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.
Once, in Alaska, poking about a waterway, we watched the first salmon return to breed. Their life cycle begins in the gravels of the home river where they are born. They leave it for the ocean but return to it to breed, recognizing it by its scent, along with other cues. The icy chill, the glacier, the clear stream and the salmon (now more ruby than silver) made for a moment of mystery and magnificence.
Those were sockeye salmon, but the Atlantic salmon farmed in Tasmania are not native here and these days there’s a lot of conversation – protest even – about the environmental impact fish farms are having. Resistance has been growing against their planned expansion in Tasmanian waters.
That luscious pink steak on a plate had grown extremely popular because it was regarded as a gourmet choice – healthy, sophisticated and quick to prepare. Ethical, even, with many believing that farmed fish take pressure off wild piscean populations. That’s turned out not to be true (although the ratio of wild stock in feed has diminished somewhat) and farmed salmon are not naturally pink fleshed, people have learned. It has also become more commonly known that controlling disease outbreaks in pens is a difficult management issue that sometimes involves the use of anti-biotics. Seals still die seeking salmon in the farms, although not as many as in the early days but search through the relevant agency’s right to information index indicates that relocations are still frequent. Hundreds of birds get entangled each year. It’s a young industry leveraging off being clean and green but environmental sustainability, especially in a time of climate change, is tightly constrained by environmental factors, such as warming oceans, and the perception many have is that they have betrayed public trust about their practices and could do a whole lot better. They say they’re trying and the three companies have chosen different ways of improving but the chorus is growing that fish farms do not belong in bays.
Sailing, the sight of pens in an otherwise beautiful location that would normally elevate one’s spirits has quite the opposite effect. They can be noisy, spoiling the serenity of otherwise quiet anchorages. There is a particular one that is always in the way when I want to tack. Debris can mess with propellers and cause injury and it’s not always apparent when there’s a tow underway. These are situations that can be dangerous. Fatal, even. On the other hand, they have brought much needed employment to Tasmania and generate considerable wealth for the state.
GREAT TAYLOR BAY
Great Taylor Bay is off South Bruny Island with Partridge Island protecting its north western entrance. There’s a popular anchorage off the island. We ducked in here to escape bad weather on our way down to Recherche Bay this last summer. South Bruny National Park is at the southern end. Jetty Beach, also down south, is probably the best known beach in this bay because of easy public access. Too easy maybe. When we were last here there were five vehicles spread along the beach and this in a national park. There are anchorages along Great Taylor Bay’s eastern flank at North Tinpot Bay, Tinpot Bay and Mickeys Bay.
Great Taylor Bay, like all the D’Entrecasteaux bays, is really beautiful – the moody water, the forests, beaches and the islands. It can feel wild and remote, approaching by boat, so long as you ignore the dark farm with its caged salmon secured near the entrance of the bay. Tassal has a 30 year lease here and there were seven or eight pens that I counted as we sailed passed making for Mickeys Bay.
Mickeys Bay, an embayment off Great Taylor, can’t be accessed by road. It’s surrounded by hills and forest, has a lovely serenity and offered good protection from the prevailing wind one day in February (2017) when we decided to anchor here. It has a fairly narrow entrance, guarded on each side by the other two islands in the Partridge Island Group – Seagull Rock, a tiny islet, and Curlew Island, somewhat bigger. There are a few properties around the edge of the bay, although they are set well back and are relatively unobtrusive.
There was a yacht already there and by the time the stars were out we were nine overnight.
The next day, once all but two other yachts had sailed away, the geo decided to do a spot of fishing from the tender. Flathead were plentiful in 2005 when the Lady Nelson overnighted here, I later discovered, and he was hoping to catch us dinner. Another couple had also decided to put fish on the menu. They’d spread a gill net between Curlew Island and the shore. Just putting it out there, but in my humble opinion these should have been banned decades ago. Along with a fish for the plate, there’s the by-catch factor that can include seabirds of which Curlew Island has a few.
I decided to circumnavigate Mickeys Bay from Seagull Rock around to Curlew Island. It was sunny, the water was still and clear. There’d been a full moon the night before and the tide was way out. The conditions were perfect.
