The Brown Pelican of Alcatraz
BY Mccabe Coolidge
The tide is coming in, swirling movement
in coastal waters lapping on shore as gull and egret sun
themselves. The cormorant slowly unfolds her wings, standing
on an abandoned dock on the lee side of this island, is
drying her feathers. Into this quiet repose comes a splash,
a flutter, with a couple of gulls winging over my head to
the newly troubled waters.
A twisting dark creature comes bobbing up.
The Brown Pelican! My favorite bird since my first sighting
on the coast of North Carolina in 1970. I paddle my forest
green canoe to watch this bird more closely hoping that he
has caught some fish in his gullet. I do not see the
traditional routine of raised jaw, fish, head first, heading
toward his pouch. This pelican faces into the wind and after
several wing flaps is aloft and on the search and only then
do I notice two sentries, not more than a hundred yards
distant in this estuary, on the north side of this tiny
island, named Coast Guard, sandwiched in between the cities
of Oakland and Alameda.
The pelican flies north, 20 feet above the
water, just outside the watermark where I can see bottom. I
paddle lightly against the beginning of the incoming tide.
The two vigilant pelicans are still in the water, watching
the one fishing. All is silent out here. After a year or
two, pelicans lose their voices. As the pelican flies over
my head circling, I notice a lighter-colored belly than the
adults––this is a juvenile! Maybe these two brown pelicans
watching the manuevers are his silent mentors. Maybe these
two oldtimers are staying close, signaling where the schools
of minnows might be. Maybe they too are worried about their
offspring. The Brown Pelican is on California’s endangered
In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into
San Francisco Bay and named the island Alcatraz, Spanish for
pelican, because “The island was so barren and craggy that
it could provide no shelter even for small craft and it was
called Alcatraces because of the large number of them that
Craig Glassner, Alcatraz district ranger,
says there probably haven’t been Brown Pelicans on that
island for as long as anyone can remember. “Tour and fishing
boats, seagulls, and cormorants have made this island unsafe
for the nesting of Brown Pelicans. Not to mention the penal
colony located on this island in the twentieth century. I
see some pelicans from time to time diving into the
protected waters that are closed to ferries and fishing
boats. That’s about it.”
The juvenile is fluttering his wings
coming to a stall in mid-air and then plunges straight like
an arrow into the late December glitter of blue water. I
have to shade my eyes to see the impact. He lifts his nose
up, shakes it a bit, and I see the wiggle of a fish. He’s
successful. He turns into the wind and takes flight, as do
his two companions. I watch them as they head west up the
estuary toward Jack London Square.
The Brown Pelican is Lousiana’s state
bird. In 1961, there were no more Brown Pelicans in that
state; they had become extinct. Even after DDT was banned in
1972, the Brown Pelican did not make a comeback, so they
transplanted Brown Pelicans from the west coast of Florida
onto some barrier islands off the coast of Louisiana. Only
recently has that effort been successful.
In this state, the runoff from rivers and streams carries
agricultural pollution right into the San Francisco Bay. All
fish ingest these chemicals. The Brown Pelican eats these
contaminated fish, then lays thin-layered eggs and roosts on
them. Either they break open prematurely or the weight of
the mother roosting breaks them.
But at the mouth of this estuary an
extraordinary event is occurring. The Brown Pelican is
establishing a beachhead along the breakwater, a line of
concrete and rubble, just above the high tide line. More
than 200 pelicans have been spotted there, nesting at night.
A protective sanctuary. The remarkable part of this story is
this: The Least Tern, another endangered species, came
first. Even before the Naval Air Base was closed down, the
Least Tern flew in, laid eggs just outside old runway No. 1,
and the naval personnel recognized this and built a
fenced-in space for their nesting and to keep their chicks
from wandering out into the runways. Once the base closed in
the late 1980s, the Least Tern colony has continued to grow
and thrive. And now here comes the Brown Pelican.
In the late 1970s, when I visited the
North Carolina coast, I noticed the return of the Osprey,
who built incredibly large nests on top of the channel
markers along the Intercoastal Waterway. Then, in the 1980s,
I noticed an increase in the flights of the Brown Pelican
leaving at dawn and heading south, then returning at
nightfall. What these pelicans found was safe “dredge or
spoil” islands. The Army Corps of Engineers deepened the
channel of the Intercoastal Waterway by dredging and
depositing the spoils outside the channel, thus creating new
islands without trees or any cover for prey to hide. These
uninhabitable patches of land became the nursery for the
pelican to nest and raise her young. But the first
inhabitant of those tiny islands was the tern.
On three successive days before Christmas
of 2001, I paddled my canoe over to the leeside of Coast
Guard Island and there I witnessed these two observers and
the one juvenile, stalling in the light air, then diving.
About 50 percent successful now, he would fly off, closely
followed by his guardians. Riding the light air, lifted by
the occasional thermal, they would follow the estuary west,
eventually alighting on that deserted tip of Alameda Island,
home to the tern and now the pelican.
