Five Curious Birds of LADY ELLIOT ISLAND

Buff Banded Rails

There are many birds who make their home on Lady Elliot Island but one of the most obvious is the Buff-banded Rail or as they are known by staff, the Buffet-Bandit Rail. On the website of ‘Birdlife Australia’, their behaviour is described as follows… “Occasionally seen as it quickly dashes between clumps of rank grass, sedges, rushes or other overgrown vegetation, the Buff-banded Rail is often otherwise difficult to observe as it skulks about, concealed by plant cover, though its harsh squeaks may reveal its presence.” This is not the general behaviour of this small brown bird if you first meet them on Lady Elliot Island.

All new arrivals on the island are given a welcome tour of the facilities and perhaps the first place a visitor meets the ‘Rail’ is in the dining hall. The Buff-banded rail has colonised all open areas of the island whether they be lawn, beach or dining hall. Some of them, presumably remembering their ancestors, also live in the long grass beside the runway. However the ones that congregate around the dining room illustrate their extreme behaviour by sitting beside the sliding door and sneaking in when the door opens; there is one supreme rail who owns the dining room and he/she not only scours for the crumbs on the floor but chases away any other Rail that tries to sneak into this much valued room; thus their other name, the ‘Buffet-Bandit Rail’.

Those who are not wily or big enough have to scour the grassed landscape of the island for their food. This doesn’t mean that there is no power hierarchy outside the dining hall. The whole island appears to have been broken up into small plots of land that are claimed and then protected from encroachment by other Rails. These birds spend more than half their life chasing off Rail interlopers that encroach on their plot than on actually looking for food for themselves.

These birds don’t appear to know how to fly as they run or scurry everywhere. One of the staff stories of unknown veracity tells the tale of early workers on the island getting sick of these irritating birds and deciding to round them up and dispatch them to another island where, given they didn’t know how to fly, they wouldn’t be able to return to LEI. The Buffet-bandits were rounded up, carried onto a boat (presumably in cages) and taken to another island (?) and released. When the staff returned to Lady Elliot, they assumed they would be welcomed back by family and colleagues. Unfortunately, the Rails beat them back there and carried on their flightless lifestyle as if nothing had happened…their wings actually do work, they choose not to use them unless they are banished from their ‘homeland’! Presumably the Rails originally inhabited this island by flying from the mainland.

I only saw the Rails flying on my third visit to the Island and I was walking to the ‘Coral Gardens’ along the edge of the runway. Apparently we were a bit too noisy and walking too close to their nests in the long grass. Suddernly three or four of these birds flew out of the grass in alarm and flew 5 or 6 yards away. This puzzled me as a noise that is a hundred times louder than walking humans, ie. landing planes, appears not to be of great concern to them. Lacking in protective wisdom, the Rails have divided up the grass runway and only appear to hear or see the landing planes when these gigantic sky-beasts are upon them. Unlucky Rails who have claimed territory in the centre of the runway are most at risk of being run over; they appear only to decide to jump out of the way at the very last second and many leave it too late. The death of ‘Runway-Rails’ doesn’t appear to be a big issue for their surviving Rail neighbours. These unfeeling locals don’t rush over and stand over the body of their unlucky fellow Rail and keen their sorrow; after they have wandered across and inspected the damage, they then proceed to eat their fellow Rail as a free nutritious meal is never to be ignored. To my shock and horror, these Buff-banded Rails are cannibals!

The Common Noddy (White-faced Noddy) and the Black Noddy

If you arrive on Lady Elliot Island in October as we did on our first trip there, you will be overwhelmed by the huge numbers of Noddys that have taken over the grounds around the Eco Resort buildings. There are at least two species of Noddys on LEI. The White-faced Noddy is the larger of the two similar looking sea birds and is the one most commonly found in nesting places around the resort’s buildings. This ‘Common Noddy’ builds its nests either in the Octopus Bushes or on the ground like so many seabirds do on Coral Cays as there are no predators. They spend much of their year at sea but we also noticed that on a July visit, a lot of Common Noddys were returning to their Octopus Bushes on the island after sunset and then heading out to sea again at dawn.