I kayaked over to Seagull Rock and began to work my way back along the bay, kayaking over and beside a fringe of seaweed, mostly those beautiful strappy canopy forming brown macroalgae, like kelp. I was expecting to lose myself to the beauty, but beauty wasn’t what I got. They lacked the variety and robustness of the ones I’d seen in the Tinderbox Marine Reserve. That’s not surprising in a quiet bay like this one, but their vivacity was frequently lost within the dirty brown miasma of a brown filamentous species, similar if not the same as one I recollected seeing at Baretta. It looked to have attached itself into the thallus of the seaweed like a parasite and seemed to be successfully suffocating everything it encountered. On the few occasions that I found something still vibrantly alive, the brown miasma was right up beside it, rocking and rolling with the movement of the water, just waiting to pounce. Or so it seemed to me, a novice in the world of seaweeds.
I was doodling along but often I stopped and floated, trying to figure out what I was seeing. I wondered if my perception was skewered somehow, if maybe Tasmania just happened to have some dead ugly reefs. If maybe a species as dominant as this ugly miasma could be normal. But what kept coming vividly to mind was my favourite Eastern Cape (RSA) river, the Kwelera, and how over the course of one summer we watched grey water from an ablution block turn a happy rocky shore into a soapy, slimy one where nothing grew.
Each time I reached one of the beaches around the bay I walked, collecting plastic and other litter. I was disappointed at just how much of it there was. Some was fish farm debris, the lines entangled in old washed up branches or caught up on the wrackline, which, I noticed, on the longest, sandiest beach, had spilled over the low bank, with plastic sometimes caught up in a tussock or lying in a thin line on the grass.
The day I had thought would be wonderfully spent on the water was turning out to be a dispiriting experience but I expected that on the deeper, eastern side of the bay, in shadow cast by the forest that afternoon, the seaweed would be healthier.
I walked this pebbled northern shore. I floated above the seaweed. It seemed to me it was an opportunistic seaweed invading the space where others should grow.
In the distance I could hear the rumble which we’d earlier concluded must be coming from the fish farm. I thought about its possible impact – the faeces, the unswallowed food, the way the debris accumulates beneath the pens before it is picked up by the currents and tide and I wondered if anyone knew how those currents might move around Great Taylor Bay. It seemed to me entirely feasible that if fish farm debris was washing into Mickeys Bay, then nutrients were making it in here too and given its shape they might be having a hard time flushing back out.
Observing this bay of dismay I wondered if what I was seeing was the result of a seasonal trigger, climate change, the impact of habitation or the passing parade of yachts that might have poor waste management strategies.
Or all of these things combined.
I hadn’t noticed anything amiss when I’d first paddled from the yacht to the shore. The water was clear. I’d seen ripple marks in the sand and down beneath me what I took to be seagrass standing upright, all at a distance from each other. But later, when I studied the photos I had taken, I noticed that in the little hollows small clouds of that miasmic seaweed seemed to be resting like brown cotton wool. Studying my photos later I couldn’t decide if the seagrass was healthy or not. Searching the web I struggled to identify this filamentous alga.
CURLEW ISLAND: BIRDS AT RISK
Curlew Island is 0.415 hectares of non-allocated Crown Land, and at least in 2001 was home to Pacific and Kelp Gulls, Sooty and Pied Oystercatchers as well as Caspian Terns who have (and possibly still do) use it as a breeding site, along with Black-faced Cormorants, Little Black Cormorants, Great Cormorants and Silver Gulls (Brothers et al, 2001).
On the point near Curlew Island there were a whole lot of pipes and what looked like a fish farm pen in the process of being built. The land just there had a most unpleasant vibe because of the mess lying about in what had seemed at first glance to be a lovely wooded area. I looked at that island and noticed some birds. I considered that net. I thought about that fish farm, about 5 km away, and how, when you sail by, you often see birds hanging about the pens. No place for a net, I thought. And I didn’t like the idea that birds from Curlew Island might get entangled in fish farm netting.
