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It’s my own fault. I always encourage them to think about the name and see if it tells them anything. It works with turnstones, it’s just what they do; warblers warble, and whistlers whistle. It clearly doesn’t work all the time.

Whalebirds (Sterna fuscata) are usually called sooty terns and are one of the most widespread seabirds in the world. Their plaintive calls can be heard above Norfolk Island on foggy nights from around August each year, seeming to cry out through the sea mist in search of their companions, or perhaps an elusive place to land. They don’t find it until October, when they alight on the offshore islands and stacks to begin their annual breeding. The timing of their arrival coincides with the southern migration of the humpback whales, as they dawdle back to Antarctic waters with their new calves. That’s where the name comes from.

For some years the calls of the whalebirds have sounded lonely, and apparently received little response. There was a time when the sky was filled with a cacophony, an airborne stadium crowd cheering their champions on to find land. The numbers dwindled over the decades until only a few could be heard. Everyone made sure the children came out in the misty darkness to hear them, in case they couldn’t in a few years’ time.

When the Island had no airstrip or supermarket, the whalebirds’ arrival brought a welcome change in diet. Their eggs were collected throughout the summer and shared among Island families, in omelettes, boiled or scrambled, their fishy taste and orange yolks setting them apart from the usual fare of hens’ eggs.

Phillip Island, their main breeding ground, became the subject of an annual census in the 1980s, to ascertain if the birds’ numbers were dwindling, as they appeared to be. It was true. More power boats providing more efficient transport to the offshore island was thought to be a reason for the impact on their numbers. It doesn’t show at first because the sooty tern lives for 25 years or more. If breeding is not successful, it isn’t apparent until those adults die off and there are no birds left to take their place.

To protect the population from crashing, an open season was introduced. Egg collecting continued, but the eggs laid later in the season were left alone so that they could hatch fluffy speckled chicks. And so, the population was maintained.

With their Phillip Island habitat providing more shelter as it recovers from 200 years of grazing by rabbits, the survival of the birds is enhanced. In 2008, although they haven’t been counted, their numbers have increased to the point that it is deafening to walk among them again. Visitors to the island definitely need to wear a hat when these black and white seabirds do their aerial acrobatics.

In a case of “saving our eggs and eating them too” a compromise has resulted in a return to the wonderful chaos that can only be experienced in seabird colonies.

Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss1, 2008. 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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