Written by Featured, Griffith Review

Ghost species and shadow places

I travelled to Lord Howe Island to follow Dr Jennifer Lavers and her team who research birds that feed their chicks to death with plastic.

Griffith Review 63 Writing the Country

Seabirds and plastic pollution on Lord Howe Island

I WANT TO walk the shadow places. These are sites of extraction and production: think coal-seam gas fields and their attendant communities, think eroded landscapes and marine dead-zones, think sweatshops – all the places from which we extract resources, or to which we outsource disorder, risk and pollution. They provide for our material comfort, yet in the words of philosopher Val Plumwood, they are places ‘we don’t know about, don’t want to know about, and in a commodity regime don’t ever need to know about.’ Is it possible to expand our responsibilities beyond care for home and the places we love, to the degraded, broken and overlooked?

The sparse plains of my own childhood in western New South Wales were marked by conflict, chain-clearing, water theft and suicide: all out of sight, out of mind for most of us. Perhaps that’s why I seek shadow places, walk scalded ground, touch dead trees, smell contaminated water, and discover how people cope, adapt and live with the slow violence of grinding ecological damage. My hope is to render vicarious experiences of the shadow places of the Anthropocene, and in this way, shed light on them.

When Val Plumwood conceived of ‘shadow places’, I’m not sure that Lord Howe Island was the kind of place she had in mind. It is a World Heritage site, an iconic paradise moored in the Tasman Sea, far from the destruction wrought by human industry. But I’ve come to follow researchers who are working in an ecological community under siege, who witness death and suffering each day. I’m exploring the plight of one species of bird, the ways in which million-year-old patterns of migration, courting, breeding and chick-rearing are being disrupted by human actions – a process environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren labels ‘wasted generations’.

The Lagoon, with Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower in the distance, Lord Howe Island.

IT’S EARLY AUTUMN, and I’m on the island to learn about flesh-footed shearwaters and the biologists who study them. There are no other walkers on the road this evening. Twilight has arrived quicker than I expected, and the palms are silhouettes against an ink-blue sky. In the distance I can just make out the volcanic tops of Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower. The sound of the ocean bends towards land. It strikes me I’m in open seas: Lord Howe Island is 600 kilometres off the east coast of Australia, a tiny perch of weathered volcanic rock protruding from the ocean, supported from below by a sea mount rising from the depths of the Pacific. I continue to the shearwater colony in the dark.

Tonight, chicks are emerging from their burrows for the first time since hatching three months ago. The parent birds have taken turns caring for their sole chick, stuffing them with food until the chick is up to a third bigger than the adults. By the end of the three months, the parents look dishevelled and gaunt, feathers sticking out or missing. They sacrifice their wellbeing for their offspring. Circumstances that are, perhaps, familiar to many of us.

Dr Jennifer Lavers in the Flesh footed shearwater colony at Ned’s Beach, Lord Howe Island.

I’m sitting cross-legged on the tarp across from Jennifer Lavers, a marine eco-toxicologist and seabird expert at the University of Tasmania. She clasps a chick between her hands as she peers into its face.

‘Look at your hairdo!’ she says. Her voice is deep and hoarse from flu – and incongruous with her small frame. The bird’s smoke-grey down gives it the appearance of wearing a boa shawl, or having big fluffy ears. ‘Like a grandpa,’ says Jenn.

She’s banding birds with her student, Peter Puskic, while, on the other side of the tarp, Alex Bond – curator in charge of birds at the UK’s Natural History Museum – leans over a bucket and attaches tubing to a pressure sprayer. Somewhere in the darkness is Ian Hutton, curator of the Lord Howe Island Museum, searching the forest for chicks.

Our time is divided into day work and night work. Every sundown, we set up a field site in the shearwater colony near Ned’s Beach. An LED floodlight illuminates A-frames, backpacks, tubs of lab equipment, and a tarp spread across the forest floor. Salt air glints in our headlamps, banyan trees tower overhead, and the whole place smells of shearwater – a dense, greasy odour. Some say it’s to do with the birds’ fondness for eating oily marine life. To me it’s like lanoline and newborn swaddling – something corporeal, intimate.

The team is pushing to finish before midnight. And there’s a sense that time is running out – not just for tonight’s work, or the end of the field trip in a few days, but for the birds themselves. A recent global survey published in PLOS ONE found seabirds have declined by more than 60 per cent since 1950, a loss of around 230 million birds in just sixty years. The birds that Jenn and her colleagues study are among the most prolific but also among the most at risk: populations of shearwaters and petrels have plummeted by 80 per cent in the same period.

‘Seabirds are declining faster than any other bird group,’ Jenn tells me – a fact I find astonishing. But everything I hear astonishes me. A couple of years ago, a shearwater from one of the island’s first banding projects in the 1970s was recaptured, making it thirty-eight years old. As chicks, the shearwaters imprint the forest and the beach, then fly out to sea alone and won’t touch land again for five to seven years; they roam as far as the Sea of Japan and return to breed within metres of their burrow. Pelagic seabirds such as shearwaters, petrels and albatross keep vast olfactory maps of the oceans in their memories; they can smell exactly where they are in the world.

Also, they vomit plastic. The parent shearwaters here are slowly feeding their chicks to death with plastic.

Continue reading at Griffith Review

More information on marine plastic pollution at Jennifer Lavers’ website

The team in the Lord Howe Island research station
The team in the Lord Howe Island research station