Until I’d noticed the mute trouble the bay is in it had seemed stunning. I’d paddled around it, drifted, communed with it. I’d walked it. I’d seen two tiny groups of minuscule silver fish (less than a dozen in each) and I’d seen a ray.
‘Good paddle?’ the geo asked when I got back. I told him about the trouble I’d seen.
‘How was the fishing?’
‘Two little flathead too small to eat.’
But now, months later, I wonder if I was entirely wrong about what I saw.
The more I read the more it seemed that studied opportunistic species associated with fish farms are green, like Ulva and Chaetomorpha and they weren’t on my radar as I kayaked. On the web I finally located a look alike species to the ‘miasma’ called Ectocarpus, found in New Zealand and elsewhere in Australia. There are two varieties in Tasmania (one also found at Eaglehawk Neck) and they are migrants from the UK that have grown resistant to anti-foul and heavy metals like copper. This species hasn’t been studied much from what I can see and although to me, a rank amateur, it looks opportunistic, I haven’t noticed it linked to fish farms.
Which begs the question – why is it so abundant in this bay? If my identification is correct, then is it thriving on heavy metal contamination here?
Tassal’s baseline environmental monitoring program doesn’t cover Mickeys Bay but they do have a monitoring spot in the middle of Great Taylor Bay, M8, that has indicated higher than average chlorophyl readings and Oh’s thesis also notes increases in opportunistic * green algal species in Great Taylor Bay. She monitored just outside Mickeys Bay.
I would really like to see Tassal include Mickeys Bay in its broadscale environmental monitoring program (BEMP) because both boats and fish farms use anti foul, although fish farms are apparently trying to phase it out. Tassal is farming a waterway they do not own, a waterway in which the public, marine mammals, birds and other species have a vested interest and it would be a way of returning the favour that both the community and the environment are extending to them were they to increase their monitoring stations.
In 2014 the Aquaculture Stewardship Council auditing team identified areas where Tassal could do better. Principle 2 (Conserve natural habitat, local biodiversity and ecosystem function) related to feed testing and making lethal incidents publically available within 30 days. Principle 3 was about protecting the health and genetic integrity of wild populations through the development of an area based management plan (my italics) and Principle 4 (Using resources in an environmentally efficient and responsible manner) related to the feed ingredients used at the farming sites. Tassal also has to abide by Principle 5 (Manage disease and parasites in an environmentally responsible manner) and was also advised it could do better in relation to Principle 7 (Be a good neighbour and conscientious citizen).
Tassal holds Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) salmon certificates for the Tin Pot Point and Partridge Island farm sites, according to WWF’s the Aquatic Stewardship Council scheme, but there is concern about bias in this regard.
Changes in the Channel have been noted by many, including abalone divers and recreational fishers. The fact is, that since the first species let go their grip on the hulls of the boats of the first explorers from Europe, the D’Entrecasteaux has been disrupted by a multiplicity of different activities, visitors and the like. It’s just been growing ever more intense, to the point where it’s health is of growing public concern.
The more I read the more interested I became in fish farms, concluding that they do not belong in bays at all. But I also began to consider the impact of my own sailing on the environment and the things I could personally do to reduce this. If there are heavy metals in Mickeys Bay then less damaging anti-foul needs to be considered.
This report notes: ‘Opportunistic species should not always be considered bad, they are a natural part of an the functional ecology of an estuary and serve a very useful role in “mopping up” excess nutrients. Consequently their presence can actually help ameliorate/ remediate the effects of nutrient fertilization. It is when they actually alter the structure and function of communities that they should be considered undesirable.’
Continuing the Journey Around Ranggoerrade: Heading for Dru Point
Dangerous Encounters with Gulls
I drifted out of Stinkpot Bay and paddled north. As I approached a corrugated metal boat shed the ‘owner’, a seagull, flew above me, screaming warnings, while using a novel approach to keep me at bay. Not wanting to take a direct hit, its missiles hitting the water beside my kayak, I paddled around the point, somewhat aghast, aware that the alarm had now been taken up by two plovers, who joined in the shrieking then quickly shot off, careful not to fly beneath the heavily loaded gull.
