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A Report from

Lord Howe Island, March 13-17 2005,

Phil Gregory

Lord Howe (Lat. 31º 33”S, 159º 05’E) is an outlying subtropical island designated since 1982 as a World Heritage site. It is 11 km long on a narrow volcanic ridge that protrudes up into the Tasman Sea about 850km south east of Brisbane and 980km north-east of Sydney. The two main volcanic peaks of Mt. Lidgbird and Mt. Gower lie at the southern end and rise to 777m and 875 m respectively, separated by a lower saddle and are quite spectacularly precipitous.  There is an astonishing near 3000’ vertical sea cliff on the south seaward slope of Mt Gower, one of the most impressive cliffs I’ve ever seen. They are covered in a dense forest with many palms, and are the main breeding sites for Providence Petrel (globally) and Red-tailed Tropicbird, as well as being the final refuge for the endemic Woodhen in the days when it was at the point of extinction.

Lord Howe Woodhen on the Little Island track. Birds are banded annually but some young birds do not bear bands

Lord Howe Woodhen’s frequently develop white patches on the head from about twelve years of age onward.

The settlement area of some 350 people is in the northern section in the lowlands, and various beaches are readily accessible from it. The spectacular rock stack of Ball’s Pyramid lies 30 km south and is a major seabird site, though get out to it as soon as you can as the weather is often a problem. ccommodation is varied, none particularly inexpensive but all quite good standard. We stayed at Somerset Apartments on Ned’s Beach Road, (02 6563 2061, fax 61 2 6563 2110) which are comfortable, central and well known to birders. You can self cater and there is wide choice of eateries in summer, though many places shut over the winter. Ian Hutton (02 65 632447, is the local birder and he is very helpful, as well as giving informative talks on Birds, Plants and general ecology on some nights at the Museum. The bird life has strong links with New Zealand and recent kiwi publications include both Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands as part of the NZ avifauna. Best times of year to visit for birds would be the austral autumn in March-April, and spring in September-October, when most of the breeding seabirds would be present, though botanists, hikers and photographers would enjoy it any time.
White Terns breed prolifically in the trees around the Settlement . Walking along the airport road can be hazardous!

The sheer peaks and seacliffs of Mt. Lidgbird and Mt. Gower are the world stronghold of Providence Petrel.

The island has sadly lost most of its endemic taxa, following the usual scenario of Pacific Island wildlife disasters, the flightless White Gallinule (gone by 1853) and White-throated Pigeon (gone by 1869) due to hunting, then the Red-crowned Parakeet derivative to the same cause later by 1880. The real tragedy came with the grounding of the SS Mokambo in 1918, as the island was rat free up to that point. Within a decade the endemic Robust White-eye, Lord Howe (Grey or NZ) Fantail, Lord Howe (Slender-billed) White-eye, Tasman Starling and Vinous-tinted (Island) Thrush were gone, with the Lord Howe Gerygone following by 1936. The wave of extinction continued as the endemic albaria form of Boobook then vanished in the 1950’s, ironically probably due to the Masked and Barn Owls imported to control the rats. Amazingly the Woodhen lingered on atop the peaks and was the subject of a highly successful rescue operation in the 1980’s. The endemic forms of Silvereye and Golden Whistler remain common, seemingly able to co-exist with ship rats.

The sea cliffs above Little Island hold good numbers of Red-tailed Tropicbirds.

The spectacular Balls Pyramid is a 552m tall sheer rock stack lying to the south of the island and taking about an hour by boat. Some 13 species of seabird nest there and it is a key site for Kermadec Petrel and White-bellied Storm Petrel, as well as hosting large numbers of the wonderful Grey Ternlet and Red-tailed Tropicbirds. The cost in 2005 on the twelve passenger MV Kermadec was AU$105.00 each, if the weather permits this is an essential pelagic. There are also various round the island trips, which the Kermadec does on the way back and these will get Grey Ternlet, and in season Providence and Black-winged Petrel and Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwater with Little Shearwater in summer.

