Lake Eyre Pelicans Boom and Bust – A Story Of Life & Death

Sunset on the shore of Lake Eyre

This is a story of Lake Eyre pelicans and of boom and bust as wildlife and plants take advantage of the rare change of circumstances.

 

Lake Eyre in central Australia is the lowest point below sea level on mainland Australia and only fills on very rare occasions, it is during these times that the outback bursts into life filled with an abundance of birds and plant life. Normally Lake Eyre is nothing more than a vast salt pan of glistening white salt and endless sky.

In 1990, I was commissioned to produce and film a one hour natural history documentary about the Lake Eyre pelicans and their boom and bust,  for Partridge Films Ltd (UK) and National Geographic Television.

At the time my camera assistant, Robo and I were already filming in Central Australia for another 12 x 1 hour series for Genesis Films Limited (UK) and Partridge Films Ltd (UK), titled “The Sexual Imperative – Natural History of Sex”.

 

Whilst taking up the task, we were confronted with numerous challenges in logistics due to the massive flooding in Central Australia. As many of the roads were flooded and inaccessible, it was decided to hire a helicopter to get to the places we needed to be for the filming and to enable us to capture the aerial shots which would show the extent of the flooding and the filling of Lake Eyre North and South.

After driving to Adelaide to book a helicopter. It was discovered that we had a bigger logistical problem in getting aviation fuel to where we needed it for refuelling. The drums of aviation fuel needed to be transported by road to locations near Lake Eyre. This presented a big problem as the roads were all but inaccessible. The helicopter charter company decided it would look into a solution and would get back to us in a couple of weeks with a solution.

In the meantime Robo and I decided to head back to Marree and regroup so that we could start filming the story of the bloom of plant life and birds from ground level. In Marree, we were told about how the pelicans were nesting on an island not far from the shore of Lake Eyre south and how there could be possibly thousands of nesting Lake Eyre pelicans. We headed out to the shore of Lake Eyre south and made camp.

The island was located, not far from the shore and our camp. During the day the sight and sounds coming from the island, which we dubbed “Pelican Island” was a spectacle to behold, thousands of birds flying to and from the island and more birds making nests and feeding their young. Even from our camp the island sparkled with the glistening white specks of eggs. The sound of thousands of birds squabbling and feeding throughout the day almost became deafening.

The following morning Robo and I made our way to the island by foot with a 16 mm cine camera (a suicide camera, leaving the “good” camera in its box), a distance of about 800 metres. Although the water wasn’t deep, about two and a half feet deep, it was very salty and the salt would stick to anything it touched. Any slip or fall into the water would have rendered the camera inoperable. Part of the difficulty was that after crossing to the island several times we had broken through the salty crust of the lake floor and into the sticky black mud beneath, which had a habit of working like a suction pad, gluing your feet to the spot. This made travelling very difficult and dangerous to the camera.

After speaking with the money people back in England via radio telephone we were given the go ahead to purchase an inflatable boat to enable us to travel to the island and back in safety. So we broke camp and headed for Port Augusta to purchase a boat, would you believe that a fishing town didn’t have a boat for sale anywhere. So we headed for Adelaide in the hope of purchasing something there. After a three day drive we arrived in Adelaide on a Saturday morning and madly rush from boat dealer to boat dealer to find a boat suitable. All the businesses close for the weekend at lunch time on saturdays. The best they could offer us was a second hand 12 foot flat aluminum dingy, which came with an outboard motor and trailer. The catch was we would have to wait until Monday to have the registration transferred. We left Adelaide five days after arriving and by the time we arrived on the shore of Lake Eyre south again we had been gone nearly two weeks.

To our surprise, many of the pelicans had left and the water had evaporated so much that the boat was next to useless. We tried to launch the boat but it got stuck in the mud and never got used again until we returned to the east coast and the ocean.

