Pelicanfest at Keystone Tailwater (Sand Springs, Oklahoma)

April 12, 2017

An American white pelican shows off its mandible plate which is only present during the breeding season, reminiscent of the antlers of a white-tailed deer.

Saturday (April 8 — 9:00 AM):  I get a call from my buddy, Mike Fuhr, in Tulsa. “Hey Danny — you have to get down here now! Pelicans are feeding on fish in the Keystone Tailwater as we speak. It’s a feedingfrenzyathon!” After a check of the forecast, I advise Mike that I’m in but I would have to wait until Monday because stormy weather was predicted for Sunday in Tulsa.

Note:  Keystone Lake is a reservoir near Tulsa that impounds both the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers.

Sunday (11:55 PM):  My alarm goes off and I’m in the car by 12:15 AM on my way to Tulsa. I don’t take much gear because I’ll only need my camera, 500 mm lens, and 1.4x tele-extender. Please — no jokes about “real photographers not needing tele-extenders.”

Monday (4:00 AM):  I’ve been driving all night. Yep — the road, it’s got me hypnotized. I stop at a gas station and a sweet gal makes a fresh pot of coffee for me.

Monday (4:15 AM):  I’m feeling better already, jamming to Sirius 26 — Classic Vinyl. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  Sirius radio is soooo much better than the preacher sounds of all night radio in the midwest.

Monday (6:00 AM):  I pull into the Corps of Engineers parking lot of the Keystone tailwater. I still have an hour before daylight so I take a nap in my car.

Monday (6:55 AM):  I unload my camera, lens and tripod. It’s windy and very cool. I’m happy about the wind! Wind makes for nice images when photographing birds in flight. Plumage sometimes flows against the grain, and birds seem to hover in headwinds, making for easier captures.

Monday (7:30 AM):  Clouds are breaking up and I’m starting to get enough light for some nice images. Mike shows up and joins me for a couple hours before heading off to work at The Nature Conservancy. Mike is the State Director for Oklahoma TNC.

Monday (9:30 AM): It has been a great morning of shooting and Mike and I part ways for the rest of the day. I check in to the Sand Springs Holiday Inn for some well-needed shut-eye and Mike heads off to work. My plan is to check out Tulsa’s BMW motorcycle shop and the Gilcrease Museum (Western Art and Native American) after a nap.

Monday (1:00 PM):  Both the museum and motorcycle shop are closed on Mondays so I go through the morning’s images and watch American Pickers. Man, the head picker’s wife has a lot of tattoos!

Monday (5:30 PM):  I head over to Mike’s to have dinner with him and his wife, Heather, whom I’ve known for over 20 years. I interviewed Mike for his first job out of grad school with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Monday (8:00 PM):  After a fantastic meal of red beans and rice, Mike and I plan the next morning of shooting at the Keystone tailwater. It has been a long 24 hours so I head back to the motel in Sand Springs. Of course, I could have stayed with Mike and Heather, but I’m one of those guys who prefers the simplicity of motel rooms or state park camp sites.

Monday (8:30 PM):  I take a wrong turn and find myself on the Creek Turnpike near Bixby, where Mike and Heather live. I exit the turnpike, cross the highway, and begin up a ramp back the way I came. I’m wondering why there aren’t any tollgates at the exit; what am I missing? It is on that ramp that my 4Runner lights up from a camera strobe. Yep, my car has been photographed and I’m officially an inadvertent toll gate evader! Crap!

Tuesday (1:00 AM):  I’m tossing and turning in bed due to my criminal status in Oklahoma. I get up and research what to do the next morning as an alternative to waiting for a letter (summons?) in the mail back in Missouri.

Tuesday (7:00 AM):  Mike and I are back at the tailwater. The light is perfect with diffuse clouds and we are getting some nice shots of the ever-hungry pelicans. Many of the pelicans have what I call “antlers” on their upper mandibles in the form of a plate than can be up to two inches tall! The plate only forms during breeding season, I suppose to attract members of the opposite sex. I think I read somewhere years ago that the plates are so unique that they have been used to identify specific birds during research projects. I know one thing for sure; they look really cool on the giant birds.

Tuesday (8:00 AM):  Mike has to leave for a conference call and I stay another hour or so until the light gets bad. I thank Mike for a wonderful trip and a great evening.

Tuesday (9:30 AM):  I call the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and confess my transgression from the previous evening. A friendly (thank God) gentleman in Customer Service explains that, “these things happen,” and charges me $1.25 on my Visa card. He sends me a receipt via email and advises me to keep it in case I get the dreaded “letter” from OTA so I would have proof that I paid the toll in good faith the next morning. Yay — I’m not a criminal anymore, at least I hope I’m not.

Tuesday (4:00 PM):  I’m back home in Union and within minutes, unconscious in my own bed. Home sweet home! I get up for some dinner around 6:00 and then crash again, not to wake up until Wednesday morning.

Wednesday (4:00 PM): I look at my images on the computer for the first time. Below are some of my favorites from the trip.

Be sure to click on each image to see it as large as possible on your screen, then hit the back arrow to take you back to where you were.

Another look at the mandible plate of the American White Pelican.

Head plumage going against a strong wind. Windy days always add interest to images.

Flight shot at sunrise. Pelicans are among the heaviest flight birds in the world. They are extremely graceful in flight, appearing to expend the smallest amount of energy possible.

This pelican takes a nice-sized catfish but has to fight off other birds for its catch.

Finally, the catch is swallowed and the show is over.

This was my final shot from the trip. It was a joy to photograph these massive and graceful waterbirds for two mornings.

Thanks for looking,


I would love to hear from you:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images/Print Information:




7 comments on “Pelicanfest at Keystone Tailwater (Sand Springs, Oklahoma)”

  1. Enjoyed every word and image of the post, you ex-criminal! I enjoyed the sense of the long-standing friendship as much as anything else. Life’s happiness consists of such great gifts!

  2. They are beautiful birds for sure. Congrats on avoiding prison!

  3. Love it, great blog. Sounds like it was an awesome adventure.

  4. Hello Danny Brown, Sand Springs is my home town, we met at the Washington Garden Club always enjoy all your photos, they are just beautiful!

    • A nice little place! I’m glad I didn’t find anything bad to say about it. That would have been embarrassing.

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