The island avifauna totals just 182 species, and of these some 75% are vagrants, a remarkably high proportion, leaving about 40 species as resident or regular visitors. I did not look for the unfortunately introduced Tasmanian Masked Owl, a major threat to the other birds that needs to be eradicated, and Little Shearwater arrives back in April, but otherwise we recorded some 39 species, of which 5 were lifers and 6 new for my Australian list
Black-winged Petrel

The island is an outstanding seabird site. I had not realised just how significant it actually is for some 15 seabird species.

We flew from Brisbane some 3 hours late due to a Qantaslink problem, with incredible inefficiency and rudeness concerning baggage that had to be off-loaded. Imagine our surprise on landing to find that we actually had both bags, despite being told one had to be left behind! The trip was a recce to take a look at this island and help me convalesce from an operation to relieve a prolapsed disk, so my mobility was somewhat limited. We arrived at 1530 local time and were met promptly for transfer to the comfortable and convenient  Somerset Apartments in the settlement, just 10 minutes from the airport.


Sunday March 13: Airport, Somerset area, Signal Point and Ned’s Beach.

Monday March 14: Ned’s Beach and two walks to the Museum area.

Tuesday March 15: 0730-0800 Ned’s Beach, then 1300-1600 Track to Little Beach, Blinky Beach and airstrip pond 1600-1630.

Wednesday March 16: Signal Point am. Pelagic trip on the MV Kermadec to Ball’s Pyramid 1315-1830.

Thursday March 17: Old Settlement and Museum then airport for 1230 and flight to Sydney and Cairns.

Species List

 √ and bold type denote a life bird

White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae

One flying by Roach Island off Ned’s Beach March 14. One was along Lagoon Road March 15 and one at the Old Settlement March 17.

Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa x platyrhynchos

A dozen of these hybrid ducks seem to live on the beach and sea at Ned’s Beach, surviving on handouts from the fish-feeding there. I also saw one fly over by Somerset. A dozen on the airstrip ponds included one fairly reasonable looking eclipse plumage Mallard, and two along the Little Beach track resembled good Pacific Black Ducks.

Masked Booby Sula dactylatra fullagari

This is apparently the same taxon that for years was called the Tasman Booby, and was listed as extinct! It has a dark eye but otherwise looks much like regular Masked Booby. I saw some from the plane as we came in, and it was frequent off Ned’s Beach, nesting on the Admiralty Island group opposite. Nesting sites with prospecting birds at this time of year are on Roach Island, Mt. Gower and the stack called the Wheatsheaf off Ball’s Pyramid.

Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda

Five over the settlement/ Ned’s Beach area on March 13, including one with very rosy flushed underparts. About 50 along Mt Lidgbird above Little Beach Track, and two at Blinky Beach. Over a hundred on the two southern peaks on the pelagic, with many on Ball’s Pyramid and Mt. Eliza in the north of the island.

Flesh-footed Shearwater Puffinus carneipes

One distant off Malabar on March 13, and one off Ned’s Beach March 14, pale bill seen nicely. Hundreds on the pelagic, seen very nicely, especially en route to the Pyramid and up the east coast on the return.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater Puffinus pacificus

Common off Ned’s Beach March 14, good scope views, and one in the bay off the Museum same day. 30 or so off Blinky Beach. Dozens over Roach Island and a few at the Pyramid on the pelagic.

Black-winged Petrel Pterodroma nigripennis

Excellent views of my lifer individuals at Ned’s Beach March 13, with at least a dozen birds flying around the sandy ridge there, calling loudly, a musical whistling rather shrill plee plee plee series. Similar again next day, with about 20 birds including those seen flying past at sea.  Five chasing and calling over Clear Place point at Blinky Beach.  I saw about ten on the pelagic, a few off the east coast and half a dozen over the northern cliffs on Mt. Eliza. Finally, three over the north end of Blink Beach from the airstrip terminal on March 17!

