown pelican glides over breaking surf, abstract with motion blur and pastel pre-dawn colors, La Jolla

Ghostly California brown pelican glides over breaking surf, abstract with motion blur and pastel pre-dawn colors.
Image ID: 37676
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

My current (2022) recommendations for the Canon R5 settings for birds in flight.  I use a Canon R5 and 200-400 lens, and love it.  The lens itself is reason enough to own a Canon camera.  Note also that, while I am not a bird photographer per se, I see many that describe themselves as bird photographers using Sony Alpha One and 200-600 lens with great results.

The world doesn’t need another image of a brown pelican in flight, but I enjoy trying to make different renditions of my favorite seabirds flying and it keeps me in practice during the winter between dive trips. Recently we had a confluence of conditions that offered ideal flight photography and I took advantage of it several mornings in a row. We had clear skies to the east, wind from the east, high tides in the morning, high surf and, on top of that, a large aggregation of bait just offshore. In those tidal and surf conditions the birds choose to roost higher up on the rocks since the lower areas are awash with waves, and with wind from the east the birds approach at the perfect sun angle. With the bait present, the birds would go out and forage (dive-bombing balls of sardines and mackerel alongside, terns, gulls and sea lions) and then return to rest, dry and preen before cycling back out to forage. In this way pelicans were constantly coming and going. Over several days I experimented with different focusing modes and sensitivities on my Canon R5, eventually settling on a combination that produces tack-sharp-on-the-eye most of the time. Sometimes the first handful of frames will be soft on the eye as the camera acquires focus, but once it is locked it remains sharp throughout most of the sequence, rarely loosing focus.  This means one should engage the AF early, at least a few moments before releasing the shutter – but that has always been a best practice. All I have to do is stand in the right spot (there are three depending on wind angle and how many birds are on the cliffs) and pull the trigger. The light reaches the birds at 7:30 and by 8:30 I am picking up a cappuccino at Girard Gourmet on my way home with a bunch of images to review later in the day.

Below are the settings I currently use when shooting large slow birds in flight. I hand-hold a Canon 200-400, usually around 250-300mm for the flight shots depicted here. I no longer use a tripod for flight images as it simply gets in the way except for those few situations where the bird is steadily tracking a straight line and you can pan with it perfectly. Some can do that well but not me. I find handholding is better.

  • The first ten minutes when the light reaches over the top of Mount Soledad is the best, but it changes fast and you can easily blow out highlights if you don’t check them.
  • Once the sun is fully on the birds, my typical exposure with clear skies and sun at my back is ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/2500. It doesn’t change much over the first hour or so of the morning.
  • Electronic shutter and continuous high frame advance so I have 20 frames per second and can choose the wing position that looks best. I don’t see any rolling shutter artifacts with slow-moving pelicans.
  • cRAW rather than RAW, since cRAW cuts the file size in about half and roughly doubles the buffer to 99 frames. Combined with very fast memory cards in both slots, I never hit the buffer limit.  I don’t see any degradation in image quality by using cRAW compared to RAW.
  • AF operation: SERVO AF
  • AF method: I use both Expand AF area (the “plus sign” to the right of 1-point AF) and Eye-tracking set to animals (not people).
  • Shutter release: set to use Expand AF area as the focus mode, and this is what I use for flight. Yes, I believe it works a little better than Eye-tracking for flight situations. One does need to keep the focus points on the face of the bird.
  • Back button AF-ON: set to use Eye-tracking as the focus mode. I used this for portrait situations. When initializing AF using the back button AF-ON, the R5 will continue to use Eye-tracking even when I depress the release shutter button in spite of the fact the shutter release by itself it set to use Expand AF area. So it is a perfect situation, I can use either AF mode instantly depending on whether its a flight image or portrait or head-throw.
  • Servo AF: I use “Case 2: continue to track subjects, ignoring possible obstacles”. Furthermore, I set the Tracking Sensitivity to maximum minus (all the way left) and Accel/decel tracking to max plus (all the way right).  My intuition tells me this setting is the most important in getting the focus perfect on the eye.
  • A final note on composition.  I often include the horizon in my images, including at times when it bisects the bird, and this is especially true of flight images.  I will also often include a “piece” of another bird along the periphery of an image since that hints at how many other birds are just out of the frame.  Given enough time on site, creating images with clean backgrounds is not difficult.  So the challenge is to break compositional rules in an effort to make an image that tells a slightly different story yet still has an appealing aesthetic.  You’ll see plenty of images of mine where the horizon or a distant reef or wave appears in the image, or where parts of birds around the periphery of the image are seen; those aren’t accidents.
California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37411
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.
Image ID: 37410
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.
Image ID: 37412
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.
Image ID: 37413
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.
Image ID: 37415
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37416
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.
Image ID: 37417
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37418
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37420
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37423
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.
Image ID: 37424
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown pelican in flight, soaring along sea cliffs above the ocean in La Jolla, California. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status.
Image ID: 37426
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37427
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown pelican in flight, soaring over the Pacific ocean near San Diego. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis, La Jolla

Brown pelican in flight, soaring over the Pacific ocean near San Diego. The wingspan of the brown pelican is over 7 feet wide. The California race of the brown pelican holds endangered species status. In winter months, breeding adults assume a dramatic plumage.
Image ID: 37558
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California Brown pelican in flight, wings spread as it soars over cliffs and the ocean in La Jolla, California

California Brown pelican in flight, wings spread as it soars over cliffs and the ocean in La Jolla, California.
Image ID: 37620
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37713
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37737
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37798
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37809
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37682
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican in flight, spreading wings wide to slow in anticipation of landing on seacliffs.
Image ID: 37802
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA


Here are some head throws.  I try to use eye-detection autofocus but sometimes things happen so quickly another focus mode is in use.  Here are some comments specifically about photographing pelican head throws.  I usually get a few good ones each morning, although sometimes when there are few or no other people around there will be so many pelicans I cannot get a clean shot isolating just one bird – that’s a nice problem to have!

Brown pelican head throw.  During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch.
Image ID: 20259
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Brown pelican head throw.  During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla, California

Brown pelican head throw. During a bill throw, the pelican arches its neck back, lifting its large bill upward and stretching its throat pouch.
Image ID: 15166
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy.
Image ID: 28348
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy.
Image ID: 30304
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California Brown Pelican head throw, stretching its throat to keep it flexible and healthy.
Image ID: 37438
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pelecanus occidentalis

California brown pelican, head throw to stretch out its throat, winter mating plumage, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California brown pelican, head throw to stretch out its throat, winter mating plumage.
Image ID: 18530
Species: Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California Brown pelican performing a head throw, with breeding plumage including distinctive yellow and white head feathers, red gular throat pouch, brown hind neck and greyish body, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California Brown pelican performing a head throw, with breeding plumage including distinctive yellow and white head feathers, red gular throat pouch, brown hind neck and greyish body.
Image ID: 37729
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

California Brown pelican performing a head throw, with breeding plumage including distinctive yellow and white head feathers, red gular throat pouch, brown hind neck and greyish body, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, La Jolla

California Brown pelican performing a head throw, with breeding plumage including distinctive yellow and white head feathers, red gular throat pouch, brown hind neck and greyish body.
Image ID: 37738
Species: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Location: La Jolla, California, USA

Here are some panoramas I shot with my iPhone some years ago.  I’m the only person on the point which is what you want for best results and the most fun. By being silent, moving slowly or not at all the pelicans land and hang out just a few yards away. Once they begin preening you can move around a little but leave the bags and tripods and all that junk in your car and don’t come in a group if you can avoid it. Click to see them larger.