With precision that borders on perfection, the seven birds flew along the edge of the rising wave, wing tips just inches from a continually advancing column of water. Each made minor adjustments for wind and wave in a seemingly effortless gliding flight, skimming along the cold, dark waters.
In the nearby dunes, we spotted a huddled gray-brown bulk, camouflaged among the tawny dune grasses. Its grayish bill was turned around and resting on its back, one of its wings hanging uselessly at its side.
As we approached, the bird roused lethargically and used its short, stout legs to carry it over the crest of the dune into the dense foliage on the other side. We had no way of knowing if the bird had caught a wing tip during flight or suffered some other trauma. With a broken wing, it would likely die.
The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is an unlikely looking bird. It is 4 feet from bill to tail, with a massive wingspan of 8 feet or more. In an avian world where many species weigh a few ounces or less, the brown pelican comes in at a hefty 10-15 pounds.
The pelican is most notable for its imposing bill and gular pouch, a large sac that extends from its lower bill to its throat. This flexible pouch expands massively when the bird drags it through the water.
When pelicans cruise the crest of waves, they are on reconnaissance missions. As they identify schools of menhaden, anchovies or sardines, they rise high overhead. From a height of 50 feet or more, the bird will tuck its wings back, and with a slight counter-clockwise rotation, plunge into the unsuspecting school.
The big bird makes an impressive splash as it hits the water headfirst, bill slightly agape. The power of the dive drives two gallons of roiling water and fish into its gular pouch, which instantly expands to take in the catch.
As the bird lifts its head out of the water, the pouch drains, leaving behind the fish that serve as the pelican's sole food source. The pelican swallows the captured fish after the bill drains because its stomach is much smaller than its pouch.
These can be dangerous dives, and not just for the bait fish below. Every year a number of pelicans are killed when they break their necks or wings in spectacular dives. An occasional injured bird will live off charity at a cleaning station dockside or be rescued. Unable to fish, most will die of starvation.
Brown pelicans are the only members of their family worldwide that live solely by saltwater. The white pelican, their only North American relative, feeds in fresh water lakes and ponds.
The brown pelican's breeding range extends from the Chesapeake south along the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. On the West Coast, breeding pairs can be found from southern California through Baja into Central America.
Pelicans do not have a brood patch on their stomachs. They incubate their eggs by holding them between large webbed feet.
A combination of pesticide poisoning, which weakened the shells, and this unorthodox incubation method nearly wiped out all brown pelicans by the early 1960s. Louisiana-known as the Pelican State-was reduced to an occasional vagrant. The ban on DDT and a spot on the Endangered Species List brought the birds back from the brink.
As part of that extraordinary revival, brown pelicans have lately become well-established in the Chesapeake Bay.
Brown pelicans breed as far north as Maryland. After dispensing with their parenting duties, they spread up the Atlantic coast to the Jersey shore and New England.
They are ill-suited to the rigors of winter, though. When the weather turns cold, most head south. During January's cold snap, a number of brown pelicans paid the price of lingering too long at fish-filled tributaries in St. Mary's County, MD. Many succumbed to frostbite, hypothermia and starvation.
Unwise or unlucky pelicans do not always earn an unhappy ending. A number of the St. Mary's County lingerers were rescued by state wildlife personnel. The broken-winged pelican we saw in the dunes was transported to an avian rehabilitation center. These were the happy exceptions to the normal harsh reality of avian life.
The phalanx of pelicans I had been watching continued to cruise along the edge of the cresting waves. It was an extraordinary display of precision flying. It was also a dramatic example of the skills needed simply to survive.
My passage through life is less dramatic. I plod along, making scores of decisions daily. Many are right; a few unwise. Unlike the world of the brown pelicans, I don't need to be near perfect. My world is more forgiving, and for that I am grateful.