Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Whales at Norfolk Island

The annual migration of humpback whales is under way, with a number of sightings having been reported around the island over recent weeks. At this time of year the whales are heading north from their Antarctic feeding grounds, and they are moving pretty steadily so as to reach warmer waters where their calves can be safely born without fear of freezing to death.
Despite best attempts at keeping the required distance away from the whales, there are times when their curiosity gets the better of them and they make their presence felt around fishng boats. The excellent image above was captured by Brian Buffett at Norfolk Island, on such an occasion.
A week ago we watched 3 pods for a couple of hours, spectacularly breaching and slapping the water with their fins, and apparently in no hurry to leave our shores. One observer with a clifftop home providing excellent views reported that at least one of our 3 pods of whales already had a calf with it, which might account for their slow progress.

The return journey sees numbers peak during October. Research is ongoing to determine where 'our' whales are headed for calving. We do know that at least one radio-tracked humpback in recent years has come through Norfolk after leaving New Caledonia . This is a logical route to follow along the submarine Norfolk Ridge which runs between New Caledonia and New Zealand with Norfolk Island being the only place where it emerges through the ocean's surface.

The commercial taking of whales as they migrated through Norfolk's waters was historically an important component of the island's economy at various times. The whaling station at Cascade was operating until 1964.
The recovery of whales numbers at Norfolk is not as spectacular as the populations that migrate along the east coast of Australia, and research is under way to find out why.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Avian Winter Surprises

The winds are blowing straight from Antarctica, or that's how they feel. We've had strong southerlies for weeks and a fresh blast of rain and wind has arrived in the last few days. When all the folks along the east coast of Australia heave a big sigh of relief because the low pressure systems move out to sea, that's when we know it's time to batten down the hatches. Deluges of rain driven by strong winds are visiting us, mostly at night. We've had a long overnight power outage and many tree limbs falling, but no severe damage to property as far as I know. We are never sure where the exhausted birds arrive from, but it's pretty certain that something unexpected will find its way here when the winds are so strong.

Our most recent arrival has been a Great Egret, which soon found the Royal Spoonbill that had only arrived days earlier, and they have been sifting the freshwater drains and wetland areas of Kingston together since they arrived. Here they are seen happily feeding in the shadow of the convict-built hospital and the rock wall that shores up the sides of a road constructed in the earliest days of the penal settlement (1788-1854).

It's very interesting to have the Great Egret here at the same time as a growing flock of Cattle Egrets.

From an original 6 birds the group of Cattle Egrets has gradually grown to 19 since May, and for local birdwatchers seeing the size difference in person , especially the long sinuous neck of the rarer Great Egret, is a hundred times more informative than seeing them in bird books.
The Cattle Egrets, (fairly regular Winter visitors) seem to enjoy the company of a flock of sheep on the steep hill above the Watermill Dam (see images of the dam in previous blog re feral ducks), as well as some of our local cattle, and have no hesitation in moving around the island to the north-west for a few days, then east and then back to the south.

Most interesting of all however has been the exhausted Fairy Prion that was spotted and photographed by John and Sue O'Malley arriving and resting on the reef at low tide during another strong southerly wind period in early July. I've made a number of enquiries and have so far been unable to unearth a previous record of this species here, so it may be a first.

With Anson, Cassidy and Lilli King we waded out and removed the little bird from the reef where the incoming tide would have swamped it within hours. Next morning when we checked on it in the sheltered location where we'd placed it above the high water mark, we found that it had quietly died during the night.

One can only wonder how many hundreds of birds are blown offshore or from waters around New Zealand, Australia, even New Caledonia perhaps, and never find the tiny speck of land that is Norfolk Island.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Winter Surprises and Visitors at Norfolk Island

When the Summer breeding seabirds leave the island around late April to mid-May it seems a bit strange and quiet. No longer the angelic white terns flutter overhead and repeatedly come ashore with fish adeptly lined up in a row in their beak for their ever-hungry young. The adult birds, athough appearing frail have the toughness required of seabirds. It's a hard life for them all, especially when demanding chicks are constantly on the lookout for their return from fishing trips. They barely drop the small fish into the gaping beak before they are off again on another foraging trip.

