Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands

Subject: Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands
Date: Wed, 20 May 1998 10:43:30 +1000


  8 - 22 February 1998


  In  February 1998, John Barkla and I organised a trip to Lord Howe Island
  and  Norfolk Island with a few friends and acquaintances.  As part of the
  preparation,  we  sought  help from Birding-Ausers and received some very
  useful  advice  and comment.  This report is feedback to those people and
  information  for  people  who intend to go one day.  (We highly recommend
  the  trip(s).   They  are  great  destinations  with fantastic and mostly
  accessible birds.)

  In preparation, there seemed like a very limited amount of information on
  the  birds  of  these  islands  and  the  birding sites, particularly for
  Norfolk Island.  In retrospect, there is some good information, but it is
  not readily available from Australia.  As well, we were warned by many of
  the  people  who  gave  us  advice  that Ball
?s Pyramid, one of the major
  birding  attractions  of  Lord Howe, was extremely difficult to get to as
  the  weather  and  sea  conditions  were  usually  unfavourable  for  the
  necessary boat-trip.  More below.

  (This  report  is  derived from an article I wrote for Australian Birding
  and  is  reproduced  here  with  the  permission  of the editor, Margaret
  Cameron.   There are some good pictures in that magazine as well as other
  great material from around Australia and the world.)

  Lord Howe Island

  Lord  Howe is a delight.  It still has much of its habitat intact and the
  development  is  mostly  contained  and  sympathetic.   It is easy to get
  around  with  a  combination  of walking and being driven by the courtesy
  buses  that  all  the lodges have.  We did not indulge in the traditional
  form  of transport - bicycles.  There are only 200 permanent residents on
  the island, with only 400 tourists allowed at any one time.

  The  scenery is fantastic with the mountains, the sea and the coral reef.
  I  was  continually  assured that the snorkelling was great, but I didn?t
  seem  to  get  the  time  from birding to indulge.  Mount Gower and Mount
  Lidgbird  are  majestic and worth exploring as the Lord Howe Woodhens are
  there  and  Providence  Petrels  and  Red-tailed Tropicbirds breed there.
  Unfortunately,  Providence  Petrels  breed in the winter and they had not
  arrived when we were there.  Apparently, they come in late February.

  The   Woodhens,   of  course,  have  had  a  chequered  history.   Before
  settlement,  they  probably  occurred  over most of the island.  However,
  they  are  apparently good to eat and, with the introduction of predators
  and rats, their numbers declined significantly.  In the seventies, it was
  estimated  that  there  were  fewer  than  three  breeding  pairs and the
  population  was confined to the slopes of Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird.
  A  captive  breeding  program and control of predators has meant that the
  population has recovered and they again occur in the lowlands.

  Our  group  did the fairly demanding walk up to the Goat House.  It was a
  steep haul half-way up the south side of Mount Lidgbird.  It was worth it
  scenically  with  fantastic views of the island and Ball?s Pyramid in the
  distance  and  we saw breeding Red-tailed Tropicbirds on the ledges as we
  scrambled  past.   However,  it  should not be attempted by unfit or more
  elderly  people.   Our  seventy-year-olds  had to use great care and were
  very tired at the end.

  The  seabirds  are  also  great.   White  Terns are common in the Norfolk
  Island pines; Black-winged Petrels breed along the cliffs; Masked Boobies
  are  easily  scoped on the adjacent islands; Flesh-footed Shearwaters are
  present  in  big  numbers around the island; and Grey Ternlets are common
  along  the  more  remote  cliffs.   (These  are best reached by boat in a
  round-the-island  trip  or  on  a  visit  to  the Admiralty Islets to the

  We  found  quite  a  reasonable  number  of waders on some of the beaches
  (particularly  North  Bay), along the rocky shores and at the airport and
  adjacent  golf  course.   The  best  were  Wandering Tattler and Latham?s
  Snipe.   Common  Noddies  were  common  and Black Noddies were present in
  reasonable  numbers,  especially in North Bay, where there was a breeding
  colony  in the Norfolk Island pines.  The vagrants we hoped to find (such
  as  Hudsonian  Godwit  and the New Zealand vagrants on migration) did not

  The  land  birding  is more limited, but still quite interesting.  We saw
  the  New  Zealand  race  of  the Shining Bronze-Cuckoo on the Mount Gower
  track  and  races  of  the  Emerald  Dove  and Golden Whistler.  The Pied
  Currawong  race  here has quite a different call.  The local Silvereye is
  currently   included  with  lateralis,  which  was  introduced  in  1918.
  However, it may be a separate species, tephropleura, described by Gould.

