There was a breeding and feeding frenzy going on in Australia. A rare flood triggered an explosion of life in the barren Red Centre — and attracted water birds from hundreds of miles away, including droves of pelicans thick as clouds.
It’s one of the continent’s great natural wonders. About once per decade, enough rain fills Queensland to send floodwaters southward hundreds of miles — right across a Conservancy-protected preserve called Kalamurina — all the way to Lake Eyre. This 3,740-square-mile salt-encrusted basin sits nearly empty for years — a vast blinding-white plain, dotted with a few small pools.
Then the flood comes and everything changes in a flash.
If you’re in place at the right time, you can actually watch glittering water flow in a mini-wave into bone-dry creek beds. Television crews rush to set up cameras and catch the sight. Australia becomes rapt; waiting to see if there’s enough water to fill the lake to the brim, something that’s only happened three times in the past century.
This flood is the best since 2000. Flushes of green are springing up along the shimmering lake and rivers. Fish that surfed in with the floodwaters and the few that eked out survival in the basin’s isolated pools are multiplying at almost magical speed. Brine shrimp eggs tucked in the dry earth have popped to life.
And all that food lures birds. Tens of thousands of silver gulls, banded stilts, gull billed terns, cormorants, black swans and others have descended upon Lake Eyre — flapping, wading, dipping their bills to snap up yellowbelly fish, golden perch, and Lake Eyre hardyhead. Not only do they feast; they breed. If the water lasts long enough and the fish supplies hold out, a staggering number of baby birds — including bald, pink pelican chicks — will fledge here in coming weeks.
Scientists don’t yet know what signals the birds to come, how they know the basin has flooded and the fish are spawning. The pelicans feeding and breeding at Lake Eyre traveled at least 200 miles from the nearest coastline down south.
The party doesn’t last long. Soon the water will evaporate, fish and brine will die off, and the birds will leave, hopefully with fledglings in tow.
Because The Nature Conservancy teamed up with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Australian government last year to purchase the 1.7-million-acre property that sits on Lake Eyre’s doorstep, when the floods come again the precious ribbons of water will move across healthy land.
To our supporters who made this and all of our successes possible, please take a moment to marvel at the wondrous things you help protect.
Misty Herrin is an associate director for The Nature Conservancy.April 11, 2012