03.17.19: In tandem

A pair of American White Pelicans fish in J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel, Fla.


Technical information

Feb. 20, 2018,
9:34 a.m.

26°27'12.881" N 82°6'53.675" W
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Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Canon EF 600mm f/4L, Canon 1.4x teleconverter (840mm) 


1/1250th second


White Pelicans floating together create a serene scene for a photograph. But the photo doesn’t convey one key detail about White Pelicans. 

The birds are massive.

White Pelicans have a wing span of more than 9 feet. It's the second largest wingspan of a native North American bird behind the California Condor, which has a 10-foot wingspan. And the White Pelican is among the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing up to 20 pounds.

Watching a group of White Pelicans circle over water and glide in is almost like watching a group of small planes approach for a landing. They take up a lot of space.

I often see White Pelicans among the birds gathered at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, Fla. The refuge attracts a wide variety of birds, everything from the reddish-pink Roseate Spoonbill to every variety of heron.

I’m more familiar with the Brown Pelican commonly found along beaches in the United States. The White Pelican is much, much larger (when I’ve seen Brown Pelicans sitting among White Pelicans it looks like someone parked a Volkswagen bug among monster trucks) and has very different habits.

First, the White Pelican does not dive from the air into the water to capture fish like the Brown Pelican does. Instead, White Pelicans typically feed in groups. They will swim side by side with their beaks touching the water, driving fish toward shallow waters where the pelicans scoop the fish into their pouched bills. At times they will tip up — like dabbling ducks — to submerge their heads to capture fish.

Also, White Pelicans are found inland. Brown Pelicans are coastal. 

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.