by Jamie Walker

Islands have a fascination for many people. They are associated with romance and adventure, and Australia’s island territories – spread from the sub-Antarctic to the tropics – exemplify these qualities

Yet our islands’ ecologies have troubled histories. Europeans accidentally transported rats and mice and, to accommodate their own needs, deliberately introduced pigs, goats, rabbits, dogs and cats which quickly became feral doom that decimated – even exterminated – many native species.

However, islands can be repaired, native wildlife valued, and long-established pests have been eradicated by more enlightened people.

Lady Musgrave Island, just over the sea’s horizon at the southern end of the Barrier Reef, is a small, close neighbouring example. Its coral sand grows a thick woodland of Pisonia trees. Bridled Terns nest safely on the ground in the shade, and Black Noddies (another kind of tern) fashion ragged nests of wrack and sea-grass up on the branches. 

A trip out to this island can be wonderful, producing close encounters with Humpback Whales (in season) and leaping, twisting Spinner Dolphins.

At the more outflung outpost of Norfolk Island (home of giant 30m pines and the world’s largest population of Tiger Sharks) there are more Noddies, here nesting on pine branches.

Fourteen other species of seabirds breed on Norfolk. There are Petrels, Frigatebirds and Shearwaters; Red-tailed Tropicbird chicks sit silent and stock-still in nests at the bases of the pines. Their parents look graceful and strikingly white as they return from the ocean carrying food.

But I have been most inspired by the White Terns. Tiny (for a sea-going species) like the Noddies, they have avoided nesting competition with bigger birds on the shoreline. They simply find a pine branch with a suitable hollow in it, lay an egg in the hollow and sit on it – and that’s White Tern nesting for you. Economy of effort. Safe up in the trees. Sometimes, the simplest plans work best.

Pairs of these beautiful little birds perform slow, elegant display flights – each matching the other’s movements as though fastened together by invisible wire – like a perfect pas de deux. I was reminded of Torvill and Deans’ Bolero.

Of course, the future of all these places and the life that inhabits them (including human forms) is dependent on clean, healthy oceans. 

This is an area where, for a long time, we took our eyes off the ball and a massive cleaning up is needed. But we have seen what has been done in the past when pests were eradicated. 

All that is needed for any improvement to be achieved, is the will to achieve it.

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