Eurobodalla Encounters, Pt III: The Price of a Free Lunch

Many Australians take beach holidays between Christmas and New Years’. My Laddie and I, preferring to beat the crowds, took our coastal trip in late November instead. If you’re an Aussie prudently forgoing holiday travel during the latest COVID outbreak, or a Northern Hemisphere reader seeking a little sea and sunshine to brighten dark solstice days, enjoy some vicarious adventures with me in this series on wildlife encounters in the Eurobodalla region.

After our spectacular jaunt to the Barunguba tern colony, my Laddie and I returned to explore the seaside hamlet of Narooma. We wandered along the waterfront trail, dotted with informative signs about the area’s history and ecology, and ventured out to Glasshouse Rocks. Digital maps failed us there, but fortunately we encountered an amiable Aussie couple in the parking area nearby, who showed us the path: through the bush, down a steep track, and onto a stunning subtropical beach that felt almost secret.

On the way back, we stopped at the wharf from whence our boat had departed the previous day. Enormous pelicans stood on a narrow strip of sand below the sidewalk. Excited, I crept closer. I’d seen them around Canberra, but had never managed a good photo. I usually spotted them on the lake at dawn when I was running and didn’t have my camera, or circling overhead like feathery seaplanes. These were so close I could have touched them. And for a concerned moment I thought I that might be necessary, as two of the pelicans seemed to have objects lodged in their throat pouches. Closer investigation revealed fish tails so large that the birds could barely cram the food down their gullets!

You’ve got a little something on your face there, mate…

Splashes nearby identified the source of this seafood cornucopia. Further down the wharf, a fisherman cleaning his catch tossed scraps to an eager entourage of birds. Gulls danced around the table, heedless of the knife. Seagulls, pelicans, and cormorants jostled on the current in front of him like groupies around a stage.

Every flying fishbone triggered an explosion of wings and water. Whatever lucky bird seized the morsel immediately became the target in a frenzied game of keep-away. Smaller species enjoyed the agility to escape with prizes, but pelicans definitely had the advantage of volume. They gulped down slabs larger than some of their competitors’ entire bodies. While Barunguba’s beleaguered tern parents hustle to deliver meals, these clever beach bums feasted on leftovers.

The wildly entertaining spectacle held a dark irony: a 2018 study published in the journal Current Biology found that human fishing activity contributed to a 70% decline in seabird populations between 1950-2010. Just a few decades from now, there may be no boisterous avian diners at Narooma’s wharf. A free lunch seems like a paltry concession for the destruction of global marine ecosystems, but the birds certainly didn’t turn up their beaks at it. They probably had hungry chicks waiting for a tasty dinner of regurgitated fish sticks! Survival is the best sauce.

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