Meet Wendy Gillespie: the woman behind Fishermen’s Wharf Pelican Appreciation Sessions
One woman with a kayak and a rescue van is surveying the health and welfare of pelicans around Woy Woy and the greater Peninsula.
Before you notice Wendy Gillespie, you’ll notice the pelicans. Each afternoon you’re likely to see anywhere between 40 and 70 towering white birds, snacking on whole fish, fish frames and off-cuts at the side of WWFW. And while the birds are amazing – seriously amazing, right? – the woman looking after them is even more so.
Gillespie has spent the last 20 years working for the conservation of aquatic birds, and particularly pelicans, which are at high risk of injury from recreational fishing. Bump into her at the Wharf, and she’ll be the first to tell you that they choose a partner each time they nest; that the four species of large pelicans are known to live to 60 years; and that at just six weeks they’ll join a peer group of other young birds in order to learn life skills including how to fish. “They’re incredibly iconic, beautiful birds,” says Gillespie. “I had to play an active role in their welfare and conservation.”
Gillespie arrived on the Central Coast eight years ago to commence postgraduate research on the impact humans have on pelicans, particularly through recreational fishing damage. Most recently, however, her efforts have been directed towards the damage caused by a local storm water drain, which has been significantly impacting pelicans’ health in the area. “When I first arrived up to 200 pelicans were impacted in the local area per year,” says Gillespie. “Gosford Council’s remediation measures on the drain have resulted in fewer birds being impacted annually.”
If you’re visiting WWFW, chances are you’ve visited the pelis, too. For the past 46 years, pelicans have been fed at the Wharf, with an average of 50 large pelicans snacking on fish at the daily Feed. On Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm, Gillespie conducts a “pelican injury and health check” of up to 70 birds, and shares many local rescue cases and conservation tips in an interactive Pelican Appreciation Session.
While the session is certainly a must-do – it’s also worth noting that most of Gillespie’s self-funded work is done behind-the-scenes. “When people come to the Wharf, rarely will anyone see a bird in distress,” she says. “It’s when I’m surveying the waters from my kayak at known pelican gathering spots that I discover the majority of the sick and injured birds.”
“Wendy really fights for people to pay attention to what’s happening to pelicans,” says our manager, Sam Clayton. “People think of them as these wild creatures that look after themselves. But they get sick and injured so easily.”
So what can we do to help? Firstly, keep dogs on leashes when pelicans are around, don’t let your children chase them, and if you’re going to feed them, make sure it’s whole smaller fish, such as mullet, rather than human food.
Another obvious, yet major one, is don’t litter: balloons, ribbons, and broken fishing rods are all common entanglement hazards for the birds. Sadly, too, a massive 95 per cent of the pelicans Gillespie comes across are impacted by fishing line and other gear such as lures. “If a bird gets entangled or takes a lure, don’t just cut it off,” she says. “Use environmentally friendly fishing gear such as barbless hooks, avoid braided fishing line, and use biodegradable bait bags at all times. Often birds swallow tackle so you should call me and I can rendezvous with you.”
Along with her full-time rescue activities and the Pelican Appreciation Sessions, Gillespie’s current research includes the recreational impacts on the birds in a tourist environment, monitoring tagged birds following an oil spill, breeding patterns, and measuring 60 birds for a national gender database. “Every time I rescue a bird from starvation or entanglement, I know I’m keeping these beautiful creatures on the Peninsula.”
A huge thank you to Wendy from us at WWFW for keeping our pelicans healthy in the wild.
Wendy is at The Wharf on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm to undertake the pelican health check and host her “interactive” Pelican Appreciation Sessions. If you’re interested in learning more about pelicans and can’t make the weekends, you can contact Wendy for a group session at another time. A donation is requested towards her bird rescue service. Also if you see an entangled or sick waterbird in the Peninsula area, please report it to Wendy Gillespie. Her contact details are 0458 975 498 and firstname.lastname@example.org.