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Published December 14th 2021
The island was mined for guano in the 1860s and all the trees were cut down. Goats were left on the island to eat the grass, the island was barren and all the birds left. A revegetation program started in the1960s when Don Adams saw the island as a potential touristic destination. He transported gallons of water on his plane to water the native trees on the island and with the trees, the birds started to come back.
Lady Elliot Island is the second island of the coral reef, after Raine Island, to have the most diverse variety of birds.
Raine Island is located on the northern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, approximately 620 kilometres north-west of Cairns. The island is a vegetated coral cay and it is approximately 27 hectares in size. The coral cay is important because it is where the green turtles nest and there are many birds. The entire island is a protected national park for scientific purposes and is not accessible to the public.
Red tailed tropic bird with its chick. Photo by Author.
The Great Barrier Reef has about 215 birds species which include seabirds, shorebirds and land birds. Some species of birds are permanent on Lady Elliot Island, while other birds are migratory or just passing by.
Birds are attracted to the Great Barrier Reef because of the abundance of food and the islands provide habitat for nesting and roosting. Seabirds and shorebirds are important for the island's ecosystems, especially for coral cays. The droppings of the birds, called guano, provide fertile soil and assist in the introduction of plants. Seeds can attach to the feathers and feet of birds and carried to new locations.
In summer time the White Noddies are busy refurbishing their nests and to raise their chicks. Photo by Author.
The guano mining started on Lady Elliot Island in the 1860s and lasted for a few years. In order to collect the guano, all the trees on the island were removed leaving the island barren. Only a few old pisonia trees were spared to provide shade to the miners. When the guano mining terminated, goats were left on the island to make sure that no vegetation would take place on the coral cay. The lack of trees and any form of vegetation meant there were no birds on the island.
The revegetation program started in the 1960s by Don Adams. The birds came back and now Lady Elliot Island has the second-highest diversity of sea birds, land birds and shorebirds in the Great Barrier Reef.
Sea birds: White Capped or Black Noddy
Common Noddy or Brown Noddy Crested Tern Bridled Tern
Wedge Tailed Shearwater or Mutton Bird
Red Tailed Tropic Sea Bird
White bellied Sea Eagle
Lesser Frigate Bird
White capped or Black Noddy Tern, Anous minutus, can be found nesting in trees all over the island. The remarkable fact about white-capped noddy is that they have webbed feet but they still build their nest between the branches of trees.
Female White Capped Noddy building a nest with the leaves brought to her by her partner. Photo by Author.
They are easy to identify with their white caps and long bills, Watching them build their nests is fascinating. The male goes looking for old leaves and he flies back offering one leaf to his partner, which may accept or reject the leaf. If the leaf is accepted, it is used to build the nest.
I saw a male keeping the leaf under his webbed feet fearing the female would throw it away. Sometimes the male has to do many trips before the leaf gets accepted. It has been observed sometimes the male has to collect about 50 leaves before the female accepts one.
White Capped Noddy with the chick. Photo by Author.
These birds have a special relationship with the Pisonia Grandis Tree. It is where they prefer to build their nest and they have more success in raising their chicks. Unfortunately in spring, the pisonia trees produce very sticky seeds. If the seeds get stuck on the birds, they won't be able to fly and die of starvation.
The Common Noddy, Anous Stolidus, are the larger cousins of the Black Noddy. These birds prefer to nest on the ground and in rockery near the airstrip. The male offers pieces of coral to the female which uses to build a sort of nest.
The Bridled Tern, Sterna anaethetus is another resident of Lady Elliot Island. They emit a strange sound similar to a dog bark. These birds are often seen engaging in courtship dancing during the summer months.
Bridled tern in the Lady Elliot Island Resort. Photo by Author.
The birds are monogamous and when it is time to reproduce again, the birds renew their bonds by exchanging little pebbles and performing dancing. They nest on the ground, everywhere in the Lady Elliot Resort, often near cabins under the steps.
Buff Banded Rail, Gallirallus philippensis, is the cheekiest resident of the island. Many of the Buff Banded Rails can be seen hanging around the dining room and if you leave your food unattended, it is more likely they will steal something from your plate.
Buff Banded Rail in the dining room in the resort. Photo by Author.