This is a rather dark grey Pterodoma with diffuse black wing markings above, a dark eye patch, grey patches on the sides of the chest accentuating a white throat and belly. Underwing white with a dark border and a broad black line diagonal stripe across the forepart, which was hard to see at any distance. This is a summer breeder here and will be gone next month.

Providence Petrel P. solandri

Dozens of distant dark Pterodromas circling around Mt. Lidgbird on March 13 and 14 were, as expected this species, as we saw several thousand here and offshore on March 15. Calling loudly, and flying in low over the palm forest, but I was unable do an Attenborough and get any to come in to my shouts. One off Blinky Beach too. Hundreds again on the pelagic off the peaks, but none at the Pyramid though I did see a couple en route.

This is a dark grey long winged species, with pale secondaries on the upperwing, and dark wing linings with a white flash prominent at the base of the underwing primaries, and a whitish face. This is a winter breeder here and they are only just back.

Kermadec Petrel P. neglecta

At least sixty wheeling high over the 550m Ball’s Pyramid, and some half a dozen at sea level, including three that showed the upperwing very nicely. One seen at sea on the way back.

 Appeared maybe slightly larger than Providence Petrel, lacking a whitish face and much darker more brownish or blackish rather than grey. Under wing coverts not dark like on Providence Petrel, being the same colour as the rest of the underwing. Some birds seemed paler than others though all were degrees of the intermediate type phase, but all showed a whitish primary flash similar to Providence Petrel. This showed on the upperwing of some as prominent white shafts to the primaries, but needed low elevation, good light and the right angle to be clear.

White-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregetta grallaria

Eight at sea as we came within 15 minutes of Ball’s Pyramid, including two together, and three on the way back, not including one petrel sp. off Mt. Gower that seemed to show a whitish eyebrow, view too brief to be certain. The tail was rounded with the feet not protruding, white rump, white belly and wing linings, dark chin and throat, flight swift and direct, not pattering over the waves like White-faced Storm-Petrel.

Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

One immature bird was on rocks in the bay near the jetty on March 16 and 17.

Little Black Cormorant Phalacrocorax sulcirostris

A single off Ned’s Beach March 13, and two flying together there again next day, with 3 on rocks opposite the Museum on March 14, and five off Little Beach March 15.

Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides

One was over fields by Signal Hill on March 13.

White Tern Gygis alba

Common around the settlement, nesting in the Norfolk pines and other large trees there, with quite a lot of juveniles still sitting on branches. Also common at Ned’s Beach with 40 in the air at one time over the cliffs and many more out at sea. I estimated well over 120 birds were seen on March 14. This was an Australian tick for me at one of the few sites in country. Masked Owls must love them as absurdly easy prey!

Grey Ternlet Procelsterna cerulea

My lifer was a single past the point at Ned’s Beach during a sea watch on the afternoon of March 14, with another single shortly afterwards, both heading north towards the islands. Very small, fast fliers, with rather short wings for a tern, pale grey in colour with a pale head.

The pelagic trip brought incredible views of this delightful diminutive sprite, and I estimated we saw a couple of thousand birds, with the majority around the Pyramid where there were flocks of several hundred fishing or sitting sated on the sea, as well as hundreds on the stacks around the Pyramid. There were other colonies of a few tens of birds on Mt. Gower and Mt Eliza ass well as Roach Island. The webbing on the feet is dirty pale pink, not yellow as some photos show. The trailing edge of the secondaries is edged with white, then a blackish line.

Sooty Tern Sterna fuscata

Five adults were off Ned’s Beach on March 13 and two on March 14. One adult was flying north off Blinky Beach March 15, and a juv. chasing an adult over Somerset on March 16. Half a dozen were seen on the pelagic trip.

Brown Noddy Anous stolidus

A few on March 13 and over 60 on March 14, with 8 sitting on the sand at Ned’s Beach. A dozen were at Blinky Beach on March 15 and a few over Little Beach track. Many on the pelagic trip, with lots at Ball’s Pyramid, where they were a real nuisance when looking for Kermadec Petrels.