Why, when in states like North Carolina
the Brown Pelican has been taken off the endangered species
list, does she remain endangered in this state? According to
Dana Kokubun, project officer of the Golden Gate Audubon
Society, the encroachment of human development up and down
the coast has prevented the pelican from brooding on safe
edges of land. We hike, boat, climb, fly, bike all along the
water’s edge but not at the tip of Alameda Island. Humans
are fenced out, we can’t get within a mile of that rocky
coast. The kind of land that Juan Manuel de Ayala knew was
essential for the homesite of the Brown Pelican.
On the day after New Year’s, my partner
and I canoed out and around Coast Guard Island at low tide.
This part of the estuary is welcoming water for birds that
don’t migrate in the winter and those that do, such as a new
raft of American Wigeons, huddled in the low-lying waters in
front of Quinn’s Restaurant. As we circumnavigated the
island, I saw no pelicans. The next day, I sailed our boat
out toward the end of the estuary, just past Jack London
Square, and there they were, the three pelicans circling,
fishing, riding the warm air currents as if they were gentle
incoming swells. The waters are deeper here, not the 5’ to
10’ where I was paddling near Coast Guard Island, but up to
50’ in the middle of the channel. They dive, plop up, bills
heavenward, gulls alighting nearby for surplus catch, then a
big swallow and down the gullet. Soon they are airborne, a
team of three, past the Oakland Port and Alameda Ferry
docks, out to the tip of the island. A new home, shared only
with the neighboring Least Tern, who for this season has
headed south toward Mexico.
The City of Alameda wants to develop the
abandoned base but is well aware of its value as a
sanctuary. So far, precautions have been made to protect the
homesite of the Least Tern. Waiting in line is the Brown
Pelican. Its new haven has a most spectacular view of the
City of San Francisco.
Chris Bandy, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service as acting supervisor of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge,
told me that, “The breakwater at the tip of the island is
the only nighttime roost for the Brown Pelican in the entire
Bay Area.” Like the Least Tern, will she also be protected?
Will this mile of rocky coast become the sacred site of her
return, her patient and intuitive attempt to thrive and
leave the label “endangered” behind? Or will we humans
disregard the ancient wisdom of this mythological bird and
bulldoze the concrete and the rubble away to make building
sites clamoured for by humans who want a restful view?
In those seven days late in the year 2000,
between Christmas and New Year’s, I flew back to the coast
of North Carolina. On a windy, bitterly chilly morning, I
went for a long walk along the waterfront of Beaufort,
facing Bird Island, now named Rachel Carson Estuarine
Sanctuary. I first spotted the wild ponies grazing just
above the high tide zone but soon, out of the east, came a
long line of Brown Pelicans, rising out of the orange dawn.
Like a taut thread pulling them up and then loosing them,
one by one, they would angle back down to the waterline just
above the rippled water, coasting until I thought surely
they would drop into the icy waters. I held my breath, but
one by one, they caught an updraft and rose up to 15 feet,
then headed out of the inlet toward the protected tip of
Fort Macon, the end of a barrier island, where there are
miles of good fishing, no cottages, and on this frigid day,
few beach combers.
That is what I want for my newly adopted
waters of Northern California. Sanctuary. Sanctuary, not
just for the overly-stressed human inhabitants of the Bay
Area, but also for the Bay’s wildlife. Let the Brown Pelican
follow the Least Tern. Will we become partners with these
endangered ones and set aside wild coastal and bay areas,
protected from humans, made safe by cleaning up the polluted
Isn’t it within our domain to be enchanted
by the silent vigil of the pelican? Isn’t the pelican the
one who survives on our “trash fish?” What if your eyes and
my eyes no longer have the undulating image of her flight
imprinted on our brain? This prehistoric bird is trying to
make a comeback right in our own backyard.
It’s dusk, about 5:00 p.m. on the eve of
Martin Luther King holiday. 2001. As I step out of my
sailboat, I hear the faint sounds of pipe music. “Darn,” I
say to myself, “I forgot.”
“You’d better come up here!” I yelled down to my wife.
Normally, I canoed over to Coast Guard
Island on Sunday evening as a way to say goodbye to the day
and to a weekend full of stress and hard physical work at a
day homeless shelter. Giving a safe harbor for a number of
hours to another endangered species, humans without safe
habitats. These quiet waters caressed by pink, wispy traces
of sunset would calm my soul.
In late summer of 2000, I discovered that
a bagpiper had also chosen a different sort of vespers
ritual. While I was busy poking around the dark waters, he
was on high ground just above me, walking and piping.
Just as my wife joined me in the cockpit
at this most quiet part of the day, a Brown Pelican flying
low is heading out of the estuary, neither looking at us nor
her musical companion on the far shore. She is intent. The
haunting melody followed her as she shimmered above the
darkened water. Four miles to go, the sun is setting.