Written By onci on Monday, November 16, 2009 | 7:09 PM
Pelicans: by Alex Feldstein
If you live near the coast of the USA, you probably have seen pelicans. Beautiful birds in flight, somewhat clumsy on land, awesome when they dive.
The most common pelican along the Southeast USA coast, the Gulf and the California coast is the brown pelican. The one other species found in the USA and Canada is the white pelican but is not seen as often.
In my area, South Florida, we have permanent populations of brown pelicans. I have seen white pelicans in Central Florida, especially in the Merritt Island NWR and Orlando areas, but never in South Florida.
The flocks we have are very used to people, to the point that they beg and steal from the local fishermen. They let you get very close and almost touch them. They are very friendly and nonchalant with photographers. They are easy to photograph as they seem to be always posing for you.
Pelicans are at their best when flying, in flock formations, generally in a "V" with many members or sometimes playing "follow the leader" with four or five individuals. Majestic fliers, they fly slow enough that even with a slow focusing lens you can get decent flight shots due to their big size and stately gliding.
The toughest, and best shots, are when they dive for fish. They fly looking for food and at a moment's notice they fold their wings, and drop like a stone, pointing their beaks toward the water, falling from an altitude of about 60 feet (20m) to the water in a less than two seconds.
It takes a lot of practice to get good diving shots. You need a clear field of view of the flying bird, and a fast-focusing lens. Generally a telephoto of about 300mm will do but in many piers and fishing areas you can get by with 200mm in a cropped sensor.
Practice will teach you to read their body language and soon you will be able to tell when they are about to dive. That's when you need to spring into action; shooting continuously at the fastest speed your camera will allow (generally 5 to 8 frames per second). I find that anything below 5fps is not enough. You have to follow the bird downwards, trying to lead the shot if you can. More often than not you'll chop the bird in half in the frame or miss it entirely. Patience and practice is what it takes and the rewards for a good dive shot are immense.
One of the best pelican shots are their clumsy landings. They put the flaps down (their tail), raise their big wings and slow down for a soft water landing. If you can get a head-on shot of this moment you'll be getting the best pelican shots available.
Go out to these birds and see how much fun they are!
Posted by onci at 7:09 PM