A mere 70 miles southwest of Adelaide, and just 10 miles off the coast of South Australia, sits Kangaroo Island, a land of unspoiled wilderness and a haven for Australia’s wildlife. With more than one-third of the island designated as either national park or conservation area, Kangaroo Island was one of my top two places to see when we visited Australia (along with Lord Howe Island). In addition to its significance for the conservation of native marsupial and birdlife, Kangaroo Island was also declared a Ligurian bee sanctuary in 1885. In one of the world’s first legislative acts to protect wildlife, no bees or bee products have entered the island since the end of the 19th century. The island is now believed to possess the only pure colony of Ligurian bees (Italian honey bees) remaining in the world.
To access Kangaroo Island, we drove about 90 minutes south of Seacliff to Cape Jervis, and hopped on the short, 45-minute Sealink ferry with our rental car, a necessity as KI is surprisingly more than 90 miles long and nearly 60 miles wide (it’s Australia’s third-largest island, but looks deceptively small on a map). After arriving at the ferry terminal in Penneshaw, we spent a chunk of the day wandering around the surrounding area on the eastern end of the island. We did some beachcombing along Hog Bay, checked out the scenic shores of Pennington Bay, and took a walk along Eastern Cove in American River to look for birds. Interestingly, the American River township name is a bit misleading, as there is no actual river; rather, the village sits along a slender channel that separates the large marine cove from the inlet of Pelican Lagoon.
We eventually made our way inland to Blue Hills, our cozy farmstay for the week. As we drove the hour west to Seddon, along rutted roads of characteristic red dirt and coarse rock, we spotted a variety of wildlife. Small Tammar wallabies bounced along the side of the road, stopping to peer inquisitively at us as we looked back at them. A short-beaked echidna, typically a shy marsupial, poked around for ants just off the street’s rock-strewn bank, unconcerned by our presence. When we arrived at Blue Hills, a pair of koalas – a mother and her baby – welcomed us to our homestead from their branch in a leafy eucalyptus tree. We realized instantly that Kangaroo Island was going to be a truly special place.
On the southern side of the island, within Cape Gantheaume Conservation Park, the wetlands of KI’s largest lagoon provide a tranquil residence to scores of black swans, ducks, and wading birds. A few short trails wind around sections of the lagoon, and we spent the better part of a day exploring the three tracks – Bald Hill, Curley Creek, and Timber Creek. For us, the Timber Creek trail proved to be the least fruitful, as the creek is completely desiccated and barren in the dry summer/autumn months. A local ‘twitcher’ (birder) who has authored a couple of birding books mentioned (after our walk, of course) that Timber Creek only boasts prolific birdlife when consistent rains flood the creek bed, pushing ducks and waders closer to the shoreline.
Kelly Hill Conservation Park
Our quest for finding more local birds eventually led us to Kelly Hill Conservation Park, along the southwestern shores of the island. One of the wildlife guides repeatedly lauded Kelly Hill’s Grassdale Lagoon as a premier site for not only various bird species, but also for spotting koalas and wallabies. A flat, easy, 9-km track traverses the park from the Kelly Hill visitor center to Hanson Bay, with the lagoon tucked midway between the two points. Figuring we’d take advantage of a lovely morning, we set out for the lagoon. After passing through parched scrub brush, scraggly gum trees, and hefty, native grass trees, we reached Grassdale Lagoon. Much like Timber Creek, the lagoon had withered to an infertile wasteland of nothing more than an expanse of parched, fractured soil… with not a single bird within sight or earshot. Determined to photograph some sort of wildlife that morning, I directed Stephan to the dehydrated lakebed and snapped a photo of him standing apathetically in the “lagoon.”
Flinders Chase National Park
At the far western end of the isle, the unique geology and wildlife of Flinders Chase National Park make it one of the most-visited and well-known sites on Kangaroo Island. On the southern edge of the park, the Remarkable Rocks – a collection of massive, granite boulders – are perched precariously atop rugged sea cliffs. Over the course of the last 500 million years, whirling winds and the unforgiving surge of the [Southern] ocean have transformed the once-smooth rocks to pitted, undulating sculptures, now blanketed with vivid orange lichen.
