Monday, July 14, 2008

Pelicans & People at Petatan

Petatan's pelicans draw visitors from far and wide. Lake Chapala has many remarkable little nooks and crannies where the inquisitive visitor who is willing to go off the beaten track can find interesting and beautiful places to spend a few hours. Petatan is such a place. Located on the less-visited South Shore about 30 miles (60 kilometers) east of Jocotopec, this small fishing village can easily be missed by the inattentive.

Waiting for supper. Last winter, Anna and Norm, two Canadian friends from my Tuesday hiking group (see January ’08 blog posting in archives), joined Carole and I to photograph the White Pelicans of Petatan. I had heard about the pelicans on our very first trip to Lake Chapala in the summer of 2006, and in the winter of ‘08 we noted the arrival small numbers of White Pelicans along the North Shore. Petatan is famous for opportunities to view these huge birds en masse, so we decided to visit.

While Petatan is most famous for the White Pelicans which nest, mate, and feed just off shore, the village contains interesting aspects of its own. The drive to reach Petatan along the South Shore on a sunny winter day is a reward in itself. The South Shore is very lightly populated but is intensively cultivated since, unlike the narrow North Shore, the arable land extends several miles back from the Lake to the base of the mountains. The road sometimes follows the shore closely and sometimes climbs a broad shelf set back from the water, yielding spectacular views of the lake.

Enjoying the free entertainment. When the road dipped toward the Lake on the way to Petatan, we tried to reach a good spot for photography by driving down a steep slick road to the shore. The possibilities didn’t pan out, and we briefly stuck trying to back up the narrow cobblestone road. Three small boys watched with interest, entertaining themselves with our antics much as we were later entertained by the pelicans. When it appeared we couldn’t get up the hill without help, they immediately jumped down and came over to push. They asked nothing for their help, but we gave them a few pesos for their trouble and for the privilege of photographing them.

The eternal fisherman. This fisherman consented to my photography while waiting for his friend to arrive with the boat. I have been unable to learn much about the history of Petatan. Repeated Google searches yielded lots of pelican pictures, but little information about the village itself. Cone-shaped Petatan appears to have originated as an island a few hundred yards from the shore, possibly through volcanic processes. Sometime in the past, the space between the island and the shore filled in, either naturally or through human design. This created a narrow causeway over which the road into the village runs. One thing seems likely: Petatan has been a fishing village since ancient times.

Keeping watch. The homes and other buildings are built around the cone in steps up to the peak on which sits the village church. One can take a leisurely walk all over Petatan in an hour or two. Boat slips, fishing sheds, and small restaurants line the arc of the village shoreline which faces across the Lake to the North Shore mountains over Mezcala about twelve miles away. (See post on Mezcala in February ’08 archive) The buildings create a handy lookout point for the local egrets.

Preparing the pelican feast. Pelicans mass at Petatan to feast on fish scraps left over from the village women cleaning the day's catch. The scraps are thrown into the water and, with a wild scramble and much flapping of black-tipped wings, are consumed with great gusto by the pelican bystanders. The pelicans, no fools, figured out long ago that fishing for scraps is much easier than chasing live catch. My one regret on this visit was that we missed the daily feeding, which occurs in the late afternoon at which time we needed to be well on our way back. Maybe next time.

Pelicans on patrol. Between feeding bonanzas at the shoreline, one can observe the pelican flocks patrolling off shore for live catch. Pelican appetites are quite extraordinary. The patrolling is very synchronized, like a fleet of naval ships all zigging, zagging, and turning at the same time. The behavior is apparently aimed at herding small fish like Charales close to shore where they can more easily be caught. It also looks like plain old fun, a little like country line dancing.

Charales are enjoyed by people and pelicans. Charales are small fish about 2-3 inches long, about the size of sardines, and are fished by birds and humans both. People eat Charales whole as “street food”, either dried or deep-fried with squeezed lime. The uncertain water quality in the Lake makes them risky to eat, I am told.

Hangin' out with friends. When not patrolling or feasting, the White Pelicans roost on small rocky outcrops a few dozen yards off shore, or float quietly in small groups. They seem to enjoy each others’ very close company, and an amazing number of pelicans manage to gather on the few yards of rock protruding from the water.

Putting things in order. Pelicans also engage in a lot of preening behavior in order to keep their feathers in good order. The air-filled feathers help keep them afloat.

"Try a little bit more to the left." In some cases, pelicans appear to be critically evaluating each other’s grooming efforts.

Hopping to a takeoff. The pelicans are quite entertaining to watch while taking off and landing. The takeoff involves a considerable effort given the size and bulk of the birds. As they flap their huge black-tipped wings, the pelicans hop along the surface of the water several times, leaving behind a series of regularly spaced splashes, until they have gained enough airspeed to lift off.

Gliding in. When landing, the pelicans exhibit considerably more grace. With their wings spread fully, the birds glide in, sometimes just skimming the surface of the water for a considerable distance.

Touchdown! Finally a pelican will drop its “landing gear” and water ski along on webbed feet, slowing to a gentle stop among a flock of their friends.

A Great While egret, two American Coots, and three American White Pelicans. The pelicans are not the only birds one can observe along the shore of Petatan. Egrets wade in the shallows and flocks of small black American Coots shadow the pelican flocks and sometimes intermigle. The Coots may be looking for scraps from the pelicans’ meal, just as the pelicans are looking for scraps from Petatan's human inhabitants.

"I suppose you're all wondering why I called this meeting..." While the pelicans are visitors during the winter season, egrets are year-round residents. The two large birds seem to get along well enough, as long as the egrets don’t encroach too much on the pelicans’ turf. When encroachments do happen, the pelicans will turn as a group and attempt to stare down the offending egret, as appears to be happening here. The egret seemed a little intimidated at first, but quickly recovered his poise.

Egret wins stare-down contest. When the silent stare doesn’t work, the frustrated pelicans rise as a group and flap away to another spot. You can almost hear them grumbling “#!!% egrets!” However, since the pelicans fish while swimming some distance off shore, and the egrets look for their meals while wading along the edge, the two don’t seem to compete for food. This probably accounts for their generally amicable behavior.

Bellying up to the bar. After leaving Petatan we continued around the lake until we arrived back at Ajijic. Along the way, Norm persuaded us to stop and sample some of the local tequila. Carole bought a bottle which she enjoyed, but since she is no real drinker she took almost six months to finish the bottle. Tequila, made from the agave cactus, originated in Jalisco State. The center of the industry is the small town of Tequila, surrounded by vast agave fields. There are almost as many varieties as there are tequila drinkers. Almost.

Hasta luego, Jim & Carole


  1. That's actually pretty funny because I remember this one time I went on a family vacation and on this family vacation while being in San Francisco I took a steady picture of a seagull that was simply standing still. And right before I took the picture Mr. Seagull here decided to spread its wings and take off! But... Little did the bird know I took probably the nicest picture in the world of the seagull in mid air with wings completely expanded in mid flight. Sounds cool ey?? :)
    Pelican Lights

  2. I thought I saw on one of your pages a reference to a place near, or west of, Mazamitla that had large, naturally occuring large stone balls. You can hike through the area. Not to be confused with the place that starts with a Z. I thought that near here was a trout farm/resto/ maybe golf course - south of Guad. I could be totally confused. Appreciate your blogs.

  3. Dear borderreiver, I think you are, indeed, confused. The large stone balls you are referring to are the Piedras Bolas near Tapalpa, west of Guadalajara, not Mazamitla. The other place with unusual stone formations and a trout farm nearby was Zacatlán, in northern Puebla State.

    Thanks for your nice comment on my blog.

    Saludos, Jim


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