Full Record

Houtman's Abrolhos : their history with notes on their zoology.
Record no:
27 March 1890
Kept:Press clippings book 1, p. 22



[Contributed to the late Congress of "The Australasians Association for
the Advancement of Science" held at Melbourne, and taken as read.]

PART II (Zoology).

My visit to these most interesting islands was from May to 23rd December,
1889.  To Messrs. Broadhurst & McNeil I am indebted for passages to and
from different islands, as well as for much open-handed hospitality. while
Mr. F. C. Broadhurst, Mr. G. K. Beddoes, C.E. (manager), and other
employees of the firm have furnished me with many valuable notes gathered
of late years upon the groups, and which were impossible for me to
personally make during my limited sojourn.

Houtman's Abrolhos are certainly the greatest "rookery" for sea-birds in
Australia, and by reason of their geographical position in the sub-
tropics, perhaps afford suitable breeding grounds for a greater number of
species that any other distinct or limited spot in the world.  That the
groups have been resorted to for a untold ages by the birds is evidenced
by the rich deposits of guano — notably upon Rat and Pelsart islands.  Rat
Island may be said to be fairly alive with feathers.  They were birds
breeding upon the bushes, birds breeding under the bushes, and birds
breeding in the ground underneath.  Rat Island approximately contains 350
acres.  Deducting, say 50 acres, for the guano station and cleared ground,
and taking one bird for every square yard (there could not be less,
probably more, when young, and eggs are taken into consideration) the 300
acres would give 1,452,000 birds upon one island alone.  With their
success I took instantaneous photographs of some of the flights, but could
not take the birds when thickest, namely, at early morn and late evening,
the sun being unfavourable for the camera.  Of the wonderful flights of
noddies and sooty terns I need not speak, but could fully substantiate
Gilbert's accurate description as given in Gould.

I shall now proceed to enumerate the various species found upon the
islands, adding notes of interest on facts in their natural economy not
hitherto recorded.  Baron von Mueller, K.C.M.G. most kindly named the
plants for me.  The Rev F. R. M. Wilson identified the lichens, while four
species of lizards are still under the consideration of experts.


* Halmaturus Derbianus, Grey (Derby's wallaby).  Found on the E.  and W.
Wallaby Islands (Northern group) only.

* Eustaria — —?  (seal).  Principally found on Easter and Pelsart groups but
now getting scarce.

* Mus — — (rat).  I was unable to procure a specimen for identification,
which may probably prove to be the common European rat introduced by some


* Haliaetus leucogaster, Gm. (white-bellied sea-eagle).  Not common. Eyries
are established on Wallaby (Pigeon Island) and Pelsart groups.  The noddy
tern constitutes a portion of this eagle's prey.  Breeds beginning
September.  Young do not assume adult plumage until second or third year.

* Pandion leucocephalus, Gould (white headed osprey).  More common than the
preceeding [sic] species.  One day, as the barque Capella was riding at
anchor in Good Friday Bay each of the mast heads was occupied by one of
these noble birds.  In addition to fish the osprey is very partial to the
little white-faced storm petrel and a rough tailed lizard, upon Rat
Island.  Lay in September.

* Hirundo neoxena, Gould (welcome swallow).  Noticed flying over Pelsart

* Sericornis maculatus, Gould (spotted scrub tit).  Found only on Wallaby

* Zosterops Gouldii, Bp. (Green backed white eye).  Found in pairs
throughout the groups.

* Phaps chalcoptera, Lath (bronzewing pigeon).  Wallaby group.

* Turnix scintillans, Gould (speckled turnix-quail).  Wallaby group.

* Haematopus longirostris, Vieill (white-breasted oyster catcher).  Few
pairs throughout groups.

* Haematopus unicolon, Wagl (sooty oyster catcher).  Seen occasionally.

* Aegialatis ruficapilla, Tenem (red-capped dottrel).  A few always upon the
islands where they breed.

* Tringa albescens, Tenem (little sandpiper).  In small flocks about the
beaches.  Retire inland to rest at evening, when they often co-mingle with
the former species.

* Tringa subarquata, Gmel (curlew sandpaper [sic] ).  Singly or in twos or
threes about the shores.  But none observed in full plumage.

Strepsilas interpres, Linn (turnstone).  This cosmopolitan was observed in
flocks of 6 or 7 about the reefs at low water, but scarcely in adult

* Numenius cynopus, Viell (Australian curlew).  Noted at Wallaby group.

* Numenius uropygialis, Gould (wimbrel).  Small flocks seen at the mangrove
swamp, Pelsart Island, 23rd December.

