White Pelican With Perfect Aim And Timing

Talk about a precision landing!


Just over a week ago I photographed this American White Pelican as it landed on a canal in heavy overcast at Farmington Bay WMA. I’ll be presenting an unusually large number of images (17 of them) because I want to give readers a feel for the precision of the landing by this huge, heavy bird. Landing White Pelicans always remind me of B-52’s coming in to land because of their heavy weight, incredible wingspan, lumbering maneuvers and relatively slow speed.

  • Techs for these images are: 1/500 – 1/800, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender
  • I don’t know the sex of this bird but for the sake of convenience I’ll refer to it as male



For reasons that will soon become apparent I believe this pelican had a precise spot on the water where it wanted to end up when it was all said and done so the timing of each landing action and the direction of travel were critical. Here he’s putting his feet forward and spreading his webbed toes…



to begin the “water skiing” portion of the landing. As you can now see there’s at least one other pelican in front of him.



It’s amazing how long and how far these birds surf on the surface before settling down into the water.



It’s beginning to look like he’s on a collision course with the other pelican…



and that pelican isn’t alone. And to complicate matters further the pelicans in the water are swimming to our right so depending on where he’s heading the timing and direction of his travel could be critical.



When I was watching this unfold through my viewfinder I remember thinking I was about to see some really pissed off pelicans when these birds inevitably collide (part of the reason I kept firing my shutter despite the conglomeration of birds in some of the photos).



At this point in the landing a pelican weighing up to 16-29 lbs has an incredible amount of inertia so it takes it a long time and some distance before they settle down into the water and stop moving forward.



To get the timing just right he put on the air brakes by increasing the angle of both wings.



But it’s still looking like this isn’t going to end well.



I’ll let the next five images mostly speak for themselves with very little “narration” – you can see for yourself how this turns out.





Oh, oh – he has an entire flotilla of pelicans to negotiate and he still has some speed!











But he came to a rest right between the two leading pelicans in the water and I believe this is exactly where he planned to end up from the get-go.  I also thought it was interesting that none of the pelicans on the water reacted in the least to his intimidating approach. Colliding birds of that size and weight could be a real disaster but they obviously had confidence in the skills of the landing pelican.

Perhaps I’m easily impressed but I thought this was a wonderful demonstration of landing skills. Once a landing pelican has made contact with the water it has very little control over direction so it was an impressive feat to end up right between those two moving pelicans after “water-skiing” for that long. True, at these long focal lengths distances are compressed which likely made the landing pelican look closer to the birds on the water than he really was.

Even so, when it was all over I literally almost applauded his performance.


PS – I left out quite a few photos in this series for lack of space and time. As it is I think these 17 images tie a record for a Feathered Photography post.



45 comments to White Pelican With Perfect Aim And Timing

  • Debbie Trainer

    That was awesome! Thanks Ron.

  • jeff

    What an absolutely delightful series! Love how the other’s don’t “bat an eye” at the pelican landing.
    When watching other water fowl waterski, I often wonder if their toes ever catch a wave wrong and they end up doing a less than eligant belly flop. 🙂

  • Jane Chesebrough

    Bloody Amazing! Very impressed with all the miunute adjustments in wing and body approaching and accomplishing landing. Kudos to you, Ron for capturing an impressive and educational series!

  • Incredible precision. Love the trust the other pelicans showed.
    Can you image the outcome if a human was on a similar collison course? Superior animal. NOT.

  • Susan Stone

    I am once again amazed by what you can capture with your camera. This is a spectacular landing. It helps to know that the long focal length made the bird appear closer to each other than they were, but the precision of the landing is still very impressive.

    • Susan, one thing that helps in judging distances in situations like this is comparing the relative sharpness of the birds. Two birds that are sharp must me in very nearly the same plane (at these focal lengths).

  • Laura Culley

    The wildlife version of How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice 🙂 But just think–if they can do that perfectly timed flock thing, this should be a piece of cake for them. And yes, first thing I noticed was that his buddies weren’t at all concerned!
    What a splendid series of photos! And yes, insert all those superlatives here (or anywhere you choose). I just love your behavioral sequences, but you knew that!

  • Nice set! I enjoyed this a lot. Thanks!

  • A very nice sequence, Ron. A buddy of mine who is a professional pilot and a birder assures me that the wings are the thin when big birds land. In your series you can see the bird adjusting the angle of his wings; you can see the asymmetry in the wing positions as the pelican adjusts and corrects. Very cool.

  • Alice Beckcom

    What incredible photos. I was holding my breath as I scrolled down to the last photo.

  • Marty K

    At first I thought, “Hey! Pelican bowling!” 😉

    Another great series capture, Ron. Coolamatious! I noticed in the second and third shot that his rear toe (I’m sure there’s a name for it) is still pointed toward the water. Part of me thinks it would be to break the surface tension, but then how would he skid across the water. Hmmmmm… *scratches head*

    (I’ve known a barefoot water skier and a barefoot surfer at different times in my life. I have weird friends.)

  • Patty Chadwick

    That was my reaction exactly! How completely oblivious the other pelicans seem to be…no concern, especially with an in-coming missle that size and weight!!! Agsin, at least one of themn reminds me of Bernie Sanders…wishful thinking???

  • Betty Sturdevant

    I live by Forest Dale Golf Course in Sugarhouse. The pelicans come to the small lake in the spring to go fishing. I see them soar in but seldom see them land due to the position of the lake and the trees around it. Thanks you for this post it is amazing and I feel they are quite majestic flying and swimming.

  • Joe

    Ron what do you have your tracking set to on that 7D M2? That tracked it pretty good coming at you, which is usually harder to track.

  • Linda

    As I was out walking my dog this morning, I was imagining you out in your truck somewhere, photographing birds. I was thinking how much I enjoy all aspects of your blog – the details about the birds, including behavior and habitat, your struggles to get just the right shot, and the geeky stuff. I have no interest in photography, other than as a total amateur with an iPhone, but I really enjoy getting a glimpse into the worlds of other people and their hobbies.

  • Roger Burnard

    Ron, I’m guessing that a great percentage of those that you delete, would be
    keeps by a lot of folks. You are a perfectionist in the best sense of the word. ;-)))

  • Brilliant, Ron! I laughed with pleasure as I scrolled down on my iPod touch… the suspense was immense! Clearly his confreres didn’t ruffle easily… 🙂

  • Roger Burnard

    You are just amazing…. Time after time you capture images that the rest of us
    only dream about… Someday maybe you should show us all a couple of your
    “goofs,” just to prove to all of us that you are indeed human, and not that super
    being from outer space. ;-)))

  • Judy Gusick

    Wow! That is precision! 🙂 Great series, Ron. L)

  • Charlotte Norton

    Simply amazing Ron! You both nailed your target!


  • Dick Harlow

    Excellent series! I think after this fellow settled in the water you should have put the camera down and actually applauded!! LOL!
    Very nice job!

  • Chris (Yar33)

    Majestic! It looks like he worked every feather on that landing. As always, I feel like I was there. Thanks Ron!!!

  • Robert (RJ) Davis

    Incomparable! Another remarkable series of observations, both entertaining and informative as always!