This past summer has been a banner year for finding Brown Pelicans in the interior of the southwest U.S. Unlike American White Pelican, a common migrant through Inyo in spring and fall, the Brown Pelican prefers the coast and is very rare inland except at the Salton Sea where it is found regularly in summer and fall. This year a very successful Brown Pelican breeding season combined with a significant crash of the food supply, primarily anchovies, resulted in immature birds desperate for food dispersing inland. Rare Bird Alerts lit up with reports of birds in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mono and Inyo Counties!

There have been previous reports of Brown Pelican from Inyo County but none were photographed or documented in writing so they do not qualify as County records. In centuries past, a new species was added to the bird list of an area after it had been collected and placed in a museum. There was physical proof of the occurrence so that anyone, anytime, could examine the specimen and agree or disagree with the record. Times have changed, fortunately, and now photographs, audiotapes, videos, drawings, and/or written documentation can be submitted in lieu of a specimen and preferably by multiple observers. If the evidence is unequivocal, it becomes a scientific record. This is especially valuable when birds occur outside their known geographic or temporal range.

Credit for finding and reporting the first Inyo County Brown Pelican goes to Brad Schram who supported his observation with written documentation. Brad is an excellent and experienced birder, author of A Birder’s Guide to Southern California, and an all around good guy. On 1 July, he was driving south on Hwy 395 and as he passed Owens Lake he observed an immature Brown Pelican flying north. He lives on the coast, sees Brown Pelicans all the time and knew that they are not expected inland. He posted the sighting on Calbird, a birding bulletin board, which helped spread the word.

Because we were out of the area, we were gnashing our teeth until we could return on 6 July. The next day a visit to Tinemaha Reservoir turned up an immature Brown Pelican! Phone calls and a posting to the Eastern Sierra Birds website helped alert local birders, some of whom dropped what they were doing to drive to the reservoir to see our newest neighbor. Photographs and documentation were submitted by almost everyone who saw the bird, insuring that the “Doubting Thomases” of the future would not have any room for doubts!

To complicate the issue, Steve Holland reported an immature Brown Pelican at June Lake on 3 July. Were all three sightings of one bird? Did the Owens Lake bird go north to June Lake and then return south to Tinemaha? Or, was each a different individual? Because it is such a rare species in the Eastern Sierra one should conservatively claim only one. However, there were dozens at reservoirs in Arizona so it is not impossible that there were three birds. A similar situation occurred on 6 July 1998. A Magnificent Frigatebird was seen at Tinemaha Reservoir at the exact same minute that one was seen over Mono Lake. A few hours later one was seen at Diaz Lake. Obviously there were at least two birds but there might have been three. Again, there were frigatebirds reported outside their normal range during the same time in many parts of the state.

The sad ending to this story is that on 10 July Susan Steele found the Tinemaha Reservoir bird floating dead. Unlike its cousin, the American White Pelican who feeds by scooping fish as it swims, the Brown Pelican feeds primarily by plunge diving. This is not a good idea in shallow water reservoirs like Tinemaha. In all probability it died of starvation, but a record of its occurrence was validated by the many photographs and documentation by observers who turned an exciting personal sighting into a scientific record that will easily pass the test of time.


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