Lord Howe Island is the second significantly populated island in the Tasman Sea
between New South Wales and New Zealand. Lee and I recently spent an enjoyable
week there (following a week on Norfolk Island).
Europeans arrived in the 19th century, but there were not the hordes of
convicts or settlers that decimated Norfolk Island. Pigs, cats and rats
certainly wiped out a number of endemic species, but Lord Howe has far more
area in a natural condition than Norfolk. The pigs and cats have been removed,
but rats are an ongoing problem (we saw a few running about). There is a plan
to clear the rats from the island using a similar approach used on Macquarie
Island, but the timing has been pushed back due to local politics.
I purchased and downloaded a copy of the 1:25,000 scale topo map of LHI
(0734-4N Lord Howe Island.pdf 38.4 MB) from the NSW govt website
(www.lpi.nsw.gov.au) for about $6. Being a high res pdf, I could blow the map
up to the equivalent of 1:10,000 and print A3 sized sections to take on the
Spatially, you could divide LHI onto three parts.
At the northern end, you have the a series of low hills with sea cliffs running
from North Head over Mt Eliza and Kims Lookout to Malabar Hill. I would
characterise the vegetation is coastal scrub / vine forest, and you can
traverse it in a series of tracks. The Admiralty Islands lie to the north-east
of Malabar and North Beach/North Bay are to the south of Mt Eliza.
The settled lowlands run south-west from Old Settlement Beach over Transit Hill
to Blinky beach, the airport and the golf course. The western beaches running
along The Lagoon are a major focus of the tourist industry. There has been a
fair bit of habitat modification in this section.
The southern highlands make up about half the area of the island and include
the iconic peaks of Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower. With the exception of a small
area south of the golf course, this section is predominantly natural (mixed
rainforest). The iconic rock stack, Balls Pyramid, lies a further 20 km south
LHI has a subtropical island paradise climate, with temperatures reflecting
ocean currents (In Feb, mean temps range from 21 - 26 C, in August, mean temps
range from 14 - 19C). LHI gets a fair bit of rain - averaging 1645 mm per
year. It is wettest in Jun (173 mm per month) and driest in Dec (102 mm) - see
http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/averages/tables/cw_200839.shtml . As was the
case on Norfolk Island, LHI was in drought when we arrived, and the lodge we
stayed at was using desalination to supplement its water supply.
Aside from the odd palm plantation and government service inputs, the LHI
economy appears to be totally dependent on tourism. Fortunately, a
combination of government regulation and a relatively short runway means that
the island has not been overrun by commercial development.
Visitors stay in lodges. There is no camping or hotel style accommodation. I
think most places offer self-contained options, though there are places where
all meals are included. Most lodges have a cafe / restaurant which serves both
lodgers and visitors. At the more popular places, you book by writing your
name on a sheet on the front counter.
Lee and I stayed at the Beachcomber Lodge which was about a kilometre up the
hill from the post office. It’s restaurant was open 4 nights per week. It was
particularly popular on the burger nights, where you could get mains and desert
for $25. The fish fry night was also popular ($30 for mains). One
establishment we visited had $20 entrees, $40 mains and $20 deserts.
The lodges offer a free evening taxi service. At a pre-arranged time
(typically 6.30 pm) your lodge manager will drive you to your eatery of choice.
When you have finished eating, the restaurant will drive you back. Or you can
walk back (if you are interested in looking for owls).
On the shopping front, there are three general stores, a whole food co-op, a
liquor store and the museum. Unlike Norfolk Island, it is easy to get fresh
food, and there is a fair bit to choose from. Just remember that everything is
expensive and you don’t get itemised receipts.
Joy’s store (Middle Beach Rd - up from the museum) is the largest and has the
best variety of groceries. Because there is a significant Adventist population
on the island, Joy’s is well stocked with Sanitarium products - I found the
original granola, a product I haven’t seen in a Brisbane supermarket for many
years. It is also the spot to look for non-prescription pharmaceuticals.
Thompson’s store is conveniently located on Neds Beach Rd in the settlement
near the PO. It has a limited range and is a good place to get pies from.
