IF you go by numbers, Broughton Island is close to the heart of Port Stephens. It is only about 19 kilometres north-east of Nelson Bay, and the journey takes less than an hour by boat.
But if you go by feel, Broughton Island is gloriously distant from the 21st century. The island is T-shaped on a map, but it could well be an X marking the spot where you can find the nearest place to paradise along this part of the coast.
Rising theatrically out of the sea, Broughton Island is 114 hectares of time-sculpted natural beauty. It is the largest in a group of islands and is part of the Myall Lakes National Park. Broughton Island has seduced people across the water for many generations, from the traditional custodians, the Worimi, to sailors and fishermen, and, more recently, tourists.
Yet for the native wildlife on the island, the waves of human impact washing up on the beaches have also brought dislocation and decimation. A couple of species of rare seabirds, the white-faced storm petrel and the Gould’s petrel, were driven off the island.
But the push is on to entice these birds back to Broughton.
HAVING cut across a sedate sea from Nelson Bay, the Imagine Cruises catamaran threads its way around Looking Glass Island and into Esmeralda Cove, on the island’s south-eastern side.
At the head of the cove, just beyond the languid curl of the beach, is a cluster of huts, most of them fishing boltholes held tightly by families for generations. But one belongs to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Standing on the sand, watching the vessel approach, is NPWS ranger Susanne Callaghan. She has been out here working for a couple of days. Callaghan helps unload supplies and greets those disembarking from the catamaran; a couple of tradesmen, who are doing maintenance work, and Jeff Pettifer, who has been coming here for more than 50 years and is the president of the Broughton Island Conservation Society Incorporated, which is the hut users’ group.
“I feel privileged to have this as my office,” smiles Callaghan.
Brought up in Canberra and having worked in the Kosciuszko National Park and around Sydney, Callaghan first stepped ashore on Broughton Island 12 years ago.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is an amazing place, how privileged am I to be included in its management?’,” she recalls.
“But the more trips I made, the more problems I could see, weeds mostly, but with public visitations and vertebrate pests.”
The most damaging pests were rabbits and rats.
“This place was lousy with rats, you couldn’t sleep at night for them running on the tin roof,” says John “Stinker” Clarke, renowned fishing columnist, author of the book, Broughton Islanders, and regular visitor to the island.
The rats, Stinker explains, had hitch-hiked to the island on boats.
The rabbits were deliberately introduced in the early 1900s as part of a virus research program. They flourished on the island. Stinker says “this is a wonderland for a rabbit,” but their presence was creating a wasteland in places, as they did enormous damage.
As Susanne Callaghan explains, this was a double whammy for the island and its wildlife. The rabbits changed the vegetation, spreading weeds, and burrowing into the surface. The rats ate the birds’ eggs and chicks.
Some birds managed to survive a century of marauding. The shearwaters, or muttonbirds, kept nesting on the island. However, the Gould’s petrel and the white-faced storm petrel disappeared from the island.
To give the petrels a chance of returning to the island, and to help the land regenerate, Susanne Callaghan and her National Parks and Wildlife Service colleagues knew the rats and rabbits had to go.
With the pests having been on the island for a century or more, Stinker Clarke had his doubts when Susanne Callaghan told him of a plan to eradicate them.
“When she said, ‘I’m going to get rid of the rats and rabbits’, I said, ‘Good luck!’,” Clarke recalls.
In 2009, there was a controlled release of the calicivirus, and baits were dropped from the air. Callaghan says that was carried out in the winter, to minimise the impact on native fauna and the migratory birds.
After two years of observing the island, the service declared Broughton feral-free. And it seems the rats and rabbits haven’t returned. An effort to educate visitors, and vigilance, has helped keep the pests at bay.
“Never seen any vermin whatsoever [since the eradication program],” says the Broughton Island Conservation Society’s Jeff Pettifer. “And we’re monitoring for them at the huts as well.
“It’s quite a credit to all the people who come here that there’s been no reinfestation.”
Yet the eradication program has been only one step in the island’s rehabilitation.
To see some of the latest developments in enticing back the petrels requires many steps - and mostly uphill.
FROM the NPWS hut on the shores of Esmeralda Cove, the 1.7-kilometre walk that lies ahead through the island’s grassland-covered heart and up a ridge line to the highest point, Pinkatop Head, looks beguilingly pleasant.