For all their loud superior attitudes to passing humans, the Noddys’ personal habits leave a lot to be desired…for example their nests! They are constructed by the Noddy couple from bits of straw, sticks and whatever comes to beak. The mother bird’s part in the construction is to crap all over the bits and pieces brought back by the male to bind them together; her work is very haphazard so the branches and ground around the nest are all covered in inaccurate guano targeting. I was watching a particularly chirpy bird return to his mate back at the nest with a very small piece of straw in his beak and, roughly translated, this is the one-sided conversation I overheard… “I’ve been sitting on this nest of shit all day waiting for you to come home and this little piece of fluff is all you have to offer me! Talk about a ‘shit-house’!” I am not sure what the mate of the male Noddy in the image on the right said when he brought her home a hard stick of coral to add to her nest.

It’s hard to respect a bird who breaches the basic social law of the universe, ‘Don’t shit in your own nest’!

But it seems there are social classes amongst the Common Noddys. There are not enough desirable forks in the Octopus Bushes on the island so many couples have to accept less attractive places to nest, the last resort being on the ground. A good example of this is the mother (below right) standing over her newly hatched egg in her ‘nest’ of bits of bark and coral stones on the ground. The bird on the left is clearly very proud of her apartment-nest built on a piece of wood jutting out from one of the resort buildings.

The shrubs that the Common Noddys nest in or under, the Octopus Bush (Heliotropium arboretum ), are also very interesting plants. They are native to tropical Asia, Northern Australia and the Pacific Islands and general grow in the littoral zones of islands, those areas closest to the shore but above the high-water line. One of the curiosities of seabirds living in an almost continuous salty environment is the question of where do they get their fresh water from? One method of resolving this important question can be found in the Octopus Bush. Almost every branch of the Octopus Bush has a sacrificial leaf at the end of a branch where any absorbed salt is channelled. This leaf turns yellow and eventually falls off. (The photo on the right shows a Red Tailed Tropic bird under an Octopus Bush and the yellowing leaves can be seen in the image with close inspection.) This process enables the rest of the bush to be salt free and these leaves can thus be eaten by both the Noddys and humans!

For any seabird like the Noddys to survive for days, weeks and months at sea, they also need a solution to the fresh-water problem. The answer is that all seabirds have a pair of glands which, like our kidneys, draw salt ions out of their blood stream. The image to the left gives a simple illustration of this process. This allows the Noddys to drink the water they live on. Birds like seagulls, Terns, Petrels, Albatrosses, Penguins, Pelicans and Geese all share these same life-preserving glands.

(Image courtesy: Courtesy:

The Black Noddys have a different habitat to their cousins with the white caps. They are nest builders in the Pisonia trees that originally covered the island at the start of the 19th century. However for ten years between 1863 and 1873, the island was mined for guano (sea-bird excrement) which resulted in the tree covering and top soil of the island being removed, except for eight Pisonia Trees being left standing in the middle of the Island (Photo below). The removal of the trees and top soil apparently lowered the island by around 2 metres which made it less visible to sailing ships approaching the Qld coastline; unsurprising that the island became known as ‘Wreck Island’ before the lighthouse was built.

In the late 1960s, restoration of the island’s vegetation began and large numbers of Pisonia Trees have been replanted here. These trees are the homes of the Black Noddys’ nests and 1000’s of these birds return to the island to breed every year.

However there is a dark side to the relationship between these Pisonia Trees and the Black Noddy. The Pisonia Trees are native to South East Asia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They are great trees to attract if you are a sand cay looking to stabilize your soil by covering it with vegetation. The issue for the Pisonia is that it needs a method of distributing its seeds widely; their seeds aren’t light enough to be blowing in the wind. Thus a symbiotic relationship between the Black Noddys and the Pisonia Trees has developed. The seeds of the Pisonia Tree are very sticky and they fall on to the feathers of seabirds, particularly the black Noddy. They are then dispersed by these birds into the winds and currents of the oceans to find their way to the next coral cay. The down-side of this relationship is that if too many seeds falls on a Black Noddy’s feathers, the bird is unable to fly or survive so they collapse under the Pisonia Tree, contributing their mortal remains to the future nutrition of the tree.

