Birds of Lord Howe Island

By Carlie O'Connell 10 December 2014
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World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island is a birdwatcher’s delight

AT JUST UNDER 800km north-east of Sydney, Lord Howe Island is a treasure trove for bird watchers. Almost 170 species of sea and land birds live on or visit the island group, and hundreds of thousands nest there each year.

Standing on the beach at dusk through the summer months you will be witness to thousands of flesh-footed shearwaters flying overhead as they return from their daily foraging at seas, while if you venture to Malabar cliffs the balletic airborne courting rituals of the red-tailed tropicbirds will be on display.

If you’re lucky you’ll see the endemic Lord Howe Island woodhen, whose numbers are small, but whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or just want to appreciate the local feathered friends, it would be near impossible to leave the island without coming across multiple unique bird species, many of which are not found on Australia’s mainland or coastlines.

Here are some of the bird highlights on Lord Howe:

Lord Howe Island woodhen

The small, flightless Lord Howe Island woodhen is one of only two surviving bird species endemic to Lord Howe Island. Abundant until the island was settled in the early 1800s, woodhen numbers declined to near extinction due to hunting and introduced predators such as owls, feral cats and pigs, until there were fewer than 30 left on the island. However, thanks to local conservation efforts numbers have risen to the hundreds and are monitored annually. While they aren’t of their previous abundance, you might be lucky enough to spot them on one of the various walking tracks throughout the island.

Lord Howe Island silvereye

The second endemic bird to the island, the Lord Howe Island silvereye (sometimes also known as the Lord Howe Island white-eye) is a yellow-brown bird named for the white ring of feathers around its eye. The smallest land bird on the island, it makes its home among the various forests throughout Lord Howe Island, particularly on the main island. With a diet of insects and nectar, as well as small seeds and fruit, they can often be seen feeding around island homes.

Lord Howe Island golden whistler

Indigenous to the island, this beautiful little forest bird is a subspecies of the mainland population. The male is distinctive with a golden chest and belly, white throat and a black band between the two colours, with the female is a duller brownish colour. Touted by some as the most common land bird seen or heard throughout the island, you are sure to see them hopping from branch to branch if you head on any of the walking tracks, from sea level to the mountains.

Lord Howe Island currawong

While exploring the island’s numerous walking tracks, you will likely come across a Lord Howe Island currawong whether you planned to or not. With a strong sense of curiosity, these birds will often follow visitors through the forest. Crow-like in appearance, they are an endemic subspecies of the pied currawong of eastern Australia. They have longer, more pointed beaks than their mainland relatives, shiny black feathers with white tipped tails, and golden eyes. Listen for their melodious call throughout the island’s forests, but beware of getting too close to their nests during breeding season (September to December), as they are territorial and known to swoop walkers who are too curious.

Providence petrel

Lord Howe Island provides the only known breeding ground for the providence petrel, a large, greyish-brown bird which due their trusting nature, should be very easy to come into close contact with. Indeed, David Attenborough once described them as, “Extraordinarily friendly towards human beings.” If you make loud, strange noises in the forests of Mt Gower these seabirds will fall clumsily through the trees to the ground, their long outstretched wings looking more gangly than graceful. In most instances they will let you pick them up or climb onto your shoulder or arm.
Guided Mount Gower treks are available on the island, which is a five-hour ascent and four-hour return. Taking this trek around March, you could be witness to the courtship flights and calls of the tens of thousands of providence petrels that are arriving for their winter breeding season.

Sacred kingfisher

These medium-sized kingfishers are relatively widespread on the Australian mainland, but are just as common, if not more so, throughout Lord Howe Island. With peacock-blue and green upperparts, wings and faces these birds nest mostly in tree hollows or sometimes excavate a burrow in a rotting tree trunk between Ned’s Beach and Middle Beach. Very watchful and patient they will often perch on the edge of clearings or high up in the trees for long periods of time as they search for prey.

Red-tailed tropicbirds

Between September and May, but particularly during the summer months, you can watch the red-tailed tropicbirds from the Malabar cliffs and northern hills as they perform their airborne courting rituals. Pairs fly in balletic backwards somersaults over each other, repeating the performance over and over. They come to Lord Howe Island from the Northern Pacific each year, nesting on ledges in the cliffs from Malabar to North Head. They have been named for their two long, red tail streamers, which can measure up to 35cm and add to their elegance in the air. Their plumage is predominantly white except for black feathers in front of the eye, on the sides of the body and at the base of the wing.

Flesh-footed shearwaters

Another of Lord Howe Island’s spectacular avian displays is that of the flesh-footed shearwaters (also commonly referred to as muttonbirds), who leave before dawn each day to feed at sea, and fill the sky again at dusk as they return. Dark grey in colour, they can be found on the island between September and May, breeding in large colonies on the forest floor between Ned’s Beach and Clear Place, with smaller colonies also at Old Settlement Beach and Transit Hill. Migratory birds, Lord Howe Island provides their only breeding site in eastern Australia.

Masked booby

While it’s difficult to see a masked booby from mainland Australia, if you visit Lord Howe Island during their summer breeding months, you’re likely to spot them from the viewing platform at one of their main nesting spots, Muttonbird Point, while they also breed at offshore inlets and King Point. Masked boobies are the largest seabirds to breed on the island, nesting on the ground, on rocks, bare ground or a flattened area of grass. All white except for a black mask around the eyes and black strips on their wings and tail, their diets include fish and squid.

White tern

White terns come to Lord Howe Island to breed from October to April each year. Unusually, they lay a single egg on a bare branch which it, and then later the chick, has to balance on. For most of the incubation period the parents will sit on the egg which helps to keep it securely in place. However, the male and female alternate this duty and thus have to take a lot care and caution when they switch positions. Sometimes a poorly timed strong gust of wind could be the egg’s downfall. The most likely places of observing this are in the Norfolk Island Pines along Lagoon Beach or Ned’s Beach. If it’s later in the breeding season and you sit patiently you can sometimes observe the parents fly in from the ocean and feed small fish and squid to the hungry young chick.