Deceptively beguilingly pleasant, as it turns out.
Susanne Callaghan leads the trek, as we walk behind the huts and into a honeycombed landscape. The earth is punctured with hundreds of shearwaters’ burrows.
Callaghan says while the migratory birds continued to visit the island when the rabbits and rats were here, the pests’ removal has “taken pressure off the population to breed as normal”.
She estimates there are more than 100,000 breeding pairs on this island and neighbouring Little Broughton Island between spring and late autumn.
“Myself and a colleague spent three very hot summers pulling birds out of burrows,” she explains, to arrive at an estimate of the population.
By way of demonstration, Callaghan lies on the sandy earth and plunges her arm into a burrow.
As she fossicks for a bird, Callaghan explains the shearwaters pair up and come to the same burrow with the same mate, season after season.
She and her colleagues aren’t sure how far the birds have come, “but a long way is the message”, somewhere in the northern hemisphere.
To answer questions such as this, the NPWS staff have been attaching data loggers to the legs of 20 birds.
From the information collected on these tiny devices, the researchers hope to learn not only where the shearwaters fly from, but also how often they head out to sea for food, and where else they go.
The rangers attempted to attach data loggers last season but the birds somehow managed to be rid of the them by the time they returned to the island. This year, the devices are being attached more securely.
Callaghan gently pulls out a bird, a sleek lozenge of feathers and long narrow beak protesting at the intrusion. It is a wedge-tailed shearwater.
The ranger explains how the birds have been laying eggs in recent days, and the chicks will emerge early in the new year.
As if to demonstrate its annoyance, the bird latches onto Callaghan’s finger, and the ranger negotiates its release. It takes a little while, but Callaghan is unscathed.
“I usually come away with all sorts of Band Aids over me,” she chuckles, before putting the shearwater back into the burrow, accompanied with a softly murmured, “Sorry, darling”.
Callaghan points out that all around the burrows are prickly pear bushes. While there is direct spraying on the weeds, she says there is still a long way to go before the prickly pear is brought under control.
We head back down to the shoreline, rock-hopping along the fringe of the cove. We then begin the climb, picking our way through wind-bashed bush and sharp-bladed grass. Callaghan says a lot of this vegetation is the response to a long history of fire on the island; whether by the hand of nature or humankind is up for debate.
Yet she stops occasionally to hold a delicate flower or the leaves of a lilly pilly, and she points out small pockets of rainforest plants: “This gives us a clue of what this may have been like once with the vegetation”.
The battle to return the island’s plant life to a semblance of what it once was rages across the island. Callaghan spots a patch of bright orange moving and glowing in the tangle of a bitou bush. It is the shirt of Jo Wiffen, a contractor from bush regeneration group Trees in Newcastle. Or, as Callaghan calls her, when they meet up on the hillside, a “bitou bush slayer”.
“Down there,” Wiffen says, still catching her breath. “There’s a great big lump.”
“Chock a block?,” asks Callaghan.
Wiffen nods and replies, “Just keep working our way back.”
Jo Wiffen, along with three others, are on the island for three days, tearing into the bitou bush. Trees in Newcastle contractors come to the island about three times a year.
This is Wiffen’s first time on the island, yet despite the hard work and rough terrain - or perhaps because of it - she is relishing her time on Broughton.
“It’s better than sitting in an office,” Wiffen says. “I work in retail, that’s cruisier, but this is better for your soul.”
I look at the huts cradled in the cove off in the distance, and between here and there is a vast battleground to be conquered by the bush regenerators. Just ahead of us along the ridgeline is Paul O’Keefe, a vegetation expert visiting the island. O’Keefe’s involved in the planning to fight the weeds. He says in addition to the prickly pear and bitou bush, there is buffalo grass and morning glory, which has taken over the slope right behind the NPWS hut, so the rangers have an environmental enemy right outside their door.
O’Keefe says the removal of rabbits has helped stop the spread of some weeds, but others are taking off as the seabirds become more entrenched and provide plenty of nutrients.
“I’ve never seen biomass like on this island; you slide down it, it’s unbelievable,” he says.
