Norfolk Island's Flora & Fauna

The Norfolk Whey

Wherever you travel around Norfolk, you'll be surrounded by the natural things that city life may not have trained you to look for. We cannot, however, claim that our fauna is madly exciting. The island's plant-life is interesting, its birds are wonderful but its other fauna is less than inspiring, being more notable for what is missing. There are no snakes on the island, no centipedes or other nasty creepy crawlies, no sand flies or fruit flies. The spiders, whilst of a formidable enough appearance, are harmless. Perhaps the most interesting animals here are the cows and the horses.

The cows are the descendants of generations of beasts which have spent their lives on roadsides and commons, rounded up just once a year for drenching and inspection by a veterinary officer. For the other 364 days, they circle the island, protected from traffic by right-of-way, performing their very valuable service as four-legged lawn mowers.

White Tern

These delightful, graceful creatures are known here as 'Fairy Terns'. Snow-white but for their black bills, feet and eyes, they have translucent wings. The terns normally leave the island in May to spend several months at sea, constantly on the wing. However, some appear to have formed a love affair with the valley leading from Bumboras to the Shearwater villas and stay throughout the year. Around August 1st, their numbers swell and mating begins. White Terns build no nest and lay a single egg in a slight indentation in the branch of a Norfolk Pine or White Oak. It was once thought that they used a mucilage to assist the egg to adhere to the branch but this has been found to be untrue. The mother will somehow incubate the egg without dislodging it - you will notice that to leave the branch she drops off backwards. How the chicks hatch safely on this precarious perch is a source of great wonderment. If you look carefully at a tern returning from a fishing expedition, you will often notice up to five tiny flying fish in her beak which she has caught on the wing.

You will often notice two terns flying together, wheeling in such unison that they seem controlled by a single brain. The islanders will tell you gravely that this propensity to fly in pairs is because "one good tern deserves another".

Sooty Tern

This variety of tern is seen less abundantly on Norfolk. preferring the offshore islands, particularly Phillip, where flocks of many thousands create a raucous din. The term sooty refers to the bird's back, its underside being white. Sooty terns are more familiarly known here as Whale Birds because of their habit of returning in August at the same time as did the whales some years ago. A third name for the bird is "Wide-awake", after its call.


So named because of their habit of flying just 3 to 4 metres above the sea, the Shearwaters travel as much as 300 kilometres each day on their migratory journey to Norfolk. The Wedge-tailed variety arrive in their hundreds between the 18th and 21st October, returning to the same burrow they were hatched in, and stay until April or May. Where they go in the meantime is not known with certainty - it's certainly a long way away and could be as far as Japan. While they are at sea they are active throughout the day but ashore, where they come to breed, they normally venture out only at twilight or night.

If you look out a few hundred metres towards Phillip Island around sunset, you'll some-times see them floating on the water in huge 'rafts', waiting for the onset of semi-darkness before venturing ashore. They're known as Ghost Birds by the islanders and you'll know why when you hear their eerie moaning cries at night. Their burrows are up to two metres long - watch your step near the cliff-tops - it's easy to step into one. In June and July, some of the burrows are taken over by the winter-breeding, blue-legged Little Shearwaters who stay until December.

Kingfisher (Nuffka)

Closely related to the Sacred Kingfisher, and distantly to the Kookaburra, this azure-winged, green-backed, white-yoked charmer is known here as the Nuffka, the Pitcairn way of saying Norfolker. You'll see them here year-round, perching on bare branches or fence wires, then darting down to pounce on insects, grubs or small fish. They nest from September to December, punching out burrows in earth banks by initially flying at them full-tilt, then by picking and clawing. Despite compet-ition from starlings, who attempt to take over their nests, they are thriving.

Crimson Rosella

Probably introduced at the time of the penal settlements, this gorgeously coloured parrot has adapted very well to Norfolk and is seen in noisy flocks throughout the island. As it nests in hollows of trees. it is a rival to the indigenous Green Parrot.

White-faced Heron

Until recently classified as a vagrant, this graceful, long-legged bird (also known as the Blue Crane) now appears to be present year-round. In Australia, its nest is a stick platform in a tree and hopes have been raised when it has been seen here carrying sticks, but so far no nest has been found. The bird has modified its Australian diet of frogs, yabbies and other swamp inhabitants, appearing to subsist here on grubs, worms, insects, fish and shellfish.

Australian Kestral

This is another bird which was once only a vagrant but which has recently decided to settle here. You'll see it all round the coast, hovering, almost invar-iably alone, occasionally plummeting spectacularly on its prey. It occasionally takes chicks but may save as many by killing young rodents.

