On being directed to Gate 1 my suspicions were immediately aroused. In all the years I'd flown out of Brisbane, from either its domestic or international terminal, no one had ever ushered me across to Gate 1. Indeed, I'd never departed from anywhere by a gate with a single digit numeral. Having to walk to the far end of the passenger concourse and descend a flight of stairs into the bowels of the complex did nothing to allay a growing sense of foreboding.
The small departure lounge tucked away in a seemingly forgotten corner of the airport had shades of Hervey Bay and the flight out to Lady Elliot Island about it. Those are dark memories buried deep in the dankest recesses of my paranoia: bathroom scales to weigh both passengers and baggage... an unescorted stroll across the open bitumen with the obligatory "safety" talk delivered on the runway prior to boarding an aircraft only a little larger than a modelmaker's kit... daylight around the door seals... the hum and twang of the ever-tightening rubber band as the pilot prepared for take-off...
Thankfully the awaiting aircraft looked in finer fettle than the 18-seater bone-shaking contraption used on the Lady Elliot milk run. The Dash 8 at least had air-tight doors and an onboard toilet in the event of a miscreant stomach.
Mine is a simple philosophy; if the Almighty had intended that I should fly, I'd have been a bird -- a magnificent Osprey rather than the chicken I am! Flying is a gut-wrenching, soul-destroying torment undertaken only in dire need. Wanting to list the Lord Howe Island endemics and famous seabirds constituted such an urgency.
Nestled in the Tasman Sea, Lord Howe Island (31 30'S, 159 00'E), with its satellite rocks and islets, forms the dry-land remnant of a large shield volcano which erupted from the seabed some seven million years ago. Marine erosion has reduced it to a wraith of its former glory. The main island is about eleven kilometres long, ranges from half to 2.8 km in width and covers a land area of 1455 hectares. The twin peaks of Mt Lidgbird (777 m) and Mt Gower (875 m) are the most conspicuous topographical features, dominating the southern part of the island.
Roughly crescent shaped, the concave western side is fringed by a six-kilometre coral reef, the world's most southerly. This encloses a lagoon with water depths up to two metres, home to an unusual mix of tropical and temperate marine species. Beyond the reef the sea floor drops off sharply to depths of 1-20 metres before sloping into even deeper waters.
The climate is subtropical with temperatures ranging from 10 to 26 degrees Celsius, averaging 10 in winter and 23 in summer. The average annual rainfall is 1585 mm and falls mainly during winter.
The Island boasts a diverse range of habitat types, from lush, subtropical rainforest to stunted scrub and grasslands (Hutton 1990). While the flora reflects much of what can be found on mainland Australia, many species are distinctive to Lord Howe Island, not the least being the Kentia palms. Other species include the Island Apple with its pinnate leaves and fruit on tree trunks; the endemic montane Pumpkin Tree; the Scalybark, another endemic renowned for its buttresses and red conical fruit; the rare, and endemic, Elaeocarpus costatus.
Its birdlife is staggering. It is the only known breeding ground of Providence Petrel (Pterodroma solandri) and has the largest known concentration of Red-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda). An estimated 18000 pairs of Flesh-footed Shearwater (Muttonbirds, Puffinus carneipes) nest in burrows on the Island, making an annual pilgrimage between Siberia and the Tasman Sea.
In landbirds, Lord Howe Island boasts the endemic Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) and the still-disputed Lord Howe White-eye (Zosterops tephropleura). It has another three endemic subspecies giving a total tally of 27 land-bound species recorded here.
Officially discovered on 17 January 1788 by Lieutenant Henry Lidgebird Ball, commander of the Brig Supply, it remained uninhabitated until the 1830s when three settlers, together with their Maori wives and "two Maori boys," settled near Old Settlement Beach. By 1869 the local population had risen to 35 souls, cultivating around 30 acres. The arrival of Europeans who hunted the more edible bird species, together with the introduction of the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) in 1918, lead to the extinction of nine bird species.
Today, with Lord Howe Island within a two hour flight from Sydney or Brisbane, a Board of Control administers to the needs of the island, its residence and some 8000 visitors per annum. The fact that the Board's office abuts the liquor store is purely coincidental!
It's not that I question the competency of the Royal Australian Engineers when they constructed the island's airstrip back in 1974, it's just that somehow 1000 metres seems an awfully short stretch to safely accommodate a Boeing DASH 8 approaching at speed. There is definitely something quite disconcerting (to the chicken-hearted) in being able to view both ends of the runway as your aircraft banks steeply to align itself for optimal descent. Perhaps the former 42-seater Sandringham flying boats would have better suited jarred nerves. And then again, perhaps not -- that service was discontinued due to aircraft maintenance and back-up difficulties.
The slight bounce as tyres touched tarmac activated a last agitation of stomach contents but thankfully the anticipated involuntary evacuation of that morning's light breakfast did not eventuate. As the aeroplane taxied back towards the small terminal building it was time to relax and peer through the curved perspex portal. Our first Lord Howe "tick" was the ubiquitous little "peewee," the Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca), that comical black-and-white grallinid which for so long had taxonomists mystified. Neither true magpie nor true lark it now nestles, taxonomically, betwixt monarchs (flycatchers) and fantails (rhipidurids) in the Dicruridae family complex.
