EACH morning for the past fortnight I’ve been woken at 4am by raucous cackling and shrieking. It’s pandemonium, but a welcome one. It means the shearwaters are laying their eggs in the rookery below our house. The racket lasts for over an hour, until the last few birds depart to feed at sea for the day.
Every year around Melbourne Show Day we anticipate the arrival of hundreds of thousands of short-tailed shearwaters to the coastal bluffs of Phillip Island. This year, damaging westerly winds battered Victoria through the last week of September. Trees and branches littered Bass Coast and Phillip Island roads. Roofs were ripped off houses in Melbourne.
I worried for the shearwaters. Having flown 15,000 kilometres from their northern feeding grounds near Alaska, they would round the south-east corner of mainland Australia to battle relentless winds. Days passed and still no shearwaters.
On the morning of September 30, almost a week later than usual, the first birds arrived. A few small holes appeared in the succulent bower spinach that covers the shearwater rookery. The strongest, or perhaps the luckiest, had made it back to their underground burrows for the breeding season.
Usually the shearwaters arrive over several days. But this year was strangely quiet. Reports of thousands of shearwaters washing up dead on beaches along south-eastern Australia began appearing in newspapers.
Scientists were calling it a wreck. They questioned whether the carnage was the result of the wild winds faced by the already exhausted birds, or whether it was a sign of something more. Wrecks had happened before but they seemed to be happening more often. Was this wreck due to changed conditions in the oceans caused by climate change? Scientists agreed that no-one really knows.
The recent early morning wake-up calls are not great for my beauty sleep, but they’re a heartening sign that there’s plenty of life in the rookery below our house.
There are hundreds of ‘scratchings’ throughout the rookery where soil has been flung out of the burrow to renovate for egg-laying. Yesterday I saw a broken egg. I took that as proof they are laying.
There are definitely fewer occupied burrows this year, but I am not too worried about survival of the species just yet. When we moved into our house almost 25 years ago, the rookery was about one third of its current size.
The sky was busy last night at dusk as the shearwaters flew over, wheeled around, rose up on the wind, circled several times then disappeared beyond the edge of the garden. As more and more birds arrived home from their day at sea, their noisy chatter grew louder and it seemed that all was well.