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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Ball's Pyramid; mighty outlier of Lord Howe Island

I often think of a wonderful week we spent a while back on Lord Howe Island, out in the Tasman Sea (part of the Pacific Ocean) 600km off New South Wales. For some more information, here's a past posting, which in turn has links to others. It's a relatively recent (about seven million years old) crescent-shaped volcanic crater remnant some 10 kilometres long.
Lord Howe Island is clearly marked just to the east of the word Newcastle in the Tasman Sea.
It is on the edge of the Lord Howe Rise, an extensive seamount chain stretching north for some 1000km,
surrounded by water more than 4000m deep.
One of our most memorable afternoons of a memorable week was a boat trip out to Ball's Pyramid, a spectacular eroded remnant of the shield volcano 24km to the south-east of Lord Howe. 

The sizes of the two islands give an idea of the remoteness of the pyramid from Lord Howe.
Map courtesy of Oregon State University.
We were very privileged, in that the trip is cancelled due to bad weather more often than it is run, and I've met people who've failed to get there in several attempts. We however had a perfect afternoon, albeit with a moderately heavy swell running. Our guide was the wonderful Ian Hutton, synonymous with Lord Howe natural history, a quiet, charming and immensely erudite man whose retiring personality can give the misimpression of abruptness.

The pyramid is a huge overwhelmingly steep and rugged near-vertical lump of rock, which imposes on the southern skyline of Lord Howe even at such a distance. It rears 550 metres straight up out of the ocean, though is only twice that in length and just 300 metres wide; it claims to be the tallest volcanic seastack in the world.
Ball's Pyramid looming in the distance from Clear Place, on the north-east coast of Lord Howe,
at least 30km away.
The trip, in an open boat, leaves from the harbour in the sheltered bay just south of the north-western 'hook' of the island (see outline in second map above) and travels north to pass along the eastern coast, giving views of the island not otherwise obtainable.
Mount Eliza, far north-west corner of the island.
The trip home completes the circumnavigation, passing close to the base of the mighty hills that form the south of the island, Mounts Gower and Lidgbird. (The names were applied with an honest lack of modesty in 1788 by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, the first European to sight the Lord Howe group.)
Mount Gower (above) and Mount Lidgbird (below) from the sea.



These views however, while superb, are very much the supporting acts. Once clear of the main island, the vertical bulk of the pyramid becomes increasingly riveting.

The only thing that distracts the eye is the abundance of seabirds, and especially the wheeling
Flesh-footed Shearwaters Puffinus carneipes, whose main breeding areas include Lord Howe.
You can watch the shearwaters for a long time, banking into the wind and riding down its waves,
over and again, without seeing them flap. They are supremely at home in the winds,
second, if that, only to the albatrosses. Their family name, Procellariidae, means 'storm birds'.
And with a wingspan of 130cm, they're very impressive indeed.

The sheer wall of rock rising half a kilometre above us is very dramatic indeed.
In fact, it is so abruptly vertical that, close up, it is pretty much impossible to convey an accurate impression.
A wider angle shot of the pyramid, from close up on the south side.
The seabirds are constant and magnificent (and encouraged by fish scraps and fish oil!).
Flesh-footed Shearwaters, above and below.
The tubular nostrils, characteristic of the group, are clearly visible above.

While dominant, the Flesh-footeds are not the only family members present. The delicate and tiny storm-petrels are usually only seen far out to see, and in my experience provide immense challenges to photographers; while not in any way extolling the photos I managed of them that day, they are infinitely better than anything else I'd ever achieved with regard to them!
White-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregetta grallaria.This 'pattering' feeding behaviour on the sea surface is typical of the birds long known to
sailors as 'Mother Carey's Chickens'.
('Petrel' incidentally, seems to have arisen in English by the start of the 17th century, with no evident influence from another language, but with no obvious English origin either; later attempts to explain it by reference to Peter - who supposedly walked on water - or from 'pitteral', referring to 'pitter patter', are speculative, though the latter seems to have some merit.)
Nearly all the Lord Howe seabirds nest on Ball's Pyramid (though ironically, not the abundant Flesh-footed Shearwaters) including the locally scarce Kermadec Petrel Pterodroma neglecta - indeed this is the only place in Australian waters that it does breed. Rolling seas and boat operators' much-appreciated caution about approaching too close make photography a bit tricky, but here are a couple of attempts - these were the first Grey Ternlets I'd ever seen.
Grey Ternlets Procelsterna albivitta and Common Noddies Anous stolidus,above and below.
 

However perhaps the most interesting inhabitant of Ball's Pyramid is not a bird, and is not accessible to visitors. The stack wasn't successfully climbed until a team from Sydney did so in 1965; the dangers involved, and the presence of numerous nesting birds, mean that it is now mostly restricted to researchers. However an otherwise unsuccessful climb in 1964 found a dead insect, which excited great interest as it had been presumed extinct since 1920. Like several endemic bird species, the magnificent Lord Howe Island Stick Insect Dryococelus australis was rapidly exterminated on Lord Howe by Black Rats escaping from the SS Makambo which ran aground in 1918 - yes, it took them just two years to wipe out the entire species. But fortunately, not quite... Despite the appearance of more dead animals, it took 37 years for scientists and rangers to find live ones; they are nocturnal and success required a climb of at least a third the height of the pyramid at night!

They found just 24 individuals in just a few Melaleuca bushes. Captive breeding at Melbourne Zoo has been very successful. In time, when ambitious but realistic plans to eliminate all mice and rats from Lord Howe have proved effective, it should be possible to rerelease the insects onto the main island. Meantime I understand that it is possible to see some at the excellent island Visitor Centre and Museum, though they weren't there when we were.
Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, courtesy Melbourne Zoo.
If you get any opportunity at all to do so, please visit Lord Howe - it's one of the Special Places. And when you do, I hope you're as lucky as we were in getting out to the unforgettable Ball's Pyramid.

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