Baggage control on Lord Howe Island is a simple affair. On disembarking, passengers walk the few steps to the "Domestic Gate" (on the right of a dividing fence -- on the left one enters the domain of international travel). The baggage trolley came powered by the lung capacity and sinews of the air-traffic controller who, having cleared the pilot to land, grabs a couple of table-tennis bats, guides the plane to its allotted parking spot and then backs up as baggage control officer.
Nor was he alone in this multiplicity of occupations. We hadn't been long on the island before we discovered that the Post Office lady apparently doubled-up as the receptionist at the local flight office; that the tourist-bus operator backed up as a council worker during the Island's off-season. Some businesses even seemed to operator on mutually agreeable hours to facilitate this doubling-up of occupations -- the bank opens for two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon and closes while the liquor store opens; and vice versa.
We were met at the terminal by Cheryl of Somerset Lodge, our chosen home for the duration of our stay on the island. As we were the only guests bound for Somerset Lodge aboard that particularly flight we had the minibus to ourselves for the short drive between airport and lodge. The Stanthorpe Field Naturalists were less fortunate as their party of 20-plus hearty souls were cramped into minibuses from at least two other holiday apartments. Meeting guests at the airport to ferry them to their accommodation appears to be a time-honoured tradition here.
Somerset Lodge is one of about seventeen similar lodges/apartments on the island. Most are clustered around the small settlement with Capella South the obvious exception, being isolated near the central west (lagoon) coast with spectacular views of Mts Gower and Lidgbird. While closer to the airfield it does involve quite a hike into the settlement.
At Easter (1996) only Blue Lagoon Lodge offered fully catered facilities but in conversation with bar staff at their cocktail bar it was intimated that even this lodge would shortly join the others in providing only self-catering holidays. And then let the hirer beware!! Read the brochures carefully, note the EXACT facilities on offer. We turned up at Somerset Lodge with some grandiose notions regarding creative gastronomic delights only to see our illusions shattered in the face of one small toaster, one electric kettle and a microwave oven hardly large enough to hold a plucked quail let alone a Coeur de Filet Wellington or even a more modest "Tuna and Spinach Billabong."
It was undoubtedly a kitchen designed to challenge the epicurean zest of the average home cook. Those rejected and discarded packets, RICES OF THE WORLD, PASTAS. etc., offering complete meals with only the addition of a cupful of milk and ten minutes HIGH would have been a practical alternative. In our ignorance we'd left them home adorning our lonely pantry shelves.
Such culinary delights were of course available from the local store -- all three packets! We ventured to the nearest of these shortly after unpacking and settling into our admittedly comfortable unit. It was then that matters took a decided turn for the worse. We should of course have heeded the obvious warnings when a ham-and-salad roll registered $AUS3.50 on the till, but somehow the novelty of the situation dulled the early-warning systems. The few essential supplies (a loaf of bread, a 250 g packet of butter, 500 g cheese, a litre of milk, six tomatoes, two apples and a 425 g tin of baked beans) we purchased totalled $24.90!!!
The moral is simple: when visiting Lord Howe Island take along adequate supplies or surpluses of ready cash. Credit cards are not universally accepted, except at the local restaurants and at the prices charged for provisions dining out is almost as economically as self-catering. It also dispenses with the need to wash up after your meal.
All that however still lay in the near future. The drawn out journey along Lagoon Road to Somerset Lodge -- all roads on the island carry a speed limit of 25 k.p.h.- gave us ample opportunity to do our early birding from the comparative comfort of the minibus. While Cheryl went through her well-rehearsed monologue on the island's many tourist attractions, Fay and I noted the large number of Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria intrepes) feeding in grass all over and around the airfield. The last time we'd seen that many turnstones utilising grass in this manner was during our last visit to Lady Elliot Island, perhaps suggesting that island ecology plays a role in this divergence from more usual habitat preferences.
As we looped out of the airfield entrance to enter the broad u-bend we noted Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica), several already assuming their stunning boreal breeding plumage; Whimbrel (Numenius phaeotus); Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) resplendant in their rich black and spangled golden-buff and seemingly always alert in their tall stance; and the noisy, yellow-wattled Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles). That made a neat half dozen before we'd left the precincts of the airfield. A favourable omen for things to come.
That prediction came to fruition as we rounded a bend in the road near the island's war memorial. We'd seen a few "white birds" fly rapidly into view only to disappear before our unaccustomed eyes could identify them. Cheryl announced that they were White Tern (Gygis alba) and that they were among the most common bird on Lord Howe. They'd better be -- they were "lifers" for us. As we approached the turn-off into Ned's Beach Road any further anxiety over seeing the terns well enough to claim the tick was settled with the sight of two specimens roosting in conveniently overhanging branches. Even without field guides or Cheryl's reassuring confirmation, there was no mistaking this most ethereal of seabirds: an all-white plumage, dark-brown eyes, exaggerated by a surrounding fine black eye-ring; a seemingly over-large black bill, deep blue at the base. Little wonder it once went by such names as Fairy Tern or Love Tern.