Black Noddy A. minutus

A few singles flying past the point at Ned’s Beach on March 14, and four off Blinky Beach. I only saw a couple of birds on the pelagic.

Masked Lapwing Vanellus miles novaehollandiae

A couple of Spurwings were at the airstrip on March 13, and we saw about 7 on March 15, with three at the Old Settlement and three at the airstrip on March 17. This is a recent colonist here.

Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres

Five on March 13 and four at Ned’s Beach on March 14. Thirty around the airstrip and Little Beach on March 15. Ten around the jetty and six on Roach Island on March 16, ten at the Old Settlement and thirty at the airstrip on March 17.

Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva

Seven at the airstrip March 13 and twenty on March 15, and one over Somerset on March 14. One by the jetty on March 16 and about twenty at the Old Settlement and seventy at the airstrip next day.

Wandering Tattler Tringa incana

A lone tattler scoped on the surf washed rocks at Ned’s Beach on March 14 was this species on jizz, as it looked rather brownish with a short eyebrow.

Grey-tailed Tattler T. brevipes

One on Roach Island on March 16 on the pelagic, heard to call as it flew.

Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica

Four were around the airstrip on March 15 and five on March 17.

Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis

One was at the airstrip on March 17, a scarce visitor here.

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus

About 7 singles were around the airstrip and Little Beach on March 15, and one on Roach Island on March 16. Two were at the Old Settlement and four at the airstrip on March 17.

Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii

Three were at the airstrip pond on March 15.

Buff-banded Rail Rallus philippensis

Common, I saw at least 5 on March 13 including 4+ at Ned’s Beach, one an adult with a downy juvenile. Two on March 14. About ten on March 15, including two at Ned’s Beach and an adult with two small juvs. near the airstrip. Two plus a small black baby at the airstrip on March 17.

Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio

Six were at the golf course on March 15 and five at the Old Settlement on March 17.

Lord Howe Woodhen Tricholimnas (Gallirallus) sylvestris

One unringed bird at Ian Hutton’s house at the settlement finally broke the duck on March 15, though I did hear the shrill calls at night around 2300 on March 13 at Somerset. Then there were 3 in the shrubby flowerbed along the driveway into the airstrip at 1300 on March 15, and a further two along the Little Beach walk, one bird in each of the two forest patches. One of these had symmetrical white auricular patches, which Ian tells me are supposed to mean a bird of age 12 or older. Heard again at Somerset on March 15 and 16 at 1900, a typical shrill squealing ralline chorus emanating from the undergrowth. Three at Arajilla near the Old Settlement on March 17, two banded adults and a full-grown juvenile that had slightly wispy looking plumage and a more degraded looking tail.

The contact call of this bird was a persistent trilling high-pitched series very similar to the contact calls of young Red-necked Crakes. The adults had a quiet tucking or grunting call again not unlike one call of the crake, a deep monotone ugh-ugh series.  Finally there was again one bird in the bushy flowerbed on the approach road to the airstrip on March 17. I saw at least nine individuals during my stay, and heard others.

A little larger than Buff-banded Rail with a stouter body, a longer, stouter and slightly decurved bill, and a short rather degraded looking tail that was flirted when anxious. Legs mid-grey and bill dark, the latter with a pinkish tinge, and the eye was a dark red. Plumage entirely chestnut brown, no bars on flanks, though the underwing had black and white spots like Red-necked Crake on the wing linings, and some short dark bars were visible on the closed wing. 

Quite tame and confiding, could be squeaked close. There is a well-used rock complete with a small stone atop with which to tap it along the Little Island Trail, as the noise attracts the Woodhens! I tried and got one to call in response. Numbers now total about 250 birds, after a very successful captive-breeding project, which ended in 1984, brought up the remnant 20 individuals to around 200. The population has now been stable for 15 years, maybe all territories are occupied?

