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A once arid Northern Territory
cattle station is now a
ABOVE: Our intrusion sent bigger pelicans staggering to the water.
ITS AN odd statistic for the
books, but Brunette Downs, one of Australia's mammoth pastoral properties in the Northern Terri- tory, has 56,000 head of cattle AND nearly 500,000 pelicans.
In an uncanny wildlife phenomenon - in fact it's something that may happen only once a century - the pelicans are breeding
in vast numbers on islands on the cattle
property in the rugged Barkly Tablelands. It is the first time in memory that it has happened.
Normally there are no islands on the property. The area has an average rainfall of only 35.5cm (14 inches). The property's two vast lakes. Sylvester and Corella, are usually dry. But after extraordinary rains four years ago - 158cm (62 inches)
were received between January I, 1973 and March 31. 1974 - more than 405.000ha (1.000.000 acres) of the 1.226.016ha property was left under water and has
remained so ever since.
For an area that once supported little wildlife, now there is an extravaganza. The station's two spare-time ornithologists, office manager Len Davidson and bookkeeper Rowan Edney, have classified 59 different varieties of birds in the area, among which the pelicans star.
We saw them first from a low height in a light aircraft - two islands encrusted with pelicans. But an aerial stickybeak wasn't sufficient. We virtually became wading birds ourselves in a bid to get to the islands and see the sights up close.
Our first attempt to get to the islands (setting off at dawn, temperature 3.5
degrees) failed. The islands are virtually flat and were hard to detect despite six hours on the water. The flood waters may have come - and stayed - but so did the station's fences. Every so often a gate under flood waters had to be negotiated. Wrestling with submerged wood and wire wasn't the easiest, we found out.
The second attempt organized by Len and Rowan was successful, despite having to push the boat a hundred yards out into the lake while sinking thigh-high in slop and slime. A half an hour's cruising across the water produced a spectacle you could only hope to see once in a life time. We were the first people ever to set foot on the island and the pelicans allowed us to get remarkably close.
Then in a muddle of activity, they fled
in confusion to avoid the intruders. The
BELOW LEFT: Pelicans cruise offshore like a vast black and white flotilla. BELOW RIGHT: The bigger birds have fled from the island leaving the young to huddle protectively in clusters. Pictures by Ern McQuillan.
full grown birds took to the water. Within
seconds, much of the lake near the island
was invisible - dotted by a mighty black and white flotilla cruising offshore. As we advanced further, these jumbos of the bird world took to the air, flying in formation as gigantic airborne squadrons.
But thousands of developing birds, 60cm (2ft) high - down covered or partially feathered but unable to fly or get to the
water to swim - remained on on the island,
kicking up a dust storm. They gave us a wide berth, marching 10 abreast in formation around the island looking for all the world like the fighting Ninth Division on the
Careful footwork was required by the Spedition party. Everv few centimetres there was a pelican nest (a shallow scraping in the ground with a handful of
sticks). In many there were hatching eggs. From many nests very young birds flopped and staggered instinctively trying to cluster together for protection. The noise was incredible, big birds emitting a type of sonorous boom, smaller birds managing a higher pitched noise, a combination of "quack" and "hey."
The stench was revolting. The island was prolifically dotted with regurgitated piles offish (silver perch) and unbelievably "cooked" school prawns which had also been regurgitated and baked pink by the
The birds were amusing to watch. Although the pelican is one of our largest flying birds - weighing up to 8kg (181b) and a majestic and powerful flyer at that, it is clumsy and awkward on land. There was so much staggering going on.
the whole island looked as though it had had a massive alcoholic bender. The sight was enough to render the entire touring party speechless, save for the noise of our photographer's rapidly clicking camera.
"It's incredible," said Rowan Edney. "Before the floods there were only a few egrets and glossy ibis around. We never saw pelicans."
The floods themselves were insufficient
to bring the colony - fish were necessary. So how did lakes, formerly bone dry, start sprouting fish?
"It's uncanny." said Len Davidson. "But after big rains hit parched earth you can almost scoop fish from the water. In the absence of any other explanation, old stockmen simply say 'It rains fish'."
- JILL BOWEN