The Top shop is a small establishment with an ancient fuel bowser (I think fuel
costs about $3 per litre) and has limited opening hours. It has a good range
of fresh stuff and puts together BBQ packs - handy for people who want to watch
the Flesh-footed Shearswaters flying into their burrows at Neds Beach.
While LHI isn’t the car-free paradise it used to be (they changed the rules and
virtually all the residents have motor vehicles now) the speed limit is 25
km/hr and there are few hire cars. So one of the first things you do when you
arrive is to hire a bike from Wilsons cycles (conveniently located on Lagoon
Rd) opposite the tour operators. A 7 day bike hire was $50 - the bikes are
male and female frame hybrids. I wound up with a 7 speed coaster hub boat
anchor. The basket on the front was handy for carrying stuff, but the bike’s
ergonomics made riding up Middle Beach Rd difficult. If your tyres need
pumping up or there is a problem with the bike, you just call in on the shop
and the bike is fixed or replaced.
In contrast to Norfolk Island, there are plenty of Telstra phone boxes for
calling home. There is also a free phone for calling people on the island in
the “info centre” near Thompson’s store. It’s handy for making arrangements
with the local service operators …
There are two things that you really want to do if you are able to when you
visit LHI. The first is to get out to Balls Pyramid. It’s a very impressive
rock stack, and it’s the spot where the Grey Noddies (Terns) hang out. There
are hundreds loafing on the rocks around the pyramid. You also get to see
White-bellied Storm-Petrels and Flesh-footed Shearwaters on the way over. The
pyramid is about a hour’s travel in a speed boat from The Lagoon.
Jack Shick runs birding trips out to the pyramid see
http://www.lordhoweislandtours.net/balls-pyramid-bird-watching . Unfortunately
Ian Hutton was running his bird week when we were on the island so Jack’s boat
(which only takes half a dozen passengers) was tied up with Ian’s crew.
Fortunately, Gary Payton, the manager of Beachcomber lodge has a speedboat that
he runs tours of the pyramid in (http://beachcomberlhi.com.au/ourboat.php ) He
has a 4 passenger minimum ($100 per head) for the 3 hour round trip. He isn’t
as bird focussed as Jack, but he knows the resident species and he did stop
when I spotted a bird on the water. Both Gary and Jack’s boats are small and
the tours are weather dependent (you aren’t likely to get out of the sea is too
Wilsons have a larger boat that takes up to 18 people
(http://lordhoweisland.info.tmp.anchor.net.au/tours/mv-carina/?pid=2 ) but it
may be a bit harder to get out to the pyramid on that boat while you are on the
island (it is likely to be tied up with fishing charters and you need to get a
larger group together). I think Greenback Fishing & Scenic Charters
(http://www.fishlordhowe.com.au/birdwatching_greenback.htm ) also visits the
The other thing you want to do, if you are fit enough, and on the island during
the Providence Petrel breeding season, is to go up Mt Gower. The system on the
island says that you are supposed to have a guide when you go up Gower. There
is a 850 metre climb from sea level, there is a fair bit of rock scrambling and
there is some potential exposure to falling rocks. The potentially difficult
bits have fixed ropes. The guided requirement provides three benefits - it
generates revenue for the locals (the fee is about $60 per head, more if you
require transport to the start of the walk), it probably reduces the number of
accidents and searches for lost walkers, and it stops visitors trampling
Ian Hutton describes the route in his bushwalking guide (available in the
shops) and it is marked on the topo map. Basically you walk along the beach,
climb up to a broad ledge which you traverse along for a couple of hundred
metres (wearing helmets stored in a garbage bin). You then angle up to the
saddle between Lidgbird and Gower, crossing a creek along the way. The
scrambling starts at the “Getup Place” and you climb about 300 metres to the
summit. There is a rescue stretcher part way up this section. There is a lot
of ecological variation along the route and there are four species of palm
growing at different altitudes.