  One  of  the most exciting potential destinations is Ball?s Pyramid, 30km
  southeast  of the island.  A 550m-high volcanic pinnacle, it has breeding
  populations  of  interesting  seabirds.   However,  getting there is very
  difficult.   This  is because the local boat owners don?t like to operate
  in rough weather, ?rough? apparently being defined as anything with waves
  likely  to  upset the most delicate of constitutions.  We had a very hard
  time  convincing  two  operators  that birders were different and that we
  were  prepared to risk seasickness to get to the Pyramid.  They were also
  very  unprofessional,  strongly advising John and me not to go because of
  the weather and then quietly telling the others that ?the leaders did not
  want to get their binoculars wet?.  Funny, if they hadn?t meant it.

  Eventually (and nearly too late), we found a more sympathetic owner (from
  the  Beachcomber  Lodge)  and his boat driver (Jack Schick, who leads the
  walks up Mount Gower), and so got to Ball?s Pyramid.  But, be warned that
  some  operators  string  you  along.   Many  (most?) people don?t make it
  because  they  aren?t  in  a  position  to argue that the weather and sea
  conditions  really  are  all  right  (or at least safe) and that they are
  prepared to risk seasickness.

  However,  getting to Ball?s Pyramid is more than worth the effort.  It is
  an amazing spectacle and we saw the two species that we did not expect to
  see elsewhere (Kermadec Petrel and White-bellied Storm-Petrel) along with
  thousands  of  other seabirds.  It was also rough, as a big storm blew up
  on  the  way  back, and some of us got seasick, but it was one of the two
  major  trip  highlights.  The storm was also memorable, dumping more than
  14  inches  of  rain  on  Lord  Howe  in  less  than  twenty-four  hours,
  temporarily closing the airport.  While we were returning in the boat, we
  lost  Lord  Howe  Island  in the mist and rain for long periods.  I don?t
  think  I would like to be out there without a GPS as a back-up, no matter
  what the quality of the boat driver.

  After  a  week,  we moved on to Norfolk Island, having logged 46 species.
  The  inter-island plane normally seats eight, so in order to take nine of
  us,  I had to occupy the co-pilot?s seat (I thought I did the co-piloting
  very  well)  and  our luggage went via Sydney.  It turned up twelve hours
  later.   There  was a strict weight limit (and we were physically weighed
  twice  and  allowed  5  kg  of hand luggage).  We were flying into strong
  headwinds  and  there is no land between the two islands.  The company is
  quite  concerned that the plane doesn?t run out of fuel when it is nearly
  to Norfolk.

  Norfolk Island

  After  nearly  three  hours  flying,  we  arrived on Norfolk Island.  The
  contrast   was  amazing.   While  the  Norfolk  Island  pines  are  quite
  beautiful,  most  of the original rainforest has been cleared, except for
  one  area  of  460  hectares.   The  remainder  is  farmland  and  modest
  development.   It was quite a shock to see urban sprawl, untidy front and
  backyards  and intrusive power-poles after the natural conditions of Lord
  Howe.   There  are 2,000 people on the island, plus tourists, so it seems
  overcrowded in comparison to Lord Howe.  Our motel was servicable, but it
  wasn?t  located  in the forest with the birds and scenery of our previous
  abode.   Most  of  the  island?s  motels  offer  free cars as part of the
  accommodation  package.   Our cars were about the size of matchboxes with
  not much go.  We felt very sorry for the three ladies, one of whom had to
  sit in a minute back seat.

  Norfolk has a (relatively) long and interesting history and is one of the
  duty-free  shopping  capitals  of the world.  We did not seem to find the
  time  to properly appreciate the former and only indulged modestly in the
  latter.  The birds were our attraction.

  On  Norfolk,  we  quickly  contacted  one  of the birding stalwarts, Owen
  Evans,  who  was  incredibly helpful.  On the first night (and on several
  subsequent  nights),  he  had us out looking for Norfolk Island Boobooks.
  This  turned  out  to  be  quite frustrating.  We looked for them on five
  nights  in  four  locations.   We heard several of them, but couldn?t get
  near  them  in the thick vegetation, so in the end had to be content with
  listening to them instead of seeing them.

