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Lion Honours

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Lion Island - 13 hectares located at the entrance to the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney’s suburbs but a whole world away from people. 
Nicholas Carlile, Acting Principal Scientist at the Science Division of the Office of Environment and Heritage, reports on a recent survey with a focus on seabirds on Sydney’s Lion Island. Lion Island is located near Barrenjoey Lighthouse at Palm Beach. Like most of New South Wales’ islands Lion Island is a Nature Reserve so people are only allowed to visit if they are involved in its managements or for research. There is a beautiful beach on the south-west corner which has a very large sign (it can be seen from 100m) warning people not to land as it is the major landing site for little penguins, the main seabirds that use the site. Lion Island is not a coastal island but an enclosed one, similar to others in Sydney Harbour, like Cockatoo Island. It gets its name because its shape is reminiscent of a crouching lion. It is dominated by eucalypt forest similar to the mainland.


Above: After a long day of burrow checking the Penguin survey members enjoy a quick meal before heading out on dusk to count incoming penguins. 

Lion Island was one of the first offshore islands to have regular visits from ornithologists from the 1900s and some of the seminal species of seabirds were gathered there because it was so accessible. There has not been a thorough seabird survey done there since the 1970s. It had been previously recorded that there was some type of rodent on the island but there had been no definite sightings. It was also thought that goannas, rats and house mice were there. One of the aims of the latest seabird survey was to go back and look at the veracity of previous reports.
Below: The survey team: Island surveys can be labour intensive.  The team here gave up five days to answer the question: How many penguins live on Lion Island?


Lion Island is covered in eucalypt forests and because there are no herbivore grazers on the island, the bush is very entangled, unlike the mainland and it rarely gets burnt. Bush birds are in really big numbers and it has a lot of native reptiles including water dragons and tree snakes (which had not been previously recorded). There are also native water rats and house mice, which appear to be restricted to the shoreline.

Weeds can get in generally where there is a break in the vegetation but because the vegetation is so thick it is much harder for them to get a foothold so they are not rampant, except around the penguin colonies. Things like the weedy scrambler lantana can become established there because of the loosening of the soil from penguin burrowing. Ironically the lantana is a great protector of penguin nests so removing it could be problematic. Part of the survey was to look at what steps should be taken to reduce the lantana but retain or bolster penguin numbers. 

The recent surveys, including members of the Australasian Seabird Group, camped on the island and looked at all sites, some of which were tricky as they were rocky and the observations had to be done at night. 

Survey camping on beaches on Lion Island requires knowledge of the tide range to avoid the inevitable.

The present population of 100 pairs of little penguins was much less than the 300 pairs that were indicated in the 1970s. They also found evidence of some 20 pairs of wedge-tailed shearwater, down from the 100 pairs estimated in the 1970s. There was also evidence of some of the original muttonbird colonies so perhaps some future expansion may occur.

Overall, it is a relatively healthy island, the seabirds doing as best as they can. In the race for preservation then, perhaps this island deserves lion honours.

Nicholas Carlile was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent . Summary text by Victor Barry May 2016. Images by Nicholas Carlile unless otherwise noted.

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