Using solar backpacks, researchers track Coorong pelicans made famous by Storm Boy

GPS trackers have been fitted to the Coorong’s iconic pelican colony to better understand their movements and inform future decision-making around the internationally protected wetland.

The Ramsar-listed Coorong suffered serious environmental degradation during the millennium drought but continues to support a delicate ecosystem of flora and fauna.

No species is more synonymous with the Coorong than the pelican, following the success of the 1964 Storm Boy novel and subsequent films.

Over the past year, 16 pelicans have been monitored by researchers from the University of Adelaide’s Goyder Institute for Water Research, with backpack-style, solar-powered GPS trackers.

All data will be provided to the SA government to inform its environmental status management in the region.

“Understanding how these birds use the Coorong and where they travel in and amongst surrounding landscapes is really important,” said the Goyder Institute’s Alec Rolston.

“We want to know what types of habitats the pelicans actually use so we can ensure there’s more of those habitats available into the future,” added researcher Rowan Mott.

Pelican pods fly north for food
North Pelican Island, located in the Coorong’s South Lagoon, was home to 1,800 pairs of breeding pelicans last year.

While research findings are still being collated, early data reveals breeding pelicans regularly fly to the Coorong’s North Lagoon to forage, despite living in the south.

“The range of salinity values in the South Lagoon is too high for many of the key prey species the pelicans forage on,” Dr Mott said.

“The breeding birds have to fly regularly up to the North to find enough food to bring back to their chicks back in the colony.”

Early tracking data also shows that non-breeding pelicans are more likely to travel much further around the wetland and its surrounding areas than those that are breeding.

The North Lagoon, Murray Mouth estuary and parts of Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert were all found to be locations the pelicans frequented.

“Some pelicans have travelled up the Murray since we’ve been tracking them,” Dr Mott said.

“One bird even left the Coorong in January, made it north, all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria, then decided to turn back around, staying near Birdsville for a few months, before returning to the Coorong last month.

“It was probably driven by higher rainfall in Central Australia recently, but it’s too early to tell exactly how important those [inland] wetlands are and whether they’re consistently used by pelicans every time they have water in them.”

Dr Mott says he and his research partner, Thomas Prowse hope the solar-powered trackers will last another 12 months on the pelicans to provide a more detailed picture of habitats of importance.