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Pelicans or Gannets?

Dear Bird Folks,

My daughter and her husband, who visit us from New Hampshire, are insisting that they have seen Brown Pelicans off Forest Beach in South Chatham. They claim to have seen them when they were here over Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. I can’t seem to convince them that we don’t have pelicans in Chatham. Do we have any birds around here that look anything like pelicans?

-Elizabeth, South Chatham, MA


Question Elizabeth,

Have you looked? I don’t want to tell you what to do, because goodness knows there have been plenty of rare bird reports that I haven’t checked out for one reason or another. Perhaps I didn’t go see a bird because the weather was bad, or the game was on, or I had just finished doing my nails and they were still drying. But you live in South Chatham. If your own daughter tells you that she is seeing pelicans, at the beach down the street, you may think about going to see for yourself. It’s just a suggestion. If you had other things to do I totally understand, especially if it involved drying your nails.

Over the years there have been a dozen or so confirmed reports of Brown Pelicans visiting Massachusetts. Two years ago three White Pelicans were seen and photographed flying over the Outer Cape. We got calls from several excited witnesses. One lady, who called, was sure she was crazy. And she was, but it had nothing to do with seeing pelicans.

Both Brown and White Pelicans do, on rare occasions, make a cameo appearance in Massachusetts. But I’m agreeing with you on this one, Elizabeth. I don’t think your visitors saw pelicans either. Cape Cod is a very heavily birded peninsula, especially around Christmas time. If there were pelicans around, it seems odd that the only people who saw them were a couple from the Granite State. Now, if they reported seeing a moose or pieces of granite, or something more New Hampshire-ish, then I wouldn’t argue, but in this pelican case, I have my doubts.

Brown Pelicans are distinctive birds. They are not like trying to distinguish one generic sparrow from another generic sparrow. Or telling one nerd apart from another nerd at a Star Trek convention. Pelicans are one of the few birds that everyone should be able to identify, even people from New Hampshire. I can’t imagine what your daughter and son-in-law have been seeing. Do they carry a flask of eggnog when they go to the beach? Hmmm. I’m going to have to think about this for a minute or so. This could take a while. You may want to go get a cup of coffee or do a load a laundry. I’ll let you know if I think of an answer.

Nope, nothing yet.

Still nothing.

Okay, I’ve got it.

Brown Pelicans feed by plunge-diving. That means they try to locate fish by flying above the water. If they find a school swimming near the surface, they dive straight down, scooping up whatever is trapped in their massive bill pouch. I wonder if plunge-diving birds is what your daughter saw, because there is another large seabird that also fishes in the same manner as the pelican. The bird I’m thinking of is extremely common around here from late fall into the early spring, This abundant bird is the Northern Gannet.

Right now you might be thinking, “But gannets are bright white. Even people from New Hampshire wouldn’t confuse a Brown Pelican with a white gannet.” Okay, calm down, hear me out. Yes, adult gannets are bright white, but young gannets are very brown. They look like flying UPS drivers. I’d bet you a doughnut, Elizabeth, the birds your New Hampshire kin have been seeing are young gannets. At close range pelicans and gannets, brown or otherwise, don’t look very much alike. But if a flock of gannets was well off shore, diving for fish, they may look like pelicans. That would be especially true if the light was bad, and if the observer didn’t have binoculars, was near sighted , had cataracts and a wild imagination.

The best way to be sure which bird you are seeing is to keep the following in mind. Even though both birds plunge-dive, gannet’s hit the water like sleek missiles, causing very little splash, as they disappear beneath the sea. Brown Pelicans, on the other hand, are not so dainty. They make a huge splash, hitting the water like the neighborhood fat guy, belly flopping into the local pool. And more importantly, pelicans don’t disappear below the surface. Once the wall of water subsides, you’ll see the pelican, and its chubby little body, sitting calmly on the surface as if nothing had happened.

The next time your company comes to visit, Elizabeth, I suggest you all go to Forest Beach together and see if my thoughts make any sense. Oh, if you want to see birds, don’t forget your binoculars. And if you want to see pelicans, don’t forget your flask of eggnog.