Maatsuyker Island - where birds outnumber people 500,000 to 1
October 9, 2017 & continued December 11, 2017
The short-tailed shearwater “Puffinus tenuirostris”, also known as the muttonbird or yolla to Indigenous Australians, and affectionately to us as “mutties” travel the globe from polar region to polar region, journeying over 30,000 km every year. Within the same few days in late September to early October, a population of nearly 1 million descend upon Maatsuyker Island. Their arrival is swift and deliberate - one day you feel like you’re completely alone on an island, the next, there’s no doubt in your mind, they own it! The “mutties” travel unfathomable distances, driven entirely by instinct. Flocks of over one million make landfall under the cover of dusk around the islands of Bass Strait to begin their mating ritual. Maatsuyker Island is home to the third largest colony in Tasmania.
“The mutton birds are coming, the mutton birds are coming!”
The words flew off my lips like a 10-year-old imitating Paul Revere in a school play, running around the exposed hill behind our house, flapping my arms up and down excitedly! “We’re bound to get pooped on!”. The birds just kept coming, a mighty swarm overhead but silent as the night sky.
On October the 5th, at precisely last light, over 800,000 birds made their collective and calculated descent over our island. We could just make out the shape of their bodies, small silhouettes against a back drop of a purely Tasmanian sunset. Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands approaching gale force winds like they were a soft breeze, allowing their bodies to be catapulted towards the island. Nearly one million birds overhead, and not one single head-on collision. They’re propelled entirely by wind and a few intermittent flaps of their sensationally designed wings, which span up to 1 metre. Their arrival is much like precipitation: a few fleeting drips at first, your mind plays tricks on you, a few brave souls you hardly think you saw. Their numbers develop rapidly, raining down from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Over 7 months since their last departure, yet no sign of hesitation, not a single moment of indecisiveness or second guessing - these birds fly direct! They pepper the sky until they’re just over their burrow and then slingshot straight in - BAM! Crash-landings all over the island, some over the tops of tea-trees, others straight into the daisy bush, exposed pig face, the edge of a cliff, the pathway next to our house, these guys live everywhere!
As they settle in overnight, the Maatsuyker Island rookery roars with awkward squawking, cooing and crying. The range of noises unleashed by muttonbirds is impossible to describe - residing somewhere between an oversized pigeon and a deaf rooster, but entirely in their own octave, they begin low and shaky and build into a full blown monkey-like taunt. It is a sound we surely won’t ever forget. And every night it begins again. It’s difficult to fathom their motives - what they may be trying to communicate to one another with such abruptness. Whatever it is, it’s damn loud! The several hundred that have made a home just outside our bedroom window are particularly boisterous! After a couple of months though, they’ve almost become the equivalent of a subtle fan noise you can’t sleep without. My mom enjoys falling asleep to a rain machine, I get a kick out of imagining her trying to fall asleep to the sound of 800,000 mating birds!
Muttonbirds mate for life. They return each year to their place of birth. When they’ve reached maturity, they seek out their life partner and begin house hunting. Once they’ve found that perfect unoccupied burrow to call their own, they will return to it year after year to lay their single egg. These magnificent seabirds only get one shot a year at procreation. If their precious egg rolls down the hill, see ya later! If it gets smashed or eaten by a predator, sad day. If it happens to get laid in the wrong burrow - whoops! One shot. That’s it. Luckily, Maatsuyker Island is in large part undisturbed compared to other breeding areas, and there are no land predators threatening baby chicks, only flying ones!
85% of short-tailed shearwaters lay their eggs within the same week at the end of November. Once their egg is laid, a couple will then begin taking incubating shifts. Mutties believe in equality! The female lays the egg and the male takes the first shift incubating it. Once the chick has hatched, they both work tirelessly at fattening it up. Back and forth to the ocean, sunrise after sunset, returning just in time to upchuck their catch of the day to their crying mini-me. By the end of March, the chicks will weigh twice as much as their parents, and their soft, fluffy down will begin making way for adult feathers. Much like a two-year-old child, they’ll be venturing out of their burrows, stretching their wings and getting into heaps of mischief. Then, quite abruptly, I would imagine, come April, the cord will be cut and the adult birds will leave Maatsuyker Island to continue their migration towards the Arctic. The chicks will be left to figure the rest out on their own. With no parents to guide them, it is one of Earth’s great mysteries how the fledgling mutties make their way, but eventually, they too give in to the collective urge to raise their wings, catch the wind, and fly north. Departing with the sun, the young birds mimic their parents and gather in rafts just offshore before allowing their internal compasses to take over and lead them on their great journey.
Currently, on island, the parent birds are in the middle of their incubating period. They returned several weeks ago from a 2 week stint in Antartica, feasting on abundant krill to hunker down and do their family duty. The much anticipated hatching will kick off just after New Years, and for awhile, the bird population will shoot up to well over 1 million.
Muttonbirds live in black and white, stark contrasts, no shades of gray. While their time on land is loud enough to be felt as a vibration around the island, their arrival is eerily silent. Despite being spectacular flyers and navigators of wind and weather over oceans, their land legs are quite hopeless. Somehow, they manage to transform overgrown, dilapidated burrows into a network of cozy, underground homes equipped only with hooked beaks and two pairs of webbed feet, however, they go out of their way to utilise every man-made structure on the island to aid in their take-off. Without wind, especially they struggle. Earlier in the season, when the sun was rising later, we would walk out for the 6am weather obs just as they were taking off. Whether or not they feel a sense of security in large numbers or their instincts are just too strong to deviate from, they don’t seem to pay humans much attention. Perhaps its because we are so embarrassingly outnumbered. We watched them waddle about the road, all preparing for their departure, trying to gain a bit of height advantage with the wind. Some managed to bumble their way to the top of our step, others found their secret spot on top of the septic tank, most used the grassy road as an airstrip.
One brave mutty steps up to the plate and crouches to a low, hovering position. 3, 2, 1, it begins sprinting with all its might, pumping its stubby webbed feet down the hill as fast as its little legs will allow. Finally, it begins flapping its wings with ferocity, it’s all heart! You can just feel its breath held as it hopes and prays its way into a wind stream that will carry it skyward!
Alas, a failed attempt! Sometimes it takes two or three tries over, but these little monogomous marine warriors are all grit and determination! One way or another, they fight their way into flight. Once there, they’re nearly unstoppable! They gather themselves offshore and form giant rafts in the ocean, swimming and diving, and floating as one. Every morning and every night they repeat the cycle - rising with the sun, returning when it sets.
The muttonbirds have become part of the island for us, happily woven into the life and breath of it. When remembering or retelling our experience here, their sweet, charcoal faces will always be a main theme. They were here long before even the lightkeepers. Really, we’re the visitors to their island, and we’re thankful we were able to witness a small part of their miraculous existence. Even if one did crash land into Jesse! The bird was fine but Jesse has been pretty nervous walking around at dusk ever since. That’s ten points to the mutty!
Friends of Maatsuyker Island (FOMI) engages in important short-tailed shearwater population monitoring on Maatsuyker Island each year. Burrows are carefully inspected with a ‘burrowscope’, or camera on the end of a long hose to see if there is an adult bird incubating an egg inside. This has been run in conjunction with a weed control program that has been working to eradicate invasive weeds such as blackberry and hebe that threaten the integrity of the rookery area. Since 2004, the progress made by FOMI’s weed control program has enabled birds to reestablish burrows in areas that were previously infested. FOMI is currently in their forth year of shearwater monitoring. For more information contact FOMI at firstname.lastname@example.org