* Demiegretta sacra, Gmel (reef heron).  Both the blue variety and white
found throughout the groups.  Breed November.

* Hypotaenidia Philipensis,  Linn (pectoral rail).  Seen upon Rat and
Pelsart Islands.  Known to breed upon latter.

* Porzana sabuensis, Gmel (Tabuan crake).  Pelsart Island, about the
mangrove swamp.

* Anas castanea, Eyton (Australian teal).  Wallaby group.

* Larus Pacificus, Lath (Pacific gull).  Odd couples breed throughout all
groups.  Laying commences early September.

* Larus Longirostris, Masters (long-billed gull).  Common.  Breeds in
September.  Have been witnessed plundering the noddies of their eggs,
especially if nearly incubated.  The gulls also rob these peaceful birds
of the contents of their stomachs when spread out for their mates or young.

* Sterna Caspia, Pall.  (Caspian tern.) Seemed in small companies about the
reefs or singly diving to fish about the harbour.  Fledglings seen 15th
December, also fresh egg taken same date.  Young in down white underneath,
mottled with black and brown above.

* Sterna Bergii, Licht.  (Common tern.) A few breed upon Pelsart island.
Young in down similar to Caspian tern.

* Sterna Dougalli, Mout.  (Graceful tern.)
Nesting in scores upon the dead coral ridges in the narrowest half of
Pelsart island.  December appears to be the laying month.  Young in down
under surface white, wings white, and rest of upper surface mottled black
and white with slight brownish tinge.  Feet and bill light pink.

* Sterna anaestheta, Scop. (Panayan tern.) In small companies of 10 or 12,
or in pairs, breeding under shelving limestones, sometimes under bushes,
chiefly on isolated rocks.

* Sterna juliginosa, Gm. (Sooty tern.) The "wide-awakes" first appear in the
beginning September upon Rat and Pelsart islands, when they come in vast
numbers for about a fortnight.  When the young are reared all depart about
April.  Their call note sounds like "wide-awake;" hence their vernacular
name.  A long gutteral scream appears to be the alarm note while "squak"
like notes are uttered in anger.  Young in down, underneath parts (except
throat) whitish, all the rest of the surface mottled with black, brown and
white.  Feet and bill dark coloured.

* Sternula nereis, Gould.  (Little tern.) A few couples found breeding upon
dead coral on Pelsart island in close proximity to the graceful terns.
Young in down dull or yellowish white.  Bill and feet light yellow.

* Sternula inconspicua, Masters.  A pair noticed in company with little and
Caspian terns near Rat island.  A skin was obtained, which appears to
correspond with Masters' description, although some authorities believe it
to be a different stage of plumage of the little tern.  But this can
hardly be, seeing the young of the little tern from the time they are
hatched possess yellowish-white bill and feet, whereas Masters' tern has
dark coloured bill and feet.

* Anores stolidus, Leim.  (Noddy tern.) Records kept upon Rat island showed
that these birds first appeared for the breeding season August 14, 1888,
and August 16, 1889, respectively.  They are usually first heard at night
and then appear gradually for a few days before they arrive in great
crowds.  The earliest eggs are deposited about the beginning of October,
but laying continues for the two or three following months.  About the
breakup of the weather in April all the noddies with their young depart.
Not a solitary bird remains.  A week or two prior to the first exodus the
birds leave the island daily, but return at night.  This may be a method
of exercising the young before the last great flight.  There is a curious
incident of all these birds having suddenly left Rat island for about a
fortnight during the month of October when cold rain set in, leaving eggs
and young to perish.  Upon slight showers of rain falling, the birds clear
out to the shoals upon the reefs, and skim over the water in a remarkable
manner, as if fishing.  The call note of the noddy is a coarse, gull-like
bark.  Young in down vary in colour from light to dark sooty brown, with
the upper portion of the head mouldy white.  Bill and feet black.

* Amores longirostris, Tenem.  (Lesser noddy.) As its name implies, it is
similar in appearance but smaller than the noddy, yet in one or two points
of its natural history differs much.  Unlike the noddy, which nests upon
low bushes or upon the ground, the lesser noddy seeks mangrove trees, and
then only upon one island (Pelsart) out of all the groups although
mangroves exist elsewhere.  Then, again, the lesser noddy remains
throughout the year, whereas the noddies' visits are periodical.  The
first eggs may be observed the beginning September, but the climax of the
breeding season is not reached till December.  Young in down sooty black,
upper part of head mouldy white.  Bill and feet black.

Now that a successful guano depot has been established upon Pelsart
island, no doubt in time the limited supply of mangrove trees will be used
for fuel.  What, then, will become of the extraordinary flights of the
lesser noddies as they go to and from their fishing grounds?  I trust the
photographs I took may not soon be the "light of other days."

