$n$ Pelicans may be clowns or klutzes

American white pelicans around Ice Harbor Dam bring the word ‘clownish' to mind — or are they just clumsy?



Ice Harbor Dam is surrounded by the big birds.


Pelicans balance on a float in the river during a warm January day.


Pelicans attempting to stand on logs above Ice Harbor Dam appear comical in their clumsiness.

Unlike stiff-necked bald eagles, American white pelicans clown around.

Well, they appear to, although perhaps not on purpose. Perhaps they just klutz it up.

They display a thrilling grace in flight. They also impress when afloat, like regal sailing ships.

Yet, when they lurch around on the log boom above Ice Harbor Dam, "clownish" comes to mind.

This observation lacks scientific gravitas, of course, although I watched them for hours through a camera lens.

Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I first watched the pelicans on Monday, Jan. 17.

I counted eight below the dam, 32 on the log boom above the dam and a dozen in the river beyond the boom.

We spent two hours there that day. Nora and I sauntered down to stand at a fishing spot on the bank, about 45 yards from the nearest birds on the boom.

Nora didn't stand, actually. She poked among the weeds after goose feathers and climbed the bluff after voles. I guess.

We went back on Wednesday, and I took the tripod for the big lens. I set it up near the water and watched for birds to fall off a log. I counted 44.

We stayed for more than three hours that day.

Back again on Saturday, we stopped first at the Native American petroglyph memorial on the bluff above the dam.

Darlene saw 100 pelicans. I counted 78, including 52 on the boom.

We parked at the dam again. Nora and I tiptoed to the fishing spot where I spent three hours watching pelicans in the sunshine.

Anglers often fish there, but we saw only one. He left when we arrived.

The sun broke through on each of the days, and once the temperature broke into the 60s.

Darlene brought her book, but she also snoozed.

Overall, we spent more than eight hours researching pelicans.

They ignored us.

So much for gravitas.

We had watched pelicans there before, from the memorial. I had never parked at the dam.

Usually, we visited Ice Harbor to see eagles along the river and at Charbonneau Park. We haven't seen any there this year, but we saw many pelicans.

They have a 9-foot, black-fringed wingspan, compared to a 7-foot span for female bald eagles and a 6-foot span for great blue herons.

Pelicans have foot-long orange bills with elastic pouches that flap when they shake their heads.

The Seattle Audubon website (www.seattleaudubon.org) says pelicans nest on islands in lakes and rivers and feed in shallow water and marshes.

The website describes pelicans as "... highly gregarious and (they) breed in large, dense colonies."

And the site reports the American white pelican as an endangered species in Washington, with a very localized presence in the eastern part of the state and a tendency to nest on Crescent and Badger islands in the Columbia River.

During the mating season, they grow bumps on their bills. We saw small bumps on some of the pelicans a few days ago.

And, yes, they often look like clowns.

In groups of three or four, they flew or paddled away from the boom. When they flew back, they approached on silent wings, touched down with webbed feet and skimmed across the water with the glee of windsurfers.

So I figured.

They paddled up to the boom and opened their wings to lift onto the log.


They often stumbled and caromed into at least two other birds before settling.

Often they yawned and shook their heads, flapping their pouches. Then they curled their necks to preen wing and chest feathers with pointed beaks.

Sometimes, half a dozen rose, stretched, lost their footing and lifted their wings to keep from falling.

Clowns, or klutzes?

Well, hardly like those hard-eyed eagles.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. See more of Don's photos at website www.tripper.smugmug.com.

If You Go

At the stoplight near Hood Park, take State Highway 124 through Burbank Heights.

Drive three miles to the left turn onto Monument Drive to the Ice Harbor Road.

The first right hand turn near the dam takes you to the Native American memorial on the bluff above the dam and to Charbonneau Park. The second right turn takes you to the dam (a gate prevents crossing), a parking area and a view of the log boom.


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