Sacred Kingfisher

Several at Ned’s Beach on March 13 and, at least 4 at Ned’s Beach on March 14.

Five along Little Beach track March 15 and a few around the settlement and airstrip, some seeming very rich buff beneath, others much paler, perhaps immature birds. Two were at the Old Settlement paddocks and three at the airstrip on March 17.

Welcome Swallow Hirundo neoxena

Small numbers were around the settlement and airstrip.

Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica

One was feeding on berries on a low bush at Somerset on March 14, and two that day at Ned’s Beach. Heard at various other areas around the settlement. Two tame birds at Ned’s Beach March 15 and two at Arajilla on March 17.

Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis contempta

This endemic race is quite common, males seeming paler than NQ birds and with uniform greeny-olive wings and tail. Females are drab and lack the yellow vent so obvious on some mainland birds. Vocalizations are clearly Golden Whistler-like but subtly distinct.

Song Thrush Turdus philomelos  (I)

A single at Ned’s Beach on March 13, one at Somerset March 15 and one near the Museum on March 17, surprisingly scarce. This species was apparently self-introduced from New Zealand by 1955, after a vagrant in 1928 (McAllan et al 2004).

Blackbird T. merula (I)

This species was common around the settlement, many birds having some sort of feather problem with bald or scruffy patches on the heads of many. Apparently self-introduced from New Zealand by 1953 (McAllan et al 2004)..

Silvereye Zosterops lateralis tephropleura

Common around the settlement, and along Little Beach track, sounding very much like mainland birds, typical piping contact call and sweet song. One distinctive call sounds like the alarm note of Beautiful Firetail, a rising plaintive whistle that I do not know from the mainland. They have washed out pinkish flanks, and far less grey on the mantle however, with yellow chin, throat and vent, though nowhere near as distinct as the dark-faced Lifou birds.

Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca (I?)

This was quite common around the airstrip and the settlement, apparently introduced in 1924 but also perhaps self-colonised thereafter, as it was not seen on a visit in 1928 (McAllan et al 2004).

Pied Currawong Strepera graculina crissalis

Two in the wood at Ned’s Beach March 15, and 6 along the Little Beach track plus others heard. One was flying over the paddocks at the Old Settlement on March 17, and calling noisily in the wooded hills there. The call quite distinct to that of the mainland Pied Currawong, having a typical currawong quality but often with single bursts, not the crrroow-crroow double calls so familiar elsewhere. A plaintive musical crr-wee, upslurred on the second syllable was a common call. One was seen in Norfolk pines from the airstrip terminal on March 17. Heavy bill, yellow eye, reduced white in wing and on rump. Numbers of this taxon are meant to be about 50-60 birds only, rarer than the Woodhen with as yet unknown genetic and thus taxonomic status!

Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris (I)

Six were feeding in the paddocks by the Old Settlement on March 17. This species was self-introduced in 1924 and is both scarce and shy here, apparently often driven off by the recently colonized Spur-wings.


Bottle-nosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus

Three near Ball’s Pyramid, obligingly leaping clear of the water several times.

Ship (Black) Rat Rattus rattus

Several around Somerset at night, conceivably actually a new mammal for me!

Bat sp.

A small species was flying around the Norfolk Pines by the GPO on March 16.


Orchard Swallowtail (Papilio aegeus)-common around the Settlement.

Meadow Argus (Junonia villida)-Little Beach track,

Tailed Emperor (Polyura sempronius)- one by the GPO and two along the Little Beach track.


Hutton, Ian (1991). Birds of Lord Howe Island Past and Present. Ian Hutton.

McAllan, I.A.W., Curtis B. R., Hutton, I. and Cooper R.M. (2004) The Birds of the Lord Howe Island group: A Review of Records. Australian Field Ornithology Vol. 21, supplement. BOCA.

© Phil Gregory
Sicklebill Safaris
PO Box 387, Kuranda, Queensland 4881, Australia.
April 2005


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