It can seem as if nothing will happen until they return, but then it starts to get interesting.

Around Easter the weather changes down a gear, the temperatures drop and the heat and humidity give way to fresher, crisp days. We experience the majority of our rainfall in the Winter months, welcome and refreshing after the rainless (but humid) hot Summer over Christmas. The wind shifts to the South, the sea becomes rougher at the southern end of the island, and birds start to appear unexpectedly, blown off course or out to sea from other lands when they get caught up in the storms.

First we saw Swamp Harriers Circus approximans high overhead, which regularly arrive from New Zealand to our south, where they are very abundant. Most years in the Autumn 2 or 3 will arrive and hunt over Norfolk and the offshore islands for much of the Autumn and Winter months. Two have been regularly swooping above Nepean Island, about 1km south of Kingston since Easter, and were still there today. They also come ashore and work up and down the valleys. They are highly visible, dark raptors many times larger than the Australasian kestrel, our only other daytime predatory bird.

While other matters have recently distracted me there have been many visitors and blow-ins. In fact I have an embarrassment of riches in my backlog.

In June we were visited by a pair of Glossy Ibis Plegadus falcinellus as usual for the freshwater birds, in the wetlands in the Kingston area. Three of us captured images over the weeks they were here.  This one is John O'Malley's. Only one bird remained after about 2 weeks, and that too has now disappeared.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Emerald Doves

On a recent birding outing a small group of us encountered these Emerald Dove chicks sitting quietly observing us as we walked by. 

Emerald doves are widespread across the island, mostly seen alone, except during the breeding season when groups of up to 8 have been encountered. Occasionally unnaturally large numbers are found flocking where householders feed them.

There is uncertainty about how these gentle birds came to Norfolk. No fossil material has been found to show that they were present before Man came to the island, and no definite records exist of their having been imported intentionally.  It has been suggested that they came to the island with Melanesian islanders who came to the Mission Training College that was established in Norfolk Island in the 1860s by the Church of England.

Thanks to Kerri Hamilton-Irvine for the beautiful image of the dove chicks.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Who are you calling feral?!

They don't come much cuter than this little fluffy duck.
With at least 9 ducklings seen in two clutches this week, we can officially say we are on the first step to these Muscovy ducks being feral on Norfolk Island. Animals must be recorded as breeding in the wild for a number of years before they are officially feral. Here is the proof of the first time breeding of the Muscovy ducks at Norfolk. Along with a lot of fowls (chooks as we call them in this part of the world), many other breeds of ducks, and grey and white geese are deposited in the area of the island known as the Kingston and Arthurs Vale Historic Area (KAVHA). It's a bit like a retirement home for elderly or unwanted poultry of various kinds, which the owners have no inclination to kill for their supper.This could be because of squeamishness or because Henny Penny or Daffy could be a bit too much like a family pet.

 Mother duck and the whole flotilla are spending most of their time paddling on the Watermill Dam these last few days, but when I first found them they were waddling about on the grass, with (apparently) Dad hissing at me when I went near. I could not help but notice how blue his eyes were as he threatened me with violence. (This was a rather awkward situation as the ducklings were continuously coming towards me, and not the other way round.)
The rather unattractive red wattling all over the face of these ducks will be the look of these little yellow ducklings before we know it, so it's a good idea for locals to take the kids to see them while they are still cute as bathtub ducks.

It was an extraordinary day in KAVHA, as I wandered amongst the ruins of the colonial and convict past, as the chooks at every second pace seemed to be cluck-clucking to newly hatched chicks. I frequent this area often and have never seen so many brand new chicks at one time.