The Red Tailed Tropic Bird, Phaethon rubricauda, is a largish bird, over 1 metre long including the red tail. As a real sea bird, the Red Tailed Tropic Bird spends its life at sea. They come on land when it is time to lay the egg and look after the chick, generally one for a couple. The parents take turns to look after the chick.
The Red Tailed Tropic Bird with its chick. Photo by Author.
Being real sea birds, they are very clumsy on land, just propelling themselves with their legs and helping a bit with the wings. They take off like a helicopter, their landing sometimes can be a bit difficult.
Red Tailed Tropic Bird chick with the parent. Photo by Author.
The birds that were born on Lady Elliot Island return to breed on the same island. As real sea birds, the Red Tailed Tropic Birds manage to sleep when they fly but only with half of the brain asleep, while the other half remains in control.
When the chick is big enough it is possible to see it on its own waiting for the parents to come back and feed it. Photo by Author.
Researchers of the University of the Sunshine Coast found a 23-year-old Red Tailed Tropic Bird nesting on Lady Elliot Island. One Red Tailed Tropic Bird parent of a young chick had a tag noting that it was from a Queensland National Parks' program from the late 1990s. The record shows the Red Tailed Tropic Bird was tagged as a chick in 1997. The records also showed that the sea bird has a nest on the ground for its own chick within centimetres of where its own parent hatched and cared for it more than twenty years ago.
When the Red Tailed Tropic Bird is ready to fledge the parents won't come back to the nest and feed the young one. The big chick will prompt itself to abandon the nest and to look for food. It would be the hunger to trigger the chick to fly to the sea. Photo by Author.
Wedge Tailed Shearwater or Mutton Bird, Ardenna pacificus, have their burrows at Lady Elliot Island. The birds arrive in September and in October, dig burrows in the sand to lay their eggs. The parents take turns to look after and feed the chick. During the day, the Mutton Birds are at sea and they return to the island after sunset.
They can fly in the night as well, making their peculiar call. When the first people arrived on the island, they mistake the call of the mutton birds for ghosts or crying babies!
Wedge tailed Shearwater or Mutton Bird. Photo by Author.
Roseate Tern, Sterna Bougallii, nest in large numbers on the island and lay their eggs in the open, above the high tide mark. They fly over the water with beaks pointing down, looking for food. They plunge straight into the water to catch fish.
Crested Tern, Sternabergii, in summer hundred of pairs of crested terms lay their eggs in the open, mostly on short grass near the weather station on Lady Elliot Island. Here they have a system where adults take turns guarding the chicks while the others head out to look for food.
Bar Tailed Godwith, Limosa lapponica, make the longest non-stop flight of any bird travelling from Alaska to Australia, a distance of over 11,000 km without stopping to rest or feed. They have a long slightly upturned beak that is used to prod into the ground to find worms and other small animals.
White Bellied Sea Eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster, catch fish with their talons, not their beak. They hunt aquatic animals such as fish, turtles, sea snakes and birds. It is the second-largest bird of prey in Australia with a wingspan of up to 2.2 metres. Couples stay together for life, they have been seen making their nest on Lady Elliot Island.
The Lesser Frigate, Fregata minor, visit the island but they don't stay or nest. They fly high in the sky and keep an eye on birds that have just caught a fish out of the sea. Then they approach the birds and they harass them so the birds are forced to give up their catch or to regurgitate the food on which they have fed.
The frigates also catch food on their own but they have to be careful not to wet their feathers. Unlike the other birds, they don't have glands to make their feathers waterproof.
Ruddy Turnestones, Arenaria interpres, are small sandpipers that migrate thousands of kilometres every year between the Arctic Circle and the Great Barrier Reef. They turn stones over foraging for food.
Threats to Birds.
There are many different conservation issues that have an impact on Australia's birds. The nature of these issues is often a result of changes to their habitat. There are also many other threats:
1 Climate change is one of the most current conservation issues of our time.
2 Coastal development, reduction of resting and feeding areas.
3 Disturbance of breeding birds.
4 Pollution, like plastic.
5 Fire & burning Regimes.
6 Habitat clearance & fragmentation.
7 Invasive Species.
What can you do to help the birds?
1 Don't try to touch the birds, chicks or eggs.
2 Reduce noise and movements to avoid disturbing nesting and roosting birds.
3 Watch your steps to avoid crushing eggs or chicks.
4 When birds exhibit stressful behaviour, back away.
5 Support seabird rescue organisations.