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Thursday, 24 January 2013

Pelican log

Pelicans being fed, The Entrance, NSW,
about 1990, a tourist attraction using scraps
from the local eateries.
OK, normal service is about to be resumed. My nasty back problem has eased, I have managed to finish the book that has been eating all my time, and my life will be a bit more my own to go and smell the flowers and admire the birds.

When I say "finish", that is the manuscript only: there will be feedback, edits, revisions, cuts needed by design and much more, so the work isn't over, but the really hard part is done.

The book I have been doing is a history of Australia for young people, and while I know most of the content fairly well, there were some bits where I was rusty or less interested, but I was working to a set of specifications, so I just had to get up to speed on the weak areas. Most writing jobs, the writer (or this writer, anyhow) only chases stuff which is of interest. Here, the target age group needed a good outline of what happened, how and why. I couldn't just goof off.
Clontarf Reserve, king high tide.
Clontarf Reserve, low tide.

Anyhow, because my back was being annoying, I have been doing more swimming, and I decided to take my tablet to the beach, and record the extremes of the tide at my usual favourite, "Clonny" to the locals, Clontarf Reserve on the maps. It is on Middle Harbour, a part of Port Jackson (alias Sydney Harbour).

Here, you can see two extremes: a king tide and an almost matching low tide. Look carefully, and you will see that these shots are taken from the same place.

Lake Eyre, Central Australia, birds in flight, inset, birds feeding.
This shot was taken from a light aircraft at about 500 feet.
Then I noticed a pelican out in the bay.  I like pelicans, always have and probably always will. The Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus, is the world's largest.

Big and clumsy on land, pelicans soar gracefully, and from my study window at home, I can see them working their way from updraft to updraft.  At each, they circle, gaining altitude, and then glide off to the next on a wing span of up to 1.8 metres. In the outback, they use thermals in the same sort of way.  Smart birds!

Pelicans have a sense that tells them when there is water in Lake Eyre. The lake is usually a flat dry plain of white salt, but sometimes, a cyclone moves in over the northern or eastern coast and rain buckets down, far inland. If the low pressure zone that is the ex-cyclone pushes far enough south, the rain fills a maze of channels that carry the water south, and maybe, into Lake Eyre.

The water moves across the plains at walking pace. At Lake Eyre, the salt dissolves, the mud softens, and the eggs of tiny crustaceans and fish hatch out. Algae that have been lying dormant below the salt come back to life. The crustaceans eat the algae, the fish eat the crustaceans, and then the pelicans arrive to eat the fish.

Dead fish, Lake Eyre South. Note the coin for scale.
Nobody know how they do it, but pelicans know there is water in the dry centre of Australia. Over many, many thousands of years, instincts have evolved to send them into a place full of fish, with no predators. There, they build unprotected nests, feast on fish and raise as many new pelicans as they can.

Then, as the water dries up and the fish disappear, the adults fly off, abandoning the last chicks if they cannot fly. Next time a low pressure zone slops in over the coast and delivers water to the lake, the chicks that got out safely will be back again to breed.

The careful reader may be wondering if I am just a tad obsessive about pelicans.  Not really, but these sagacious and gainly/ungainly birds do, from time to time, become a temporary obsession.

I like pelicans.  Live with it.

 Anyhow, I was taking shots with the tablet, and I began to wonder if maybe it would be better if I used a real camera.

Well, that was easy enough.  When I go to the beach in the early morning, there aren't that many people, and they are mostly regulars, so expensive kit can be safely left on the beach, and I took the camera each day.

And that was how I made an interesting discovery.

I took the next shot (it should be on the right, I hope) to post to Facebook, calling it 'Fisherfolk all'.  In the background, there's a human in the water, while nearest the camera, one Australian Pelican, six Little Black Cormorants, and on the left of the shot, one seagull.

These are sharky waters, and I commented that maybe the birds were out, waiting for the 08:45 shark to pass by.

The next day, I realised that the seagulls fly at the cormorants and the pelicans when they surface to swallow fish, and I noticed a certain amount of ill feeling.

The cormorants are less able to fight back, but there is no doubt that the pelican does.

By the way, these are all large-ish shots, so you can see more detail if you click on the pictures.

Then I found something magical. The cormorants and the pelican hung together: I thought the cormorants were just hanging around the pelican for protection, but there's more to it,

Pelican and underwater cormorants, cooperatively fishing.

They work as a team to catch fish!  I only have one shot to show this so far: the pelican is on the outside of the pool, and three cormorants were working on the inside, swimming together and all of them were catching fish.

I know this, because I could see them popping up to swallow and then diving again.

Sadly, the study period may have come to an end, because after preening himself on Thursday morning, the pelican flew away. A few minutes later, I saw him (or her?) gliding fast from the north. Close to the pool's end, a couple my age were watching something up in the sky and got the fright of the life when the pelican passed over, about a metre up. When I spoke to them, they said their attention had been on another pelican, circling up high, gaining altitude.

They swam back to the beach then, and a couple of minutes later, I saw a new pelican climbing into the sky.  I think it was my pelican, which had flown around the corner to pick up an updraft.

If it was my pelican, perhaps it knows there's a flood coming, somewhere inland, and it's off to breed.

We'll see, but I am looking in my box of temporary obsessions to see which one to take up now.

Friday footnote: no pelican this morning :-(

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.


  1. Hello Peter, my wife and i live on the Gold Coast. Yesterday and again today we saw a Pelican and a Shag seemingly working together to feed. Wow! We thought. We have never seen anything like it. This morning we were again at the Broadwater with a friend and as we walked we told him the story when in front of us was, apparently, the same Pelican with two Shags working together so they all get a feed. Once more we watched in fascination until the birds moved on.Now I know the Shags and the Pelican are related so perhaps this activity is more common than we thought. I typed the phrase Cormorants and Pelicans working together in Google and i found your Blog. By the way I also have a Blog ...Frank and Donnis Travel and will be writing about our exciting observation when I post on Sunday. I will also include a link to your blog.In my spare time I will start reading your blog further. Cheers...

    1. As I see it, the point of blogging is to ensure that ideas are recorded, preserved, and made accessible. Thanks for adding to our sum of knowledge, because I wasn't sure that what I saw might not have been a coincidence.

    2. As I see it, the point of blogging is to ensure that ideas are recorded, preserved, and made accessible. Thanks for adding to our sum of knowledge, because I wasn't sure that what I saw might not have been a coincidence.

    3. I have just been watching the same thing at Golden Beach, the tip of Bribie Island near Caloundra.

  2. Thought you would like some follow up. We have been walking the Gold Coast Broadwater at Labrador every morning. After reporting to you our observations we decided to continue watching for the Pelican Shag combo. We arrive at the same beach at roughly the same time each morning. Up until Sunday the pair were always fishing together. Monday morning was overcast and very windy and no sign of the birds except for a lone seagull, who it seems is also there every day.Hmmm! This morning we saw the Pelican and two Shags working together. One Shag swam beside the Pelican while the other stayed further away. Today a third Shag circled with the others although much further away. It seems it may be trying to join the inner circle. Today a new Pelican tried to join the trio. The first Pelican gave a honk of disapproval while the third circling Shag swam at the invader who then flew away.This week I will have photos on my blog..