Grey Gerygone (Hummingbird)

The smallest of Norfolk's birds, this is also one of the most widely distributed. Its incessant darting about as it hunts for its food of insects and spiders is interrupted by short bursts of hovering. It has a most melodious warble.

Welcome Swallow

This rosy-breasted, fork-tailed visitor is another master of aerial aerobatics. It is seen in large flocks from around the end of March until October, swooping on flying insects and eating them on the wing. A few remain through the summer and, as some have been seen carrying mud (a nesting material), we hope they will breed here.

Grey Fantail

When you enter the domain of this tiny, inquisitive and delightfully cheeky creature, you'll often be followed and constantly "buzzed" by it. When not pursuing humans, it hunts flying insects with a repertoire of aerial stunts which are a delight to behold.

Feral Chicken

When the first penal settlement was abandoned, hundreds of fowls were released and learned to cope for themselves. They have also regained the art of flying well when the need arises. The males normally have a splendid iridescent plumage whilst the females are quite inconspicuous.

Masked Booby

Also called a Gannet, this very large and strikingly handsome sea-bird has a white body, black tail, black and white upper wing and a yellow face mask. It nests on Phillip and Nepean islands and is to be seen wheeling around the cliffs from at least August to February and sometimes for much longer. It is a magnificent flyer, using the wind currents very efficiently. You can watch one soar for ten minutes without the need of a wing flap, then, from 100 metres up, fold its wings and plummet into the sea, emerging with a fish. It is also partial to squid and flying fish. The female will lay two eggs but usually rear only one youngster which, while still in the nest, will grow to a size which appears bigger than its parent.

California Quail

Said to have been introduced by American whalers in the 1860s, these quaint birds are easily recognised by their curly black top-knot and preference for walking or running over flying. You will often see them in procession - a mother trailed by a dozen or more chicks.

Emerald Dove

This beautiful dove, with its iridescent green back, is a year-round resident. You'll see it pottering around on the forest floor, almost always alone. Normally very shy, it will take off when disturbed and amaze you by flying at high speed through trees and undergrowth that appear almost impenetrable.

Red-tailed Tropic Bird

If you're here between October and May, you'll see one of the most striking birds in the world. A large, snowy-plumaged sea-bird, flushed with rose on the breast and bordered with black on the wings, the Tropic Bird trails behind it two bright scarlet quills which can be as long as its body. These are its courting streamers and it will go to great lengths to display them to its potential mate, hovering in a vertical position and occasionally even flying backwards, a feat which is said to be unique in bird-dom. The parents nurture their chicks very caringly until they are almost full-grown, then abandon them and leave the island. A month later, the chicks will also leave, divining in some arcane fashion where to go.

Arctic Visitors

Between September and March, in the rock pools of Cresswell Bay and around Slaughter Bay, you'll come across Ruddy Turnstones, Godwits and Whimbrels. Spare a moment to consider that they're visiting us from Alaska and Siberia.

Green Parrot, Morepork & Bird Of Providence

If you see any of these 3 endangered species, please contact the ANCA at Kingston and explain where, whether it carried a leg-band, on which leg, and its colour

The indigenous Norfolk Island Green Parrot has just recently been saved from extinction by a valiant breeding programme conducted by the ANCA with early help from the Lions Club.

The Norfolk Island Morepork (Boobook Owl) is probably the rarest bird in the world - there being only one known to exist! In an endeavour to preserve on the planet a bird very similar to the original Norfolk species, we have brought over from New Zeal-and some closely related owls. To everyone's delight, our local owl, (named 'Miamiti', after Fletcher Christian's Tahitian wife) mated with an immigrant ('Tintola', the Pitcairn word for 'Sweet-heart').

If you hear an owl-like hoot during the day, it will probably be the Emerald Dove, but if it's night-time, please note the location and inform the ANCA.

The Bird of Providence (or Providence Petrel) once existed here in the hundreds of thousands but was thought to have been completely wiped out by starving survivors when the Sirius was wrecked. Almost two cent-uries later, in 1986, a small miracle occurred - a breeding colony was discovered by conservator Neil Hermes on Phillip Island. Something in their genes tells them never to venture onto Norfolk, the scene of their decimation


Whether or not you're norm-ally interested in plants, do make an early visit to the Norfolk Island Botanical Garden, on Mission Road, at the top of Grassy Road. Here you can meander through 260 metres of graded track zig-zagging through delightful native vine forest

Take note of some of the more interesting specimens, pick up a leaflet, and you'll be ready to identify them on your further wanderings. A small sampler to whet your appetite:

The Norfolk Island Pine The emblem of the island, this magnificent tree grows to a height of 60 metres and more, with a girth described by Captain Cook as being 'more than can be encircled by six men with arms outstretched'. Extremely hardy and salt-tolerant, it is now to be found on beachfronts around the world.