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Jody Couser, senior vice president of communications at Chesapeake Conservancy, recently caught up with Mike Weiss, a photojournalist.
I recently had the fortunate opportunity to observe and photograph a brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) rookery with a small group of friends. Our guide was Chesapeake visual storyteller extraordinaire Jay Fleming. We met Jay at his boat on a spectacular Saturday afternoon, donned our PPE, and headed towards Smith Island. We stopped at several points of interest along the way to photograph oyster catchers, terns, gulls, a nesting colony of great egrets, Solomon’s Lump Lighthouse, and points of interest around Smith Island.
While waiting for the late afternoon light, we headed to the pelican nesting grounds. As we approached their rookery, I could see them interacting as we got closer and closer. There were about 1,500 of them, mostly sitting on their nests. They had chicks in all stages of development, from eggs to about a month old. We disembarked from the boat and slowly approached them, maintaining a respectful distance and being mindful of their territory and their instinctual protective nature and habits. Cormorants were nesting in between the pelicans, who were constantly fishing, feeding, and defending their territorial boundaries. I was particularly interested in their interactions with their young chicks, so I focused on the feedings and the behaviors in and around the closely-packed nests. While the adults were away from the nests, the young chicks interacted with each other and seemed quite protective of each other. It was very rewarding to be able to share and observe a space this close to nesting pelicans.
After spending several hours at the rookery, we headed to a beach near the lighthouse and set up camp. We set up our tents, then headed back to the lighthouse to photograph it during an absolutely beautiful sunset. Then it was back to camp for a fish fry and some star gazing. As we went to bed, we watched the Milky Way slowly rotate up into the sky, listened to the shorebirds and their many songs and sounds, and hoped for some night sky photography towards dawn. As can happen so quickly on the Bay, conditions quickly changed as the wind shifted and unexpectedly picked up as the night went on. It was strong enough to collapse two of our tents. As with any outdoor adventure, the name of the game is adaptability and preparation. We donned our jackets and adapted to the changing conditions.
As morning broke, we were greeted by a cool, stiff breeze and cloudy skies. That didn’t stop us from one more visit to the rookery. Because it was cooler and windy, the pelican adults were more protective of their nests and chicks. This made for more interesting photography.
What a great experience to join an experienced guide and inspirational photographer.
I learned a lot from Jay and my friends and can now look forward to more experiences like this one. Being with someone as knowledgeable and experienced as Jay certainly adds to the experience. The Chesapeake is definitely something to treasure!