Mys­tery of the lost mut­ton birds

Mercury (Hobart) - - NEWS - HE­LEN KEMP­TON

TAS­MA­NIA’S mut­ton bird colonies are a month late re­turn­ing from their an­nual mi­gra­tion to Alaska, and bird ex­perts and the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity fear the hold-up might sig­nal a prob­lem.

The birds usu­ally ar­rive promptly from Septem­ber 21, but only small num­bers have so far re­turned to bur­row on Tas­ma­nia’s is­lands.

What has caused the de­lay — and whether large num­bers have died in their north­ern hunt­ing grounds or on their 15,000km re­turn jour­ney — will not be known un­til the yearly egg count is con­ducted in De­cem­ber.

Dead mut­ton birds wash­ing up on beaches in Alaska pro­vided the first in­di­ca­tion things might not be well.

“Con­cerns started be­ing raised at the end of last month that the nor­mal num­ber of birds were not seen com­ing into bur­row,” Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­i­nal leader Michael Mansell said yes­ter­day.

“1 went out to Ba­bel Is­land — Tas­ma­nia’s largest shear­wa­ter colony — in early Oc­to­ber and was sur­prised at the low num­bers of scratch­ings around bur­rows.

“I thought ‘ there ap­pears to be a prob­lem’. We will go back out in De­cem­ber to see if they have laid eggs in the bur­rows, then we will have a bet­ter idea.

“We are hop­ing the low re­turn rate does not sig­nal a re­peat of the dire con­di­tions of 2014.”

The breed­ing sea­son in 2014 was so bad har­vest­ing on Ba­bel Is­land was called off. In that year, there were fewer than 40 chicks in the is­land’s 523 bur­rows.

In Vic­to­ria, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Depart­ment re­ported very low re­turn­ing bird num­bers at Port Fairy’s Grif­fiths Is­land and some birds were in bad condition.

Eric Woehler from BirdLife Tas­ma­nia said the mut­ton birds were cer­tainly late re­turn­ing this year. He also said “not in­signif­i­cant num­bers” had been found washed up on beaches in Alaska over the past two months.

“I’ve been out to a cou­ple of is­lands and while some birds are back we don’t know yet if this is the full re­turn,” he said.

There are 43 colonies where re­cre­ational har­vesters can op­er­ate in Tas­ma­nia, in­clud­ing is­lands in the King Is­land Group, the Hunter Group, the Furneaux Group and Cape Sorell. The har­vest­ing sea­son is from March 17 to April 30.

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