A Different Sense of Direction: the intimacy of Sea and Soil
It seems so long ago now, but during summer, shortly after friends told me they’d seen thousands of shearwaters from their yacht as they were crossing Frederick Henry Bay, we came to Cape Deslacs one evening to watch the shearwaters return to their burrows.
It seemed to me that this, really is the best way to experience the cape – as a refuge for these well travelled birds and so rather than wander its tracks or follow its roads, we sought out the viewing platform.
I’d once seen large flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters (Puffinus tenuirostris) rafting in Port Davey and I’d seen the very first of them return one year from their long migration down the latitudes to Fisher Island, a tiny granite island in the Great Dog Island Group between Flinders and Cape Barren Islands. Those Fisher Island birds have been the subject of a longitudinal monitoring program extending back to the 1950s and because they return literally to the day, we were there when the leaders arrived. A scratching in the soil the next morning gave their presence away.
Although I’d read that they could be seen rafting off Taroona I’d rarely seen any on the Derwent River but when returning from Recherche Bay on Samos we saw for the first time in the D’Entrecasteaux a flock of perhaps two hundred winging their way down the Channel. I’ve been unlucky because these long winged birds are Australia’s most numerous seabirds and while there are no longer flocks of many millions, as the explorer, Matthew Flinders in 1798 asserted he’d seen, the flocks are large enough still to create awe when you see them.
The track to the platform led through native bushland. The day was already darkening and gradually the stars came out. In total there were four of us stargazing on the platform, our sense of self miniaturised by the Milky Way and the looming sky. All around Tasmania and especially around the Bass Strait islands great flocks of shearwaters were on their way home to their burrows but when the first dark shadows flitted overhead we thought at first that they might have been bats.
Aborigines believed they wintered behind the moon. That’s apparently how they got the name ‘moon bird’. They make a good meal and taste like sheep and so they’re more commonly called ‘mutton birds’. They might migrate almost the length of the globe on those metre long wings and swim proficiently with those webbed feet, and for a bird have a keen sense of smell, but they are so inelegant at landing that you swear they must sustain bruises. They are renowned for their excellent time management and for their magnificent sense of direction. They set off at the end of each Northern summer from the waters off Japan, Siberia and Alaska, barely, if ever making landfall, honing in on their tiny burrow at the far ends of the earth.
They partner for life (mostly), lay their single egg at the end of the November and watch it crack open in January. Then they take turns minding their one and only, feeding it up until it’s double their size. Come April they fly north without it and abandoned, wandering about and testing their wings, the chicks don’t eat. They tone down, feather up and intuitively follow their parents north a few weeks later in May.
Shearwaters are predators at sea and on land they are prey. The snakes that inhabit some Bass Strait islands rely almost wholly on the chicks for sustenance. It’s a physically close and terrible relationship. They are also commercially harvested for feathers, oil and meat and the traditional mutton bird harvesting practised by Aboriginal Australians continues. Modern life has thrown in further difficulties. Think gill nets and plastic, habitat loss and feral predators like cats.
That night on the cape the sky was soon awash with birds cascading down through the air. It was awesome. It was impossible to count them. There was a profound sense of a community returning, of lives lived with purpose and capability, of birds bringing their oceanic experience back with them and deep down into their burrows within the earthy skin of the cape.
There is a circuit walk you can do on the cape.
For more on Short-tailed Shearwaters and pictures of these unassuming but talented birds see:
Tasmania. Parks and Wildlife Service. Short-tailed Shearwater, Puffinus tenuirostris