Birds of the North East Corner
The bay shallows out up here and I found myself in just a few inches of water . When the tide is out, I figured, this would be an expansive stretch of muddy sand but it was tricky to determine whether it really constituted a beach. I floated past Villa Howden, just visible between trees. Three pied oyster catchers were hanging out on a rock, and I was kayaking like a handfish, my paddle useless now because it was so shallow. If I’d had to get out I’d have sunk into the unforgiving mud.
Then I was back along cliffs, different layers of rocks sandwiched on top of each other, a little unconsolidated, and the water a little deeper now so that I could go closer in. Three pied oyster catchers, presumably the three from earlier, were now lazing companionably on a slipway and a cormorant was snoozing on a buoy close by. One of them emitted cautious alarm calls about my arrival* for the cormorant’s benefit and I watched her rouse herself and start looking around frantically as I floated by, not conscious of my presence. Still unable to determine the danger, she departed in a rush anyway, but the oyster catchers, calculating my progress, followed in a more leisurely fashion a while later.
I was ready to turn west. The beautiful serenity dissipated because I was close to the Channel Highway. There were paddocks and then Margate itself, but the shape of the watery world was entrancing, full of rushy islets separated by shallow channels and in them the water was still.
I took a punt on the third channel, heading along with my rudder up and spotted the North West River entering the bay. I’d walked to about this point in the virtual company of my sister several days earlier, and from her different continent she’d enthusiastically told me discomforting stories of misadventure that had me looking over my shoulder as I navigated the lonely muddy shoreline beneath the park’s deserted cliffs.
On that day that I walked with my sister’s voice in my hand, I’d passed the playground, walking along a tendril of beach sand and then along dark cobbles with oysters glued to their sides and then along stretches of succulent salt marsh.
I’d negotiated exposed rocks in dark mud and heard a chorus of tiny noises that I think came from the invertebrates living down muddy tunnels, and I’d seen a grey heron, no doubt one of the two I’d been watching on this kayaking trip.
I’d expected to see a vibrant range of birds from my kayak but even in the less well frequented parts of the bay this was not the case. Seagulls were the most prolific; I saw twelve, but no sign of the penguins that hopefully still inhabit the bay.
The water beyond the river mouth was glassy and a whole lot deeper in these tussocky channels. I encountered three pairs of black swan and two pelicans (probably the same ones I’d met on my walk) and then I turned south west to head around Dru Point. A lone pied oyster catcher watched me go by.
The heron reappeared while I was kayaking briskly over more oyster laden reefs. There were people near the jetty and the boat slip and the sea breeze had just begun arriving. I made a dash through the moorings and raced along to my arrival point, the most western beach along the Dru Point road, a muddy little thing frequented by ducks.
Although I was stoked and keen to continue the geo had the final say: ‘Enough,’ he said. ‘You can kayak the rest another day. ‘ It seemed a reasonable request. The trip had been sublime. It had taken four hours, but had felt like only one. I just wasn’t sure when I’d get another chance to come paddling on Ranggoeradde.
It was almost impossible to squeeze into my wetsuit. It slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t mine at all but an old one belonging to my daughter. Kayaking in a teeny size 8 would feel like I’d been swallowed by a snake and so I wore it legs up only, and layered thermals over that.
I had decided to kayak around the circumference of one of the dune trapped lagoons along The Gardens Road and decided in favour of Sloop. The morning was overcast and there was a little bit of breeze by the time we reached the lagoon, somewhat later than planned. I felt a little mournful, as I always do, when the breeze is fooling with the surface tension, marring the glassy water I like so much when kayaking.
The geo helped me launch and our one dog followed, peeping unhappily. She’s the pack leader and path finder. She likes to keep us together and on off lead areas will always come back to collect me if I’ve lingered behind.
I was aiming for the bridge that goes beneath the Gardens Road and paddled swiftly across the tannin water, eventually dropping her. On the other side I found a narrow channel, closed off at its mouth. This lagoon was saline and sometimes black beneath the clouds.