Shortly after ticking this "chocolate-box" species, Cheryl deposited us outside our unit. With our motorised transport lost, we had to give some thought to travelling arrangements for the rest of the week. There are, according to the brochures, a few hire vehicles on the island but we never noticed any during our stay. Given the meagre distances involved, car hire appeared an unnecessary extravagance anyway. Even a four-wheel-drive vehicle could hardly negotiate the goat tracks Fay and I traversed in that week. Shank's pony was a practical alternative and indeed became compulsory for many areas, but with limited time at our disposal (and my tragic bone disease -- bone idleness) we needed a faster means of locomotion.
We opted for the most common and popular means of island transport -- bicycles!
At $4 per person, per bike, $24 (or $48 for the two of us) it seemed to be a reasonable price to pay for the obvious advantages bestowed. While the bicycles hired out by Somerset Lodge lacked gears and worked on the "back-pedal" braking system, it had to be an improvement on walking everywhere.
A few other gremlins became more apparent as time went by. Within an hour of first trying out our vehicles I decided that someone akin to one of the Seven Dwarfs must have been the previous rider of my particular model. I wheeled it back to have the saddle readjusted only to discover that the appropriate nut had become locked tight with rust. No amount of pulling, pushing or grunting (along with the occasional quiet profanity) was going to shift it so I was offered a new bicycle with the saddle suitable raised to more comfortably accommodate my longer shanks.
These "Somerset Specials" were obviously designed to encourage optimal fitness in their users. On leaving the confines of the relatively "flat" settlement area, to venture beyond into the "wilds" of the outer suburbs, the bicycles' beneficial fitness program becomes evident. Without gears, the hills are too steep to ascend so you get off and walk the bicycle up. Without an adequate braking system, the steepest hills become too dangerous to descend, so you get off and walk the bicycle down. It's all the more galling when other island visitors, guests at other lodges, pass you by, still mounted!
Released to fend for ourselves, unpacking and a cup of coffee became our immediate concerns. The former was required to allow us at least a change of underwear, the latter to help us digest the information overload forced upon us by Cheryl and Cissy (who'd conducted us on a guided tour of the lodge grounds): which restaurants were open on which days of the week and where each was located; who did what tours around the island and from where they usually started; walking tracks; places worth a visit; sights worth seeing; internal Lodge arrangements; etc., bloody etc. Undoubtedly it was all essential but was it relevant to birding?
I did vaguely recall, visualise, that the settlement's centre (the place appears to lack a specific name) wasn't too far away. Given my sense of direction... north is almost invariably ahead of me, regardless of which way I'm actually facing... I rely on Fay's judgement on these matters. Once the minibus had taken its third turning, I was basically disorientated. It was Fay who appreciated that Somerset Lodge was no more than a hundred metres from the post office.
"Downtown" Lord Howe Island doesn't really take long to describe. After all, what can you say about a small settlement in which the State Bank is housed alongside the liquor store... both adjacent to the primary (elementary) school? Our intrepid travels along darkest Ned's Beach Road (and after sunset the absence of street lighting adds another dimension to the adventure) soon brought us to the very hub, or rather hum, of the settlement -- the junction of Ned's Beach and Lagoon Roads. It is here, at this corner, that you find the "powerhouse" of the island- the community's generator which hums almost continuously during the working week. The cinema is conveniently located on the opposite corner -- even if it's infrequent feature films are actually videos. Wilson's is a few metres down Lagoon Road while the jetty lies in the other direction, over the humpback towards the site of the original settlement.
A little casual birding as we investigated the island's sole fashion boutique and "Visitors' Centre" brought us Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxna) and good views of a pair of Red-tailed Tropicbird passing gracefully overhead. That "greenish bird" atop the yacht mast is perhaps best left as a timely reminder that given near-perfect lighting conditions and a burning desire to "see" new ticks, even pieces of cloth fluttering gently in the breeze can sometimes fool the best of binoculars.
Enroute to Ned's Beach (famed as the spot from which visitors can "feed the fish") we found White-faced Heron (Ardea novaehollandiae) and a second mystery bird. This one, fortunately, was close enough to immediately discard any possibility of rag or plastic wrapper. It was a kingfisher; albeit the most colourless, most sorry-looking kingfisher in the Todiramphus realm -- but it was unmistakably a kingfisher. Admittedly only a devoted parent could have loved such a specimen, any other bird would have openly advertised the youngster's presence to the resident raptors. Its thick, slightly upturned, bill had us floundering for a while but with dogged perseverance we eventually pinpointed it as the island's only kingfisher - Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus).
The appearance of the Lord Howe (the "island" is commonly dropped when referring to the avifauna) Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis contempta) solved a tantalising conundrum. We'd been hearing the call of a whistler for some time without being able to positively identify it -- it was almost a mainland Golden Whistler but not quite... The magnificent Yellow Robin, as this whistler is known locally, with its diagnostic white throat and black upper breastband was a delight to behold.
A little further along we came across the controversial Lord Howe White-eye (Zosterops tephropleura): a lifer for us according to some (eg Hutton 1991), no more than a race of Silvereye (Z. lateralis tephroleura) to some (eg Garnett 1993); while yet others (eg Pizzy 1980; Simpson & Day 1984; Slater et al 1986) ignore it altogether, suggesting it is merely an island population. Longmore (1991) has the Lord Howe White-eye as Z. strenua, the now extinccy Robust White-eye (Christidis & Boles 1994). Taxonomists can be a pain in the bum!
