The Power of Many

How Robert Pennicott saved millions of Short-tailed Shearwaters

Simon Mustoe

Simon Mustoe

Writer, photographer and founder of Wildiaries

As our boat rounds the bend and Tasman Island looms into view, a breathtaking swarm of birds soar around the steep, Jurassic, dolerite cliffs or swoop en frenzied masse into the ocean for food.  Thick in the sky and on the water around this oval, 1.2 square kilometre dot off the south eastern coast of Tasmania, the Short-tailed Shearwater is one of the top five most abundant seabirds in the world. 

While we strive to conserve species nearing extinction at one end of a spectrum, super-abundance is a real asset to a functioning world at the other. Short-tailed Shearwater is a global super-power in its own right, a biological machine we have a lot to thank for.   Each September, like clock work, millions complete the mammoth 15,000km annual journey from Arctic Alaska to breeding colonies all over south east Australia. 

Colloquiolly known as “mutton birds” (they are still caught in small numbers to eat today), most hatch their young on islands. Tasman Island caught the attention of businessman and conservationist, Rob Pennicott. Until 1977, the island was a manned lighthouse and weather station, with livestock and cats. The cats killed an estimated 50,000 birds a year for 30 years. When Rob stepped in, the general thinking was that a bird still culled commercially for food and with numbers in the millions, wasn’t in need of saving. Rob, an avid observer of Tasmania’s wild coasts, thought otherwise.

The island is a launch pad, a place for chicks to call home, while adults ‘pop out’ south to the Antarctic seeking supplies of rich food, for a critical stage in their chicks’ development.  Fuelled by a spectacularly high-energy diet, from pole to pole, the concentrated areas where they land are thought to be among the most environmentally significant ocean ‘fertilising’ sites. Their prey - krill and small squid - are the super-charged batteries of the ocean food chain, yielding hundreds times more energy, for example, than a hamburger!  

Short-tailed Shearwaters migrate 45,000 km every year to feed in summertime in the high Arctic off Baffin Island and in winter, off the Australian Antarctic. Both regions are mega-rich with seabirds, whales and dolphins, fish and krill. These are very important areas of 'biodiversity' where natural processes create and maintain life on Earth.

Six years ago – in concert with Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife, the Tasmanian Coast Conservation Fund, Wildcare and Pennicott Journeys – the feral felines of Tasman Island were monitored with infrared cameras, trapped and removed. When the project started, researchers could be knee deep in dead birds. Today, the cats are gone.

We may never know this bird’s true significance on a global scale, but each year around 50,000 visitors go to view them around Tasman Island in what Rob Pennicott hopes will be a mind changer about celebrating and preserving rather than being complacent aboutabundance. The island is now designated as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. 

So, when you see these frantic little birds diving and wheeling in their millions, give them a clap for what they’ve done for us. 

About the Author
Simon Mustoe

Simon Mustoe

Writer, photographer and founder of Wildiaries

Simon is CEO of DeluxeLife. He is also an ardent conservationist and has been studying and observing wildlife for over 40 years. He's written a book called Wildlife in the Balance. He loves taking his worldwide travel experience to help people discover new and exciting places to visit,as well as contributing to science and conservation.

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