I idled here. Frogs were being vocal in the rushes, a surprise to hear them in such a salty environment and I wondered if the many flood events this year had altered the salinity level. The surf boomed on Taylor Beach. It was peaceful floating and listening to the soundscape. I drifted down to where the lagoon meets the beach.
And then I turned around, headed back beneath the bridge and set off to circumnavigate this dune trapped lake.
It’s a quiet world in amongst the boobiala, rushes and ti tree. As I kayaked around the edge of the lagoon I spotted two swans’ nests in the reeds but there were four couples in total that came gliding out from among them at various points and moved away from me, honking small warnings. In fact, despite my best attempts to be non-intrusive, one took off heavily in front of me, half running across the water – we had not seen each other until the last moment.
I’d last seen black swans on the Thames, near Kensington Palace. That was a surprise too, but apparently a small number have acclimatised there. Far better to see them in a habitat that’s natural to them. They’re migratory, but their pattern of migrating is opportunistic and erratic and they plan their travels according to what the weather’s been serving up. The oddest swan behaviour I ever saw was one that flew over to a bay and paddled out to sea.
Don’t believe those stories of them being loyal to one partner for life. They’ve been found out. Swans cheat; sneaky affairs take place in hidden corners of the rushes and so watching these partnered birds gather in the middle of the lagoon, I wondered about the layers of their relationships and whose eggs were whose in those nests in the shallows. I didn’t check the lagoon’s depth, but swans like shallow water so that they can bottom feed without diving, one way to tell.
Down at the far end, near the quarry, I found a small stream and seeking out the glassy patches where I’d be more protected from the south easterly, I found a crane staring attentively into the water. There were also full throated frogs around the lake from time to time, and small lunettes that doubtless hold evidence of camping and feasts from the eras before colonisation.
The lagoon held one final surprise for me. This is what we saw when we went to load the kayak – a huge leach with a foot that could have competed with kelp for grip. A leach so huge it could suck a swan dry.
The owl is calling in the garden. The river is quiet, the mountain is alive with night life of a different kind… the wallabies, bandicoots, sugar gliders, frogmouths and the moths. This is home but sometimes it’s nice to go away and expose yourself to the joys and sorrows of a greater world.
The Trans Siberian Express, and Then Some
I had thought that by focussing my attention on the local coastline I’d subdue the travel bug but that’s a hard call when someone you love wants you to visit them in London.
Of course you say yes.
But to tread more lightly on the earth we decided to take the train from Hong Kong to London – a cruise overland, country and cultures slowly revealing themselves. Sailors who have spent days at sea get this but most people I told were bemused. ‘That’s a long time on a train,’ they said.
In fact, the days flew.
I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat even though you see the damage as well as the beauty.
Whenever he emerged from the vodka soaked conviviality he was enjoying with the Russians in the next compartment, the American would say, ‘Why has China got no bugs?’ And I would reply, ‘Why are we not seeing any birds?’
It seemed a silent summer.
Between Hong Kong and Beijing we saw a horse, a cow and a few tiny flocks of sheep but no birds. We saw new cities of derelict buildings and a countryside devoid of life. As we walked seven stages of the Great Wall one hot and humid afternoon we encountered two red bottomed bumble bees (name unknown) and although about half the bumble bee species known to the world occur in China, I see heaps more in my garden on any sunny summer’s day.
Siberia does have insects. We met our first big winged thing at the border. Siberia also has a multitude of mosquitoes, but across it’s whole extent we barely saw a bird, let alone a flock, despite passing wetlands, Lake Baikel and rivers.
‘There’s plenty of wildlife in Russia,’ said one of the Russians. ‘I’m going hunting as soon as I’ve unpacked my bags.’ And after giving the matter some more thought, he said the train probably scared the birds away.
Slicing through country in a train is no way to monitor wildlife but in trying to find out why the emptiness I found my concerns are shared by Pakistan – they’ve noticed a drop in migratory birds from Siberia.
Personally, I’m sad the birds were foraging elsewhere because Siberian birdlife is magnificent and migrating flocks, though smaller, are also apparently returning home earlier than usual each year.
