Text by Hu Berry & Photos by Hu Berry, P & M Bridgeford
A career in conservation has its punishments and rewards. Setbacks are frequent and satisfaction is scarce. Consequently, when I recently enlarged the digital image of the ring on a pelican’s leg, I felt fulfillment. It confirmed that 13 320 days previously the same bird had been the recipient of this ring when it was a chick. That translates into 36 years and six months ago. Is this a world record for pelican longevity?
My links with the Great White Pelican have ebbed and flowed. In 1971 I witnessed the first recorded mass breeding of pelicans in Etosha when several thousand pairs nested on the pan. It was an unlikely place, because the water surrounding the nests had dried up and the birds resorted to creating an air bridge by flying return trips to Lake Oponono 100 kilometres distant to carry fish to their chicks. Consequently, the Walvis Bay guano platform seemed a better choice for successful breeding and hundreds of pelicans made it their home.
One year later a cold south-westerly breeze blustered when rangers accompanied me to the platform where cormorants and pelicans were breeding. It was 30 December 1972 and our intention was to mark pelican chicks before they fledged. Being the first leg-banding of pelicans in South West Africa made us accordingly excited. A brief trip by boat took us to the man-made platform that was built 70 years ago by an enterprising German businessman who correctly predicted that he would harvest copious guano deposits.
Little did I anticipate what the future would bring as a result of our excursion. Hauling ourselves onto the wooden planking, we drew a cacophony of disturbed, nasal grunting from the beaks of a multitude of cormorants, coupled with soft mooing of perturbed pelicans. Overriding this noise was the odorous and unforgettable pungency emitted by a guano colony. The rangers’ main responsibility was to prevent mobile pelican chicks from escaping and falling into the sea, from which they could not regain the safety of the platform. These were the chicks that were sufficiently developed in growth to be ringed.
A problem faced me as I placed a ring on the left leg of a well-fed chick that was sprouting its wing-flight feathers – the bird would grow to between five and nine kilograms if it was a female and between nine and 15 kilograms if it was a male. The diameter of its leg would grow correspondingly and thus allowance had to be made to avoid fitting the ring too tightly or too loosely. It is practically not possible to sex pelican chicks at this age, so I based ring-fitting on the average, known leg diameter of the adult sexes.
We banded 30 chicks in this way and they all responded appropriately by regurgitating well-digested fish and squirting even better-digested fish over us as we held them. It took nearly two hours to complete the ringing and when we left the platform, the breeze had freshened, gusting in from the south-west and adding sea spray to our pelican-impregnated overalls.
Three and a half decades later our paths crossed again, when I visited one of the jetties in Walvis Bay harbour from where tourist pleasure cruises start. There, in perfect pelican plumage, was one of the 1972 chicks, confirmed by its ring number, which I could photograph and also read with binoculars. Pelican number H1024 and I were both 13 320 days older.
As I watched the bird, now in full adult plumage and apparently in superb condition, I sipped a cup of steaming coffee and pondered what the pelican and I had encountered in that time. Its presence only 12 kilometres from the place of hatching indicates that the pelican was no great traveller. However, this may be mere speculation, because pelicans are impressive flyers and cover immense distances when they soar on lifting thermals.
Had the bird joined others and migrated to breed in far-off destinations? The distances are immense, requiring superb navigation and substantial reserves of energy. On occasions I have watched V-formations of pelicans seeking rising air currents that lifted the flock upwards in a living spiral, forming a wheeling vortex of great, white bodies. Curious about the height they could reach, I followed them in a light aircraft as they soared to an altitude of 3 000 metres before peeling off and becoming white dots in the sky and disappearing from view.
Shortly after placing the ring on the pelican as a chick I had moved to Etosha for 15 years, trading birds for mammals as study subjects. Wildebeest and lions loomed largely in my life then, but occasionally, from the dusty plains, I would watch pelicans ascending into the sky on wings spanning three metres as they rode the hot thermals over the Etosha Pan.
Was this pelican amongst them or had it remained close to the comfort of its hatching place? Transferring from Etosha, I spent a further 15 years in the remoteness of the Namib Desert. How often had this bird cruised overhead as it covered the vastness on its flight to a far-off place? Was it then headed for the safety of islands in Hardap Dam to nest, or was its target the saline Etosha Pan? Perhaps it had set course for neighbouring Botswana’s remote Sua Pan. Perhaps my imagination was flying too far for the bearer of ring H1024 – possibly its long life was spent merely shuttling back and forth between the guano platform and the assured food source offered by the pleasure boats as they carried tourists on a fun-filled cruise in the bay.
Whatever the pelican’s past, I felt admiration for its ability to survive this long in the harsh conditions that characterise the coast. I also reminded myself of the narrator RG Ingersoll’s observation in the 19th century that “In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” I approached the bird for another photo. We faced each other again after a lifetime apart… and a fresh south-westerly breeze gusted in across the sea, just as it had done on the guano platform more than 36 years ago. It confirmed that whilst much has changed, some things remain the same.
This article was originally published in the Flamingo August 2009 publication.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.