* Puffinus nugax (?) Sol.  (Allied petrel.) I am not quite satisfied about
the identity of this petrel although it closely resembles P. nugax.
Professor McCoy, to whom I submitted a skin, shares my doubt.  If it be P.
nugaax then it has never been reported from the Western side of Australia,
nor has it been recorded nocturnal as the Abrolhos bird certainly is.  I
took my specimen flying about Rat Island the midnight of 9th December.
They have also been known, attracted by the light to fall into the fires
of persons camping upon the islands.  They breed in underground burrows in
July and appear to rear their young and depart in time to accommodate the
following species.

* Puffinus sphenurus, Gould (wedge tailed petrel).  I have the pleasure of
announcing this petrel also nocturnal in its habits.  It is somewhat
extraordinary that such a peculiar trait in the bird's character should
have escaped Gilbert's notice.  About half an hour after sundown they
commence moaning and get uneasy in their burrows and shortly afterwards
birds may be seen swiftly cutting the air in many directions.  The moaning
and cat like cries of the wage-tailed petrel are a curious experience.
After a ramble, one quiet night, I noted in my pocket book next morning
that "the whole island seemed groaning and travailling in pain with the
noise of mutton birds."  Sometimes the roofs of the guano station struck
with terrible force by the birds during flight.  About half an hour before
sunrise they disappear underground, when all is quite as far as they are
concerned.  The attitude of this petrel upon ground resembles a duck upon
water, a squatting posture.  When walking they are assisted by their wings
which give the bird a waddling or lame gait.  The burrows generally extend
2 or 3 feet in an oblique direction, rarely more than 5 feet.  Sometimes
they deposit their single eggs in holes or fissures of rock, while more
than once eggs have been taken from under bushes.  The eggs, like those of
the noddies and other birds, are excellent eating, not all fishy in
flavour as may be supposed.

* Procellaria fregata, Linn (white-faced storm petrel).  December 15, found
young about 10 days old in burrows upon Beacon Rock near Rat Island.  They
were clothed cash in long blueish-grey down with dark naked head and bill,
feet also dark coloured with legs yellowish white.  After death an amber
coloured oil exudes freely from the beak.

* Phaëton candidus, Briss (white tailed tropic bird).  An occasional visitor.

* Phaëton rubricanda, Bodd (red-tailed tropic bird).  Seen occasionally on
Rat Island during calm weather.

* Graculus varius, Gm.  (pied cormorant).  Frequent the bays and breed in
numbers upon isolated rocks.

* Pelecanus conspicillatus, Tenem.  (Australian Pelican).  Have been known
to breed upon Pigeon Island (Wallaby group) chewing September.


* Morelia variegata (?) (carpet snake).  Found only on Wallaby group.  Said
to be a darker variety than that found on the mainland and not so lively
in movements.  Maximum length about 9 feet.  Supposed to be non-venomous.

1.  Lizard, 17 inches long, of a dark mottled green.  Underneath parts
dull greenish white.  During the season these reptiles devour many of the
eggs and young of the noddy and sooty terns, when their skin assumes a
darker hue, but whether this be from the change of food or merely a summer
coat has yet to be proved.

2.  Lizard, about 8 inches long with stumpy rough tail.  Colour, Brown
with seven or eight indistinct or irregular transverse rose of yellowish
white spots.

3.  Lizard, about 9 inches, striped laterally with alternate lines of
brown and dirty white.  Run with amazing rapidity.

4.  Lizard, small without feet, about 4 inches long.  Yellowish colour
with brown lateral stripes.  Underneath parts white.


Acacia —? Avicennia Officinalis, Linné (Mangrove); Spinifex logifolius, R.
Brown; Plantago varia, R. Brown; Nitraria Schoberi, Linné;
Mesembrtianthemum aequilaterale, Howarth (Pig-face weed); Malva
rotundifolia, Linné; Frankenia laevis, Linné; Spergularia rubra, Persoon;
Setaria —? Solanaceolus —? Bromus arenarius, Labilt; Senecio lautus,
Forster; Chenapodioum murale, Linné; Atriplex cinereum, Poiret (Salt-
bush); Therlkeldia diffusa, R. Brown; Salicornia arbuscula, R. Brown;
Euchylaena tomentosa, R. Brown.  Lichens Lecidea —? Theloschistes
parietmus: Verrucaria —? Physcia picta.

[Note, — All these plants with the exception of Acacia were gathered on
Easter & Pelsart Groups.]
Item availability
{ 1 } items found
Shelf no
Archives room
On Shelf