We saw two storks in Poland, the odd bird in Germany and a small flock of waterfowl in Holland. In the UK the skies were busier but we were on foot and bicycles there and that might have been the difference.
Walking through history and past longboats along the lovely Regents Canal in London, birds were nesting amongst the plastic drifting on its surface (see below – that mound in the water is a nest).
We rode along the Thames to Greenwich, looking at the little beaches where in the nineteenth century mudlarks (the human variety) searched for pickings. A small yacht negotiating the lock from the Thames into the Limehouse Marina was surrounded by plastic litter, a bit like that nest.
No Tasmanian Coastline, This
We cycled from St Michael’s Mount to Mousehole in Cornwall and walked from St Ives to Zennor.
It was summer; it was magical. The weather was warm, the leaves full of sap, the wild flowers in blossom and the breeze was fragrant.
It was tough returning to winter.
Storms had pummelled the island while we were away. The Hobart Rivulet, imprisoned beneath the city streets had flooded and damaged buildings. It had been an expensive and inconvenient pest, apparently, but I felt empathy for its bid for freedom.
It just wanted to do what rivers do best: shape and nourish landscapes.
And me: I’m just dancing in the rain because hey, it’s still a vibrant, abundant world with far more joys than sorrows, and there’s an owl calling in the garden.
Last October I was at Eumarrah, Hobart’s oldest wholefoods shop, when I bumped into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in quite a while. It so happens that we are both interested in the environment, and birds in particular have been a long and avid interest of his.
I was keen to find out his take on my observation of low bird numbers around the Derwent’s shores, be they on the western or eastern side or in Ralphs Bay, that beautiful low energy embayment near the mouth of the Derwent, these being some of my current stomping grounds. I had also walked ocean beaches with this concern uppermost in my mind and actually, it was while writing this now in my little mountain study, that it dawned on me that there used to be a flock of seagulls that flew over our ridge en route from North West Bay (we used to assume) to the tip in South Hobart. ‘ When had this stopped?’ I asked the geo. ‘The sight and sound of them used to be part of the daily rhythm up here.’
‘I reckon they stopped flying over about two years ago,’ he said.
Two years for us to notice a pretty obvious change in our environment. That’s sobering. The only large flock I’ve seen since I started my walks has been at the dirty little mouth of New Town rivulet but perhaps I have not been focussing on gulls sufficiently because today, sailing Samos into Sullivans Cove just as the cold front arrived with a blast, I noticed a fair number perched on the roof of the new Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies building and there was also a small flock at the Wrest Point casino.
It’s easy to assume that these birds, long considered the rats of the sea, are safe from our abuse of the environment… but what if something sinister is going on right under our noses that we are not aware of? And what if the seagulls are not as robust as we once thought? Of course, there could be some perfectly simple explanation. Down at the tip they might have introduced a management practice to stop scavenging seagulls from spreading toxic debris along the shorelines. Certainly, some councils have waged war on them (see links below).
Gulls and cormorants are also regarded with trepidation by those sailors who have boats on moorings. I have a couple of friends who have been most unhappy to discover a seagull after party mess on their yachts. Some people resort to nautical scarecrows, profiles of eagles, plastic bags and webbing. Take your eye off your yacht and this is what happens.
Anyway, this man so knowledgeable about all things avian, was kind enough to let me record our talk and so here are some of the points he made during the course of our long conversation.
Shorebirds are in decline. Some natural causes include high tides washing away nests. When you think about the more volatile oceans and weather we’re getting with climate change and the way dunes are being hammered by sea level rise, this would be headline news if birds like little penguins and short tailed shearwaters produced newspapers. Native fauna like quolls prey on birds too.
I could add my own examples: go out to Chappel Island in the Furneaux Group off Tasmania’s north eastern coastline and you can barely put one careful foot in front of the other without stepping on the snakes that prey on the short tailed shearwaters that have their southern summer burrows there.
