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Friday, 08 June 2007

Kangaroo Island's Bird Man

Written by Jennifer M. Eisenlau, Ph. D.
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When I travel, I usually go alone. I need a guidebook, some on-line research, and a few tips written on cocktail napkins from friends who’ve been where I’m heading. But upon arriving on Kangaroo Island (KI), I knew I needed professional help.

Kangaroo Island is only a 45-minute ferry ride crossing from the mainland of Southern Australia. Although it is known for its wildlife, I could not find a Koala in the eucalyptus trees, no matter how hard I looked. After driving around for a day and a half, all I saw were dead wildlife: dead wallabies, dead kangaroos, and unfortunately, lots of other unrecognizable things littering the roadside.

“That’s it,” I said. I booked a full-day private tour. My guide picked us the next day up at nine o’clock sharp. A retired National Parks Ranger and a bird specialist, Chris Baxter knew his stuff. Our route along the southern coast lasted for nine full hours, with stops at all the island’s top sites: Seal Bay Visitors Centre, Vivonne Bay, Flinders Chase National Park Visitors Centre, the Remarkable Rocks, and the Admirals Arch. In a Range Rover, my family set out with Chris to see the wildlife of KI. And see it we did: within minutes along two-lane Playford Highway, there was a group of twenty wallabies sunning themselves. This was a prelude to Seal Beach, where we walked among hundreds of seals, also sunning themselves. Passing within feet of seal pups, our guide told us of his childhood and how he and his brothers played here as children with the sea creatures on this very beach, which now is a seal sanctuary. He grew up on KI: his father was one of the WWII soldiers sent to farm the empty island.

I learned about this fascinating island full of fascinating animals from a local man who loved his island. Chris was so proud to share KI with us. We saw everything up close, so close we could touch it: I was lucky enough to hold a baby koala that smelled like a eucalyptus cough lozenge. I scratched the ears of several kangaroos, and I even fed one some raisins while Chris wasn’t looking.

Toward the end of the day, the abundance of natural beauty was overwhelming. I was suffering from Stendhalismo -- a curious affliction named for the author Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal). While touring Florence, Italy, the author of Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) claimed that he could take no more beauty. He saw another painting, and then – Bang! He promptly passed out. I, too, felt like the woozy Stendhal when I saw the Remarkable Rocks: giant boulders as big as houses perched upon sandy cliffs overlooking a sea lion filled surf. I just could not stand anymore of Nature’s splendor. My soul felt too full, if such a thing were possible.

Ironically, the highlight of the tour came days later in a quiet museum. We did not know it then, but our small tour group was part of a much bigger picture involving a little yellow bird. Right before we visited the Remarkable Rocks, we were zooming along the South Coast Road at 110 kilometers per hour. Suddenly, Chris stomped the brakes and shouted something like, “A golden-backed honey-sucker!” He pulled the Range Rover over and jumped out, returning with his trophy of road kill.

You see, our guide is known locally as the “Bird Man of Kangaroo Island.” He is the author of An Annotated List of the Birds of Kangaroo Island. What I was witnessing was not the recovery of a dead animal, but a moment of scientific discovery.


So there I was, a few days later at the South Australia Museum in Adelaide. I stood in front of a case label “Birds of Kangaroo Island.” I saw all sorts of honey-suckers, but where a golden bird should be, the spot was empty. The perch was waiting for a specimen to be sent by the Bird Man himself. So that’s how those taxidermy critters found their ways to the museum, I realized. Naturalists locate them, freeze them in a Ziplock bag, and then mail them off to museums. Knowing all this now, I stood--for the first time ever in my life – fascinated by a zoological display.

Obviously, I am very glad I spent the money to see KI’s animals in the bush. Days after my tour, I continued to see fauna in the flora on the very same roads where I had previously seen nothing at all. Well, of course, the animals had always been there – it was I who had to learn where to see them. Chris taught me how.

On KI, I patted joeys behind the ears, fed wild cockatoos, jumped back from giant pelicans, and walked among black swans. And I am proud to say that I even saw a creature that my travel writing hero – Bill Bryson – marveled at in his adventures in his Down Under memoir:

Sensing me, it stopped. It had glossy black quills pointing straight back and had curled itself roughly into a ball so I couldn’t see its pointy snout, but it was clearly an echidna…In a country filled with exotic and striking life forms my highpoint was finding a harmless, animated pincushion in a city park, I didn’t care. It was a montreme – a physiological anomaly, a wonder of the mammalian tree.

I, too, saw four of the elusive echidna (a rare egg-laying mammal). The only critter I failed to see was the Little Penguin, a sea bird that comes ashore nightly in the Australian winter. Local people on KI said to me, Oh, you don’t need a tour. Just go down to the beach for the penguins. I did go to the beach, each night for four nights in a row, and I never saw a penguin. Had I taken the tour offered at the KI Tourist Office (and spent the $12) I would have seen plenty of penguins as they made their way home to the rocky nests after a day’s fishing. How do I know for sure? Another tourist on the ferry back to Cape Jervis told me how cute the wild birds were. You see, she paid the tour fee. But maybe seeing those Little Penguins would have pushed me completely over the edge of reason, plunging me into a serious case of Stendhalismo.








If you go…

Kangaroo Island 4WD Designer Tours

Telephone (08) 8553 0088

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view


All prices are in Australian Dollars [AD]

Island Nature Day—Coastal Seal Bay Tour: $334 per person

This tour includes morning tea break, three-course lunch with wine and coffee, cooler filled with soft drinks, park entrance fees at Seal Bay and Flinders Chase National Park, tours with guide, gratuities, and pick-up/drop-off at your hotel

Sea Link Ferry

Telephone 13 13 01

Web address

Ferry fares $40 per person/ $64 per vehicle (super saver sealink)

South Australian Tourism Commission

Telephone 888-768-8428 (in the USA)

Web address

© Jennifer M. Eisenlau, Ph. D.

Pictures ©South Austrailian Tourism Commission


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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