Ned's Beach provided further excitement: a pair of the locally (and seasonally) ubiquitous Ruddy Turnstone "begging" bread at the feet of tourists; Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Pacific Black Duck (A. superciliosa) and the myriad of hybrid variations of the two. All fairly tame stuff. The addition of Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra) to our Lifelist set the tone for the "black and white seabird" that afforded us some 40 to 60 minutes of tantalising frustration. It had fathomed that pelagics were our weak point and its aerial aerobatics made it just that more difficult to catch more than fleeting glimpses of any diagnostic plumage features.
We noted "...white under..." followed by "...dark above..." So far, so good. Another fly-by and we'd have it! It flew out to sea, banked, returned over land and disappeared into the vegetation -- feet out as if going in to land. As quick as the shake of of a feather it reappeared and circled the high headland. We noted "...dark trailing edge to underwing.." On the next circle, "... dark leading edge to the underwing.." and Fay noted "... pale face..." Another banking sweep of the headland and we noted "...dark eye..."
Albatross was dismissed. All dark petrels and shearwaters were dismissed. We pored over Slater; we thumbed through Simpson & Day; Harrison we'd left behind. When the bird suddenly reappeared we trained both pairs of binoculars on it. Manx Shearwater? Rejected. Cook's Petrel? Rejected. Buller's? Little Shearwater? None quite seemed to fit the bill beyond all reasonable doubt although the last did merit a second look.
We found a narrow track leading through the wooded ridge and which was clearly leading us upwards into the area the bird appeared to favour. The sight of countless "muttonbird" holes was promising. As we neared the cliff edge, the bird suddenly appeared -- below us! BINGO!! Black-winged Petrel (Pterodoma nigripennis). The "half collar" became immediately diagnostic as did the dark mark below the eye and flesh-pink feet with blackish outer portion.
It was a pleasant conclusion to our first day's birding on Lord Howe Island.
It's while you're lying in bed, on the threshold of sleep that first morning after your arrival, that you realise all is not as it should be. Back in Kippa Ring (on the Redcliffe Peninsula in SE Queensland) I'd be there, subconsciously awaiting the ultimate local alarm-clock -- 500+ screaming Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus) performing their daily flyover from the tall eucalyptus fringing the nearby soccer (football) field to the manifold blossoms of suburbia. That wasn't happening. It was the boisterous scurrying and cackling of Magpie-lark that ensured no happy vacationer squandered precious daylight hours still slumbering.
Easter Monday loomed as our first full day on Lord Howe Island. Breakfast, which rarely varied, was a frugal and rather hasty "Weetbix" with the mandatory cup of tea to help wash down all those gritty grains lodged between teeth and denture plates. Two cups was occasionally permissible.
That first morning we'd targeted STEVEN'S RESERVE, accessed from Lagoon Road, as our immediate hunting ground. Named after Campbell Stevens, "Honorary Constable and Hon. Postmaster" of the island from 1868 up until his death in the 1920s, the short, relatively flat, walk winds its way among the forest of "Kentia Palms" (Howea foresteriana), Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis), Banyan (Ficus sp), Maulwood, Greybark and Sallywood. Only the backyard washing lines adorned with underpants and flapping shirts sleeves spoil the illusion of impenetrable jungle.
The small reserve's real claim to fame lies in the not insignificant fact that it was here that the endemic Woodhen was successfully brought back from the brink of extinction.
The origins of this bird are steeped in a mystery as hazy as the cloud cover over Mt Gower. A flightless member of the rail family, its nearest alley appears to be the New Caledonian Woodhen (Tricholimnas lafresnayanus), last seen in the 1930s (Hutton 1990). It is thought to have arrived on Lord Howe thousands of years ago (Pringle 1985). Somewhere along its evolutionary time-line it lost the power of flight, no doubt reflecting the absence of natural predators on the island.
When first discovered by Europeans in 1788, the Woodhen occurred from sea-level to mountain tops (Garnett 1993), being described as abundant and suicidally tame (Diamond 1987). By as early as 1869 its numbers were already deleted (Hutton 1990). By 1940 its entire population was confined to the summit of Mt Gower and the upper slopes of Mt Lidgbird (Hutton 1990). The fate of its co-endemics, the White Gallinule (Notornis alba) and White-headed Pigeon (Columba vitiensis godmanae) was worse; both eaten out within 25 years of the first European settlement (Diamond 1987). Indeed, within 150 years of the first European landing, ten avian taxa are known to have become extinct (Pringle 1985).
Extinction for the unfortunate, depletion for the Woodhen came in waves. The first wave, one of rapid extinctions, was completed by 1870 (Diamond 1987) and tallied four birds -- the two above, preceded by Tasman Booby (Sula tasmani), possibly the victim of human predation (Hutton 1990), and followed by Red-fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae subflavescens), deliberately exterminated by island farmers who perceived it as a threat to their crops (Diamond 1987; Hutton 1990).
