Category Archives: Karen’s Posts

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Muttonbirds

Karen Hunt 30/1/20

A short-tailed shearwater corpse on Griffith Island, Warnambool.

Something is killing the shearwaters on Griffith Island at Warnambool.

The Island, on Victoria’s southwestern coast, is the home to one of the largest nesting colonies of Short-tailed Shearwaters (aka muttonbirds) on the mainland of Australia.

Or it usually is.

In January as I walked around the colony on Griffith Island, I was shocked to see the number of corpses littering the landscape, both adults and fluffy, unfledged chicks.

The last time I was on the Island, two years ago, the same walk produced not even one corpse, so to say I was shocked is an uderstatement.

And it appears this is not the only mystery surrounding the muttonbirds – at least half the population is missing. The migratory birds usually touch down at Griffith Island after their incredible flight from Alaska on September 22, but this year not only were they late, but there was only about half the usual number.

I contacted Peter Barrand, President of Birdlife Warnambool, the closest Birdlife group, to see if he had any answers

In the case of the missing muttonbirds, what he says is alarming, although given the lack of useful information about the migratory species, its all theory. Reports from the northern hemisphere, where the birds spend their winters, suggest that a lack of food is leaving the birds with little fuel for their long journey south. Perhaps, Peter suggests, they stopped to replenish the supplies along the way, or even decided to give breeding a miss this year and head straight for better feeding grounds in the Antarctic.

There have been, he says, reports of massive numbers of shearwaters found dead both along the eastern seaboard and, earlier in the year, in the northern hemisphere. Autopsies by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that the birds had starved to death.

Its concerning because shearwater populations were only just recovering from a similar die off in 2013, and as they only have one egg a year, its a long, slow road to rebuild the population.

And as for the corpses littering the landscape, there’s no more positive answers. It could be, says Peter, the birds that have arrived are so weakened by their long flight and lack of food they die as soon as they land. Or maybe foxes, although the local authority has conducted control operations on the Island. He also posits wandering dogs or cats, but with no real enthusiasm.

The fact is that even though shearwaters are the most common migratory seabird, they only make landfall in the dark and head straight into their burrows, makes them very difficult to count. Hard data is difficult to find so no one knows the population size or dynamic.

Its all guesswork, according to Peter Barrand. But the birds are due to leave in April for their long flight back to the northern waters, and there’s no guessing how many will return next year. It could be the shearwater population goes from ‘most abundant’ to ‘in terrible trouble’ in the space of a couple of years, a truly terrifying thought.

But after the devastating loss of both birds and animals in the bushfires this year, and the concentration on saving those who survived, the fate of the missing muttonbirds is likely to remain on the backburner for some time to come.

Bird and Nature Week 2016

Trawling for goshawks Karen Hunt

Funny to think this time three years ago I was on Christmas Island taking part in Bird & Nature Week and writing my first blogs for the Christmas Island Tourism Association. It was so much fun, I highly recommend it for everyone who loves birds. And the snorkeling is great too!

Here’s the links to the blogs (quite excited to see they are still on the site) Trawling for goshawks The Old Man of the Sea

The dinosaur bird

Karen Hunt

Image may contain: grass, outdoor and nature

Oh North Queensland, how good it was to see you again.

A short break to refresh the soul, only a week so not many chances to scope out the birdlife.

But Mission Beach delivered – my first sighting of a Southern Cassowary in the wild.

I’d only seen them in captivity before and its always a bit of a gamble to see them doing their stuff at any particular time, on any particular day – even in Mission Beach where sightings are quite common.

But my nearest and dearest suggested a cruise around some back streets and there one was, crossing a road in the distance, the silhouette immediately recognisable from the signs on every street corner.

A tiny window to grab a photo or three and he/she was gone, up a curving driveway and out of sight, but not, I think, out of mind for a very long time.

They’re pretty impressive birds, not as tall as an emu, but bulky, with a I’m-a-gentle-giant-until-you-push-me-too-far type attitude. Their blue necks and red wattles are brighter than I imagined and this one had a curiously divided casque – not sure what that was all about – but those huge toes are impressive even from a distance. This is a Jurassic Park kind of bird; you can see the dinosaur genes in every considered step.

And tough you’d think. But not tough enough to avoid the dogs which take young ones every year. Or cars cruising the roads cutting through their forest homes and which they have to traverse, at their own peril.

Allen Sheather who works with conservation organisation Rainforest Rescue, says three adult cassowaries have been killed in the last three months in the Mission Beach area, another in the Daintree, possibly by people like us who were driving around hoping to spot one. With no accurate data to judge populations, its sadly ironic that the rarity of a cassowary invites its most likely killers.

Ironic too that the tropics which give rise to the rain forest, can also rip it apart, threatening the birds with starvation. Cyclones rip the forest apart, denuding trees of the fruit the cassowaries need to survive.

But somehow, the dinosaur bird hangs on.

Searches in the wake of Cyclone Trevor in the Iron Range rain forest of Cape York, far north of Mission Beach, have found traces of birds, footprints and scats of at least 4 individual birds. And Allen Sheather says the efforts of many conservation groups in protecting both birds and habitat has meant that overall, cassowary numbers remain reasonably stable.


