Variability in California Brown Pelican Breeding Plumage

By December 22, 2021December 31st, 2022Pelicans of La Jolla, Seabird

I spend an inordinate amount of time photographing California Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) each winter. It’s partly because I need the practice and they are a great subject upon which to hone my topside camera skills, and partly because mornings on the ocean in La Jolla, without summer tourists and traffic and noise, are really nice.  I have the worlds best place to photograph them practically in my back yard and can pick and choose which mornings I go based on weather and light.  I usually focus on flight images but it is hard not to capture portraits when the pelicans’ breeding plumage looks good.  In winter months, California brown pelicans exhibit a striking plumage with considerable variability.  The throat is typically bright red with patches of olive green but occasionally a morph exhibiting a yellow or orange throat is seen, or the entire throat is green. The head is white and yellow, the fore neck is a combination of white, yellow, brown or black and often has a small patch of yellow just above the breast. In breeding adults the hind neck is either a deep brown, while non-breeding individuals will display bright white hind neck.  The beak exhibits a range of red, white, gray and deep orange coloration.  And don’t forget juveniles — while they are brown and white, they can occasionally be attractive.  Here are a few photos showcasing the brilliant colors and some variation from the last few weeks, and they have not yet reached their peak colors, especially in that the brown feathers on the hind neck have not filled in completely for those individuals that will be sporting brown this year (not all do, and it varies year to year).  In case you are wondering, all of these were shot with a Canon R5 and Canon 200-400 lens, keeping the sun (when present) directly behind me or nearly so, and with little or no cropping.

About Phil Colla

I am a natural history photographer. I enjoy making compelling images in the ocean, on land, and in the air. I have maintained the Natural History Photography blog since 2005 and my searchable Natural History Photography Library since 1997. Here are some tear sheets and behind the scenes views. Thanks for looking!