Back home in Prespa pelicans are huddling on their nests. From dawn till dusk they criss-cross between the lakes, flying from their fishing waters on the large lake to their breeding grounds on the smaller. Prespa is home to both of Europe’s pelican species, the white and the Dalmatian, and is one of the few places where the two breed alongside one another.
Nesting communally on reed islands, the Prespa population of around 1200 pairs of Dalmatian pelicans is the largest congregation of their kind in the world, making up between 7 to 10 percent of the species’ international numbers. While they began arriving in mid-winter, the white pelicans have only just returned, having made a long migratory journey from Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the Balkans via the Bosphorus. The 500 or so pairs that nest in Prespa are of European significance. The surge in pelican numbers over the last two decades has been a major success story for the Society for the Protection of Prespa, the NGO working to preserve the natural heritage of the region. The pelicans have become the essence of the lakes in summer, rising up from the glimmering waters or coasting overhead on still wings. No matter how often I see them, they continue to amaze me with their grace.
As of this morning oil from the Gulf of Mexico disaster has reached the outer islands of Louisiana. For 18 days straight, since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig 80 km of the coast, oil has poured from the offshore well. Despite the promises of BP, and the slim hope placed in protective booms and a giant underwater funnel lowered over the well, there is little that can be done for the habitats, wildlife, fishing grounds, delicate ecosystems and livelihoods already being affected by the scale of the disaster. The first birds, pelicans and gannets, are coming ashore coated in oil, but more will steadily follow. The unmitigated environmental and economic catastrophe came only weeks after President Obama, to the dismay of many within his own party, pledged to increase the amount of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The irony, however, was probably lost on the pelicans; they have a troubled history of their own in Louisiana waters.
The brown pelican nested in large numbers on the coast and barrier islands of the southern US state until the 1950s and 60s. Over the course of a decade the number of birds plummeted dramatically, and by 1963 the brown pelican was extinct throughout Louisiana. The cause of the loss was eventually traced to DDT. Used with enthusiasm mid-century throughout the American heartland, the agricultural pesticide made its way to the Louisiana coast in the bodies of small fish after draining into the Mississippi River. The DDT slowly accumulated in the tissues of the pelicans while they fed on the fish in the coastal lagoons until the chemical eventually reduced the hardness of the bird’s eggshells. Each nesting season the brown pelican unintentionally crushed its offspring until the species no longer existed in its native waters.
A change in the pelican’s fortune came with the banning of DDT in the 1970s, a restocking programme and the restoration of habitat on the barrier islands where they bred. Until now the return of the brown pelican has been a story of successful intervention after the great loss effected by human activity. The bird breeds in healthy numbers along the rich, coastal wetlands and outer islands. But, coming at the height of the nesting season, the Gulf of Mexico spill could alter that patient process of restitution. Whether the images of dead pelicans or the devastation of oyster beds and unemployed fishermen will have an impact on the decision to increase offshore drilling is another matter. The relationship we have to place, humans and non-humans alike, is easily disturbed. And the disturbance inevitably results in loss.
Driving home yesterday along the isthmus that divides the two lakes, I watched pelicans grappling with the air. A fierce spring wind had galed over the lakes all day, tufting the waves with white crests. The willows along the water’s edge were curved back like taut bows and lengths of reed were being launched through the air. The pelicans were returning from a day of fishing the big lake, steering into the wild wind in order to cross back to their islands of reed nests. But the wind kept them adrift. They hung suspended in the air, held in place through elemental tension, the opposing push of wind and wing. Their feathers flayed down, lifted, and came down again, but the birds stayed in place. It seemed that nothing would come of their immense struggle, that they would eventually tire and slip away. But knowledge of the nesting ground is magnetic; they wouldn’t easily be dissuaded from home. They held their ground, balanced precariously in mid-air, until a sudden shift in the currents gave them purchase again. Their wings rose and fell, and the pelicans pressed forward. A slight shift in the nature of things had sent them on their way, arrowing towards home.