Several kilometers down the coast, similar erosion from the pounding waves has carved a natural rock bridge, Admiral’s Arch, into the craggy bluffs of Cape du Couedic. Formerly a sea cave before being cracked apart, delicate, gnarled stalactites dangle from the arch’s crown. Just across from the arch, some of the neighboring rocks are home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals. As it was nearing the end of their summer breeding season, we watched several young pups leap and splash playfully in the protected rock pools, while others rested quietly alongside their tired parents, and some still nursed from their mothers.
After spending the morning along the weathered coastline, we drove a short distance north to explore some of the more inland forests where I, in particular, was in search of the Cape Barren goose. Some of you may be familiar with my considerable fondness undying love for geese, and may also remember the unique family of Canada geese who seemed to adopt me as one of their own back in 2012. After seeing a photograph of the Cape Barren goose, a pale gray bird with a striking lime-green cere covering the base of the bill, I was intent on catching a glimpse of the unique bird. Thought to be near extinction in the 1950s, conservation initiatives helped the Cape Barren goose population to rebound. Although no longer endangered, the birds are still considered to be vulnerable and are, even now, one of the world’s rarest goose species.
As the geese are known to frequent the Black Swamp and Rocky River areas of Flinders Chase, we marched on with optimism to a grassy area not far from the river. Impressively, Stephan spotted a pair way off in the distance, grazing leisurely in the grass along the forest’s edge. We wandered quietly toward the birds only to discover there were about four dozen of them picking at the withered grass. Every so often one of the geese would let out a raucous “hooonnk,” which sounded more like a belabored grunt, giving us some insight as to why they are also known as a ‘pig goose.’ Some of the birds were distinctly paired off, and many were performing some sort of bowing display to their respective partner, which was interesting to watch. I was obviously entranced with the hoard of geese, and I think we ended up watching the birds for at least a good hour or so.
Lathami Conservation Park
Our most successful day of wildlife viewing came about when we visited the northern portion of Kangaroo Island, including Lathami Conservation Park and the nearby Stokes Bay. One bird that Stephan was particularly interested in seeing was the South Australian (Kangaroo Island) glossy black-cockatoo, a subspecies of the bird found on mainland Australia. Currently, the KI subspecies is listed as endangered under Australia’s federal conservation status, with only ~250 individuals estimated to be remaining in the wild. In addition to habitat loss, predation is a key factor in the decline of the glossy blacks; brush-tailed possums commonly prey upon both eggs and chicks in easily-accessible nests built in hollow tree cavities. Further contributing to the struggling population, females typically have a clutch of only a single egg, and breed every other year due to a protracted period of juvenile dependence.
In the mid-1990s, a federal recovery program was established for the glossy black-cockatoo, as population estimates in 1993 dipped as low as 136 individuals. Interestingly, an American Ph.D. student played a critical role in the study and conservation of the critically-endangered bird. John W. Pepper (studying at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor) published his initial (aforementioned) findings on the glossy black-cockatoo population in 1993, followed by his thesis conclusions in 1996. This was, coincidentally, right around the time the Australian government stepped up with a conservation plan, and it has been suggested that Pepper may not have been awarded the credit he deserved in launching the species’ recovery efforts.
Today, one region where the glossy black numbers seem to be rebounding is within the forests of Lathami Conservation Park. Thus, we figured this preserve provided the best chance of spotting the rare bird. As we scrubbed our boots at the start of the trailhead, a local naturalist emerging from the forest told us he had spotted one of the cockatoos about two-thirds of the way down the trail. He advised us to listen for the sound of cracking nutshells as we navigated the forested path, as you can typically hear the birds eating noisily before you see them. Apparently, the birds spend up to 88% of their day foraging in Casuarina (she-oak) trees, which serve as their primary (and virtually only) food source. The birds are so fastidious, in fact, that they will habitually forage in the same tree(s), ignoring adjacent trees if they find the nuts to be less pleasing.
