Saturday, 18 October 2014

Day 30 - Sea Lions and Birds of Prey

Seal Bay Conservation Park
Another lovely evening in front of the big pot-bellied wood heater, reading (Sue) and writing (Peter) and a much warmer night. We woke to bird calls and a brilliant sunrise shining across the lagoon.

Our morning was dominated by a visit to the sea lion colony at Seal Bay. The Conservation Park is still under development but the series of walkways and platforms provide a good overview but it is the guided tour which is a must do. There is as much or as little information as you want and our guide fielded all sorts of questions, most of them asked by Sue. The teacher never stops!

This colony of Australian Sea Lions is unfortunately declining but not at the rate it once did. Females gestate for 18 months and after giving birth, they fall pregnant after a week but with such a long pregnancy and an attrition rate which sees two thirds of them fail to make it to adulthood, pups come along too slowly when we are still killing adult seals with the crap we throw in waterways and off beaches and the junk that goes overboard from both recreational and fishing vessels. At least the South Australian government has finally approved a marine park for 7kms off the shoreline from the conservation park which is a fishing exclusion zone and will allow a safe corridor for adult seals to return after their three day fishing expeditions. Great White sharks account for many of them as well.

Before now, in the first thirty years of the 19th century, sealers very nearly hunted sea lions into extinction but a colony had thrived at Seal Bay, most likely because of the close off shore reef which would have made it difficult for sealers to get their boats close enough to the shore.

They are an amazing creature and although science has solved some of their mysteries, there is still a lot that isn’t known. For instance, science has no tangible idea of how they navigate, other than it appears to be a learned behaviour passed on by mothers to their pups and that it is likely to visual landmark oriented. Much of that is, however, guesswork. We walked down onto the beach among the seals and had the great fortune of watching a huge bull seal arrive after three days at sea fishing and then asserting himself when back on the beach and chasing a few other males back into the water.

There are two types of seal based at Kangaroo Island: the Australian Sea Lions, which are a hair covered mammal and the New Zealand Fur Seal, which is covered by fur. The Aussie boys suffer in the really cold weather and can often be found up in the sand dunes, seeking shelter and warmth. Some venture as far as the car park and on one famous occasion, a big bull was found under the engine compartment of a tourist coach, obviously seeking warmth!

Bull seal
Whilst the women are always pregnant, the males do the deed and move on during the mating season, spreading their seed to as many as possible. There is no family grouping among them, with pups staying for just the eighteen months until the next is born. They stay longer if mum fails to get pregnant again but that is reasonably rare.

Pups have to fend for themselves for three days when mum goes fishing and one was pointed out to us who was calling for her return, obviously hungry. Males were showing signs of the aggressive behaviour that typifies the mating season and the females were smart enough to get some rest.

This is a wonderful facility and well worth the $32 for the guided tour but has its local detractors. The majority of KI residents haven’t and won’t visit the centre in a typical environmental park/neighbour response.

Our tour included an up close and personal experience with a pigmy copperhead which has taken up residency immediately beside the viewing platform where visitors go down to the beach with guides.

Lunch was further along the south coast at Vivonne – the smallest of villages possible … we saw three houses. When the road stopped at a navigation point, we climbed over rocks and sat beneath rock overhangs out of the wind. There were caves wending their way in the rock faces behind us.

After lunch, we went to Raptor Domain, a commercial bird show which demonstrates various birds of prey. Commercial or not, there seemed to be a great deal of affection between birds and handlers and the fact the birds were free to come and go, except at show time, was impressive. The audience was shown a variety of birds including a barn owl, a masked owl, the very swift hobby falcon, a barking owl and a buzzard. We learned that owls are virtually soundless in flight as they need to capture their prey by stealth but that falcon can be heard through the air but rely on speed. The buzzard is despised by other birds because he is an egg thief. The star attraction - a young wedge-tailed eagle - didn’t last long, distracted and harassed by passing bird traffic and disappeared after a couple of passes.

Generally the birds stay with the facility because they offer a constant source of food, but each carries a small and traceable gps wire that allows them to be tracked as long as they don’t fly too far away. When Tika the wedge-tail flew off, his handler took off too!

This was a good show, although not as good as one we saw in the Northern Territory twenty years ago. Lots of information and as previously mentioned, a strong bond between handlers and birds.

Inevitably, we found the only coffee shop for twenty kilometres nearby and tried to enjoy a pot of tea but the mix of seventies music blaring from the speakers made it difficult. After ACDA, John Paul Young and a blend of one hit American “wonders”, we left. On the way, we found a mother and joey koala in a tree by the carpark.

Up to Kingscote to visit the lookout and a memorial to the pioneer white settlers and then groceries, fuel and back to our digs by Discovery Lagoon.

The owner was as good as her word. The formwork and framing had been erected during the day for what will become the laundry!

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