The Watermill dam was originally built in 1790, only 2 years after the settlement of the island.  The dam was constructed of earth, and placed at the confluence of three streams, with the swampy ground below it drained by a man-made channel, rendering the area more suitable for agriculture. The stone mill building was a later addition, coming many years later after the first settlement had been abandoned in 1814 and the infamous convict settlement begun in 1825. The mill was constructed in the 1830s and was used for the grinding of grain for the little colony whose population peaked at around 3000.

 The remains of the mill building can be seen nestled below the pines to the right of the picture.
(Double-click on any picture to magnify it.)
Later in the 1830s a report reveals that the earth-walled dam was no longer able to hold water, and stone lining was added to make it more secure. In the days after the Pitcairn settlers arrived, (1856) it was obviously no longer watertight, as it was used as a market garden, and the 2nd generation owner of the property from which this photo was taken tells me it was still a vegetable garden in the 1960s. By the 1970s it was once again being used as a reliable water storage facility.
As well as providing a place for retired farmyard birds, the dam attracts weary travellers which rest here on their way to and from New Zealand, some coming from across the northern Pacific or heading back to Siberia and Alaska to breed. Blown off course we sometimes see spoonbills, cormorants, egrets and of course ducks.

In the image above, the roadside is lined with Norfolk Island pines. The mill is in the shadows cast by the trees at the top end as they march along Aunt Jemima Avenue. It's a lovely custom on the island, that 100 trees are planted to celebrate the 100th birthday of a resident, and Aunt Jemima's avenue was lovingly created by her family and friends in 1971.

(Thanks to Liz at the KAVHA Research Centre for the historical information on the dam, and to Ron for his recollections, and helping me get above the dam and mill for the image.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Norfolk Island has a mostly rocky coastline.

The sandy beaches we have are beautiful and within the reef at the southern end of the island (at Emily Bay and Slaughter Bay, in this picture) the swimming is safe and snorkeling reveals amazingly diverse and interesting marine life. It is especially remarkable given the comparatively small area that so many species of coral, fish and other marine life are found there.  Norfolk's coral reef is the second most southerly reef in the world.

The volcanic origins of the island also provide interesting rock pools formed from lava beds and eroded lava tunnels. A lifetime could be spent examining these small worlds, which provide safe havens for many species and fish nurseries in some where masses of coloured juveniles start their lives.

One of the island's favourite rock pools for snorkeling is called Crystal Pool. It is at Point Ross on the south western end of Norfolk with an access track that assists in keeping the area from being overcrowded, by being a little challenging. It is not recommended to swim there in big seas, as waves have been known to wash into the pool and occasionally take the unsuspecting snorkeler for an unexpected dip in the ocean. Local knowledge about suitable conditions is always wisely sought, anywhere we travel, and that applies equally here .

Similarly, big seas can wash unsuspecting creatures into the pools from time to time, and it is probably for that reason that a large number of stingrays appeared there recently.
The photos here show some of a group of stingrays that found their way into the Crystal Pool in December 2010.

There was a group of about 20, which were possibly just some of an even larger aggregation, some of which were washed into the pool and stranded there for a few days. Very rough seas and high tides had been experienced shortly before the time these were seen. 
Mark Scott (seen here patting one of the rays) provided these photos. Mark's enquiries about the presence of such a large number of these rays led to Jack Marges who ran Norfolk's scuba diving company Bounty Divers, for many years.  Jack has seen large groups of male stingrays regularly but more often encountered them in the open ocean, or tucked away in more open bays and usually a little later in the summer, around February. Large groups have been seen by others at Anson Bay over many years as well.  Jack's previous experience with rays identified them as the Blotched Fantail ray (Taeniurops meyeni)  which was confirmed by Malcolm Francis, a New Zealand-based researcher .(In older publications on Norfolk fishes, this species was called by the earlier names Taeniura meyeni or Taeniura melanospila.)
Mark noted that all the rays were male (identified by the 'claspers' either side of the tail), and Malcolm said that so far it is not known why they gather together this way, however local observations confirm that it is a regular summer event.