  This  owl was nearly extinct.  In the late eighties, there was supposedly
  only  one  female  left.   (Owen  thinks  there were two.)  On scientific
  advice,  two closely related New Zealand Moreporks were imported to breed
  with  the  female(s).   With more active rat control and the provision of
  artificial  nest-boxes,  the  recovery  program has been very successful,
  with  over twenty owls now being recorded.  The problem we did not get to
  address  if  we  had  seen  them is what do you record them as, given the
  mixed gene pool.

  While  the  Norfolk endemics have taken a significant battering since the
  island?s  settlement  with  quite a few extinctions, there are still some
  endemics  to  find.   We quickly located the Norfolk Island Gerygone, the
  Slender-billed White
-eye and, surprisingly, the Red-crowned Parakeet.  We
  were led to believe the latter would be hard to see, but we had many good
  views  along  the paths of the National Park.  We were told that there is
  now more than a hundred of them on the island.  The local Flora and Fauna
  Society on the island gave us some good information on current bird sites
  and it also runs an excellent natural history museum.

  We  tried  very  hard to find the ?extinct? White-chested White-eye.  The
  locals  still  see  it occasionally (the last time being six weeks before
  our  arrival),  but  the  person  in  charge  of  the  recovery  plan for
  Environment  Australia  does  not  believe  it still exists.  Much of our
  birding time was spent on the few paths in the rainforest where there are
  ?recent? records, but it did not appear for us.

  However,  some  of  the endemic subspecies are most interesting, with the
  Scarlet  Robin particularly appearing and behaving quite differently from
  ours.  Other races of interest were the Golden Whistler (the males we saw
  have  no black or white patterning, only a yellow wash), Grey Fantail and
  Emerald Dove.

  The  other major highlight of the trip was Phillip Island.  Now under the
  control  of  Environment Australia (from whom we had to obtain a permit),
  it  is slowly recovering from the ravages of goats, pigs and rabbits.  It
  was  practically  denuded in the late eighties when the last rabbits were
  removed  and  had incredible erosion problems.  Now, significant areas of
  vegetation  are  coming back, some with human help, and the large seabird
  rookery is thriving.

  While  not quite as bad as Ball?s Pyramid, getting there is still a major
  effort.   The  landing is made on a rock shelf, a tricky exercise even if
  there  is not much swell.  The local boat operator, Mike Simpson, is very
  capable  and  experienced  and  got us on and off the island efficiently,
  quickly and safely.

  We  spent  on  amazing twenty-four hours on the island, with Owen and his
  wife,  Beryl.   There  were  myriads  of nesting seabirds, including Grey
  Ternlets,  Masked  Boobies  and  Black-winged  Petrels.   A  long night?s
  birding gave us nesting White-necked Petrels (discovered by Owen in early
  1990?s),   resting  (and  perhaps  nesting)  Kermadec  Petrels  (a  small
  population  we  did  not  expect)  and  lots  of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters
  (called Ghostbirds locally because of their eerie calls).  Unfortunately,
  we  were too early here, as on Lord Howe, for Little Shearwater, which is
  a  winter nester and had not returned.  On the island at the start of our
  trip,  it  rained  heavily (turning the clay slopes muddy and sticky) and
  making  the  ascent up some quite steep slopes very laborious.  For those
  of us carrying extra luggage, it was very demanding and tiring.

  Phillip  Island  then  produced a long magic, starry night for our wander
  among  the various rookeries.  It showed that nature?s powers of recovery
  are  substantial if the causes are reduced and some modest help is given.
  It  also  proved  what  amateur  birders  can achieve as we came to fully
  appreciated  how  much  Owen,  Beryl and their small band of helpers have
  learnt from their observations and work over many years.


  On 22 February, after seeing 45 species on Norfolk Island and 61 overall,
  our  party  returned  to Australia with a wonderful experience behind it,
  made  all  the  more amazing by the fact that four of us were in, or very
  close  to,  the  seventy  age  bracket.  I think that several of us still
  can?t  quite  believe  what  we actually got up to, with mountain hiking,
  boat  trips  and  cliff-climbing  among  some  of  the  more  interesting

  The  timing  of  our  trip aimed at seeing all the summer breeders to the
  islands  and  at giving us a chance to see the returning winter breeders.
  The two particular winter birds of interest, Providence Petrel and Little
  Shearwater,  were  not  seen,  but whether they were not there or we just
  missed  seeing  them I cannot say.  In reality, February appears to be an
  excellent  month  given  the number of breeding seabirds we saw.  I don?t
  think  it  is  probable  that  all the island breeders can be seen in one
  visit.   We  will  have  to  return  for  the  winter possibilities.  (We
  subseuently  learned  on our return that the Little Shearwaters turned up
  on Phillip Island the week after we left.  Very frustrating.)

