Posted Monday, June 20, 2016 at 2:32pm by Andrej Vizi
Dalmatian pelicans at Skadar Lake between blossom and decay Andrej Vizi, ornithologist Natural History Museum of Montenegro
Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus Crispus) is the largest freshwater bird in the world. Curiously, it is found in one of the world’s smallest countries, Montenegro, with the oldest record occurring in the 19th century. Although they are completely dependent on fish, these birds can’t dive; their size/weight ratio keeps them afloat. Thus, they choose shallow lakes and sea lagoons, where they can hunt and build dense colonies, using whatever substrate they can find. On Skadar Lake, they breed on the small peat islands, formed by compacting of swamp vegetation, in the pristine surrounding of flooded willows, reedbeds, and floating water lilies. There are also the cormorants in the neighborhood, which are known to help pelicans with fishing: cormorants are excellent divers, and by doing so, they scare the fish from the bottom up to the pelicans. That being said, it becomes clear that pelicans represent the indicator of a healthy ecosystem with preserved links between different species. So, the pelicans at Skadar Lake really seem to have an idyllic life condition.
However, that’s not entirely true: the nature itself can be harsh on the pelicans, as well as the humans, deliberately or not. The peat island they breed on are unstable; strong winds that occur on the lake can rip them apart, and the heavy rain can sink them altogether with nests, incubating eggs and small chicks. We saw that happen many times. After such disaster, pelicans don’t give up - they start all over and lay another brood, which is usually weaker than the first one, meaning that less chicks survive. Another menace that lurks in the wild are hooded crows and magpies: within seconds after the pelicans leave their nests unattended, they flee to the colony and pluck the eggs and naked chicks. Sometimes, the cold weather or rain is enough to destroy the exposed eggs. Pelicans do not normally leave their nests while incubating, except when scared, and when they stir, they stomp their own eggs before flying off in panic.
The pelicans’ relationship with humans at Skadar Lake is complex: ecologically speaking, they compete for the same resource with the fishermen. But, historically, their colony had existed here and still exists for almost two centuries, telling us that the coexistence with fishermen can be sustained. However, there were interruptions in pelicans’ presence at Skadar Lake: they coincided with the dramatic socio-economic situation in Montenegro after the breakdown of Yugoslavian federation during the 1990’s. The old smuggling routes across Skadar Lake were revived, and some of them lead straight through the pelicans’ breeding area. But this time it was not a traditional “quiet” transport with small wooden boats: the area was infested with large and noisy speed boats and barges. Moreover, the poaching of fish and birds reached it’s zenith within the disintegrating nature protection system: in such conditions, shy and vulnerable pelicans almost completely abandoned breeding at Skadar Lake.
In the search for pelicans’ colony. Photo: I. Stojović, 2002.
Today, we have an encouraging development of pelicans’ population at Skadar Lake. The research and monitoring of pelicans, conducted by the Natural History Museum after 2000 revealed that pelicans have started returning to their former breeding ground. But it also showed that their survival is highly conservation dependent. Luckily, we already had the main culprits identified: the security of breeding ground and the disturbance of the colony during incubation. It took another 14 years and several attempts to induce the pelicans onto artificial floating platforms, which they use today. As a result, in 2014 we had the most successful brood ever recorded at Skadar Lake! These platforms showed their value also in the winter of 2016, when they endured the bad weather and preserved the nests, which would otherwise certainly be destroyed. The breeding is still taking place right now, although the platforms sustained damage and need to be replace
Pelicans breeding on the floating platforms after the storm. Photo: A. Vizi, 2016.
Regarding the disturbance issue, an important conservation achievement was made by the National Park Skadar Lake rangers, which now regularly guard the colony. But what is maybe the most important is that local communities started to recognize the pelicans as an asset and not a nuisance. With a fast developing eco-tourism industry at Skadar Lake, the pelicans become even more important icon. There is no match for encountering the huge pelicans in the primordial Skadar Lake swamp, swarming with wildlife, while slowly and quietly moving through concealed fishermen trails.
Driving along the swamp trail. Photo: A. Vizi, 2014.
However, this ideal is still far away: the pelican population is still very sensitive and the research and conservation efforts still depend on very limited institutional budget. We have just managed to stop the population loss, but now they only breed at a single man-made location. Further restoration and the security of population is essential. Conservation measures can only be tailored and the success recognized according to the scientific monitoring, which includes all previously known pelican breeding locations in Montenegro. Only then, the sustainable birdwatching and the inclusion of local community will be a reality.
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