There was a further  report of about 26 (possibly) rays seen near shore at Anson Bay in December also.

The group in Crystal Pool gradually reduced in number until there were 3 during the first week of January, and shortly after that they were all gone.

The current operator of Bounty Divers tells me that there have been consistently high numbers of rays being sighted at dive spots around the Norfolk group of islands, particularly at a dive spot known as Swiss Cheese, south of Norfolk.

The water temperature at Norfolk continues to warm
up well past the heat of summer, and swimming in the crystalline waters, surrounded by beautifully coloured fish and interesting corals, anemones and fascinating hard-to-define marine life forms can be enjoyed all year round with only a light wetsuit (if any) required even in the winter.
More underwater images will appear here before too long.

I'm off to the beach now!
Thanks to the Norfolk Island Visitors Information Centre for the aerial image of Emily and Slaughter Bays, and of the snorkelers in a small part of Crystal Pool. Special thanks to Mark Scott for providing this observation, images and research.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

after Cyclone Zelia

It's possible to make fun out of anything when you are young. These learner flyers took advantage of the wind building up before Cyclone Zelia. Happily she reduced her intensity and quickly went through the motions in  a few hours; just like the big storm that had been predicted she went exactly where she was expected to but instead of taking a few days about it, it was all over in a few hours. We would have appreciated some rain but will be grateful that we were not damaged to any extent.

The days after .... It's been sunny days in Norfolk Island, with gentle breezes and clear skies to see the moon rising full and smiling gently over the island in a benign sky. The gentle sou'westerly breeze is bringing welcome relief from the humidity that so often surrounds a cyclone.

The red-tailed tropicbirds are calling overhead and the Tasman boobies are sitting inscrutably on their clifftop, as if nothing happened last night. They would definitely prove themselves to be good confidantes if you needed to tell someone a secret.
The whistles of the black-winged petrels as they circle over their nest burrows bear no resemblance to the howling calls they made last night as they were tucked in on our verandahs sheltering from 135+ kmh winds.

Perhaps by way of apology, we were treated to a beautiful sunset the day after the storm. Just about makes it worthwhile.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cyclone Zelia

Norfolk Island is bracing for the arrival of Cyclone Zelia. We watch the news and weather on Australian tv and the only mention is that this Category 3 cyclone is nothing to worry about as it is heading out to sea.
We have a slightly different view of the world, as we are in the middle of the sea it's heading into.

We have been warned to expect winds of up to 185 kmh, possibly gusting higher and for the first time ever (and we've been through  few of these ) the seas are descibed as dangerous to phenomenal!

 With no harbour all the island's boats use the cranes on the piers to be placed in or pulled out of the water. These pictures of Cascade Pier were taken after Cyclone Ivy. There's the crane, there's the wave, and see below ... now you see it, now you don't!

This is why The Pacific Pearl would not try to unload her passengers today.

The tropical depression that passed through yesterday had been a cyclone that had an identity crisis, forgot its name and just became depressed. It was a fairly good wind, but nothing compared to what we should now be preparing for. The birds are hunkered down behind the grass and have barely moved since Saturday, the winds being persistently quite strong. Only the frigatebirds continue to sail on it in a leisurely way as if it were no more than a wafting breeze.

There will be some rare photo opportunities over the next few days. Trees are destined to fall, and there will be destruction. It's always sad, but it's natures way or renewing and refreshing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Visiting Ships

The first cruise ship for 2011 is due to visit the island early next week.

P & O's Pacific Sun and Pacific Pearl have been coming to the island for over a year now, and visitors almost always wish to stay longer after the glimpse they get during their few hours ashore.

