Chris Watson

Birding Central Australia #42

Chris Watson

Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

There can be few more majestic birds than the pelican. With their huge bills and broad wingspan an airborne flock can look like a squadron of bombers as they fly in formation across outback skies. Pelicans have fascinated me ever since Mr. Ponder, Mr. Percival, and Mr. Proud first waddled into my imagination from Colin Thiele’s masterpiece, Stormboy; if you’ve never read it, you’re missing out.

It’s not a bird that you would instantly associate with the desert but pelicans are fond of breeding in our inland waterways. Lake Eyre in 1994 saw one of the largest pelican breeding events ever recorded and ecologists estimated that in the following years 3 out of every 4 pelicans anywhere in Australia had been born at Lake Eyre.

In Central Australia pelicans can often be encountered at significant bodies of water like Mary Ann Dam and Lake Woods to the north and Boggy Hole closer to Alice Springs – I’ve even had a report of a bird found resting atop a sand dune out on the Sandover Highway.

You may see them in small flocks flying high overhead. While they often do breed inland, pelicans tend to spend more of their time in coastal regions where there is a more reliable supply of fish. It has been suggested that the small flocks we sometimes see, are actually scouting parties. It’s theorised that they come from coastal colonies to inspect the state of inland waterways. If the rains have arrived and the conditions are right they will spread the word and the colonies duly arrive at places like Lake Eyre for the massive breeding events that we have witnessed in the past.

The highlights of Alice Springs birding this week has been 3 Freckled Ducks, 2 Baillon’s Crake, and the first Wood Sandpipers on their return migration from the Arctic all at the sewage ponds at Ilparpa.