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Washington State University

Photo Exhibit – Hang Gliding with Pelicans

Posted by rdsayler | March 20, 2023
American White Pelican
[American White Pelican on the Snake River near Clarkson, Washington. Photo by R. Sayler.]


Most people would not associate the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) with sagebrush, cactus, and rattlesnakes, but I do, at least when I’m in the Snake River Valley. They’re the bird that my wife and I celebrate upon our first annual sighting and associate with the full arrival of spring and summer in the Valley. Their graceful, undulating, and gliding flight up and down the Snake River is magical to witness and affords a silent aerial ballet like few others.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing at all the matter with American Robins (Turdus migratorius) or Bluebirds (Sialia spp.) or any other bird, tree, or flower (e.g., snowdrops, daffodils, tulips, or maybe even the crumpled leaves of an emerging rhubarb patch) that you may associate as a harbinger of spring and a prelude to summer in your locale. They’re all wonderful and something we each dream about and wish for in the cold and dark of winter. But in the Snake River Valley near the twin river towns of Clarkston and Lewiston, Pelicans are a special spring and summer treat.

Depending on where you’re at within the Snake River Valley, you may find yourself on a bluff or valley hilltop hundreds and hundreds of feet above the river below. After all, many people don’t realize that Hells Canyon in nearby Idaho, Oregon, and parts of Washington is up to 10 miles wide and more than a mile deep in places, from tip of mountain peak to depths within the river below, making it the deepest river gorge in the United States, even deeper than the Grand Canyon.

This elevated viewpoint brings perspectives that can’t be matched or beaten unless perhaps you’re up in an airplane. Farther downstream near the confluence of the Clearwater River and the Snake River, you may find yourself only a couple of hundred feet above the river below, but nonetheless the perspectives across the valley from one side to another challenges even sharp eyes to focus over the vast distances involved.

The benefit of an elevated perch in the Valley is that sometimes birds fly by at or below eye level. It’s an interesting experience to find yourself above the level of flying birds and look down on them and watch as might a hovering hawk or high-flying spy plane.

I’ve never seriously considered hang gliding. I’m simply not that brave. Or maybe I’m old enough and just wise enough to say, no thank you. I think I’ll watch. At my age, keeping two feet on the ground seems like the best survival strategy.

However, I’ve come up with a hang-gliding substitute. An elevated perch on the valley hillside combined with a camera with a long-range zoom lens can transport me to places and perspectives I might not otherwise reach, all with the distinct advantage of keeping my two feet on solid ground.

Where we live the first Pelicans tend to appear by the end of March when small groups of 20-30 can be seen loafing on favored mud flats on the edge of the Snake River. When the first birds arrive it’s always a race to grab the binoculars and camera to capture some of the beauty of pelicans in flight.

Pelicans don’t really like to flap their wings all that much. Why should they? It’s a lot of work for a bird that size. They’re one of the largest birds in North America and are instead well adapted to use their large wings to glide and soar on air currents and let the wind and the laws of physics do a large part of the work.

Pelicans will often fly in large circles, spiraling upward, then downward to gain speed, then back upwards again on an unseen gust of wind, gradually gaining altitude with each revolution until they eventually fly off in a straight line in the direction they wish.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology says that “Their large heads and huge heavy bills give them a prehistoric look.” Indeed, when I watch Pelicans glide through air currents with wings only occasionally flapping I can’t help but visualize and imagine the flight behavior of the long-extinct Pterosaurs (often generically called “pterodactyls”) some species of which may have had wingspans of 33-36 ft and would seemingly have employed a lot of gliding in their flight behavior. Unseen eons of time with visions of large birds and other animals now long gone replay themselves in front of me through the flight of Pelicans.

We are most fortunate that Pelicans are not extinct. Human memory is brief and truncated. Only geological and evolutionary science with its facts and imagination of the past can paint for us memories of time unseen. But we can watch Pelicans here and now and marvel at their beauty and evolution. And while fear keeps me grounded my camera lets me join the passing flocks for a few exhilarating moments and experience the thrill of soaring high above the rabbitbrush-covered slopes and rock outcrops of the Snake River Valley.

R. Sayler
WSU School of the Environment

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