On the first day of our return to the island after returning from Adelaide, I couldn’t help but be struck by what seemed to be a mystery, there were piles of dead Lake Eyre pelicans scattered around the island. All neatly piled together were adults, chicks and fledglings and at some piles there would be a live bird huddled against the dead. At first I thought that someone had been to the island in our absence and deliberately stacked the pelicans into piles. But after watching the behaviour of the remaining birds it was discovered that what was really happening was that because the island was stripped of vegetation there wasn’t any shade for the birds. The birds were huddling together to create shade and as one would die the others were using it’s carcass as shade and then another would die and so forth, in the end you would have a pile of dead animals neatly stacking up.

Some of the other observations made were that some of the adults were “rolling” abandoned eggs together into piles, the reason for this behaviour I have no explanation. The remaining fledglings were seemingly forming groups, I can only guess the true reason for this behaviour but it appeared that they were comforting each other as they did not have the ability to fly away.

Four weeks after our initial arrival at the lake shore, surrounded by thousands of birds, we were witnessing the end of the cycle of life. Only a dozen or so living adult birds, half a dozen fledglings and chicks and hundreds of unhatched eggs and the dead birds remained on the island. Over the follow days we would witness some of the adult birds try to fly away only to crash into the lake and die in the salty brine, too weak to make the journey to freedom. We stayed in the area until only two lake Eyre pelicans remained and we left them to their fate.

The whole experience was amazing to witness although sad seeing such death and hopelessness after such a boom of resources and explosion of life.

So what  happened and ultimately went wrong?

As the flood water made its way to central Australia it created an ecological bonanza of new life and food resources for all manner of wildlife. Pelicans are drawn to Lake Eyre from as far a field as Papua New Guinea. During the 1989-90 flood it was estimated that 200,000 Lake Eyre pelicans, 80% of Australia’s total population, came to feed at Lake Eyre. The birds which normally would only be seen on the coast followed this bonanza of food into central Australia where they mated and built nests. As there was such an abundance of food they were having multiple matings and it wasn’t uncommon to see adult birds sitting on a nest with eggs, having a freshly hatch chick and a fledgling all at the same time. In fact that was the norm in the beginning. As the flood waters ceased to add new water and the heat started to evaporate the shallow water of the lake, the lake became increasingly more saline and even the Lake Eyre Hardyhead (Craterocephalus eyresii) fish started dying in their millions, the Lake Eyre pelicans main food source.

In the end the Lake Eyre pelicans were caught in a unfortunate situation where they had multiple offspring which needed to be feed and the adults had to fly further afield in search of food. As one area’s food diminished they were forced to fly even further and at some point they were expending more energy in search of food then they were getting from the food they did find. Therefore some pelicans abandoned their offspring and fly closer to a reliable food source, others we witnessed continued to go out each day in search of food but barely had the strength to return to their offspring on the island. These pelicans died on the island of exhaustion and starvation trying to tend to their chicks. Parenting had such a strong hold on the parents to care for their young. The Lake Eyre pelicans boom and bust lasted less than eight weeks, we ended up filming in the area for nearly twelve weeks in total.

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2018-09-18T20:18:21+00:006 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Amanda Thursday, 24 July, 2014 at 5:12 am - Reply

    What a great story! Thanks. I did a wee blog on the pelicans and will add a link to your story if that’s OK. It’s at http://www.amandabarusch.com.
    Cheers,
    A

    • James Doyle Thursday, 24 July, 2014 at 8:30 am - Reply

      Thanks for the link Amanda, I appreciate it. You can link what ever you think is worth sharing from my website. 🙂

  2. Alice Johnson Saturday, 14 September, 2013 at 9:18 am - Reply

    Just read your post and I was mesmerized! What a great story and insight into something many of us will never see. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to your next post. Regards Alice.

    • James Doyle Saturday, 14 September, 2013 at 1:31 pm - Reply

      Thanks Alice, I enjoyed reliving the adventure when writing the article.

  3. Graeme Cox Friday, 13 September, 2013 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    Great article James, I would love to do a trip to the Lake one day soon it would be such a site. Keep up the good work.

    • James Doyle Saturday, 14 September, 2013 at 8:26 am - Reply

      Thanks for the feedback Graeme. It was an adventure for sure! I think the lake might be a bit dry these days though. But having said that, I would like to see the lake when it is dry and make images of the salt formations and do startrails of the night sky over the lake, something I didn’t do when I was there last time.

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