Thursday, 22 December 2011

A visit to Lord Howe Island

In April 2010, I was lucky enough to visit Lord Howe Island. Ever since talking to Phil Gregory about his trip there, it sounded a fantastic destination. Remote; little visited by birders; stunningly beautiful; fantastic seabird colonies; a flightless endemic rail and an island, with a fascinating history. So, during a family visit to see Toni and her family, in eastern Australia, I hastily arranged a week on LHI. It proved to be a fantastic experience and certainly one of the most stunning locations, I have ever visited.

Flying in, gives you a real view of the imposing cliffs.

LHI, is a small crescent-shaped volcanic island, surrounded by many smaller islands, around 600kms directly east, of the Australian mainland. It is a dot, surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean. Remote and alluring, I was on my way! My only regret is not travelling with Carol, as she would have loved the place. I thought it was going to be a challenging outpost of civilisation, one that she wouldn’t particularly enjoy. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Not quite Heathrow, Terminal 5!

One can fly from either Brisbane, or Sydney, directly to LHI. I flew out of the former and the flight was very pleasant, particularly the last part, as we circled the island, before landing. Landing on LHI is an experience in itself, one gets wonderful views of the towering Mount Gower and Lidbird, the forests and the magnificant coastline. Upon landing, one is immediately aware, that you have entered a very special place.

Arrival procedures, don't take very long!

A quick ride in a minibus and I had arrived at my base for the week, the aptly named, Hideaway Cottage. It was very comfortable and with a lovely garden for sitting and watching the wildlife, which flitted through from time to time. It was also situated more or less, in the centre of the island, which meant, I could walk to all the top spots. LHI is a World Heritage Site and tourism is strictly controlled. Only 400 visitors are allowed, at any one time, as both the infrastructure and the environment, couldn’t take any increase in visitors. This exclusivity, tends to push up the prices a bit, but when you are there, you really appreciate it, as you quickly realise, that you are in a very special place indeed.

Hideaway Cottage - a perfect base.

I quickly unpacked and was all revved up, for my first excursion to Ned’s Beach which is a secluded bay, backed by cliffs where Black winged Petrels nest. Only local residents can own cars, so a walk along the main road, is like a stroll down a country lane. The calls of Golden Whistlers echoed from the lush vegetation. Lemon Doves, cooed enchantingly, and sometimes, could be seen feeding, by the side of the road. Buff-banded Rails fed out in the open! This is normally a shy, reclusive species, great to get fantastic views here. This was going to be good, and so it proved.
Not too busy!

Many paths wind through the forest,
 just waiting to be explored!

Buff-banded Rail - out in the open!

Lemon Dove is another normally secretive species,
 which flushes noisely, from the forest floor.
 But, not on LHI!

Golden Whistler, male above
 & the rather drabber, female, below.

Just one of the many stunning vistas on the island.

A young, Masked Booby.
Red-tailed Tropicbird - a rare treat!

The abundant Flesh-footed Shearwater

Providence Petrel

The bay was just stunning! Off shores stacks added to the effect and even a casual scan with the binoculars, revealed several species of seabird, going about their daily business. Masked Boobies were common; Red-tailed Tropicbirds flew high over the waves and the odd Flesh-footed Shearwater skimmed the ocean surface. But it was the Providence Petrels which dominated the seascape. Literally, hundreds, if not thousands, flew by in both directions. It was hard to keep up with them.

Black-winged Petrel - a real gem!
A closer look at Ned's Beach, nesting
 grounds for the Black-winged Petrel.
I finally managed to tear my eyes away from the sea and began to look around the cliffs. I quickly noticed a lone Black winged Petrel shearing across the cliff face and then before I could get my telescope on it, it flew under a native bush! This was a lifer for me and I wanted better views, but I didn’t have long to wait, as a second bird appeared and started to repeat the ritual of flying up and down the cliff face, before it too disappeared under another bush. I settled down to wait and was entertained by around 25 Black-winged Petrels, in their comings and goings along the cliff. I was quite surprised that I could view them going to their nesting holes in the day time. Normally, they conduct their breeding activities unde the cover of darkness, because of the fear of predators.

As dusk descended, the Flesh-footed Shearwaters,
 gathered in the calm waters of the bay.

As the afternoon unfolded, more and more Flesh-footed Shearwaters gathered in the bay. Most sat on the water, some were preening, just loafing around, waiting for darkness. As night decended, and here without the glare of neon lights, it really is pitch black! Weird calls eminanted from the sky. I started to search the ground with my flashlight and it wasn’t long before I came across my first Flesh-footed Shearwaters, shuffling along the ground, or just sat there looking slightly surprised! It was now time to leave, and as I walked back along the lane, dark shapes plopped down around me! Some in the middle of the road, some in the thick roadside vegetation. It was raining shearwaters! The walk back to the cottage was one of the most surreal I have ever encountered. It really was both weird and magical at the same time. I slept content from my first day on the island and wondered what the morrow would bring.
There are literally thousands of Mutton-birds
 nesting on this part of the island.
Masters of the ocean, but clumsy on land.