A second wave of extinctions followed the accidentally release of the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) onto the island after the grounding of the supply ship "Makambo" (Diamond 1987; Garnett 1993). Diamond (1987) maintains that within five years the rat plague was directly responsible for the extinction of a further five taxa. Garnett (1993) maintains that neither the rat nor the poisons used to control them are considered a threat. It would appear inappropriate to lay all the blame at the poor ship rat's door. Feral pigs (Sus scrofa) can be suspected (Garnett 1992) and certainly their foraging habits may well have depleted available food resources for landbirds such as the Woodhen (Hutton 1990). Both Hutton (1990) and Garnett (1992) have speculated that flocks of feral goat (Capra hircus) destroyed or reduced the low shrubs and grasses that formed protected nesting areas for many ground birds. Feral cats (Felis catus) may also be required to give an account of themselves in the ensuing tragedy.
The Black Rat, often labelled "a nemesis to the birds of Lord Howe Island" (eg Hutton 1990) may have been only the last straw for populations already gravely endangered. Garnett (1993) believes that the current major threat to the Woodhen comes from the Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae), introduced to the island during the 1920s to control the rats. Indeed, it is suspected that the endemic Lord Howe Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae albaria) may have finally succumbed due to competition for food from the Masked Owl (Hutton 1990).
Whatever the causes, by the 1960s the plight of the Woodhen was such that it was considered to be on the very brink of extinction. In 1966 it was given international recognition as a threatened species, with the somewhat dubious honour of appearing in the I.U.C.N. Red Data Book (Hutton 1990). In 1969, John Disney, Curator of Birds at the Australian Museum, visited the island and after spending two days on the summit of Mt Gower reported on the low numbers of Woodhen (Pringle 1985; Hutton 1990). This precipitated action.
Disney's work of 1969 was continued in 1971 by Dr Peter Fullagar. Dr Ben Miller, an ornithologist with the New South Wales National Parks & Wildlife Services, was appointed to carry out a two-year full time study on the island (Hutton 1990). Dr Tim Kingston arrived to examine leaf litter fauna at several sites that might be possible release areas for young woodhens (Hutton 1990).
More direct action was also undertaken. A bounty on feral pigs was introduced (Hutton 1990); other feral mammals were also brought under control (Diamond 1987). Glenn Frazer, a young New Zealand aviculturist from the Wildlife Service Captive Breeding Centre at Mt Bunce was appointed to establish a Woodhen captive breeding program (Hutton 1990). In May 1980 three breeding pairs were translocated from the summit of Mt Gower to Steven's Reserve (Hutton 1990).
The project has met with remarkable success (Pringle 1985). Within three years the Woodhen population increased eightfold (Diamond 1987). Within three seasons, 92 chicks were reared (Hutton 1990). The success of the saga is evident not only in the fact that Woodhen numbers have stabilised but, perhaps as important, in the dedication shown these birds by the islanders themselves.
Regardless of the success story enacted at Steven's Reserve the previous decade, Fay and I saw little of it. While the captive breeding area and the attached laboratory remain, there was little evidence of the Woodhen. Rumours of its continued presence at the reserve persist. It has reputedly been seen scurrying alongside the adjacent Thompson Store and Blue Lagoon Lodge gardens. It wasn't only that Fay and I failed to eyeball the species in spite of dedicated vigilance and determined hunting, but even Doug Davidson (with the Stanthorpe Field Naturalists), an avid birder, had failed to come across any -- and he was staying at the Blue Lagoon Lodge!
Doug did eventually report having come across a pair among shrubbery at the Meteorological Station, adjacent to the airfield. Together, the three of us cycled over to the Station but, of course, the birds failed to co-operate. A little disgruntled at another "dip" we crossed over the road to the golf course where we saw the "rare visitor," Pied Oystercatcher (Haematopus longirostris) albatrossing the fifth hole. The nearby Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) displayed a distinct lack of putting skills.
It began to appear that if Fay and I were determined to see Woodhen we'd have to consider scaling the giddy heights of Mt Gower. Not a pleasant prospect for the unfit and downright idle. Besides, we were aware that Mt Gower was off-limits unless accompanied by an accredited guide -- and they only ascended in good weather. Easter Monday was looking bleak in more ways than one.
Cheryl came to the rescue, albeit without the fanfare of a cavalry charge. During a casual conversation back at Somerset Lodge (for a second, more substantial, breakfast) she informed us that Woodhen were readily seen at Little Island, a large boulder nestled beneath the towering cliffs of Mt Lidgbird. Reference to our map quickly established its exact location and off we went. With revived spirits we raced down Lagoon Road... past the Meteorological Station... past the airfield... past the golf course... and up the hill ... up!
At Lovers' Bay (but where else?) we admitted defeat and opted to walk the bicycles. Halfway along, a narrow track lead to a bench beneath two pine trees overlooking the bay. It was only later that we discovered the navigational significance of these arboreal twins; incoming boats align them so that only one tree appears in view, denoting the safe access point through rocky Erscotts Passage. At the time we were content to sit, puff and observe the antics of a Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides) as it "surfed the wind," holding time and motion in abeyance, searching the grass below for signs of prey movement. A quick flick of outstretched wings and it was gone, to "freeze" over a new patch. It kept us enthralled until, lung capacity regained, it was time to walk our bicycles further uphill.
