Many Australians take beach holidays between Christmas and New Years’. My Laddie and I, preferring to beat the crowds, took our coastal trip in late November instead. If you’re an Aussie prudently forgoing holiday travel during the latest COVID outbreak, or a Northern Hemisphere reader seeking a little sea and sunshine to brighten dark solstice days, enjoy some vicarious adventures with me in this series on wildlife encounters in the Eurobodalla region.
Five nautical miles off the coastal town of Narooma lies Barunguba, also called Montague Island. Once a seafood picnic haven for indigenous peoples, it became a lighthouse station in the late 1800s. Today the (solar-powered!) light is automated, and the nature reserve’s most notable colonists are seals and penguins. This combination of history and nature intrigued me, so when weather updates promised an unexpectedly dry day on our beach trip, I booked a tour.
The boat departed from Narooma’s wharf, where charter vessels bobbed on the clear turquoise water. Stingrays bigger than bin lids drifted through the shallows, and fur seals basked on the rocky seawall. Serene sailing seemed assured, until we tried to leave Wagonga Inlet. Waves careened into its mouth, bouncing us passengers on our benches.
“This might be the boat-iest thing I’ve ever done,” my Laddie muttered.
“I expected something more like Maria Island,” I admitted, recalling our spray-heavy but smooth trip to an offshore park in Tasmania. But that was a much larger boat, and a much calmer day.
At last our pilot timed a gap between the waves and we struggled out of the channel. “Well, who wants to ride in the bow now?” he asked. The other passengers giggled nervously, but kept their seats.
Guess who went?
Alone in the prow like a Viking chieftainess, I grinned madly as the boat bounded over crests and plunged into troughs. (Choppy seas made it more exhilarating than my last roller-coaster ride.) The island, a mere green smudge from shore, resolved in greater detail with each wild minute: the stocky little lighthouse, an erratic line of trees, large coastal rocks painted with yellow lichen and white guano. A few gulls watched us dock, and everyone clogged the stairs to photograph a single brown-speckled chick. How often does one see a baby seagull, after all? The national park guides herded us onward with wry, indulgent smiles.
A short, steep walk later, I understood their expressions.
The former lighthouse keepers’ quarters, available as overnight accommodation, hosted an exclusive group booking: a colony of crested terns. This year more than 2,000 breeding pairs arrived, a record for the spot that ranks it third-largest of Australia’s crested tern colonies. Each couple typically produces a single egg for a rough count of about five thousand individual birds, plus a complement of gulls nesting on the fringes.
No photograph (except possibly an aerial one) could capture the whole size. It spread up and over a hill, across several large rock outcrops, and down the far side of a cliff. It might seem like overpopulation, but according to the park ranger, about 30% of the chicks don’t survive. One of their largest threats is dehydration. That’s likely the reason why the island is so popular this year: higher-than-average rain has created lots of little rock pools where the birds gather.
Few things I’ve heard in my life better characterize the word cacophony than thousands of seabirds squawking and squabbling simultaneously. My Laddie and I almost had to shout in one another’s ears—a wild twist on the crowded bars we visited in our youthful city days—and the guides could barely deliver their interpretive remarks. Salt breeze mitigated the earthy but not unpleasant smell of guano. Birds dove and wheeled right past our heads, putting us in the middle of a feathery perpetual motion machine. We had a blast trying to get photographs of the brunch brigade, with him spotting and me running the camera. “Fish delivery!” he’d yell over the din, pointing. “Fish delivery!”
Terns can reportedly recognize their own chick only a few days after it hatches. But with hundreds of the little fluffballs running around on the rocks, it amazed me that the parents could find the right spot. (Although it seemed to be an imperfect science. Some of them would land, look around, and then take off again: “that’s not my kid!”)
Within the colony’s sprawl, my zoom lens highlighted behavioral vignettes: adults fighting with their beaks; one tiny chick snuggling with its parent, another stretching its stubby wings as though determined to fly; an overprotective couple shepherding its offspring’s every waddle.
From a distance, it’s just a noisy mess of activity. But up close, hundreds of tiny tableaux showcase the dramas of five thousand avian lives. Is that what human civilization looks like to extraterrestrial observers—countless concurrent episodes, each convinced that the whole world spins around its dynamics? Visiting Barunguba’s tern colony brought me a startling new perspective, both on my own species and the ones who carry on their own sagas out of our sight. My expression throughout the experience mimicked this chick’s: gaping awe.