Heeding the advice of the helpful gentleman, we began making our way silently down the path, ears pointed upward toward the thick canopy. As we ambled through the forest, we were absolutely surrounded by wildlife. Tammar wallabies perked their heads up curiously as we passed by, while a mother Kangaroo Island kangaroo (a subspecies of the western gray kangaroo) and her joey rested quietly under the protection of a large tree. In total, we must have counted two dozen of the small wallabies over the course of the trail.
As we passed by the lethargic kangaroos, we suddenly heard a distinct crunching sound. Just ahead in the tree, we caught a glimpse of a glossy black, and I think our mouths dropped open in unison. The excitement was fleeting, though, as the bird soon flew off to another tree. Stephan decided he would try to follow the sound of cracking shells, while I stayed to take a few photographs of the resting roos. After only a few minutes, I headed up one of the trails to try to find Stephan. I heard a loud crunching sound and assumed it was noise from the brittle twigs cracking beneath his hiking boots. As the sound got louder, I realized that Stephan’s bright orange shirt was nowhere in sight. I carefully lifted my eyes to the tree in front of me, and there – on one of the branches – sat a glossy black-cockatoo, enthusiastically chomping on a she-oak cone. My heart raced… I was excited, yet afraid to move for fear of disturbing the hungry bird. Stephan was nowhere in sight, and I knew I needed to get one good photograph, in case the bird took off before he returned (if Stephan could even find me again). Of course, the bird was nearly stark black and completely back-lit as I pointed the camera upward. I was sweating bullets as I clicked the shutter, trying desperately for a reasonable shot.
After about 10 minutes of intently watching the cockatoo, I heard Stephan walking in the distance, though I couldn’t call out to him with the bird still happily chomping away. I slowly walked a short way from the tree, trying not to lose sight of the bird, and let out a quick whistle. Thankfully, Stephan recognized the sound and was able to find both me and the cockatoo. He was so thrilled when he finally saw the bird, and we must have spent another half an hour just watching the adult male glossy incessantly cram nuts into his beak. Amusingly, by the time we finally were able to pull ourselves away from the feathered friend, an enormous pile of discarded, chewed-up she-oak cones (‘orts’) had accumulated under the tree, while the glossy black still continued to eat. I can’t believe that we actually managed to stumble upon the endangered cockatoo, and it was truly an amazing experience to share part of our day with such a special bird.
Just a few kilometers northwest of Lathami Conservation Park, is the profoundly-beautiful Stokes Bay. Upon arriving at the Bay, the beach appears to be nothing more than a rock-strewn strip of sand, dotted with silver gulls, Australian pelicans, and crested terns. To the right of the beach, though, a simple wooden sign with a single arrow points to a small opening in a giant rock wall. Following a tight squeeze through the rocks, the narrow path opens onto a secluded cove, with soft sand and a cluster of tranquil rock pools. I watched with delight as dozens of striped and irregularly-patterned fish swam around the small pools. Stephan watched with delight as a stealthy reef heron then plucked one of the unlucky swimmers from his protected, tidal sanctuary.
After a short visit to the beach, we headed up the road to Paul’s Place Wildlife Sanctuary for a few hours with the resident animals. I had first read about Paul’s Place a good two years before planning this trip, and have looked forward to a visit ever since. Dedicating his life to adopting and caring for animals in need, I have such an admiration for Paul’s work. After spending a lovely afternoon with Paul and his menagerie, he suggested we drive up the cliffs overlooking Stokes Bay. Dusk was beginning to fall, the time at which dozens of kangaroos emerge for the evening and congregate to graze along the grassy bluffs. As we watched the night fall over Stokes Bay, with dozens of kangaroos silhouetted in the setting sun, it felt like a moment that genuinely captured the overwhelming beauty of Kangaroo Island.