Birdwatchers take stock of the bird population in the days following severe weather in the Top End. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
It’s a balmy morning in the days after Cyclone Marcus, and as chainsaws descend on fallen trees a group of locals descend on beaches to observe damage of a different sort.
The Lee Point coastal reserve is the third or fourth area the birdwatchers have visited this week, and earlier expeditions have provided an interesting window into Top End birdlife.
Marc Gardiner, who regularly makes the three-hour trip from Katherine, said he had sighted a bird that had not been recorded in the Top End for more than 10 years.
“What we’ve seen on the back of the cyclone is some rarities like the white-throated needletail which haven’t been recorded in the Northern Territory since about 2005.”
The white-throated needletail hasn’t been recorded in the Northern Territory for more than a decade. (Supplied: Marc Gardiner)
As an array of exotic birds make their yearly migrations, local birdwatchers can act as a buffer between them and Mother Nature, taking stock of the bird population and notifying carers if any need help.
“We’re after mostly any rare seabirds or specifically at Lee Point it’s known as a place for some vagrants, particularly things like gulls and swallows,” Mr Gardiner said.
“But we’ve also had some subspecies of peregrine falcon from Asia come through here recently.
“Anything can turn up at any time. That’s what makes it a hotspot.”
In the case of the white-throated needletail, which is listed as threatened in Victoria, the species migrates to Australia’s eastern seaboard ahead of the chilly Northern Hemisphere winters.
The bird’s arrival in Darwin, Mr Gardiner said, suggested it was in the process of returning home to breed, perhaps to southern China or the Himalayas.
“So it’s quite interesting that we’ve actually snagged a few of them this time around on the back of the cyclone,” he said.
Others however can be less lucky and require the intervention of wildlife carers to finish their intercontinental journeys.
Marc Gardiner recently photographed a bird that hadn’t been recorded in Darwin since 2005. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Carried off course by monsoonal winds
The same winds that bring birds to Darwin can also set their demise in motion.
Wildlife carers have been vigilantly looking out for rare and endangered seabirds in distress.
“When you’re watching a bird fly at the beach, even a seagull, you’ll notice that they don’t flap very often; they’ll spread their wings and they’ll ride with where the wind takes them,” wildlife carer Mandy Hall said.
“But with these big monsoonal conditions where this weather system is several hundred kilometres long, it’s bringing birds in and sucking them into the weather system and bringing them with it as it moves along.”
Ms Hall, who specialises in seabirds and birds of prey, is one of the people birdwatchers call upon to rehabilitate their feathered friends when they turn up soggy, exhausted and starved on the shores following wild weather.
Mandy Hall was also called out to a possum with a suspected spine fracture on a rural property. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
The turbid, muddy ocean waters post cyclone mean birds can often have trouble finding the fish they subsist on.
Additionally, they have also been found having ingested fishing hooks and facing a slow, painful death.
“If I get an injured seabird it’s very, very critical,” Ms Hall said.
The birds are strangers to human contact and the fact they are even able to be approached is a sign of extreme weakness and lethargy.
Ms Hall captures and rehabilitates them, often in warm, dark and quiet hospital-grade boxes.
The rescued possums will be taken to a nearby veterinary clinic for examination. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“We will bring them into care, put them in a seclusion box, rehydrate over the first 24 hours and then slowly stomach tube some energy diet into the birds to get them going,” she said.
“They don’t have any visual stimulation; they don’t need to expend any energy unnecessarily.
“They just need to sit in the box, relax, get hydrated and start to feel better.”
Questions over biosecurity
Ms Hall also works for one of two local volunteer organisations overseen by the NT Government’s wildlife body.
In the days after the cyclone she was called to a rural property where a mother possum’s spine may have been broken by a falling tree.
Where larger incidents involving wildlife are handled by Parks and Wildlife, individual ones call upon this network of volunteers.
Ms Hall had to capture the possum and its baby before taking it in for assessment at a nearby vet clinic.
The volunteers and the Government occasionally have rivalling aims, such as the need to rehabilitate an endangered bird and the need to eliminate a biosecurity risk.
“So if a bird is sick rather than injured or exhausted and starved, a sick bird is obviously going to be something that might carry a disease that we don’t have here in Australia yet,” Ms Hall said.
“It’s really important to quarantine any animal that would come in that would have any suspicion whatsoever of being unwell.”
Being without power for several days also meant Ms Hall had to bin some of the foods and other miscellanea she would use to rehabilitate birds.
A black kite with damaged tail feathers, for example, will require a transplant with feathers taken from a dead bird.
She does not have any on hand but vows to take the bird of prey in nonetheless.
“Some of these birds are endangered species and need protection and are protected federally, so it’s really important that these animals do get picked up.”
Without her work, she said, most of the seabirds would almost certainly die.