Birding in Bruny Island

The tiny island on the southern-most part of Tasmania, with rainforests, lagoons and bays, bursts alive with birds of rare feathers.

Published : Jul 05, 2017 12:30 IST

A rock formation along the island.

A rock formation along the island.

FOR birders the world over, a trip to Bruny Island at the southern-most point of Tasmania in Australia is a consummation devoutly to be wished for. The island is surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful bays and coves, dotted with inland waterbodies, and clothed in vast stretches of rainforest.

These varied habitats harbour a great variety of birds. There are penguin rookeries and breeding colonies of the short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) . For three days, we criss-crossed the island locating birding spots with the help of an expert bird guide, walked around in the forest, and took two boat safaris along the coast.

Named after an 18th century sailor, this island near Hobart is the size of Singapore but there are only 700 residents on it. There are excellent cottages in the wilderness for tourists, whose number on any given day is controlled.

Zipping along towering cliffs and the rainforest that extended right up to the shore, the boat safaris were oriented towards birdwatching and brought us close to some rare birds. Birds such as the Australasian gannet ( Morus serrator ) that one has seen only in books or on television screens came alive before us. The celebrity bird on the island is the albatross, an oceanic bird. You can see three varieties of this legendary bird, including the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) , which is one of the largest flying birds with a wingspan of nearly three metres.

The short-tailed shearwater is also known as the mutton bird as it was much sought after for the pot in earlier days. Its other claim to fame is its migratory journey from Norway at the other end of the globe, sometimes covering more than 15,000 kilometres, to its breeding ground in the tiny Mutton Bird island. The bird nests in a burrow in the sandy soil and lays a single egg.

On a tall tree near the coast we were shown a massive nest, held by a fork in the tree. We could spot three large eagles sitting in a nearby tree. This is the breeding area of the white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) , a majestic raptor known for its aerodynamic display as it dives to lift fish off the sea and lagoons. I have seen them in India on the Anjadiv island near Belgaum in Karnataka. Hard to believe now, a pair of them nested in the Theosophical Society grounds in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, in the early 1970s. Often in the evenings, we could see these birds sailing along the coast near Besant Nagar, where we lived.

The forests of Bruny Island consist mostly of tall eucalyptus trees of many varieties and bushes. We saw in the bushes quite a few New Holland honeyeaters ( Phylidonyris novaehollandiae ), a colourful bird that feeds on nectar. The flame robin ( Petroica phoenicea ), another small passerine bird, is a migrant from the northern part of Australia. The island is also home to some birds familiar to birders in India, such as the grey fantail ( Rhipidura albiscapa), flycatcher and the lapwing species. The common lapwing species one sees on the island is the masked lapwing (Vanellus miles ), very similar to the yellow-wattled lapwing ( Vanellus malabaricus ) found in India. There were white-eyes, passerine birds belonging to the Zosteropidae family, only that these were a different subspecies, a difference that is difficult to make out merely by the appearance.

Australia is home to parrots of many varieties. We could spot the sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) , which is much sought after as a cage bird all over the world. It is an ethereal sight to see flocks of them fly, like flakes of snow drifting in the wind. And there was the swift parrot ( Lathamus discolor ), which remind one of the Indian lorikeet. The swift parrot is unique as it migrates. The birds nest in Bruny Island and, after the breeding season, head to the other end of Australia.

On the seashore, there were black oystercatchers, waders belonging to the Haematopodidae family. The species that visits the Indian shores, such as Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu, in winter are the Eurasian oystercatchers, or the Palaearctic oystercatcher. The other birds one can spot in the waterbodies of the island are the Australian pelican ( Pelecanus conspicillatus ), the largest bird in the pelican family; the Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia); the Australian shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides); the chestnut teal (Anas castanea) ; the Pacific black duck (Anas superciliosa ); and the white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae ). Darters, which are common in Indian rivers, could also be spotted here.

Black swans in Ramsar site The moulting lagoon, a vast stretch of mud flats created by an estuary, is a great location for birders. It is a Ramsar site, that is, a wetland of international importance. (In 1971, a treaty was signed at an international conference held under the aegis of UNESCO in Ramsar in Iran to protect wetlands. The idea was to safeguard the habitat of waterfowl and to put wetlands to sustainable use. India is one of the 169 signatories to the convention, which has its headquarters in Gland in Switzerland. The signatories meet once in three years. The next meet is scheduled to be held in Dubai in 2018. There are 2,266 Ramsar sites in various parts of the world. Some of them stretch across national borders. In India, 26 sites, including the Chilika lake in Odisha, Nal Sarovar in Gujarat and Point Calimere, have been declared Ramsar sites.)

Exclusive to Australia As you approach the lagoon what strikes you is the congregation of the black swan (Cygnus atratus) , a bird exclusive to Australia. It is an arrestingly graceful bird, with a bright red beak and white wing feathers revealed dramatically in flight. As far as the eye could see, there were black swans, in a dreamlike tableau. The silence that pervaded the area added a touch of surrealism to the scene. If you strained your ears, you could hear the hissing sound of the swans. Binoculars revealed some swans with cygnets. This is a breeding ground for the bird. This bird once inhabited New Zealand but was shot out of existence there. In recent years, it has been reintroduced.

The first time I saw a black swan at close quarters was in the 1970s in the Ward Lake in Shillong, Meghalaya. A pair of black swans was in the lake located in the centre of the town as virtual captives with their wing feathers pinioned. Undeterred, they built a nest among the reeds in preparation for breeding.

A keen birder, the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya, Nari Rustomji, kept an eye on the swans as he walked to his office every day, and ensured that the birds got round-the-clock police protection. In time, four cygnets arrived and the family of six proved a major attraction in that hill station.

You get to see the kookaburra, the larger one, in Bruny. This bird has been introduced in the island, and wildlifers are concerned that the snake population is threatened by the presence of the bird. The legendary lyrebird is also a species that has been introduced in the island, but we could not sight the bird. The emu, a large, flightless land bird, once inhabited the island but was shot out of existence. It is found in mainland Australia. I was able to sight one during an earlier visit.

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