He cited more examples and based on what he had to say I suggest we all go and peer at ourselves in the mirror because the main cause is our lack of restraint in the way we behave around beaches. Some locals walk straight through the plastic fences that councils erect on dunes to safeguard both nesting birds and eroding dunes. People camp on beaches, dunes, or just behind them. Radios blare, kids race about on quad bikes and dirt bikes. Adults in four wheel drive vehicles mistake dunes for playthings, crush nests and mess with the role of dunes as a barricade against the sea.
‘When this sort of thing is happening on remote ocean beaches,’ he said. ‘You know there’s no haven.’ And he mentioned a researcher dissecting a bird on Lord Howe Island, (a tiny speck in the ocean 600 km off the Australian coastline) and finding it chock full of plastics.
‘ And over fishing, acidification of the oceans, the warming seas,’ I said.
‘Dogs,’ he said. ‘Horses on beaches.’
‘Seven Mile Beach,’ I said.
‘Marion Bay Narrows,’ he added.
He had begun talking about birds, like oyster catchers and the endangered hooded plover that choose to nest in the tiny scrapes they make in soft sand. Instead of limiting themselves to the hard sand close to the watermark, people and their dogs trample all over the beaches. It’s possible to stamp on a nest oblivious to what you are doing. ‘You may think your dog is doing no damage, but these nests are hard to see.’ And dogs, he emphasised, run all over the beaches. ‘It’s bad enough when they’re leashed. They still scare birds away.’
He told me about the annual gull count that is run over the June long weekend and includes the Derwent River. On Bellerive Beach, for example, ‘there’s a veritable passeggiato of dogs and their owners and so there’s no chance for a bird to make use of it’, he said.
I began to feel uneasy. I have two beautiful canine companions, fellow adventurers where their presence is allowed. I thought of all our lovely beach walks. It seems to me that even people walking quietly and carefully down a beach with no dog at all disturb birds and even scientists monitoring or researching bird behaviour and lifestyles have that same effect no matter how careful they try to be. Birds nestled over their eggs leave their nests, for instance, when they see that most dangerous of all mammals (us) looming, albeit with a scientific title. But mostly I was thinking about the consequences for me in raising my awareness about this issue. My dogs! The beach! Were they two incompatible loves? And what was more important? Shorebirds, or the delight of seeing my happy dogs enjoying the surf?
‘And boats too,’ I said with a heavy heart.
‘Yes,’ he said. And he told me about a particular reserve on the Derwent River, a little one, just a handful of hectares. He’d recently gone there to do a survey and he explained how its done. You spend twenty minutes on each hectare noting the birds you see and hear. ‘That’s how the atlas [Bird Atlas of Australia] was done, right across Australia. But in those twenty minutes there was a jet ski out on the river in front of me, jets from the display squadron from the RAAF – two went up the river, a helicopter going up the river, a fixed wing aircraft directly overhead at low altitude, there was big earthmoving equipment on a block just up the road from me and somebody was using a brush cutter the whole time I was there. So how am I to rely on my ears to do the survey?’
And, I wondered, how do birds communicate against so much mechanical volume.
I walked out of that shop with a lot on my mind. Shorebirds are up against our way of life. To be a migratory bird travelling the Asia-East Australian Flyway the odds are getting steeper. Will there be water in a particular wetland or will a new housing development have put paid to that refuge? Will weeds have covered your burrow or stifled a food source when you arrive? And let’s not even talk about hunters.
It seemed to me that if I was going to walk the birds’ beaches then I had to do it with even more care, in a way that gave more than it took. But how?
I tried to think of communities that live with restraint. Apart from the locals of North Sentinel Island, denizens of the deep Amazon or the San still sort of clinging to a Kalahari lifestyle, I could only think of the Amish.
But on the bright side, a friend is elated to discover that ten Little Black Cormorants have come to hang out with the Pied Cormorants living on Cormorant Rock off her home (see here).
And on a really world changing scale, Boyan Slat, a teenager from Holland, has come up with an idea, now crowdfunded, backed by the scientific community and at pilot study stage, for cleaning the oceans of plastics within a ten year period. Impossible? His Ted Talk is here. See what you think