Pelican fishing at Bribie

A lone pelican fishing at Bribie Island.

I was sitting on a nearly-deserted Bribie Island beach last week, with only sand, sea, and bushland all around. An osprey was hunting nearby, and a few terns drifted past. The tide was up, and we’d just been for a dip – but only as far as a shallow sand spit, only metres from the shore.

Then around the point a pelican came flying – slow and solemn. Purposeful. It landed on the sea, near the shore, about 100 metres away, and proceeded to swim steadily towards us.

Most people probably encounter pelicans hanging around jetties, scavenging discarded fish, or perched atop light poles. But once you’ve recognised their slow, gliding flight you won’t forget it – often very high overhead, circling on a thermal. Pelicans have more secondary flight feathers than many other birds (which creates a large wing surface area)¹, extra muscles to keep their wings outstretched, and a body that is surprisingly light². This allows them to glide upwards on thermals to attain great heights and to move between thermals to cover long distances, but all for relatively little effort.

Pelicans have an air of calm acceptance and composure. Or maybe discreet scheming. The Australian pelican eats mostly fish, but it’s also been known to swallow ducks, small dogs, and to eat silver gulls after holding them underwater til they drown. Australian pelicans are also renowned for hunting in groups – driving smaller fish together until they can be easily scooped up in those enormous bills (the largest bill of any bird¹). So why was this lone pelican swimming towards us? Did it think we had fish? Perhaps it was attracted to our two smallish dogs?

The pelican swam until it was directly in front of where we were sitting – roughly above the shallow sand spit – and proceeded to fish. It looked intently down into the water, and then quickly plunged its head in – emerging with a dinner-plate-sized round and flattened fish in its bill. It then tipped up its bill – the fish was engulfed in the pink fleshy pouch below – and after a minute or two the pelican somehow managed to swallow it. The bird soon caught and swallowed a second round, flat fish, and a then a third. Even though the pouch of a pelican can be hugely distended (and can hold up to 14 litres of water³) its body really isn’t all that big. We were wondering how many more fish it could fit in.

I felt strangely relieved that we weren’t expected to provide food, and a bit ashamed that I had underestimated this bird. It obviously knew exactly where to get a good feed – it hadn’t attempted fishing until it reached the sand spit and then had immediate success – and it may have been coming to this exact spot for years. Today we were probably just inconsequential onlookers in its usual routine.

The beach walk was my birthday treat, so I wondered how old was this pelican? I later read that one Australian pelican – in captivity – lived for 60 years. Another was banded in the Coorong of South Australia in 1985 and was found 26 years later (only 2 km away from its initial banding site), safe and well, and still going strong♠. So this Bribie Island bird could be as old as me, and perhaps it had learnt over the years many details about where and when to fish, roost, breed (and find small dogs).

Pelican portrait

The Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is also known as the Spectacled pelican, because of the ring of yellow skin around each eye.

The Australian pelican is usually found in coastal areas, or on more permanent inland water bodies. But it is also famous for migrating into the arid heart of Australia when occasional big rains flood the otherwise dry salt lakes. At these times, huge numbers of fish appear, seemingly out of nowhere, and vast numbers of pelicans assemble and form breeding aggregations. These high rainfall events happen irregularly, and are difficult to predict. How do the pelicans know when a usually dry salt lake – hundreds of kilometres away – is filling with floodwaters and fish?

Some people think that the older, more experienced pelicans learn the signs (or perhaps the scents, as scientists are now discovering that birds have a far better sense of smell than once thought). And that these wise birds lead the younger pelicans to the inland breeding grounds. A single pelican has been observed taking off and spiraling slowly up a thermal, and then many other birds take off to follow it. If the lead bird then glides off in a particular direction, the other birds peel off the thermal, one by one, and follow it♦.

The pelican on Bribie Island bobbed along in the calm water before us, drenched in that bright golden Queensland sunlight, and goggled at me with its yellow-rimmed eyes (maybe slightly bulging from all the fish it was still trying to swallow). A wise bird, no doubt. Perhaps a leader. I wondered how many trips it had made to inland Australia? The largest distance that a pelican has been known to fly is 3219 km from the Coorong of South Australia to the Gulf of Papua, Papua New Guinea♠. But maybe that’s nothing if you’ve got a few good thermals, and can follow a pelican who knows where it’s going.

Pelican flying

1. The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw.

2. The Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 1. Ratites to ducks. coordinated by S. Marchant and P.J. Higgins

3. Stray Feathers : Reflections on the Structure, Behaviour and Evolution of Birds by P. Olsen and L. Joseph

♠  Database of the Australian Bird and Bat banding scheme

♦  Boom and Bust : Bird Stories for a Dry Country by L. Robin, R. Heinsohn and L. Joseph