The road climbs to Capella South Lodge where it suddenly drops sharply downhill -- too steep for bicycles with only back-pedal braking power! At the end of this stretch a gate bars further vehicular progress; the remaining 1.2 km to Little Island is intended for walkers only. Loaded with ruc-sac, tripod and camera-bag I followed Fay through ... the distant sky was beginning to take on an ominous hue, a hint of coming rain. It was not a pleasant thought.
We followed the well-defined grassy track until we came to a pebble beach at which a number of people had stopped. There was no sign of the "huge boulder" or any indication as to where we went next. This surely wasn't Little Island -- an island by definition had to be surrounded by water, even if only at high tide. Here we were simply standing on the coastline. Nor did any of the others on the beach have that discernible "loony look" which often betrays a fellow birder. We decided to press on and thankfully rediscovered the track on the far side of the pebble beach.
A few telltale droplets whetted the alarm bells but we continued to follow the twists and turns of the path. There was always the possibility that this would be no more than a light passing shower. A petrel flew by overhead and then suddenly as we emerged from out of a dip we entered a forest of Kentia palms and banyans -- ideal Woodhen habitat!
According to Cheryl the secret of attracting Woodhen is to stand still and simply clap hands. Mind you, she'd also told us that she had often "yodelled" down petrels. It all sounded a little suspicious; clapped out Woodhen and yodelling petrels! Island tales to bemuse the unwary visitor? Nevertheless, nothing ventured...
A Woodhen answered my first clap almost before I'd stopped clapping. It wasn't there, and then it was. One Woodhen, less than two metres from our feet. Jaws dropped, eyes popped -- ours, not the bird's. At the second, softer, clap it came closer. We were both lost for words. What can you say when the prime target of braving yet another awesome flight across open skies and fathomless seas is pecking at leaf litter a metre away? The purists will undoubtedly recoil with horror, but in the absence of seemingly appropriate words to mark the occasion, I broke off a little bread crust and carefully placed it half a metre from my feet. Time momentarily froze. Quite unperturbed, the Woodhen approached, pecked at the bread and only blinked when Fay's camera flashed to record the moment for posterity. Suicidally tame?
Before we left the forest we had attracted a further four Woodhen, of which only one had shown any signs of nervousness at our presence. Beyond the covered wood we entered an open space with the sea to our right and the sheer black basalt cliff face of Mt Lidgbird to our left. Ahead stood Little Island, a gigantic rock on the edge of a boulder beach. Above us the sky teemed with Providence Petrel, Red-tailed Tropicbird and Wedge-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus pacificus). It was the only place and occasion where the "teeming" adjective seemed applicable and amazingly the petrels did respond to my yodel. On the other hand, it could have been no more than simple curiosity, investigating who or what was being painfully strangled below their mountain domain.
The rain fell in earnest as we turned to go back to the unit. Fay believes it poured down at that point as a critical comment from Above on the quality of my yodelling. By the time we reached our bicycles to walk them uphill it was raining with a spiteful vengeance. By the time we reached the airfield we were too wet to care about the five Black Noddy (Anous minutus) passing overhead, or the fact that Doug Davidson had suddenly appeared from somewhere to be cycling alongside us. The wind increased forcing us to walk even along the flat stretches of road.
With a few brief intervals, the rain and wind continued throughout that afternoon and evening and into the night. Matters looked less than promising for the remainder of our stay on Lord Howe Island.
Expectations can often prove to be little more than ethereal bubbles awaiting the pinpricks of reality. Planning Lord Howe Island had been a matter of concentrating on such mundane matters as flight times and accommodation. Little thought was given to the actual birding; after all, how much planning does one need to cover such a small island? The birds were there: admittedly the Woodhen would present a problem but seabirds would be active and circling in their thousands. That , at least, had been our expectations. The reality didn't quite match the anticipated scenario.
It was something Fay and I had probably noted shortly after our arrival but the novelty of being on the island somehow disguised its immediate significance. Time remedied the oversight. Within a day or two the shortage of birds, particularly landbirds around the settlement, became obvious. The ubiquitous Magpie-lark was of course the exception, as was Ruddy Turnstone. Seabirds fared a little better. While they were clearly present in their hundreds, expectations had been for thousands. This shortage could perhaps be at least partly explained by the season; with breeding more or less complete many seabirds had disappeared out to sea. That however did not account for the general paucity among the landbirds.
Any notions of a leisurely week strolling around the island agathering "ticks" like nuts in May (a la northern hemisphere squirrels) were rapidly dashed. Clearly this week was destined to be harder. There were of course the "easy" birds: Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxana) hawking around the settlement; a White-faced Heron Ardea novaehollandiae grazing next to the tennis court across the road; Mallard (Anas platyrhynchus), Pacific Black Duck (A. superciliosa) and a plethora of hybrids between these two were resident at Ned's Beach. Many other were however not so obliging.
There'd been an unusual whistle near the Somerset Lodge units for at least two mornings but steadfast searching, with the customary "pishing," failed to bring the source to light. It was a whistler, but not quite one that fitted within our ken of known whistlers. The "book" identified Pachycephala pectoralis contempta as the island's race of Golden Whistler and certainly it was demonstrating sheer contempt towards all our efforts to locate it.