Red-Tailed Tropic Bird

Perhaps the most impressive looking birds that we have seen nesting under the Octopus bushes of Lady Elliot Island are the Red-Tailed Tropic Birds. They are a species of bird that are found in the tropical areas of both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The famous British Naturalist on James Cooks voyages from 1769, Joseph Banks, encountered and recorded this bird on his travels in the Pacific. Each time we have visited Lady Elliot Island there have been pairs of Red Tailed Tropic Birds nesting under the Octopus Bushes. These birds make the Common Noddy look house-proud as they merely scrape an indentation under the bushes and produce their one egg. Egg incubation takes about 6 weeks and the parents take turns in nesting with the chick once it is born. These birds don’t always appear to enjoy their chick-raising duties as the two photos below illustrate. I visited the nesting bird (shown to the right) one morning with the chick snug by his/her side. Two days later I returned and the responsible parent had moved to a separate hole under the bush, some distance from the ball of fluff that was the offspring.

Perhaps the Red-Tropic bird just likes the romance of courtship rather than the hard grind of raising a child. Evidence of this is shown by the fact that once the offspring has grown sufficiently, the parental couple dump their responsibilities and fly off into the ocean’s winds, never to return to check on their offspring. The chick has to teach itself to fly, luckily their nests are built above slopes that would give the young bird a reasonable running start for his first flight.

The other issues about the Red Tailed Tropic Bird that suggests it is more focused on the courtship than their parental responsibilities is the red tail itself. It appears from ‘research’ that the length of the red tail streamer makes it more attractive to prospective partners. In the lead up to bonding, the males’s aerial courtship involves…

  • Flying in circles
  • Gliding
  • Rapid wing beating
  • Cackling calls…and my favourite
  • Flying backwards!

One of the sad by-products of the breeding life of the Red-Tailed Tropic Bird is that if it chooses a Pisonia Tree to nest under, it too may suffer from the same disastrous end as some of the Black Noddys. If too many of the sticky seeds of the Pisonia drift down on to a nesting Red Tailed Tropic Bird, it becomes unable to fly off to feed out at sea and so joins the fertilising layer under the tree.

Frigate Bird

One of the wonderful sights when walking around Lady Elliot Island is that of the Frigatebirds circling in the winds above the end of the runway. One of the posters at the resort explains that Frigate Birds are regular visitors to the island but do not breed here. Frigatebirds are not popular with other birds in that they like stealing food caught by other birds rather than catching their own. From their circling spot high above, they swoop down on other birds and scare them into regurgitating their food which they then grab before it hits the water below. Perhaps this behaviour is brought about by the fact that their feathers aren’t waterproof so if they did dive for fish, they would become waterlogged and drown! Frigatebirds spend long days in the air and like other long flying seabirds, can sleep in the air. The frigate bird on the left is a male displaying his throat sac which of course is very attractive to the lady frigatebirds during breeding season.

Capricorn Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis chlorocephalus)

Visitors to Lady Elliot Island walking around the resort will notice that there are two types of small birds that flit between the shrubs. One of course is the common sparrow which no doubt has been blown here over the last two centuries of European colonisation of the mainland. The other small bird is the Capricorn Silvereye who has been inhabiting the islands of the southern end of the Great Barrier reef for possibly the last four thousand years and so is no new-comer to the region. It is a larger bird than the Silver Eyes that are native to the Queensland mainland. The story of this small bird is reminiscent of Charles Darwin’s finches on the different Galapagos Island that the great naturalist used to assist in explaining his theory of evolution. This little bird has morphed into a separate species of Silvereye because of its separate development on these isolated tropical islands.

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