June 18, 2012

6 pelicans 6

A pelican is a majestic sight, whether idling on water or perched on a lamp post. Last week I was cycling home along the river keeping an eye on a fishing boat making slow progress downstream. At a discreet distance behind it was a stately pelican, an opportunist biding his time.
Behind it was another fishing vessel, accompanied by more bird activity. Not only was there an egret aboard the second boat, but also lots of seagulls behind it and a gang of five pelicans. I have only ever seen pairs of pelicans on the Brisbane River before.
The Australian Pelican is a large bird, but in pelican world it's a pretty average size. Its distinctive pale pink beak and throat pouch, however, is huge by pelican standards: males' are larger (naturally). The bill is sensitive which helps to locate fish in murky water, and the pouch is used as a sort of fishing net, to scoop up food and water – it can hold up to 13 litres. After emptying the water out, by drawing the pouch to its breast, the pelican uses its beak to manoeuvre prey until the head is pointing down the gullet. The pelican then jerks its head to swallow.

Most Aussie pellies weigh between 4.5kg and 7.5kg, although heavyweights can reach a whopping 13kg. Wingspan ranges from 2.3 metres to 2.7 metres (7.5ft to almost 9ft). All in all, they never look as if they're going to achieve flight when they are taking off, rather like swans. According to my bird book*, they soar and circle in thermals to a great height (commonly 1000 metres) and then glide for long distances with only occasional slow flapping. The book describes them when not in flight as fishing or 'loafing', which is a nice idea.

Although pelicans are found throughout Australia – in freshwater lakes and waterways, swamps, rivers, estuaries, marine wetlands and islands off the coast – I'm always impressed when I see one. I especially like the fact that you see them quite often on the busy Brisbane River. The gang was fairly close to the demolition of the Cutters Landing Wharf but remained unperturbed.

Because I love them so much, here are some taken earlier (on our travels).

* Field Guide to Australian Birds by Michael Morcombe

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