Many of the interesting things about Norfolk are due to her isolation. The difficulty for animals and plants to colonise the island so far from any mainland has given rise to species evolving here unmolested by mammalian predators, the most efficient of which is Man. Until human beings came to Norfolk Island there were over 15 species of birds that could not be found anywhere else, having evolved in the island's isolation to become new species and subspecies. There are now 7 species remaining, the other 8 lost since European settlement.

 There were two species of lizard as well, a gecko and a skink, both of which have only one other home, in the Lord Howe Island group.

 Rats brought to the island by Polynesian seafarers around 800 years ago had completely removed the lizards from the main island (Norfolk) by the time European settlers arrived in 1788, however they continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, on the offshore islands of Phillip and Nepean and on the rocky stacks offshore to the island's north.

It is extraordinary that the rats have never reached those offshore stacks, given that they are only a few hundred metres from the shore.

Had Norfolk been possessed of a harbour there is no doubt that there would have been a permanent population of humans living here when Capt James Cook sailed by in 1774, but there was no human habitation found at that time. It is possible that the isolation and vast distance from any other land may have been a limiting factor in colonisation, and in fact the European settlements were abandoned due to these factors.
It's an interesting fact that every time this island has been settled, it has been devoid of occupants and the new settlers had to discover afresh the useful plants, and other useful materials and animals in order to live off the land.

There are signs of Polynesian settlement, or perhaps long-term visitation. As well as bringing the rats which remain today artifacts have been uncovered both close to stone paving (a marae) in the Kingston area, during archaeological expeditions, and also occasionally discovered in other areas of the island. (Thanks to the Norfolk Island Museums for the image of Polynesian artifacts discovered on the island.)

However the island was empty when Cook 'discovered' it in 1774.
In 1788 when the first Europeans arrived to establish a small colony for the purposes of procuring timber and fibre, it was still empty.

That settlement was disbanded in 1814, when the last of the residents of Norfolk were shipped off to Tasmania and the island remained devoid of humans for 10 years.

The 2nd European settlement, infamous for its cruelty and depravity, as a place for convicts of the worst kind, was established in 1825. The buildings remaining from that era have recently brought World Heritage Listing to the island as a historic site that makes up a part of the story of deportation to the antipodes from England, the other sites from this era being found in the Australian state of Tasmania and on the Australian mainland.

The final settlement that continues today was begun after the convict settlement had been disbanded, and the island was to provide a home for the 194 Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of the Tahitian women who had created a home and community in 1790, with the mutinous sailors from the infamous ship "Bounty", on remote Pitcairn Island, 3000 miles east of Norfolk. The burgeoning population was too large to remain at Pitcairn and Norfolk has been their home since 1856.

Each year on 8 June their arrival is commemorated with a re-enactment of the landing, and a community picnic,  followed by a formal ball in the evening.

The effects of humans on the wildlife of Norfolk have been many, and in many cases tragic.
Had Norfolk had a harbour however, and the island had been settled continuously over the last 800 years, we could possibly have lost every one of our endemic species, and most of the seabirds that nest here and would continue to have incursions through unmanageable arrivals that would have radically changed the face of the island's biota.
Saving what we have left is an important task and the responsibility of all the residents and visitors. The utmost care is required to prevent invasive pests, predators and pathogens.

The majority of our food, vehicles and other requirements come to the island by ship, and have to be brought ashore in small boats called 'lighters'

We look forward to welcoming our visitors, by air or by sea, and it is obvious when visitors come in contact with the local people, that the isolation and distance from many modern 'necessities' are considered a reasonable trade-off for the pleasure and privilege of living in this charismatic and most beautiful of islands.

Sometimes the weather prevents disembarkation from ships, if they are on a schedule that doesn't allow them to wait a few days for the landing places to be more welcoming. As disappointing as it might be, we need to remember that that very difficulty of access is what has kept Norfolk unique in her wildlife, and continues to prevent unchecked arrivals, and therefore the ongoing security of the gentle, fragile biota.