We don’t slide; rather, we continue to climb, puffing and sweating, until we reach Pinkatop Head. The reward is views that are so stunning, they steal whatever breath we have left. To the south, we can see Port Stephens and the coastline shimmering as it shrinks into the distance. To the west are the Myall Lakes. We’re standing on the island’s north-eastern edge, and over the drop is Little Broughton Island and, beyond that, the majesty of the sea.
Callaghan points to two small islands to the north-west of where we stand. One is North Rock, about 1.3 kilometres away, and the other is Inner Rock, about 600 metres from the main island. They are where the white-faced storm petrels were driven to.
Susanne Callaghan explains how a century ago, visiting ornithologists wrote in their journals about the petrels breeding in their thousands on Broughton, mostly in the island’s central dunes.
“A significant population,” she says, “but then they were no longer here.”
We shimmy and step down the steep northern slope to see the latest attempt to call the birds back. Installed under a clump of casuarina trees, close to the precarious drop to the water, is a loudspeaker. Dotted around it are six artificial nesting boxes.
The loudspeaker is known as the “love box”. Each night, it emits a recording of a Gould’s petrel, the plaintive cry drifting out into the darkness over the water - and down the cliff. For Callaghan and her colleagues know that the Gould’s petrel nests in crevices at the foot of the cliff.
In 2009, after the pest eradication program, they heard a call from below. It was the sound of hope to Callaghan “Yes, it was amazing!”. Using a camera on a burrow scope, they saw a Gould’s petrel incubating an egg.
“We don’t know if they’re new arrivals because of the eradication program, or if they’ve been there a long time,” she says.
The ranger hopes the audio from the “love box” will entice the Gould’s petrel to come in and use the nesting boxes.
“This is just an attempt of helping them establish further,” Callaghan says. “It’s proven to work on Cabbage Tree Island [just to the south of here], so maybe Broughton Island can help expand the pairs.”
About 50 metres to the east along the precipice is another loudspeaker and a cluster of nine small boxes. This speaker plays the white-faced storm petrel’s call. Callaghan has been keenly checking the small boxes for any signs of bird life.
“So far all we’ve found is one feather, which is a promising sign,” she says. “Maybe it [the petrel] has had a sticky beak, we don’t know. It’s still a work in progress.”
“The ultimate goal is that they establish their own burrows, but hopefully this gives that a head-start.
“This is the first season, so we’ll see whether to leave them here, or to move the boxes.”
Working near the artificial nesting boxes are Associate Professor Brian Wilson, a soil scientist from the University of New England, and Kirsten Drew, a PhD candidate studying the effects of using glyphosate herbicide on the island.
With the battle against weeds, Drew says, the question of how the herbicide is used is “really significant in this environment”.
All these scientists and environmental officers are working together towards rehabilitating Broughton Island, including producing soil and vegetation maps.
“We’re trying to understand those links between the birds, soils and vegetation, and how that has changed the island,” says Brian Wilson.
DURING the trek back to the huts squatting along Esmeralda Cove, we deviate to scour a grassland area on the island’s eastern edge. Paul O’Keefe saw burrows the day before, and he thought they may have been created by white-faced storm petrels.
Yet after searching the slope, O’Keefe mutters, “No luck today”.
Susanne Callaghan smiles and replies, “We’ll find it.”
SUSANNE Callaghan’s belief that one day the petrels will return and nest on the island is driven by not just optimism but the changes she has already seen.
“Having the longevity to see the changes, it’s the best program I’ve ever been involved in,” she says. “We’ve kicked a massive goal for ecology on the island.”
Others who know and love the island have marvelled at the changes they’ve observed around them.
“I’ve seen a real improvement in the bird life and the vegetation,” says John “Stinker” Clarke. “I’ve watched the bird life return. To me, it’s been a rebirth.”
As for the island’s future, Susanne Callaghan holds “very high” hopes. The key, she says, is finding “the balance between conservation and recreation”.
“We want people to visit the island, while meeting the needs of the unique ecosystem that it is,” Callaghan concludes. “It’s just about getting everything right.”
As we walk back through the grasslands, surrounded by a sea glistening like lapis lazuli, and looking over to the mainland so close in distance and yet so far in mood, you’re left feeling that Broughton Island and the seabirds it could help cradle deserve nothing less than getting everything right.