Pelagic boating tours offer opportunities for sighting blue-banded Brown Pelicans


Bernardo Alps, Santa Monica Bay, Feb. 11, 2018

Editor’s Note: Thank you to our long time employee, Suzie Kosina, for preparing this piece. 

When we release our rehabilitated patients, we often wish them “good luck” on their way back to life in the wild.  While the superstitious might prefer “break a leg”, we know all too well the very real risk these birds face in suffering broken bones, especially in urbanized areas where they may be hit by cars, accidentally fly into glass windows or tumble onto hard pavement from a nest.  Unfortunately, many of our patients arrive to us in critical condition with fractured limbs, severe emaciation or gruesome lacerations from entanglement in fishing gear. Fortunately, we are able to treat many of these issues resulting in the successful release of hundreds of patients every year.  Each band sighting report that we receive is confirmation of the hard work we perform in the clinic to get our patients ready to confront the challenges of the world again.

Through a program with the US Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab, our organization bands all released birds with metal leg identification bands and for some species, we also use Blue, Red, and Black plastic leg bands.  In 2009, Brown Pelicans were selected for a special banding program using blue plastic bands with large white lettering on both sides. These bands have drastically increased the number of sightings in the wild that we receive as they are much easier to read than the tiny digits stamped on the metal bands.  As one can imagine, we are elated with every sighting report that we receive as it indicates one of our patients has successfully been migrating, foraging for food, and even breeding in Baja California, Mexico.  

While Brown Pelicans can frequently be seen from land roosting along the shore or soaring above the water, pelagic birding and whale watching tours offer great opportunities for spotting some of our previous patients further out in their natural habitats.

Roosting along rocky outcrops of the coastline or soaring above the water, pelagic birding and whale watching tours offer great opportunities for spotting some of our previous patients further out in their more natural habitats.

Credit: Byron & Joanna Chin

Over the past three years, we have received 12 reports from individuals on boating tours and 46 reports from tour guides.  Recently, on Feb 12, 2017, on a tour guided by Bernardo Alps (of American Cetacean Society – LA Chapter) and organized by the Pasadena Audubon Society, Ayla Qureshi got some fantastic photos of N09 in adult breeding plumage flying over the open ocean alongside an immature gull near Marina del Rey in Southern California.  N09 was treated at our LA Wildlife Center in 2015 when we removed three fishing hooks embedded his legs and wing; interestingly, this bird was found to have had an old but healed ulna fracture that it had recovered from! This sighting report was submitted to us through our online reporting form which can be found here.  All reports are responded to with case history information if requested.

Credit: Ayla Qureshi at Marina del Rey, CA on Feb 11, 2018


There are actually a few other organizations that use brightly colored plastic bands on Brown Pelicans as well.  On a recent tour this past fall on Alvaro’s Adventures, Dorian Anderson, a wildlife photographer, managed to photograph six color banded Brown Pelicans, including one red band from the chick banding program GECI in Baja, Mexico, one green band from the Refugio Spill cleanup managed by UC Davis [LINK] and one white band from another rehab center, The Wildlife Center of the North Coast in Oregon.  You can report red, white and green banded Brown Pelicans directly to the Bird Banding Lab.

Credit: Dorian Anderson at Pillar Point Harbor, CA on Sept. 14, 2017


As spring and summer roll around, Brown Pelicans typically start migrating north after breeding season and can commonly be found off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts in large numbers.  If you happen to catch any photos of a brown pelican roost site, such as this one captured by Byron and Joanna Chin on another of Alvaro’s tours, make sure you take a close look for those colored bands!  Hiding off to the right is H98, a former patient treated in 2011 at our SF Bay Wildlife Center for a large pouch laceration with exposed bone. These types of injuries typically require extensive surgical repair. Unfortunately, these are common injuries most often caused by fishing hooks and can be fatal without treatment.  Can you spot H98?

Credit: Byron & Joanna Chin at Pillar Point Harbor, CA on Sept. 17, 2017


As a general reminder, all wildlife should be viewed with as minimal disturbance as possible.  Many marine birds and mammals can present a serious hazard to humans and it is also in their best interest to be observed from a distance.  Should a bird decide to get up close and personal, as did K57 on a Sea & Sage Audubon Society pelagic birdwatching trip in 2015, do not attempt to touch the bird or feed it anything.  K57 was treated in 2012 as a juvenile for anemia, hypothermia, and emaciation – a common trio of ailments for younger Brown Pelicans on their first pass up north. Sightings like this allow us to know that our former down and out young patient has successfully become a beautiful healthy adult bird!


Credit: Robert McNab (photo license), off Newport Coast, CA on Jan. 10, 2015


A few pointers to keep in mind when looking for blue-banded Brown Pelicans:

  • Always respect the birds, their personal space, and privacy;
  • Observe using binoculars from a distance (never get closer to a bird than 10 yards);
  • Do not flush/disturb groups of roosting birds by moving directly towards them and minimize time stopped near roost locations;
  • Never chase or follow a bird trying to move away from you;
  • Reduce human-caused disturbance (loud noises, garbage, food waste, etc.)
  • Obey all laws and restricted area postings;
  • Take special precaution (extra distance, very quiet voices, etc) or avoid entirely animals performing sensitive behaviors (nesting, breeding, courtship, etc.).

Interested in taking a local whale watching or pelagic bird boating tour?  Check out the following for upcoming tours along the California coast. Also, consider checking your local Audubon chapter for hosted pelagic trips:

Shearwater Journeys (Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay and Farallon Islands – California)

Alvaro’s Adventures, led by Alvaro Jaramillo, Avian Biologist with SF Bay Bird Observatory (Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay, Bodega Bay, Farallon Islands – California and International)

San Diego Pelagics (San Diego area – California)

Catalina Explorer (Southern Channel Islands – California)

Sea and Sage Audubon Society (Dana Point – California)

Oceanic Society, whale watching focused (Half Moon Bay, Farallon Islands, SF Bay – California)


Please report injured birds to one of our Wildlife Centers.