Lord Howe Island: Strange birds in paradise

You may half expect to see pterodactyls wheeling in the mist – but you can count on a currawong divebombing you.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The blow to the back of my head came with such unexpected force that it knocked me to my knees. I was hiking through a forest of slender palm trees on this boomerang-shaped sliver of land off the east coast of Australia when the attack happened.

A deranged local perhaps, one of the 320 who inhabit this subtropical speck in the South Pacific? Or a crazed tourist gone mad over the island's somnolent ways and 25 kph. speed limit?

Neither, as it happened. Turning round I was met by the beady yellow eyes and malevolent caw of a currawong, a raven-sized bird with the black and white markings of a magpie.

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I'm ashamed to say I was spooked enough to lob a couple of stones at it to prevent another dive bomb. Both missed.

"If you get too close to their nests during the breeding season they do tend to divebomb you," a cheery local told me later.

World Heritage-listed Lord Howe is big on birds. It may be only seven miles long and two miles wide, but it's a haven for half a million birds, from masked boobies to fleshy-footed shearwaters.

"This is one of the great seabird islands of the world," says Ian Hutton, the island's resident Bird Man, who came here in the early 1980s to run the weather station and was so bewitched by the local fauna and flora that he never left.

More than 180 bird species have been recorded on this speck of land. Delicately featured white terns nest on the branches of pine trees next to the post office, sooty terns peer curiously from sand dunes, and wood hens wander nonchalantly into restaurants.

Life on the island is defined by birds – they bring in big-spending tourists from mainland Australia and around the world, many of them keen ornithologists. Flightless birds such as the purple swamp hen are given right of way on the island's single road, and shearwaters nest in burrows beneath people's houses.

Fortunately for the local wildlife, mankind's imprint on Lord Howe has been light.

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Situated 430 miles northeast of Sydney, the island was uninhabited when it was discovered in 1788 by a British ship supplying the newly established penal colony of Sydney Cove. It was visited for the next 45 years by Royal Navy vessels and whaling ships working the South Pacific. It was permanently settled in 1884 by three families who lived by selling vegetables, fish, and meat to passing crews. The pioneers were a motley bunch of British sailors and American whalers and their Maori and Pacific Islander wives. Only 10 percent of the island has been cleared for farming and housing; the rest is swathed in palm forest.

A three-mile-long coral reef encloses an idyllic lagoon inhabited by turtles and tropical fish. Beaches fringed by rocky headlands are overlooked at one end of the island by the twin bulwarks of Mt. Gower and Mt. Lidgbird, with sheer cliffs and jungle-clad summits reminiscent of Tahiti. Their mysterious plateaus evoke a lost world – you half expect to see pterodactyls wheeling over the mist-shrouded forest. If you sat down with a pen and paper to sketch the perfect sub-tropical island escape, this would be it.

But there is a serpent in paradise – or rather a rodent. In 1918 the cargo from a shipwreck was unloaded on a beach, and black rats escaped into the forest. Voracious and agile, they feasted on bird eggs and fledglings. Within a few years, five bird species had become extinct. The rats remain a problem to this day.

Now there is a highly ambitious plan, called the "Noah option," to wipe out the entire population of rats by trapping as many native animals, reptiles, and amphibians as possible and placing them in enclosures – a modern-day Noah's Ark. Most of the island's birds are migratory so the exercise would be carried out when they leave the island. Poison pellets would then be dropped by aircraft over the entire island in order to kill off all the rats.

The operation, expected sometime in the next few years, would probably be carried out by experts from New Zealand's Department of Conservation, who are world leaders in offshore island pest eradication. Wildlife rangers would have to be 100 percent sure that every last rodent had been killed before releasing the captive animals.

"If we were successful, Lord Howe would become the largest inhabited island in the world to get rid of rats," Mr. Hutton told me as we hiked through the palm forest. "We look forward to the day when it happens."

Among the animals that could then be re-introduced to Lord Howe is a giant stick insect that was recently found to have survived on a rat-free rocky outcrop here called Ball's Pyramid. Nicknamed the "walking sausage" or "land lobster," it's one of the biggest (up to six inches long) and rarest bugs in the world.

Lord Howe has managed to get rid of three introduced species in the past century – goats, feral cats, and pigs. The pigs were responsible for pushing to the brink of extinction the rare Lord Howe wood hen. By the 1970s there were just 37 here. The last wood hens have only survived by retreating to the top of 2,870 foot-high Mt. Gower, where a sheer-sided slab of rock prevented feral hogs from reaching the summit.

"We call this the get-up place," says Jack Shick, a fifth-generation islander and one of two guides licensed to take visitors on the grueling climb up Mt. Gower, an eight-hour round trip. "If you can get up and over it, you're better than a pig."

Along with a dozen other hikers in our group, I hauled myself up with the aid of a muddy, greasy rope and footholds cut into the granite. Mr. Shick, a fit-looking 40-something, barely broke a sweat on this, his 1,074th ascent.

At long last we reached the mist-shrouded plateau covered in gnarled, stunted trees, their twisting limbs clothed in thick green moss. A lone wood hen poked for grubs among the ferns and lichens. The remnant population was hauled back from the brink of extinction by captive breeding in the 1980s. Hundreds of the gentle-natured brown rails now wander the forests here.

***

There's an innocence about Lord Howe that seems straight out of the pages of an Enid Blyton adventure. Bikes are rented without locks, neat stacks of firewood are left beside the many public barbecue sites, and at Ned's Beach, one of the island's finest, an unattended wooden shed full of snorkeling equipment operates on an honor system – you pay for what you use.

A single road extends from one end of the island to the other, and most people get around on foot or by bicycle. There are no bars or clubs – just a handful of decent restaurants and discreet lodges. And the handful of cars bear bumper stickers that read "Lord Howe Island – somewhere off the Australian coast."

On my last day I walked one of the island's most scenic tracks, from Ned's Beach (voted Australia's cleanest beach) to Malabar Hill and along the cliffs to Mt. Eliza, where there's a magnificent view of the entire island. There, pristine-white tropical birds with two scarlet quills extending from their tails soared high above and sooty terns flitted about at shoulder height.

It was descending the path to Old Settlement Beach, beneath palms casting tiger-stripe shadows, that I encountered my avian attacker.

"They do tend to get a bit territorial – much more so than currawongs on the mainland of Australia," says Hutton. "The ones we have here are an endemic subspecies – they're found nowhere else in the world," he added proudly. Just as well those stones didn't hit their mark.

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