The Spirit of the Wetlands

“For more than two decades now I’ve lived alongside the pelicans of the Prespa lakes in northern Greece. These birds are—for so many, residents and visitors alike—simply an astonishing and seamless part of being here. There is no Prespa without pelicans. In summer, the skies brighten with their flights, as hundreds of birds, their wingspans as great as three and a half meters when fully extended, catch warm thermals generated by the earth, tracing rising circles into the endless blue above. Or they’ll skim so close to the lake that they’re doubled as if in a mirror, held there by a phenomenon known as ground effect, when an invisible cushion is created by air flowing into the space between a bird’s wings and the surface of the water. Even when you know the science behind what holds them in place, the sheer poetry of the motion feels like they’re suspended solely by a spell.”

The above paragraph is an excerpt from a new essay of mine on Prespa’s pelicans published this week. Until earlier this year, the colony of Dalmatian pelicans on Lesser Prespa Lake in northern Greece was the largest on Earth, numbering some 1,400 pairs. But in late winter and early spring, avian influenza spread through the wetland and their nesting islands with frightening speed, killing large numbers of these rare and remarkable birds, as a wave of viral outbreaks have decimated other wild bird populations elsewhere in the northern hemisphere. Living this close to the lakes, the presence of pelicans will never fail to stir me – and seeing so few of them around Prespa this year was a poignant reminder of just how much we have to lose in this world.

I’m deeply grateful to Emergence Magazine for giving me the opportunity to tell the story of Prespa’s pelicans and avian influenza in an essay called The Spirit of the Wetlands, in which I also explore the enormous capacity we have for transforming our cultures and the wider implications and possibilities for health when we see ourselves as inseperable from the natural world, given that highly pathogenic avian influenza is directly traceable to human food production systems.

With immense thanks to the conservationists, avian influenza specialists and local fishermen who shared their knowledge and perspectives with me, helping me understand how everything in this world is interconnected. The full essay is freely available to be read online or listened to in a podcast version here or via the links above. Dalmatian pelican images in this post are courtesy of the Society for the Protection of Prespa and photographer Francisco Márquez.

4 thoughts on “The Spirit of the Wetlands

  1. This, and the article you have linked here, is both thought-provoking and shocking. We briefly met you in May when we were part of one of Mark Cocker’s groups exploring Lake Prespa. What we learnt then about avian flu and its effects was shocking enough, but it seems it has got worse. Fighting such powerful viruses seems to have become a new battleground in a difficult world.

    1. Hello Margaret – I remember meeting you here in Prespa very well! Thanks for this thoughtful comment. It’s been truly shocking watching the collapse of the Dalmatian pelican colony up close, and to see how widespread and devastating this year’s avian influenza outbreaks have been. It’s going to require a wide spectrum approach to even begin to respond to. I hope you and yours are keeping well, and that our paths cross again some day. Best wishes from here – Julian

  2. Hi Julian

    Very distressing to read of this further impact of avian flu.

    I hope you are keeping well, despite the avalanche of bad news?

    Warmest good wishes


    Paddy Woodworth Research Associate, Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis. Adjunct Senior Lecturer, School of Languages and Literatures, University College, Dublin. Author, journalist, lecturer, cultural/environmental tour guide.

    +353 (0)86 8120842 22 Manor Place

    StoneybatterDublin 7Ireland

    EIRCODE D07 X7H2

    1. Hi Paddy – really good to hear from you, and hope all is well with you and yours. Yes, it’s been a difficult breeding season in the wetlands. But inspiring, too, how communities can work together to make a difference. All fingers now crossed for the Dalmatian pelicans that will begin arriving in January to nest. Warmest wishes from here – Julian

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