Travel blog by a global nomad

23 Feb

Shearwater silhouettes

With the sun setting on my first day in Tasmania, I found myself being whisked away to a beach location half an hour away from Hobart to watch short-tailed shearwaters come in from their days feeding.

It was getting gloomy when we arrived shortly before 8am, and a low cloud covered the sky. We walked briefly along a gravel track to where the light bush and introduced pine gave way to sand dunes and low scrub. A friendly park ranger was standing near a rock with a first aid kit, a backpack and a clip board filled with Useful Information about the shearwaters. It didn’t really matter – she was mesmerised by the birds anyway!

Behind her, a white sandy path snaked to a wooden platform, about 50m away. As 8 o’clock came upon us, she began talking. She informed us the shearwaters had a wingspan of 1m, were dark in colour and about 23 million of them migrated from the Siberian reaches to the SE coast of Australia – 18 million coming to predator-free Tasmania alone. By day, they went hunting for food for their chicks – all laid as eggs on November 25th, and all hatching in mid-late January. The eggs were laid in 1m long burrows into the sand.

By 8.30am when it was starting to get really dim – although we had no idea how dim – she led us along the sandy path. As we moved away from the shelter of the last pine and out into the breezy cool night, the air wad filled with a musty smell of seafish. Little black holes, no bigger than a clenched fist, dotted the sandy banks – the home of the chicks. All was silent!

We got to the wooden platform overlooking the calm surf below. As she told us what to start looking for, a black shadow suddenly darted overheard. “Whoa! There it goes!” our ranger screamed. “I love this! You watch, this is almost like a scout – one comes in as if to check if there are any predators around, then another will appear and all of a sudden, the sky is full of them!”

Sure enough, a minute later, another shadow joined the first swooping shearwater. They were just black silhouettes against a darkening grey sky… Within a few more minutes, the shearwater silhoettes filled the sky. Everywhere around us they swopped and dived, creating a thrumbing noise if they dived close to us.

“I love this!” our Park Ranger said in delight. “How can they all swoop around, scraping so close to eachother, yet never colliding!” From what I could see of the fast-moving bird-shapes, they weren’t even the most graceful of gliders – having to constantly flap their winds to maintain speed. But then, I realise I am spoilt with many ship days watching Wandering Albatross, Black Brow Albatross and Cape Petrals following a ship…

“When it gets dark enough, they should start to land,” our ranger then went onto say. “They are the most ungraceful of landers – compared to their flying. They basically crash land!”

“Are there really chicks in the ground?” I asked, since everything was silent apart from the wind and the occasional thrumbing as they zoomed by overhead.

“Yes – you’ll hear them calling soon when they start to land,” I was told.

However, after 45 minutes and with people’s attention starting to wane, we never did hear anything or see any come to land. Eventually we all began to make our way back along the nearly total obscure path, some people shining a red-covered torch at the burrows to see if there were any shearwaters near the burrows.

“Strange,” our ranger commented, “usually you hear the birds calling eachother now…”

I heard a bodily thump! near me, but I didn’t have the torch and by the time it caught up with my end of the line, the bird had disappeared down its burrow. As we approached the rock where we had all first met as well, there was another bodily thump and this time I saw a black shadow flapping and stumbling furiously around on the gravel, trying to get its balance. Again, by the time the torch caught up, the bird had disappeared into the scrub.

Nonetheless, an interesting night and just delightful that the Parks and Wildlife Service in Tasmania was offering such a great spotlight tour at night! I always love things like this which give people an appreciation of the natural world around them, particularly when you tend to forget it during the heavy drama of everyday life…

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