Mutton Bird is the old name, for any species of Shearwater,
 which could be eaten by seafarers.

Even on remote LHI, some species need help.

Dawn saw me up and about early. Coffee and a quick bacon sandwich in the garden, in the early morning sunlight, was both beautiful and very tranquil. I stared up at the towering twin peaks, dark clouds at first swirled angrily around and then engulfed their peaks. But, I didn’t take this as a warning, I packed my gear for the day and I was off on my quest. Today, was all about one thing, seeing the only endemic bird on the island, the fabulously named, Lord Howe Island Wood-hen!

Before strict conservation measures were in place, this species had dwindled down to around 20 individuals. It was fast, heading towards extinction. Thankfully the government and its scientists took action and today, over 200 hundred birds, inhabit this remote outpost. It should be easy to see then, shouldn’t it? 200+ on a small island like this, easy!

The local, endemic race of the Pied Currawong.
Amazingly bold, they follow any walker in the forest.

The abundant Silvereyes.

I entered the forest and I walked. I walked a lot that day, the native vegetation was a constant delight and the local race of Pied Currawongs followed me everywhere, (a very curious behavioural trait). My other constant companions, were Silvereyes and Golden Whistlers. It was a nice morning, but as it wore on I noticed dark clouds descending the mountains. I ignored them and pushed on, eager to see my prey. It got darker, the wind started to blow and it lashed down with rain. Tropical rain, always seems so much heavier than rain in more tempetrate areas of the world. And this was really heavy, it felt as if you were being subjected to a constant barrage of water, the size of ping pong balls! I turned around, the forest was dark now, the path became increasingly muddy and I squelched my way back home. It was a long walk! It was truly dark before I arrived at the cottage.

Clouds gathering above the mountain.

  Quickly, I threw off my soddened clothing, jumped straight into a hot shower, which did its job in reviving me. As I pulled my first beer of the day, I flicked on the TV. Imagine my surprise, when I saw The Footie Show just about to start. This is not football at all, but a two hour extravagansor of rugby league! Great stuff! I settled into my chair and settled further into my second beer. It was still raining heavily, but I slowly became aware of another scratching sound on the window. The sound was in the back of my mind for sometime, it was starting to annoy me and I was loosing my concentration on the show. It was time for a refill and as I arose, I thought I had better check out this noise. I pulled back the curtains, (it was difficult to see anything in the darkness, as I had the light on in the cottage). I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear this constant scratching on the glass. I pulled back the french windows, letting both fresh air and rain into the lounge. I struggled to get the window closed again against the wind and before I could complete this simple task, something scuttled past my legs and into the light. It was my first sighting of a Lord Howe Island Wood-hen! To say I was astonished, would have been the understatement of the year! But this bird had another surprise for me, it lept up onto my armchair and sat itself fimly on the arm rest, appearing to watch the rugby on the telly!

The TV loving, Lord Howe Island Wood-hen!
Now, you have to realise the context of this first sighting. I had just spent nine hours on forest trails searching for this enigmatic beastie. Most of those hours had been in the pouring rain, some of those hours had seen my walking boots slowly fill with rainwater! I felt and looked like, I had been hiking along the bottom of the ocean. Now, why did I persevere,you might ask? Well to see the Wood-hen of course! It is a rare, endemic flighless rail, which scuttles along the forest floor in the manner of a Kiwi. Of course, I wanted to see it and I wanted to see it so badly, that I would wade through a flash flood to get to it! Now here it was, sat on my armchair, watching the rugby! I hadn’t even got my bins on it yet! I moved towards the bird, it arose, shuffled its feathers and deposited a little present, squarely on where my posterior was shortly to be! Classy! Real classy! It lept from its perch and started to run quickly around the lounge floor, getting more and more agitated. It couldn’t find it way out! I had closed the french windows. I opened them, yet again rain and wind entered and a little bundle of feathers disappeared into the blackness of the night. I closed the windows, pulled myself a beer and once more sat into my chair. It was only then, that I became aware, of the little present, my diminutive friend had left for me! Despite, my slight discomfort, I smiled at the bizarre encounter of one of the world’s rarest birds. Birding often turns up surprises, but this one? Really?

The top of the cliffs at Mount Eliza.

The morning was a magnificent contrast, to the night before. I was warm, happy and content, as I tucked into my first bacon sandwich of the day. I poured over the map. Where to go? By the time I was on my second mug of coffee, I had decided… the Red-tailed Tropicbird colony on the high cliffs of Mount Eliza. This tropicbird was the last of the set, it is just plain beautiful. I set out on my trek and a very pleasant walk it was, slowly gaining height and then scrambling on to the top of these imposing cliffs. The sun shone, the views were amazing and the tropicbirds wheeled below me. A stunning bird, seen at close quarters, in a magnificent setting. I clicked away.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds.

A photographer's dream!

Enough of them yet? No, me neither!

LHI is the most important breeding colony
 in the world for his species.

After a few hours, (which seemed like mere minutes), I descended from the cliffs and cut across to the township to buy supplies. But, as I did so, I walked through a grove of Norfolk Pines and nesting in them, or is it on them? Were small numbers of White Terns. And what great birds they are!