In the same area we'd heard another unfamiliar call but again all efforts to pinpoint the responsible bird seemed fruitless. Try as we might, by the end of the day we had a painful ache in the neck, sore eyes but were no closer to solving the mystery. When we finally located it as the Lord Howe Currawong (Strepera graculina crissalis), a supposedly curious bird known to locate hikers on the island's walking tracks and follow them, we were about to throw in the towel and take up stamp collecting.
We didn't. We began planning a campaign of walks. It simply meant a change of tactics -- on the principle that if you can't beat them... While the early trek to Little Island had dulled the urge to scale Mt Gower, lesser treks beckoned. The possibility of late-nesting Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscatta) had us poring over maps of Malabar Spur (209 m). It appeared to be a fairly comfortable pre-lunch jaunt, giving us time to catch up with some banking and shopping before heading out to Muttonbird Point. Those expectations again...
The ascent itself was comparatively comfortable: the views of Red-tailed Tropicbird below us well worth the exertion. Few experiences can compare with the sight of these graceful birds in courtship display which involves flying backwards! Discovering an immature specimen on a ledge just below the the edge had my Minolta 9000 clicking overtime. The hike to the top provided us with our first male Golden Whistler and added Common Noddy (Anous stolidus) to our growing birdlist. The young Masked Booby completed our Malabar Spur tally -- until the descent when we were privileged with amazing, almost eyeball-level, views of Nankeen Kestrel.
So far, so good. Then the rain came. And came. And came. By the time we'd paddled and waded back to the unit we were a shade damp -- but undaunted! Our plans remained unaltered: a lunch of baked beans on topast; scribble a few appropriate gibbering ("Wish You Were Here") on postcards; bank; shopping and continue the birding challenge. A week, which a week ago seemed ample, suddenly presented the grim prospect of leaving us pitifully short. There was still no sign of the common Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos).
Mt Eliza, with possibly a detour to Old Gulch, was dealt a similar blow. Raqin. Rain and a cold wind. Spirits were dampened even further when Doug Davidson called in giving a fair representation of a drowned rat. He reported that the Stanthorpe Field Nats had returned from Mt Eliza where the birding had been less than favourable. And still it rained, and rained.
We seemed to be running out of time and places to bird. Our landbird tally was reasonable but the seabirds remained a challenge. While it rained no one was game to put their boat out beyond the reef. The challenge was growing. We headed for Muttonbird Point in spite of the ever-darkening skies.
Thursday 11 April dawned. Three full days and a part of Sunday morning remained. The list was far from satisfactory and that Song Thrush still hadn't put in an appearance. However, the day arrived cloudless, blue, full of promise. The arrival of Ron Matthews (of Ron's Environmental Walks fame) while we were eating breakfast confirmed the promise of the day -- his boat would be leaving from the jetty for a circumnavigation of the island at 1000 hours. We booked our places immediately!
The birding was simply spectacular! Little Shearwater (Puffinus assimilis), Sooty Tern and Grey Ternlet (Procelsterna cerulea) to name but three. Petrels prevailed. Shearwaters spun seawards. Having merely mentioned that we were birders, Ron immediately promoted us to the status of biologists and escorted us to the prime bow seats: Noddies flew by; Tropicbirds soared overhead. Magic!
On our return to land there was time to grab a quick meal at Trader Nick's before facing the stark truth we'd been avoiding until all excuses were exhausted. Ball's Pyramid! This 552 m high blade of volcanic basalt lies 23 km to the south-east; the base measures 1000 m by 400 m and is now part of the Lord Howe Island Permanent Park Reserve. It is justly acclaimed for its large seabird populations. Of special interest to Fay and I was the fact that this pinnacle of rock is the only known breeding ground for Kermadec Petrel (Pterodroma neglecta) in the Australian region (Hutton 1990).
A boat trip to Ball's Pyramid is a must for any serious birder -- if any boats are scheduled to make the trip! No boat was scheduled that Thursday and with the vagaries of the local weather it was an enormous gamble to wait in hope of another fine day.
There was an alternative. The shadow from beyond my worst fears -- a flight around the rock in a small, small, four-seater Cessna. To facilitate photography the pilot was even prepared to remove the passenger-side door, enabling me to lean out!! To go for the Kermadec Petrel or to remain forever the retiring coward...?
Friday arrived with the threat of more rain. We persevered and tried our luck at Ned's Beach. Mallards. Another encounter with Doug Davidson had us racing over to the airfield for Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), an island "megatick." Not only does the species escape notice by Hutton, while we watched and stalked it, the bird adopted the stance general jizz more indicative of (white morph) Eastern Reef Heron (Egretta sacra) -- but in a freshwater swamp?!
Our last day on Lord Howe was squandered in a fruitless hunt for Song Thrush -- the bird locals promised us was common in almost every garden. Doug ha d been assured that at least two were seen regularly at about 0800 hours in the rear gardens of the Oceanview Lodge. We were there by 0740 hours. Had we been after a wild goose the long wait may have been worth the discomfit. The local thrushes had clearly gone elsewhere to escape the tourists.
Back to the unit for a change of clothing and once more into the breaches. Middle Road produced sod all. Anderson Road was deserted as more more rain descended. Skyline Road was awash but not with Song Thrush.