I hope the one I saw survives and breeds and lives on in the eternal twilight of the Australian rain forest. I hope one day I can take my Canadian-born grandchildren to Mission Beach and see a dinosaur bird strolling by, haughtily ignoring the gawkers. I hope those worthy souls who battle to save the cassowaries and the rain forest don’t lose hope.

Because without support from government and individuals, without the effort and will to preserve the national estate in all its glorious forms, without people leashing their dogs and taking care when they drive, hope is all we’ve got.

desperately seeking Stipiturus

Karen Hunt

Tom Hunt

They’re determined, these volunteers.

Why else would they slog , day after day, through kilometers of spiky, hummocky grasslands in the dry heat of the Victorian mallee, searching for a tiny bundle of feathers with an absurdly flamboyant tail?

Well, to find it, for one thing. And to count it, for another.

Because no one is sure how many of these tiny birds, the mysterious Mallee Emu Wren, Stipiturus mallee, remain in the lonely, semi-arid shrub lands that make up the Wyperfield, Murray-Sunset and Hattah Kulkyne National Parks in Victoria’s north west.

PhD student Simon Verdon from La Trobe University, leader of this somewhat masochistic band, wants to find out. He’s on a mission to do the most comprehensive survey of the Mallee Emu Wren in years, if not ever.

It’s not going to be easy. The emu wren is tiny, about the size of a golf ball, not counting a tail that’s almost twice as long again as its body, and which more strongly resembles filament-y emu feathers than the tightly controlled rear appendages of other wrens . Males sport a sky blue head and frontal bib but apart from that, they are the same colour as the dry spikes of Triodia grass in which they hide.

And that’s the rub – the birds like to hide in the middle of the almost impenetrable clumps of what’s aptly described as porcupine grass. What they eat, where they go, and what they are doing when they get there are also mysteries, but that’s a story for another day.

In the spring, when the counting begins, the males are more visible, flaunting their blue bibs, sashaying through the topmost spikes of the Triodia, tails erect. But only briefly, dropping into the all encompassing spikes at the drop of a volunteer’s hat. And the females remain as elusive as ever.

So the volunteer army, some 35 strong, tough, determined and indefatigable, venture into the wilderness, day after day, searching, and listening, and searching some more.

And reporting back to the man who counts.

A what?? of wagtails

BY Karen Hunt

What do you call a group of willie wagtails?

Its one of those questions in search of an answer but beware, past attempts to collectively name birds have left more cases of misleading information than a Dodgy Brothers ad.

Take owls for example. Being a mostly solitary bird, its unlikely they would ever form a parliament. And having seen a couple of parliaments in my time, I have to say the reputed wisdom and dignity of the owl is very much in abeyance.

Crows are rarely murderous, although definitely malicious, and I’ve never seen them muster. Choughs don’t clatter, eagles never convocate and robins are rarely a riot. I have trouble imagining a hill of sand-pipers. or a wisp of snipe even though I held a Lathams Snipe once and it WAS pretty small.

On the other hand, a peep of chickens sounds just right. As does a pandemonium of parrots, a screech of gulls and a murmuration of starlings. And having once raised Guinea fowl, I can attest that a confusion of guinea fowl is just that.

A pretence of bitterns could I guess be explained by the birds constant disguise as a reed but please explain – what is a twack of ducks? My dictionary has twack meaning to strike something hard with the back of the middle finger and although my experience with ducks is not extensive, their lack of a middle finger seems to render that explanation a tad ridiculous.

So what to call my Willie Wagtails?

It has to be a word that encapsulates their perkiness, their cheerful fearlessness and air of joie de vie combined with their sartorial splendor, a classic tuxedo jacket and slim line trews. The word must do justice to the constantly flicking tail, which seems to have go than the Eveready battery bloke.

So, how about a waggle of willies?

Works for me.

A mischief of magpies – maybe

Karen Hunt

It was a quiet afternoon.

The family of magpies who had made my back lawn their afternoon tea spot were out in force, mum (or dad) and the four kids, just chillin”.

Without warning, Dad (or mum) flew in with capital punishment on his (or her) mind – and possibly murder in his (or her) heart.

I don’t know what the offending party had done – showed just a bit too much underwing at the bird bath when others were watching out? Added a flirty trill to the dawn chorus? Didn’t make sure all the kids got a worm? I’ll never know, but the punishment was swift, savage and relentless.

The attack continued for several minutes.

Tactically it was brilliant – the element of surprise followed by an all out attack, giving no quarter with the victim not having any chance to either fight back or flee. Who knew that magpies had mastered the Art of War?

The youngsters circled the battling pair uttering little cries of alarm but sensibly, keeping their distance.

And then it was done.

The victim fled. The attacker cast a disdainful glance in my direction, dismissed me as completely irrelevant, and settled down to find a grub. The kids took a quick meeting then surreptitiously moved off to the far corners of the lawn, and changed their minds about begging for a crumb.

And, once again, it was a quiet afternoon.

Very excited to have a photo included in this international forum earlier this year.

Karen Hunt

(You have to scroll down a bit.)


This was one of those right time, right place shots when the photo gods smiled and everything was just right.

It does happen!

Photographed just outside Geraldton WA