The strange, but very regal-looking Norfolk Pines.

Coming in to land!
A young White Tern, nearly old enough to fly away.

A pair greeting each other.

Waiting to be fed!
Oblivious of my prescence, they carried on with their daily routine. I enjoyed cracking views of both adults and their young, which were perched precariously on rather thin branches. I noticed that not all survived this position, several broken eggshells and a week old chick, was on the ground. The chick constantly called to its parents for food, but to no avail. It was destined to be rat food by nighfall.

I returned to my cottage and as darkness descended my rare friend once again paid me a visit. But on this occasion rather briefly. It wasn’t raining you see, he/she wanted to be outside where the action is.

Every Wood-hen is colour ringed, so that all individuals
 can be censused each year.
Magnificant coastal scenery.

Once totally forested, LHI has lot much
 of its original vegetation to farming.
As dawn returned, the landscape was bathed into beautiful sunlight. I once again arranged my bacon butty, coffee and map on the outdoor table. Today was about two things: seeing the Wood-hen in the forest, (rather than in my cottage) and visiting a Providence Petrel colony. The petrel is a pretty rare bird and Lord Howe is its stronghold. The colony at Little Beach beckoned. It was quite a walk from my base, but my pace was brisk and I was completely at peace with the world. I enjoyed sightings of White-faced Heron and Magpie-Larks near the airport.

The track to Little Beach

White-faced Heron, a recent arrival on the island.

 I then entered the forest, looking for the Wood-hen. An hour passed by, but no encounters. I had been told about their peculiar habits and that if one makes a noise they will more than likely come a running to investigate the commotion and presumably defend their territory against this noisy rival. I found the stone and the rocks upon it. I had been told to bang them together. But on this day nothing came a running. I just got sore hands!

The sore hands rock!

Slightly peeved, I recommenced my walk and came out in to the sunlight. Providence Petrels were everywhere. Thousands were on, or just above the waves, countless more thousands wheeled around the tops of the mountains. I estimated around 200,000 birds, but this was more of a guestamate, than an estimate.

Providence Petrel

Effortless fliers over the ocean.

A bit more clumsey on land,
crash landing is the norm!

 I had been told to make a noise and whoop and holla like a Red Indian! I did my rain dance and much to my surprise it worked! Petrels started to rain at first around me, and then actually on me! I had one perched on my head! Another on my arm! But, no-one was there to take a photo of me! I wanted to emulate the famous Life of Birds clip and I did, but no-one was there to document it. I was alone! I spent several hours in their company, but as I got tired of my rain dance, they too appeared to lose interest in me and slowly drifted away. This was my second, really weird experience on Lord Howe Island!

A eureka moment!

I had a long hike to my homestay, but as I entered my first patch of native forest, I heard a shuffling and then it was there in full view! This is how I wanted to see my endemic flightless rail, in natural habitat in its natural forest, digging for worms and grubs. It was just brilliant! I walked on air, all the way home!

The next day was once again windy, the seas roared in to the beach. It was with mounting trepidation, that I walked to the harbour. Today, was supposed to be my trip out to sea, to visit Ball’s Pyramid, an isolated rock with two great seabirds nesting on it: White-bellied Storm Petrel and Kermadec Petrel. Both megas and unlikely to be encountered on the main island. The captain had a funny look on his face. I smiled and looked really happy and confident, then I looked at the sea and felt a little nervous and less confident! He was mulling it over and then he decided to take my money. We were off! Now, this boat was pretty small (imagine a boat, the size of two bathtubs)!

Fit to brave the rigours of the Pacific Ocean?
Ball's Pyramid - the top of a undersea volcano.
Lord Howe Island is part of a long
chain of largely submerged volcanoes.

White-bellied Storm Petrel

Difficult to photograph, in the heavy seas.

The rare, Kermadec Petrel

The waves looked increasingly menacing. My heart raced as we raced to the top of these waves, before hurtling down the other side, in what looked like a race to total oblivion! Somehow we made it and was we circumnavigated Ball’s Pyramid, the waves got smaller. I could now take both hands of the railings, my fingers were numb. I had been gripping pretty tight! There were birds everywhere. Among the commoner throng, I quickly picked out a skimming White-bellied Storm Petrel and then its much larger cousin, the Kermadec Petrel! Both gave repeated, great views. I clicked away. It was a fantastic couple of hours, before we once again left the shelter of the rock and braved the elements on our way home. It was another white knuckle ride, one of the crew was seasick! But, I had two rare petrels under my belt! I grinned and beared it!

The walk to North Bay, is a very scenic one.

I had one day left. I walked to North Bay, seeing some great birds enroute. Several Wood-hens being the highlight. I then walked in the opposite direction, to Blinky Beach and enjoyed great views of 65 Black-winged Petrels close inshore. As the sun set over the sea, I realised it was also setting over my trip here. It was time to leave and catch my early morning flight, it was time to say goodbye to my rare nocturnal vistor that had so entertained me throughout my stay. The real world beckoned.

Rush hour on LHI!

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