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Island People: Honey McCoy

Island People: Honey McCoy

Honey McCoy is fitter and stronger than the average 30-year-old male, and she has undertaken tasks that most women would cower at. Yet her diminutive size has done little to distract her from the cause she holds as her own, which has been to document the fauna and flora of Phillip Island for the past 30 years. She has also worked tirelessly on the recovery of the island’s natural vegetation, which has been severely degraded by 200 years of grazing by introduced animals (see also the article by Kevin Mills in this issue).

In the 1980s, Honey was involved in a project to eliminate the island’s rabbits. The work was intense and Honey was the only woman on the forefront. “I love it out there. I didn’t do it for any great reason. I just did it because I love it.”

Once the rabbits were eliminated, the next step was to work on re-vegetating the island with native species. The first task was to revive the Phillip Island hibiscus (Hibiscus insularis), an endemic species that was first recorded in the early 1800s. The problem was that if the hibiscus was planted from seed, it would take up to 18 years to mature. To combat this, Honey used a method of aerial grafting into bags on living plant material still attached to the parent plant. As a result, the first 50 she tended are now flowering well over her head.

The second endemic species that required her attention was Coprosma baueri. Only two or three of these rabbit-eaten plants remained. To help propagate it Honey would carry a little bag containing Coprosma seed and randomly scratch the red soil and place a seed in it, while she was out banding birds (another of her passions). Now Coprosma are coming up all over the island.

Also while banding birds she found an undetermined species of the shrub Achyranthes. As was her style, Honey stuck a little sprig of it in her hat. Later on in the day she ran into some friends who were camping on Phillip Island and they questioned her about the origin of the plant, noting similarities to one that grows on Norfolk. However, the Achyrantheson Norfolk is different in that it is a tree, and the flower of the plant faces downwards. This plant from Phillip Island had upward facing flowers and was a shrub. A specimen was sent to botanists to evaluate. Ten years later, it was formally announced that a new endemic species had been discovered. Achyranthes margaretum was named after its finder, MargueriteAdam — aka Honey McCoy.

Another plant, Abutilon julianae, was thought to have disappeared completely from Phillip and was actually listed as extinct. Since the elimination of the rabbits, however, it has come back and now widely grown on Norfolk where Abutilon shrubs of can be found in many places, including Bird Rock and in the botanical gardens.

Honey’s other love are the seabirds and she has been involved in a banding program for many years. The island’s three main species are masked boobys, petrels and Australasian gannets. The birds are banded as young chicks or juveniles in order to track their nesting and migration patterns. Banded birds have been identified all over the Pacific in places as far away as Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Kermadec.

Although Honey has at times had assistance with banding, she finds it easier to do this task alone. The time taken to find a willing companion to assist her on a consistent basisbsurpasses the time required to actually band the birds, and over time she has devised a successful method of doing by herself.

Some of the seabirds are large, as much as 84 cm tall with wingspans of up to 170 cm, and have sizeable bills. Honey’s method is to approach them quietly and take them by the feet, careful not to get bitten or snapped at. A band is placed on the bird’s leg and the bird is then released with, hopefully, a minimum of stress. Honey then records information into a field book including the date, time, location etc. of when and exactly where the band was attached to the bird. Data sheets are then sent to the banding office in
Canberra where the information is stored.

One of the loveliest parts of Phillip Island is the southern peninsula and its precipitous cliffs rising out of the sea and the underwater sea caves. This area is inaccessible by land and barely accessible by sea due to crashing surf, and was referred to by the convicts as “Foul Water”. Yet Honey has ventured out to this dangerous place with only a surfboard and canvas bag to stow her camera.

Another of Honey’s missions to discover more about the island she loves was to climb a massive basalt pinnacle known as “the Monument”. Honey managed to climb the pinnacle, unassisted by man or rope. She took with her a fishing line with a little rock attached to it and dropped it down the side until it reached the bottom. When she got home she measured the distance to be approximately 99 feet, which she concedes could be a little more or a little less due to the flexibility of the fishing line.

Honey is in the final stages of writing a book, hopefully to be released later this year, about Phillip Island’s flora and fauna. For the last 30 years, Phillip Island has been nurtured (thanks in large part to Honey) slowly back from a desolate wasteland to its former state. Although she does not accept all of the accolades for this transformation — others have certainly contributed — Honey must be recognised for the significant role she has played.

Who will go on to preserve this legacy remains to be seen, but whoever it is, they have some big shoes to fill.

Image Credit: Robin Nisbet



Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss3, 2009. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.


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