  There  are  a number of useful and interesting books on the islands.  The
  Norfolk  Island  Flora  and  Fauna Society has a range of natural history
  publications for sale.  However, the most relevant, the ?Birds of Norfolk
  Island? by Neil Hermes of Wonderland Publications, Norfolk Island, is out
  of  print.   ?Birds  of  Lord  Howe  Island,  Past and Present? by Hutton
  (self-published)   is   very   informative.   More  general  tourist-type
  information  can  be  tracked  down  through  a  travel  agent.  For more
  specific  bird  information, HANZAB covers these islands and has detailed
  species accounts for many of the birds of interest.

  The  length of our trip, one week on each island, was the subject of some
  comment  from  our  correspondents,  some  of whom thought we needed much
  longer.   We found the timing quite reasonable.  Most of the endemics and
  sea-birds  were  easily  and  quickly located.  The last few days on each
  island  were  spent revisiting previous sites and looking for vagrants or
  the  near-extinct  White-chested White-eye.  While I wouldn?t claim I was
  anywhere  near  bored,  by  the  end  of each week, I thought we had done
  enough  on  each  island  and  was  ready  to move on.  The exception was
  Phillip Island, where we could have spent a couple more days and nights.

  Finally,  our trip was made so successful because of the help we had from
  many  people.   The most notable were Owen and Beryl Evans on Norfolk and
  we  extend  them  our  heartfelt  thanks.   A good travel agent is also a
  necessity   for  finding  out  detailed  organisational  information  and
  arranging  bookings  and  ours  did  an  excellent job.  Thanks to Jetset
  Travel Ormond and Hazel in particular.

  Anyone  who  wants more detailed information or contacts should feel free
  to contact John or me.

  Chris Lester
  Ascot Vale

  Species List

  Red Junglefowl                         NI
  California Quail                       NI
  Mallard                 LH        NI
  Pacific Black Duck                LH        NI
  Kermadec Petrel                   BP        PI
  White-necked Petrel                              PI
  Black-winged Petrel               LH   BP   NI   PI
  Wedge-tailed Shearwater           LH   BP   NI   PI
  Flesh-footed Shearwater           LH   BP
  White-bellied Storm-Petrel        LH   BP
  Red-tailed Tropicbird             LH   BP   NI   PI
  Masked Booby            LH   BP   NI   PI
  Great Cormorant              LH
  Great Frigatebird                           PI
  White-faced Heron            LH        NI
  Nankeen Kestrel              LH        NI   PI
  Buff-banded Rail             LH
  Lord Howe Woodhen       LH
  Purple Swamphen              LH        NI
  Latham's Snipe               LH
  Bar-tailed Godwit            LH        NI
  Whimbrel                     LH        NI
  Eastern Curlew               LH
  Marsh Sandpiper              LH
  Common Greenshank       LH
  Grey-tailed Tattler               LH        NI
  Wandering Tattler            LH        NI
  Ruddy Turnstone              LH        NI
  Red Knot                     LH
  Red-necked Stint             LH
  Pacific Golden Plover        LH        NI
  Double-banded Plover         LH        NI
  Masked Lapwing               LH        NI
  Sooty Tern                   LH   BP   NI   PI
  Common Noddy            LH   BP   NI   PI
  Black Noddy                  LH   BP   NI   PI
  Grey Ternlet                 LH   BP   NI   PI
  White Tern                   LH   BP   NI   PI
  Rock Dove                    LH        NI   PI
  Emerald Dove            LH        NI
  Crimson Rosella                        NI
  Red-crowned Parakeet                   NI
  Shining Bronze-Cuckoo        LH
  Norfolk Island Boobook (heard)              NI
  Sacred Kingfisher            LH        NI   PI
  Norfolk Island Gerygone                     NI
  Scarlet Robin                          NI
  Golden Whistler              LH        NI
  Magpie-lark                  LH
  Grey Fantail                           NI
  Masked Woodswallow                     NI
  Pied Currawong               LH
  House Sparrow                          NI
  European Greenfinch                         NI
  European Goldfinch                          NI
  Welcome Swallow              LH
  Silvereye                    LH        NI
  Slender-billed White-eye                    NI
  Common Blackbird             LH        NI
  Song Thrush                  LH        NI
  Common Starling              LH        NI   PI

  LH ? Lord Howe Island
  BP ? On boat trip to Ball?s Pyramid
  NI ? Norfolk Island
  PI ? Phillip Island
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