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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Water arrives in Lake Eyre - check your Pelicans.

Have you missed your local Pelicans yet? You may recall that I predicted two weeks ago that the Pelicans would arrive in Lake Eyre, with the flood-waters coming down from Queensland. I suggested that people, especially our Gippsland colleagues, ought observe their Pelicans, to see if they start to disappear. Well, today's press tells me that the waters have now arrived there - and so have the Pelicans.

(Photo: Weekend Australian 28.2.09)

Today, I was looking for Orchids on the side of Macquarie Pass, when I lay down to take a close-up shot of a little Ground Orchid. As I did so, I happened to glance skyward. From a gap between the branches of towering Eucalypts in a patch of wet schlerophyll forest, and rainforest understory, I briefly glimpsed a group of Pelicans flying overhead. A very unexpected sight, as I am sure you will understand - Pelicans flying over a rainforest.

These Pelicans were heading westwards. Now the most obvious explanation was that they were simply circling to gain height to cross over the towering sandstone cliffs of the Illawarra escarpment, in order to cross then glide down to the nearby Wingecarribee Reservoir. However, it is entirely possible that they were following an instinct which we know about, but barely begin to comprehend - to fly a vast distance to Lake Eyre, to breed while the famous dry salt Lake Eyre is in flood.How do the Pelicans of the east coast know when to fly west to Lake Eyre? Perhaps they had read the front page of the Weekend Australian today. "Waters give lift to nature's Eyre force" (pathetic pun, by the way, dearest Sub-Editor of the Australian).
  • "Most of the water that began coursing into Lake Eyre this week is from the Georgina River, which rises near Mount Isa in north Queensland and is in fierce flood. The Diamantina, further to the east, is not flowing as heavily; a third river draining to the lake, the Cooper, has not run into it since 1990."
  • "The birds are already in a feeding frenzy. Australian pelicans, silver gulls and gull-billed terns have flocked from up to 2000km away to dip into the teeming waters." (Source: "The Australian"28 February 2009 - story by Jamie Walker)
I don't know if Pelicans have a barometric sensor system, which tells them there has been a massive depression (Low Pressure System) in northern Queensland. Whatever it is, Pelicans are undoubtedly moving (from somewhere) to Lake Eyre, to feast on the burst of life which follows a flood there.

They feed, then they breed, as quickly as possible. They have to race against time, as the slow ones end up losing their chicks to starvation, if they are not fully fledged by the time the waters of Lake Eyre dry up again. It is a risky strategy, but then again, this is part of Australia's natural "boom and bust" or "flood and drought" cycle. It is all totally natural, and has been played out for millions of years.

Please let me know if you are suddenly not seeing Pelicans, where you would expect to see them.

14 comments:

mick said...

Wouldn't it be great to be able to go out to Lake Eyre and see it all happening! Next best would be some other blogger to post a day to day report :-)

Gouldiae said...

G'day Denis,
Nice thought provoking article. Regular bird migration, probably as a result of imprinting over time, is wonderful enough to my mind. This 'one off' event when conditions are suitable is barely credible.
I'll keep an eye out for any missing Gippsland Pelicans.
Regards,
Gouldiae

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Mick and Gouldiae
Thanks folks. The reason I keep asking is that the hardest thing in bird-watching is to note what you are NOT seeing.
Mick, there are flights over the area being advertised already. Now, its just an issue of being able to afford them.
Of course, much of the area turns into a huge quagmire, so, getting around out there would be a huge problem, if one tried to drive.
I am sure there would be some local tours available.
The periodic flooding has always fascinated me. As Gouldiae says, regular migrations are amazing enough. My favourite story is the Muttonbirds - the adults head off before their chicks have learnt to fly properly. So the youngsters cannot "learn the route" from the adults. That is a mind-boggling enough. But this process is quite amazing.
Cheers
Denis

Tyto Tony said...

Quick look at Pelican research gives no strong line of how they (and several other species) know Eyre's filling. Might be worth looking for papers on comparably uncertain and extremely irregular feeding/breeding habitats elsewhere in the world and see if theories there hint at an answer here.

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Tony

I was attempting the lazy-man's research project - asking other people to keep their eyes open. Admittedly, between you, Mick, myself, Duncan and Gouldiae, we have a large chunk of the east coast covered.
Denis

jacko3000 said...

Hi There, This event has always fascinated me since I moved to Australia in 2000, the last time this occurred. I'd like to see it with my own eyes and travel for a week driving from Melbourne to lake Eyre, to take photo's and experience this phenomenon. Do you or anyone have any tips where to start exploring something massive and volatile as Lake Eyre ?

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Jacko3000
I have already commented to Mick that there are flights over the area being advertised already. Now, its just an issue of being able to afford them.
Of course, much of the area turns into a huge quagmire, so, getting around out there would be a problem, if one tried to drive.
I am sure there would be some local tours available.
I suggest you Google "Tours of Lake Eyre", or similar.
Best of luck with it.
Denis

Lynn said...

Hi Denis
The resident population of pelicans at Tea Gardens/Hawks Nest (Port Stephens) was markedly smaller than usual at the end of last week.
Cheers
Lynn

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Lynn
Thanks for that report, and good to hear from you.
Obviously "circumstantial evidence" at this stage, but I am delighted to hear your report. The Pelicans at Lake Eyre have to come from somewhere.
Cheers
Denis

old dog said...

How annoying...i'd just written a fulsome account of the disappearance of the the 7 or 8 resident pelicans in my neck of the woods, (Rose and Double Bays in Sinny Harbour) and details of the various flights available to see Lake Eyre when the whole effort vanished into cyberspace on my registering myself as a blogger with google. Why don't they alert one first to register....anyhow there is at the moment only one tour outa Sinny, Heronair, 3 days, I'm going to stop here and hazard a posting ...to be continued.

old dog said...

Hi, All...just trying togett the hang of this blog business...

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Old Dog
Don't yopu just love it? I first wrote about this on 15 February, and then again on this post on 26 February. Now, two and a half months later, the ABC has picked up on the "story", and yesterday, (20 May 2009) the Sydney Daily Tele had pictures of half-grown Pelican chicks.
.
So, there has clearly been a population of Pelicans out there for some time - long enough to mate, lay eggs, hatch them, and have then half-grown.
.
Pathetic News Services we have in Australia.
.
I hope you can get a flight out there. My friend, who is a pilot, won't take me that far. But I would love to see it.
Cheers
Denis

old dog said...

The air tours out of Queensland look the best, since they encompass the channel country, whereas Heron, (so far the only one out of Sinny, although Pionair are planning a 44 seater to be announced shortly...I'll post when confirmed) only does the Lake Eyre bit and non of the feeder rivers and lakes. Heron transfers ar Marree for a 4WD trip to the lake and then return via Olympic Dam.
I've made a reservation with Reefnoutback.com.au...ph 0754475422 where Donna has set up a cut rate deal with Skytrans out of Brisbane, stop overnight at Birdville then special flight down the Eyre, (aka Georgina) and Cooper to Lake Eyre and return to Birdville and connect with return flight to Brisbane. So far her costings are around $1200 all up.
There are more interesting deals out of Charleville with a really seasoned pilot/operator who does bird surveys for the CSIRO, but all these flights are booked out to July and further. BTW this pilot says the bird numbers are over hyped by the southern media.
I'm very keen to get out there this time having missed out ever since 74, 75 when the lake was last really full.
It takes a few hours of googling and ringing to canvass all the tour possibilities...but the long and the short of it is that there's not much available till mid July except for the two options I mentioned.
I hope this may be of some help to those contemplating a trip.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Old Dog

Thanks for that info.

Denis