Death of a Pelican

November 11, 2010

Remote waterholes in the Great Victorian Desert can be lifesavers, but they can also be prisons for those no strong enough to make the jump to the next one, as this lonely young Pelican discovered... 
Last week a remote area nurse in Pipalyatjara told me a story that some of the local Aboriginal blokes had seen a Pelican flying around. He was incredulous- "What would a Pelican be doing out here?". Thats a fair question. Here in South Australia's APY Lands there are very few waterbodies other than the odd tiny sewage pond and a handful of tiny rockholes. Pelicans are renouned long-distance scouts in the inland so I didn't think it impossible, but I didn't expect to see the bird either- in a week a Pelican can cover a lot of ground and there was little to keep it out here. Earlier this year a large party of Pelican had passed through the West McDonnell Ranges, pausing briefly near Glen Helen where I saw them before carrying on south down the Finke River. Exceptional rains in the Red Centre have kept the normally dry Finke flowing for months but even that couldn't make the birds linger. I had totally forgotten about the rumoured waterbird when a week later I decided to stop by a small waterhole on the side of Mt.Wooltarlinna, the central peak of the remote Birksgate Ranges, some 140km SW of the Pelican's last sighting across mile upon mile of red sand dunes. The shrill 'tyi-tyi-tyi' of a pensive Greenshank greeted me as I approached the waters edge- a familiar sound from my Scottish coastal childhood- it never fails to amaze me that these birds choose to spend the siberian winter in Central Australia. As I watched the lone bird relax and get back to the serious business of snapping at flies, I noticed beyond it a pile of white feathers on the far bank. The Pelican. And judging by the smell, dead for a few days already. I approached for a closer look- the weather had been warm and decomposition had reached an advanced stage in just a few days. The bird had died where it lay, its head peacefully tucked under a vast wing. It was all too clear what happened; a young bird hitched a lift out here on one of the many weather systems which have rolled over the region and made a series of bad choices about waterbodies to settle on. The waterholes out here are too cut off from the network of outback rivers to hold fish. Their compliment of invertebrates, frogs and tadpoles can keep Grebes and even Pygmy Cormorants going but a big bird like a Pelican has no hope of getting enough food to recover from a long flight. Over time it got weaker and weaker and finally perished here beside this puddle in the lee of a remote desert mountain. I touched the birds head to get a better look at its unfeasibly big beak and the whole thing broke off in my hands. A former skull collector before settling in Australia (having reluctantly giving up the pursuit in the face of clumsy and obtuse legislation), I took the chance to get photos of the bird's remarkable head. What a beast! The death of such a charismatic creature in this way is sad, but in another way it is something to celebrate. Its nutrient is now contributing to the survival of others; the maggots which spilled out of the corpse as I rolled it to check for bands on the great leathery legs will go on to feed a plethora of creatures. As I retreated to my truck, I saw the Greenshank move in to inspect the maggoty bonanza. Life goes on, and a little bit of that unlucky Pelican is now powering a bird which could be back in Siberia by the year's end.

Locations visited



Land Birds 1 species
Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) 1
Seabirds 1 species
Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) 1 Dead



Written by

Mark Carter

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