As I writing this in mid-December, one of the first winter storms has blown through overnight. In the early dawn, great swaths of rain rushed across Tomales Bay, darkening the water in broad streaks. Now, a few hours later, the rain falls in intermittent light showers and the wind has backed from the south-east to the north and is strengthening. The first whitecaps begin running.
Many of the Bay's birds seek to settle down out of the weather. Hunting in high winds takes a great deal of energy for flyers. Hundreds of Brown Pelicans have landed on Manka's Boathouse dock next to IYC's. I've often see pelicans rest on the docks, but this is many, many more than I've seen before. Most of them land by gliding in and then, in the last few seconds, flapping to lose their airfoil. They almost fall the final foot or so to the dock. This morning's wind is so strong that several miss and land in the water, only to try again.
Tomales Bay and the nearby oceanic waters are some of the only places in northern California where some Brown Pelicans stay around all winter. In most of northern coastal Pacific, all pelicans head to the Channel Islands and further south where they set up housekeeping and raise their annual brood. In our area, by contrast, varying numbers of pelicans remain here. John Kelly, the chief biologist at Audubon Canyon Ranch, has studied the Bay's birds for almost three decades. He thinks that pelicans might remain here because of our herring runs. On years when the herring look weak, even our pelican population moves out. This year, judging by the numbers of pelicans, herring are currently numerous. Of course, it could get really cold or the herring would disappear and even our pelicans would leave and not show up again until summer.