I was lucky enough recently to get another opportunity to photograph California Brown Pelicans, a subspecies of P. occidentalis, – the smallest member of the pelican family at LaJolla Cove near San Diego.
On and off over the last 20 years Ive visited this location during the second/third week of January when the pelicans are reliably in the peak of their breeding plumage and at no time have I been disappointed. You may see the birds here in breeding plumage anytime between December and February.
The pelican colony lives along the craggy rocks of the cove (with hundreds of cormorants and other sea birds) which jut out into the ocean a bit up the coast from the small beach. You can also photograph everything from Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) to Brown Boobys (Sula leucogaster) to Heermann’s Gull (Larus heermanni) in La Jolla. But the pelican colony is the main attraction. You can get VERY close to the tame birds and work on everything from flight photography to portraits.
Bird photographers from all over the world travel to this coastal wonderland knowing the seabirds will be in great light with lovely backgrounds from sunrise to mid-morning. If you’re lucky enough to come on a day when the wind is offshore you can get flight shots in addition to portraits.
The coves location favors morning photography as its possible to stay on sun-angle for quite some time in winter months. On foggy or somewhat cloudy days you may get away with photographing here up to Noon.
Unless you want silhouettes theres no shot here in the late afternoon up to sunset (about 5:00 pm in January.)
Weekends this place gets very crowded and its much harder to work without other photographers casting shadows on the birds. But during the week you will have less competition but usually plenty of birds.
While the pelicans are very tame here, you still have to move slowly and stay low so you don’t scare the birds.
You can use anything from a 70-200mm lens to focus on groups of birds to 600, 800 and even longer lenses if you want to do tight portraits of the birds. A 100-400 zoom would be good for flight shots. On my latest trip I used a Canon 1DX, Sigma 150-600 f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens, Jobu Junior 3 kit W/swing-arm HM-J2 gimbal head on a Really Right Stuff TVC-23 tripod. (I also had a backup Canon 1DX camera body in case of emergencies – thanks to LensRentals.com for helping out.)
I love the combination of colorful birds in breeding plumage with deep blue sea backgrounds. By being careful about camera placement, you can select backgrounds that are brown, tan, green and of course blue – either from the ocean or the sky.
This is one of the easiest places to practice bird photography but there are a few things to note. If you stay right in La Jolla its expensive and parking is tough. (The earlier that you get to the cliffs the better your chance of getting a free on-street parking spot.) You also want to be VERY careful on the cliffs. If its been raining or its cold you could easily slide right off the side and I doubt such a fall would be survivable – so watch your step. Also know that if the waves are big and the wind onshore, you may get some salt spray on your gear – which would not be good.
For those of you who like GPS – here are the coordinates: N32.84936 W117.27038
PROCESSING NOTES: All images were imported into Adobe Lightroom CC – minor exposure, cropping (if necessary) contrast, highlight/shadow corrections were made – then the images were taken into Perfectly Clear for a touchup and saved. The cormorant photo had a small bird in the bottom right corner retouched out via the patch tool/clone stamp for aesthetic reasons.
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