Ann Walton – Muttonbird Island

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Muttonbird Island is a local landmark with great historical and ecological significance. Ann Walton, NPWS Ranger Coffs Coast Area, tells us more about the importance of this unique site …

What’s your job title, and what’s involved with this role?

I am a Ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the Coffs Coast Area. My responsibilities include management of Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve. This job involves managing the pest program, visitor services including infrastructure, and scientific research programs, including Wedge-tailed Shearwater breeding success monitoring. An important part of my job is working in cooperation with the local Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal Community in the management of Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve, as it is a special place in Gumbaynggirr culture.

Many locals are aware of Muttonbird Island, but could you flesh out their knowledge with some geographical facts please …

Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve is located at the end of the northern breakwall of the Coffs Harbour Marina. The island was named by settlers as it was, and still is, a rookery for the Wedge-tailed Shearwater, which is a migratory sea bird – also known as Muttonbird, on account of the reported taste of their flesh. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters found on offshore islands along the coast return to the same island, and often the same part of the island, they hatched.

The island provides a natural landscape feature that provides the sheltered waters of the Coffs Harbour. The island is easily accessible via the breakwall and after a short, steep climb, walkers are rewarded with spectacular views of the Solitary Islands Marine Park, ocean views, views of Coffs Harbour and the coastline. Between May and November, opportunity for whale watching, particularly Humpback and Southern Right Whales, arise.

What is the significance of the island in terms of its Aboriginal heritage?

Muttonbird Island is known as Giidany Miirlarl, which means moon’s special place. There are many stories surrounding the island and the moon. This makes it a ‘special place’ in Gumbaynggirr Culture. The significance and use of the Island by Gumbaynggirr people are a large component of the National Indigenous Tourism Award winning cultural heritage tours conducted regularly on the Island by Aboriginal Discovery Rangers, including Gumbaynggirr Elder Mark Flanders. Tours incorporate cultural heritage information, as well as natural heritage information on the Shearwater rookery and migrating whales.

The island, as mentioned, is home to a colony of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (Muttonbirds), from which it obviously draws its name. Tell us about this particular species of bird.

Muttonbird Island is the most important Muttonbird rookery in NSW and the most accessible. Thousands of birds call Muttonbird Island home; however, the exact number is not fully known, as research is limited to along the track during the breeding season. Stepping off the path can collapse burrows and kill nesting birds and crush eggs. The island’s Shearwaters have been studied for over 40 years by a dedicated group of bird banders. It is their research that has found how far the birds travel in their annual migration – to the Philippines and back.

What are some of the other animal or bird species who regularly occupy the island?

People can enjoy views of seabirds, including gannets and gulls. Black Shouldered Kites and kestrels can be seen hovering over the island. A bandicoot and swamp wallaby have been recently recorded, along with the native swamp rat.

What are some of the activities people visiting the island can enjoy – in particular, the guided tours that are offered …

Muttonbird Island is a great place to take a short walk, and the unforgettable views from the lookout platforms at the top and eastern end of the Island are well worth the effort. The award winning interpretation space at the base of the island provides a fantastic opportunity to learn about and reflect on the cultural heritage of the island. The eastern lookout is located a short walk from the Muttonbird Island outdoor learning space along a paved walkway. Walking along the track to the lookout, there is signage along the way explaining the lifecycle of these migratory birds.

Upcoming tours include:

Muttonbirds by Moonlight

Saturday 29September @ 6.30pm and Wednesday 3 October @ 6.30pm

Giidany Miirlarl: A special place

Tuesday 2 Oct @10.30am and Saturday 6 Oct @ 10.30am. Bookings are essential and can be made by calling the Coffs Coast Area Office on 6652 0900 during office hours.

What are some of the National Parks and Wildlife’s Rangers’ responsibilities associated with Muttonbird Island? 

Managing the natural and cultural values of our precious national parks and nature reserves is the core of my work as a Ranger.

In particular, I have focused my efforts over recent years on reducing the impacts from pest animals such as rats, mice and foxes on the Shearwaters. This work is starting to deliver positive outcomes, with the bird breeding success increasing last year compared to previous years. Other important issues include managing for access and use, education and promotion.

One of my favourite jobs is walking up onto the island to talk to visitors. The island is a spectacular work place. At times though, I also need to enforce park regulations, ensuring walkers stay to the track and no pets are taken on the island, to help protect the nesting Shearwaters.

Why do you feel it’s important that the island remains a protected area for future generations to enjoy?

Muttonbird Island is important to all people on the Coffs Coast, as it is a iconic landmark that deserves looking after and preserving for future generations to enjoy seeing a seabird rookery, whale watching, a place to walk and contemplate, a place to experience the power of the sea in safety and a place to see the sun and moon rise over the water.

The island provides a place where the whole community can come together to learn about the local Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal culture, so we can all share in an understanding of how this is a ‘special place’.

Where’s the best place to go for more info about the island?

People can contact the NPWS at the Coffs Coast Area Office, located at the Coffs Marina (located near the Yacht Club) on (02) 6652 0900 or visit: www.nationalparks.gov.au

The Coffs area contains many important cultural sites. I enjoy working with local indigenous groups to help manage, protect and promote Aboriginal culture and heritage, such as Muttonbird Island or Gaargal Wanggaan (South Beach) National Park, the new national park at Warrell Creek, just south of Nambucca, jointly managed with the Aboriginal community.

Pest management is another important role. Programs such as fox and weed control as well as bush regeneration within the local parks.

Working with other NPWS staff and volunteers to maintain the network of fire trails and walking tracks so the public can access and enjoy the many parks of the Coffs Coast Area is another great pleasure.

Incident management is also an important role I have as a ranger, including planning and undertaking fire management including hazard reduction burns and bushfire control.

Whale, seal and turtle monitoring and rescue is also a major role that I’m involved with. I feel extremely privileged to be a Ranger, as it is the best job in the world and feel truly blessed to be working in the most beautiful part of Australia within the Coffs Coast.

Thanks Ann. 

Interview by Jo Atkins.

This story was published in issue 25 of the Coffs Coast Focus

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