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The Australian Pelican is a familiar sight in the wetlands of Kakadu.
Photo: Chris Johnson

October 8, 2001
The Australian Pelican
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from Kakadu National Park.

As we headed out of the park this morning on the Arnhem Highway toward Darwin harbour and the Odyssey, we couldn't help but pull over at every roadside lookout and wetland observatory along the way in the vain hope of prolonging our inevitable departure from this wildlife haven.

The Northern Territory is now rapidly approaching the conclusion of the dry season, which means that the wetlands of Kakadu are continually shrinking in size. Crocodiles and waterbirds seek refuge in the remaining permanent wet areas, where they congregate in their thousands to compete for diminishing food resources. The sight of thousands of magpie geese, pelicans and other waterfowl assembling on the wetlands, form a breathtaking wildlife panorama. It would be fair to say that this is one of the most magnificent spectacles that we have seen on our voyage so far.

During the peak of the wet season, 2,700 square kilometres of the park are completely submerged, awarding this area further recognition and protection on the world environmental stage, listing the area as wetlands of international importance under the Wetlands (Ramsar) Convention.

One species among many we have observed in Kakadu who take advantage of this unique habitat are large groups of Australian Pelicans. The Australian Pelican is considerably larger than its northern brown cousin and occurs throughout the continent wherever it has easy access to large bodies of both salt and freshwater.

This clumsy, predominantly white bird is almost humorous when on the ground, where it can stand at an impressive six feet tall. However, when airborne, the grace and beauty of this impressive bird cannot be surpassed. On the Odyssey, there have been several occasions when we have watched these birds soaring high on the warm thermal currents above the mast, gliding by in striking 'v' formation like aerial bombers.

Two Australian Pelicans.
Photo: Chris Johnson

With enormous bills up to eighteen inches in length, these master divers plummet from the sky and into the waters around us, scooping up fish in their bill pouch, along with litres of water, which must be drained.

These birds have learned to hold their breath upon entry and have come up with a unique method of surfacing quickly before running out of air. Pelicans are one of several species that have solved this resurfacing problem caused by their excess weight of the water, by evolving inflatable air sacs under the skin. These air sacs serve a duel purpose, they make the birds more buoyant, as well as absorbing much of the shock of impact when plunging several meters from the sky.

Somehow it seemed fitting to spend the end of our trip observing this remarkable bounty of bird life in the wetlands of Kakadu. A World Heritage Area of priceless international significance whose name is taken from the Aboriginal floodplain language called Gagudju. This was one of the languages spoken in the park up until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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