Rumours of Wandering Tattler (Heteroscelus incanus) and Gould's Petrel (Pterodroma leucoptera) had us scurrying back to Ned's Beach. A "tattlerish" bird did fly off as we explored the rocks but the only seabird to put in an appearance was that Black-winged Petrel. A final flurry around the settlement was good for the heart rate but was bankrupt in birding terms.
Thus ended our birding adventures on Lord Howe Island. We never found the Song Thrush and I could still see both ends of the hardtop as the aeroplane ascended to take us home.
* denotes seen by Fay and I during our stay on the island.
** denotes lifer for us
Black Swan Cygnus atratus Canada Goose Branta canadensis Paradise Shelduck Tadorna variegata *Mallard Anas platyrhynchos *Pacific Black Duck A. superciliosa Grey Teal A. gibberifrons Chestnut Teal A. castanea Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae Hoary-headed Grebe Poliocephalus poliocephalus Little Penguin Eudyptula minor Giant Petrel Macronectes spp Cape Petrel Daption capense Great-winged Petrel Pterodroma macroptera White-headed Petrel P. lessonii **Providence Petrel P. solandri **Kermadec Petrel P. neglecta Mottled Petrel P. inexpectata White-necked Petrel P. cervicalis **Black-winged Petrel P. nigripennis Gould's Petrel P. leucoptera Antarctic Prion Pachyptila desolata Fairy Prion P. turtur *Wedge-tailed Shearwater Puffinus pacificus Buller's Shearwater P. bulleri *Flesh-footed Shearwater P. carneipes Sooty Shearwater P. griseus Fluttering Shearwater P. gavia Hutton's Shearwater P. huttoni **Little Shearwater P. assimilis Wandering Albatross Diomeda exulans White-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregetta grallaria *Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaeton rubricauda White-tailed Tropicbird P. lepturus ** Masked Booby Sula dactylatra Red-footed Booby S. sula Brown Booby S. leucogaster Little Pied Cormorant Phalacrocorax melanoleucos Pied Cormorant P. varius Little Black Cormorant P. sulcirostris Great Cormorant P. carbo Least Frigatebird Fregata ariel *White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollaniae *Little Egret E. garzetta Great Egret Ardea alba Cattle Egret A. ibis Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus Australasian Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus Australian White Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus Straw-necked Ibis T. spinicolis Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia Yellow-billed Spoonbill P. flavipes Black-shouldered Kite Elanus notatus *Swamp Harrier Circus approximans Brown Falcon Falco berigora *Nankeen Kestrel F. cenchroides *Buff-baned Rail Gallirallus philippensis **Lord Howe Woodhen Tricholimnas sylvestris Baillon's Crake Porzana pusilla *Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio Dusky Moorhen Grallinula tenebrosa Eurasian Coot Fulica atra Latham's Snipe Gallinago hardwickii Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa Bar-tailed Godwit L. lapponica Little Curlew Numenius minutus Whimbrel N. phaeopus Eastern Curlew N. madagascarensis Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis Common Greenshank T. nebularia Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinerus Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Grey-tailed Tattler Heteroscelus brevipes Wandering Tattler H. incanus *Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Red Knot Calidris canutus Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis Pectoral Sandpiper C. melanotos Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea Buff-breasted Sandpiper Tryngites subruficolis Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis *Pied Oystercatcher Haematopus lonirostris Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus *Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva Grey Plover P. squtarola *Double-banded Plover Charadrius bicinctus Lesser Sand Plover C. mongolus Greater Sand Plover C. leschenaultii Banded Lapwing Vanellus tricolor *Masked Lapwing V. miles Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella Long-tailed Jaegar Stercorarius longicauda Kelp Gull Larus domicanus Silver Gull L. novaehollandiae Crested Tern Sterna gergii Black-naped Tern S. sumatrana Common Tern S. hirundo Arctic Tern S. paradisaea Little Tern S. albifrons **Sooty Tern S. fuscata White-winged Black Tern Chlidonias leucoptera *Common Noddy Anous stolidus *Black Noddy A. minutus **Grey Ternlet Procelsterna cerulea **White Tern Gygis alba *Rock Dove Columba livia Spotted Turtle-Dove Streptopelia chinensis *Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica Brush Bronzewing Phaps elegans Peaceful Dove Geopelia placida Pied Imperial-Pigeon Ducula bicolor Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus Pallid Cuckoo C. pallidus Brush Cuckoo Cacomantis variolosus Fan-tailed Cuckoo C. pyrrhophanus Shining Bronze-Cuckoo Chrysococcyx lucidus Long-tailed Cuckoo Eudymanys taitensis Masked Owl Tyto novaehollandiae White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus Fork-tailed Swift Apus pacificus *Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sancta Rainbow Bee-eater Merops ornatus Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis Noisy Friarbird Philemon corniculatus *Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis contempta Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula *Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca Grey Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike Coracina novaehollandiae Masked Woodswallow Artamus personatus *Pied (Lord Howe) Currawong Strepera graculina crissalis Australian Raven Corvus coronoides Skylark Alauda arvensis Richard's Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris European Goldfinch C. carduelis Common Redpoll C. flammea Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella *Welcome Swallow Hirundo neoxena Fairy Martin H. ariel **Lord Howe White-eye Zosterops tephropleura *Common Blackbird Turdus merula Song Thrush T. philomelos *Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
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