Friday, 6 June 2014

Saving a Pelican

Pelicans are arriving on the coast in large numbers and are appearing in places that I never seen them before.  When birds are forced back to the coast, it is a sure sign that inland Australia is heading toward drought. Hawks and black swans can also suddenly appear in numbers and such sudden increases are known as irruptions.  At night the pelicans sleep on sand bars in river mouths or on the city esplanade (birds like city lights).

Pelicans resting on sand bar
Pelicans at mouth of Meunga Creek, Cardwell
Last week, I was walking the dog on the beach near the mouth of a creek.  In the late afternoon, pelicans fly from local inland waterbodies out to sand bars in the Barron River Delta.  They glide in from a great height, then using the wind shadow of tall trees at the creek mouth they pick up speed before dropping down almost water level where it is easier to fly against the trade wind.  Flights after flight of pelicans pass less than 10 m overhead.  However one pelican spied something in the water and pulled in his wings and went into a dive like a tern.  Just above the water surface, he broke off the dive and headed directly at the kids and fishermen on the far bank.  The kids screamed in fear and the pelican banked and turned away within only a couple of metres of the row of fishermen.  Unfortunately, it collected some of the fishing lines descending from the fishing rods.  I have never seen a pelican do anything this bold before.  The pelican flew a hundred metres out to sea and crashed into the surface.  It was repeatedly half taking off then crashing into the water.  Pelicans sometimes do this when chasing fish so I interpreted the behaviour as extreme hunger.  Luckily for the pelican, someone figured out what happened and asked me to get my boat.
A similar scene to the one the pelican flew through

It was dark by the time I could get a boat prepared with gloves, motors, knife for cutting line etc.  The pelican was a kilometre down the beach and a long way out.  A volunteer assured me he could swim and jumped in the tinny but he looked nervous.  We took a breaking wave over the front which emphasized that light weight car topper tinnys and open sea are a bad combination.  I went out a long way to silhouette the pelican against the fading western sky.  As the pelican could still take off, I came in on him with the 4 hp motor at full speed and he dodged us a couple of times but we got him on about the sixth attempt.  He had a lure embedded in his wing and he was trailing a huge length of fishing line.  On the way back we plugged along slowly to avoid pounding through the waves but it was so dark I could not see the beach break.  Our peripheral vision is slightly better at night and could just make out where we were but at night you can't be certain.  I made it back to the creek mouth avoiding the breaking waves on both sides and my volunteer admitted that he could not really swim.

As fish hooks have barbs, they can't just be pulled out.  I had to push the point of the hook out through the skin, crush the barb down with pliers and then gently ease the hook back out.  Pelican skin is very tough and even though I could feel the tip of the hook through the skin, it took as much force as my fingers could take to push the hook through. To calm the pelican, his head is covered with a shirt and he is being held gently but firmly.  The pelican looked fine other than a small wound at the site of the lure so we decided that it would be least stressful on the pelican if we just released it. He took few seconds to get his bearings when the shirt was removed and he flew to the nearest sand bank 50 m away where I hope he spent the night recovering.

Lure in pelican's wing

Pelican being released
The line that the pelican was trailing

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