I've just returned from working 13 to 16 December on Cabbage Tree Island (Port
Stephens just north of Newcastle, NSW), on the Gould's Petrel Conservation
program, with the National Park and Wildlife Service.
Gould's Petrel is an endangered species and since December 1994, I've been
going to the island each December and March. The whole island is the "John
Gould Nature Reserve" and unauthorised entry to the island attracts a $20,000
fine and/or a year imprisonment.
My part in the program in December consists of transecting the north and south
gullies of the island where the main breeding colonies are, thoroughly
searching all possible nooks and crannies looking for new birds and new nests.
At this time of year, the Gould's are all adults. If an existing nest lies
on the transect we also "do our stuff" with those birds. What we actually do
*grimace and grunt
*stick your hand down the hole, while lying on spiky cabbage tree palm leaves
and very hard rocks
*offer a finger in sacrifice
* let the adult bird bite you (and the tip of their bill comprises a very
efficient sharp hook)
(alternative is to hold the bird by the tail and wing tips, if that happens
to be the part of the bird presenting itself to you)
* pull out the adult - if unbanded, then band and weigh the bird
* check for an egg (sight only, or very carefully feeling around in the
* record all information on band numbers, eggs etc.
* return the adult to the hole - it's all over in a minute or two. The nest
mites have also had a bite of you by then.
Between the biting birds, slipping on the rocks on steep surfaces, and the
fierce thorns of the cabbage tree palm leaves, it's tough going.
We also go out at night when adults come in to take over from sitting adults.
It's an alternative way of finding more birds, particularly unbanded ones and
checking on weights of changeover birds. This is the time too when the
Wedge-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters and Little Penguins come out at night.
It's quite a concert at 3am when all the braying starts and the birds rev each
other up in chorus.
It is hugely satisfying work and in addition to the work I do (with Ken Booth
and others), other research work is being undertaken to study in detail the
birds' breeding biology. For example, the nesting adult loses quite a lot of
weight (some 40%) as it sits for some 16 days before the adults change over.
Other parts of the conservation program include a rabbit eradication program
planned for the island. Rabbits were released on the island many years ago
and unfortunately whilst they stay on the island, no undergrowth or new
cabbage tree palms can grow. The eradication process will be long, tedious
and costly to ensure success - absolutely 100% of the bunnies will need to be
We will be returning to the island next year to check on hatching success
(March each year). Interestingly, it is still not known where the Gould's
Petrels go after leaving the island. Can anyone contribute $25,000 towards 10
transmitters? - transmitters are now finally small enough to be carried by
birds as small as these petrels.
Volunteers contribute varying amounts of time of one or two week stretches.
However NPWS staff are on the island constantly and particularly I'd like to
pay tribute to Nicholas Carlile who has amazing amounts of energy and
commitment to the Gould's Petrel conservation program and Cabbage Tree Island
over extended periods, keeping up a rigorous program of work related directly
to the birds themselves or indirectly, through the study etc. of plants and
related issues such as the rabbits on the island.
Other birds on the island over the four days were White-bellied Sea-Eagle,
Whistling Kite, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Common Koel, Eastern Yellow Robin, Pied
Currawong, Australian Raven, Silvereyes, Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Grey
Shrike-Thrush (which have developed their own "accent" or range of calls),
Sooty Oystercatcher, Buff-banded Rail, Tawny Grassbird, Welcome Swallow and
Once again, very satisfying work.
Cheers and Happy Birding
Sydney NSW Australia