In Baja Sur the frigate is the king of the seabirds; he steals from honest, hard-working gulls, and he gorges on the remnants of baitfish left by the swirling schools of tuna and dolphin. He is all hooks and angles, with wings that jut sharply forward and back as well as up and down, like two bent black boomerangs; a tail pluming off into scissors for steering; and a wicked-looking beak that hooks at the end like a safety lock. Structurally speaking, a frigate bird is to a pelican as an �p�e is to a putty knife, but if I had to spend the rest of my life watching one type of bird, it would be the pelicans of Baja Sur, those affable citizens of the rocks and bays. Bud Parr swears that pelicans have landed on his fishing boat and allowed him to stroke their backs, and I would not be surprised. It is my own impression that the pelican (or alcatraz, as he is called locally) is the most self-effacing and mild-mannered of birds. He engages in no wasted motion, no false histrionics, no posturing about. He wears a simple brown commuter's suit; he has a long, unsophisticated, no-nonsense wing and a dumpy, functional body, and yet he flies with consummate grace. He may be soaring gently on a high wind or flapping energetically to get off the water, his wingtips leaving round splashes in the sea, but in either case his body is not herky-jerking; it is stable and balanced and dignified. The pelican is the Grand Touring car of the Baja Sur bird world, and at 30 mph the loudest noise in a pelican is the rumble in his stomach. He is, moreover, a people watcher, spending much of his free time watching the skin divers and fishermen of the area going about their crazed activities. One day the sloops Tangent and Psyche anchored in Cabo San Lucas Bay and the crews went over the side skin diving. The pelicans came from miles around to watch, in their open-eyed, guileless but dignified manner, and one of them, perching on a needle of rock, leaning farther and farther out to take in the view, lost his balance and fell into the bay. A diver expressed his amazement. "That is the first time," he observed, "that I have ever seen a pelican lose his cool."
One afternoon I found a pelican lying on a tiny beach that stretched across the tip of the peninsula of Baja California, a beach of brown decomposed granite threading from the Gulf of California 100 yards through tall rocks to the Pacific Ocean. The bird was lying in the hot sun, fighting death, his heavy head lifting slowly and then flopping back grotesquely on the sand. Years ago, after a ship had been sunk off San Francisco, I found a cormorant lying on Sunset Beach, and I washed the fuel oil off his wings in the surf and saw him fly heavily away. Now I washed a pelican, but he was beyond help; there was no fuel oil in his feathers, only atrophy; his big eyes already were glazing over, and his wings hung loosely at his sides. I carried him to a shaded cove where the tide hissed across the sand, and I propped his head and walked away quickly so he could die with some final pelican dignity. That day there were rare clouds over Baja Sur; at sundown the sky seemed to tilt toward the west, and the pale washes of purples and reds flowed in long streaks down the night.