A new breeding site for Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican: Lake Kerkini, Greece (photo: Theodoros Naziridis).

Lake Kerkini, situated in the centre of the northernmost reaches of Greece, is an amazingly fertile lake that produces huge numbers of mostly cyprinid fish. These fish, naturally enough, attract piscivorous birds, and the lake is normally blessed with large numbers of Cormorants, both Pygmy and Great, as well as both of Europe's Pelicans. These two, visually very different, birds often fish together and the sight of a feeding flock of thousands of milling black Cormorants interspersed with hundreds of large pelicans is one of the most astounding experiences to be had at the lake.

The fishing at Lake Kerkini is so good that pelicans actually fly all the way from the Prespa Lakes far to the west in order to feed. Then, having filled their bellies, they fly back to Prespa, a flight taking them 24 hours each way. However, Lake Kerkini has plenty of its own Pelicans as well.

Both species of pelicans frequent the lake. However, the more widely distributed White Pelican, so magnificent in its apricot pastel shades, is more variable in its numbers and is usually more numerous in the spring and autumn migrations when as many as 1,500 individuals may be present on the lake. Birds can also be found during summer, but they are normally few and far between in winter, when often only a few juveniles can be found.

Most of the pelicans of the lake are usually Dalmatian Pelicans, scruffier and less majestic in their colouration; the Dalmatian Pelicans also differ from the Whites in that they can be found all around the lake. Like the Whites they do aggregate into large flocks, but they also like to spread out and single birds, or small dispersed groups, are common.

The Dalmatian Pelican is an endangered species with a limited distribution and a world breeding population estimated at about 2,500 pairs in 1994. Roughly speaking its breeding range runs in a northeasterly ellipse from northwestern Greece (Prespa Lakes) to a little north of the western edge of the Caspian Sea. Within this area the breeding colonies are few and far between, and now mostly quite small, although more than a third of the recorded pairs are now breeding at the Prespa Lakes. The overwintering range is more southerly and includes Egypt and Turkey.

The Dalmatian Pelican has suffered a continual decline in both the size and the number of its breeding colonies over the last few hundred years. This reduction has largely been the observable result of human interference, both in terms of habitat destruction, wetland drainage, and disturbance (by fishermen) of breeding birds. Given the Red Data book status of this species, and its obvious enjoyment of the facilities at Lake Kerkini, it was inevitable that the possibility of getting it to breed there should be on the minds of the staff at the lake. The lake is a National Nature Reserve and has a Management Authority with a small body of dedicated staff.

Dalmatian Pelican: Lake Kerkini, Greece (photo: Theodoros Naziridis).

Dalmatian Pelicans normally only breed on islands. However, the finances necessary for the construction of an island within the lake were not viable, and it was decided in 2002 to construct a wooden platform, near the cormorant breeding colony, that would act as a small island and allow us to test the hypothesis that Dalmatian Pelicans would breed at the lake if they had the opportunity. In doing this, the Management Authority of the lake worked in collaboration the Biological Station 'Tour duck Valat' France, who are also the people behind the Pelican ringing that has been done here.

In August 2002 a small platform was built with money and volunteers from WWF, and in the spring of 2003 seven pairs of Pelicans nested. They produced at least two young; however, disturbance resulted in the death of both the young birds.

Despite the loss of the young the experiment was an obvious success and in the August 2003 with more money and volunteers from WWF, and other volunteers from Finland and England, the platform was enlarged. This made it three times its original size, and a second platform was built and the wooden surfaces of both platforms were lined with cut stems of Giant Reed (Arundo donax). Furthermore time was spent educating the local people, especially the fishermen, in the importance of giving the birds an undisturbed habitat during the breeding season, and buoys were set out to delineate a no-entry zone around the platforms.

This effort was a wonderful success and in 2004 about 20 pairs bred on the two platforms, successfully fledging more than 20 young, most of which were ringed. Then in 2005 the success rate more than doubled with over 50 nests and more than 55 successfully fledged and ringed young. Most nests produce a single young only; however, a few do produce two and the average success rate is more than one young per nest.

Dalmatian Pelican: Lake Kerkini, Greece (photo: Theodoros Naziridis).

Naturally enough, this success, the first recorded expansion in the breeding range of the Dalmatian Pelican in more than 150 years, has been the cause of both elation and serious thought amongst those who work with the lake. It is our great hope that in the future we will be able to find the money to construct a rock-based island between, and to replace, the current platforms, which will inevitably corrode and collapse in a few years. It is our plan that this island should offer a much larger surface area for the Pelicans to breed on than the two current platforms can offer. In this way our small beginning may grow into a good-sized population of regularly breeding birds. We have the will, and the lake has plenty of fish, so now we need only to find the necessary finances.

Dalmatian Pelican: Lake Kerkini, Greece (photo: Theodoros Naziridis).
There are plenty of opportunities for volunteers to help out with the project at the site and there are still vacancies for volunteers at the lake next year. If you would be interested in finding out more, visit http://www.lake-kerkini.earthlife.net/volunteer.html.
Written by: Gordon Ramel