I would have preferred to have gone up with Dean Hiscox
(http://www.lordhoweislandtours.com ) but his walks are on Sundays (the day of
the week we flew in and departed) and Wednesdays (the only day we could get out
to Balls Pyramid), so I went on Jack Shick’s walk (he goes up in Mondays and
Thursdays). Because his Monday walk was cancelled due to rain, he had an
overlarge group on the Thursday with a number of people who struggled on the
I found the best approach was to hang back off the tail and focus on the
environment rather than being stuck behind the person in front. I had a great
time, because there was plenty to photograph. We entered the cloud around the
getup place, which made the lush mossy rainforest nicer. The best thing was
the circling Providence Petrels. Not only could you photograph them on the
wing (they come in close enough to photograph with a landscape zoom lens) you
could also photograph them on the ground. They landed in the canopy and then
dropped to the ground. One brushed my hat and landed at my feet. They would
take a bit of time to collect their wits then head off to their burrows. I got
plenty of closeup pix of the petrels, as well as the wood hens, who were
looking for handouts on the summit.
Other birds nesting on the island included the Flesh-footed Shearwaters,
Black-winged Petrels, Red-tailed Tropicbirds and Sooty Terns. Ned’s Beach (a
popular fish-feeding spot with a fish food dispenser - $1 per container load)
is a short walk from Beachcomber Lodge and Lee and I popped round late one
afternoon to watch the shearwaters come in to their burrows. The wood hens
were happy to fossick around us as we waited for dusk. The shearwaters came
swooping in the deepening twilight - I don’t think they can see too well in the
dark - we saw a pair collide in the air and had several come very close to
where we were sitting (you would be more likely to be hit if you were standing
The tropicbirds nest on sea cliff ledges around the island. You may walk past
a couple of nesting birds in season when you visit Goat House Cave (below the
cliffs on Mt Lidgbird). The climb is about half the height of Mt Gower and the
is a bit of a pointer as to how you would fare going up Gower if you are unsure
of your abilities. The walk around to the lookout towards Balls Pyramid took
me past two nesting birds - they had a pinkish glow to their plumage.
The Sooty Terns nest around Mt Eliza. There’s a track running from Old
Settlement Beach over a ridge and down to the sheltered picnic area on North
Bay and a connecting track up to Mt Eliza. The track to the summit is closed
at a point about halfway up during the breeding season (and officially reopens
on 16 March). The top of Mt Eliza is a good spot to watch the tropicbirds
zooming about and has good views of the northern sea cliffs.
There were a few immature sootys hanging around the beach on North Bay, as well
as a lone Common Tern (an infrequent visitor to the island). The state of the
latter’s plumage had me wondering if it were a Black Tern in non-breeding
plumage, but the people who confirmed it was a Common Tern reminded me of the
shortcomings of the illustrations in the Pizzey and Knight handbook I had been
No fishing is allowed in North Bay. The subsequent ecological outcome has been
a resurgence of sea grass and hence a good feeding spot for shorebirds at low
tide. The other main area for seeing shorebirds on the island is the grassy
plain around the airfield - you can get fairly close to the birds when you are
peddling along the main road.
Overall, the bush birds on LHI were very tame. I came close to running over a
number of Emerald Ground Doves and could comfortably photograph the whistlers,
silvereyes and wood hens with my landscape lens. The front lawn of the lodge I
was staying in was regularly patrolled by Buff-banded Rails and Blackbirds
(there are a lot of Blackbirds on the island). Most of the bush birds are are
endemic taxa - the Peewees would be an exception (I think they were introduced).
Of course, one of the enjoyable activities on LHI is snorkelling / scuba diving
on the coral reefs in The Lagoon. Both Lord Howe Environmental Tours and
Marine Adventures (http://www.marineadventures.com.au ) run glass-bottom boat /
snorkelling tours in The Lagoon. The water clarity is excellent and the marine
life is very diverse. The operators supply wetsuits and snorkelling gear.
Marine adventures takes people into North Bay (so you can combine Mt Eliza with
a spot of shore birding and snorkelling). The water temperature was OK in
March, though I was more comfortable wearing a steamer suit (we did an
introductory dive with Pro Dive - http://www.prodivelordhoweisland.com.au )
than a spring suit.
I noticed that a number of tourists on the island were using Olympus Tough TG3
- a camera you could use for both landscape and underwater photography. The
camera is supposed to able to be taken down to depths of 15 metres and to
survive drops from 2 metres. Having a camera like this would mean you could
leave the long lens on the SLR full-time (and avoid the hassle of changing
Overally, LHI is not a cheap place to visit, but you can easily spend a week or
more there. It is a clean, friendly environment and I would happily go back.
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