Charming Red-necked Avocet in Lake Eyre from the shores of Halligan Bay

Charming Red-necked Avocet in Lake Eyre from the shores of Halligan Bay

May-July 2011

Lake Eyre photo assignment from GEO magazine got us quickly driving 3,000 km to the heart of South Australia to meet German writer Markus Wolff in Roxby Downs. Markus was flying in from Hamburg with many connecting flights to reach Adelaide and we were driving straight from Far North Queensland with all of us heading to Roxby Downs by 4WD. A mining town in northern South Australia, the Roxby Downs mine owned by BHP Billiton produces copper, uranium, silver and gold. This town was surreal. After passing many rural rustic towns, Roxby Downs gave us a shock looking shiny new, like it could be in any big city town! This meeting place was our gateway to William Creek which is closest to Lake Eyre.

With the flooding of Lake Eyre for the third consecutive year, everybody seemed headed for William Creek – permanent population of 6 people plus a dog. Oodnadatta Track is the looooong corrugated gravel road that everyone had to pass to reach William Creek. Beside the Old Ghan railway with wooden sleepers and massive rusted nails littered all over the place, the Oodnadatta Track is part of the trilogy of unsealed tourist routes along with the famous Birdsville Track and the less famous Strzelecki Tracks. We travelled ALL these roads to find our magical creatures.

With Yogi driving 80km/hour, we were eating everybody’s dust – every vehicle seemed to have super strong suspension and they zoomed past us like they were in an autobahn. But we were not rushing this. We wanted to savour every minute and every opportunity, being this far away from home at the heart of the Australian Outback.

In freezing Halligan Bay of Lake Eyre

In freezing Halligan Bay of Lake Eyre

Stella cooking lunch for Markus & Yogi in the middle of nowhere along the Oodnadata Track.

Stella cooking lunch for Markus & Yogi in the middle of nowhere along the Oodnadata Track.

William Creek handmade sign indicating the different towns and cities. William Creek now has a population of 3 - Trevor Wright (who practically owns the whole town) and the pub owners Bruce Ross & Mim Ward.) William Creek is along the Oodnadatta Track nearest Lake Eyre, South Australia

William Creek handmade sign indicating the different Australian towns and cities. This must be an old sign with population of 2. The town has grown to a permanent population of 6 now!

Our first activity after getting our campsite nicely setup and cozy, was to take a 2 day aerial flight to see what the flooding looked like from the air, and to look for pelicans. With water from Queensland seeping into the normally dry outback country, the pelicans found rich waterways and feeding grounds. How they know where water in the middle of Australia is is a marvel of nature and we can imagine the scouts flying way high in the air and seeing it all happen. Once they reached the fertile watering holes, the pelicans kept breeding for three consecutive years, stopping only when the food finally ran out and those who stayed behind starved to death.

We flew on a Cessna with pilot Trevor Wright of Wrightsair going from William Creek, South Australia to Boulia, Queensland, to Coongie Lakes near the New South Wales border and back around again to William Creek – flying over five different types of amazing deserts. Trevor was telling us the normally red and barren sand dunes were now covered with green vegetation – something he had not seen in the 20 years as a pilot in the outback!

When we didn’t see many pelicans in the 2009/2010 breeding ground of Lake Machattie, Trevor had a hunch the pelicans were in Coongie Lakes near Cooper Creek. Our eyes were glued to the windows, anticipating to see a natural phenomenon. Pelicans breeding in this massive scale is quite a rare occurrence. How lucky are we to see this?! And it was magnificent. There were three islands chock-a-block filled with pelican adults and babies. For Yogi to get his shots of the pelicans, Trevor circled the islands at a safe distance.

Witnessing the dramatic changes happening in the outback from 2009 to 2011 through his flight company Wrightsair, Trevor singlehandedly brought Lake Eyre to the attention of the local, national and international media which led to thousands of visitors making a pilgrimage to Lake Eyre – us included.

Australian Pelican breeding colonies on the islands of Lake Goyder within Coongie Lakes National Park.

Australian Pelican breeding colonies on the islands of Lake Goyder within Coongie Lakes National Park.

Trevor Wright, our pilot and owner of WrightsAir with a fleet of 15 planes based in William Creek nearest to Lake Eyre.

Trevor Wright, our pilot and owner of WrightsAir with a fleet of 15 planes based in William Creek nearest to Lake Eyre.

Insane pelican breeding real estate!

Insane pelican breeding real estate!

At another lake, Yogi who just kept shooting saw image details later on in the picture. One gem is this image below – nesting cormorants and darters with eggs in their nests on treetops totally flooded in! Unbelievable!

Nesting cormorants and darters or anhinga with eggs in their nests in Lake Machattie.

Nesting cormorants and darters or anhinga with eggs in their nests in Lake Machattie.

After photographing the pelican colonies from the air, we were obsessed to find them on ground level. We met travellers who said they saw pelicans in the gazillions. When we gave them the look of disbelief, they scrambled to show us their happy snappys as proof! Ooooh but this meant we had to make a 1,000 km detour, one-way through the Strzlecki Track! The Birdsville Track just had to wait. In retrospect, this detour turned out to be the best, most wonderful experience I have ever had.

Australian pelicans along with little black cormorants feed along Cooper Creek

Australian pelicans along with little black cormorants feed along Cooper Creek

So off we went to the Cooper Creek in Innamincka via the Strzlecki Track. In the national park camp ground beside the river, we saw the birds. At first we saw a few pelicans, cormorants, herons and egrets and kinda freaked out that we were too late! It wasn’t the same as what we saw in the happy snappys. So we camped for 10 days and everyday, we were rewarded for our patience when hundreds of pelicans and cormorants flew up and down the river – nonstop. We were in heaven.

Australian Pelicans fly the skies along the Cooper Creek

Australian Pelicans fly the skies along the Cooper Creek

The young pelicans practiced flying with their parents. They flew high and always in beautiful formation. Looking so graceful up in the air, the pelicans had the best comical landing ever!

Australian Pelican landing along the Cooper Creek

Australian Pelican landing along the Cooper Creek

Every morning after sunrise, a mass frenzy of feeding would happen. The cormorants dived effortlessly to catch fish while the pelican bullies waited for the little black birds to surface, then chase and steal the cormorant’s hard earned catch. This went on and on and one day, Yogi had this bright idea to pitch our extra tent (doubling as bird hide) to be closer to the aggregation, hoping the birds would not see us. The ground was a little inclined and all nightlong, it was hell to sleep. I was mandated to keep totally quiet and yet I kept slipping all the time! Needless to say it was not one of my best nights! But we got close to the feeding frenzy – so a little sacrifice goes a long way giving us great rewards and unforgettable experiences.

Little black cormorant flying away from other birds trying to steal his fish.

Little black cormorant flying away from other birds trying to steal his fish.

Australian Pelican  trying to swallow its newly caught fish.

Australian Pelican trying to swallow its newly caught fish.

After the 10th night, we finally had to leave. It was a sad day when we bid goodbye to our fellow campers and to leave Innamincka, back on the unsealed Strzlecki Track on our way to Birdsville. To show how one track mind Yogi was, I wasn’t able to convince him to do a super short detour to visit the famous Dig Tree of the ill fated Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860-61 .

For much more pictures of birds and Lake Eyre Basin, please visit our website gallery.

 

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