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Surfing with the baitfish

September 9, 2015

By Mic Smith

At a recent surf at Broken Head there was lots to eat in the water judging by all the fishing action going on.

My feet were dangling off the side of my board in black clouds of bait fish. Dolphin pods were cruising back and fourth sometimes breaking the surface an arm’s length away. Gannets were diving for fish left and right.

When the gannets popped up fish-in-mouth they’d flee skyward from their rapacious buddies hot on their tails. Or if they bounced buoyantly but fishless back on the surface they’d have that “ready for another go” look in their eye.

Obviously they’d caught the bait fishing bug and like a gambler at the racetrack they weren’t quitting till there was nothing left.

Gannets dive for bait fish

Gannets dive for bait fish

I wasn’t leaving either, not while the surfing banks were good and the glassy conditions held.

A big flock of pelicans sitting like a church picnic were fishing neck-plunging style 50 metres further out.

They were taking advantage of the dolphins’ teamwork.

The dolphins, who are master strategists, and bigger fish (hopefully no Great Whites) were herding the bait fish up to the surface. The pelicans just thought it was great. They can’t dive like gannets. They can only plunge as far as their necks allow, so they were all ‘Oh yeh” with the way the dolphins were bringing the tasty sardines up to them.

It went on for hours, so when I got out I got the camera and tried to catch some bait fish fever with the lens.

The gannets obliged my lens, it was like the Battle of Britain. But while I was shooting away, a couple of pelicans, no doubt a breeding pair, landed nearby and waddled up to check me out.

A breeding pair of pelicans land

A breeding pair of pelicans land

Looking for a bit of a fishy handout from a fisherman no doubt.

Getting a close up gander at these giant birds was beautiful. Big patient eyes and thick cassowary-berry-blue legs. The cricket umpire waddlers of the sea.

Checking me out

Checking me out

I realised I didn’t know anything about these black and white B52s of the bird family. I’d never seen a baby pelican, so when I got home I checked out the internet for where they breed.

The bird community expert I found online, Julian Reid from Australian National University, was in the field out west researching a rare parrot when I emailed but he called me when he came back to his Canberra home.

“I saw a few pelicans while I was out there,” said the bird researcher who specialises on bird communities in outback regions.

Pelicans breed during big wets (La Nina) on islands in the Channel Country of South West Queensland that are formed in the floods, he said.

The pelicans choose the islands because they are safe from dingos.

The biggest breeding colonies Dr Reid had seen were 75,000 breeding pairs.

Nobody knows how the pelicans on the coast know when it’s going to flood out there. It’s one of those incredible phenomenon how they know and how they coordinate hundreds of thousands of pelicans to fly west together.

No one knows how pelicans know the big wets are happening out west before the make the trip

No one knows how pelicans know the big wets are happening out west before the make the trip

Pelicans were rare on the coast south of Sydney until the 1974-76 La Nina when huge breeding colonies produced millions of offspring. There’s been pelicans south of Sydney ever since, Dr Reid said.

He said they breed every year and flooding events out west are rare, so pelicans also breed on near-shore islands along the coast.

Pelicans are opportunistic and smart. Like the ibis on the Gold Coast they don’t mind a bit of a dump scavenging to supplement their fish diet.

The wise old pelicans take advantage of the opportunities that people and dolphins create for them.

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