Lord Howe Island
More than half of the original recorded species of birds on this island are extinct due to hunting; non-native predators such as black rats, cats, and owls; and overgrazing by farm animals. Now that the island is protected and managed, the most serious threats are oil and chemical water pollution, and groundwater pollution from sewage management.
There are a lot of outdoor things to do on a Lord Howe Island holiday -- swim in a crystal-clear lagoon, marvel at tropical fish in a coral reef, hike trails through palm and banyan forests -- but sooner or later the place turns every visitor into a bird-watcher. Not only does it have a lot of birds, it has rare birds -- and, best of all, they aren't shy of people.
Possibly Australia's best birding site, Lord Howe Island is a carefully preserved nature sanctuary, where only 400 tourists are allowed at a time. Seventy-five percent of the island, including much of the southern mountains and northern hills, is a permanent protected nature reserve. Many of its 350 residents are ancestors of the island's first 18th-century settlers. Life here is slow paced; people get around on bikes instead of cars and just about everybody diligently recycles.
Lord Howe Island is home to over 130 bird species, between residents and migratory visitors. There are 14 species of seabird alone, which roost and nest here in huge numbers. Walking trails along the island's ragged east coast provide great views of seabirds such as terns, boobies, noddies, and shearwaters. Star among them is one of the world's rarest birds, the Providence petrel, which nests near the summit of Mount Gower. This sturdy-looking seabird is so trustful of humans that it can even be called out of the air-and might even decide to rest in your lap.
The rarest resident of all is the Lord Howe Island woodhen, found nowhere else but Lord Howe Island. This flightless brown bird, about the size of a bantam rooster, is listed as an endangered species, but the combined efforts of Australia's national wildlife service, the Lord Howe Island Board, and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife have resulted in a successful breeding program, and they now populate many parts of the island-some have even nested in residents' back yards. The best place to see them is on the 3km (2-mile) Little Island trail, where you can also see some beautiful emerald ground doves.
For impressive aerial feats, look to the skies, especially over the tropical forests of the northern hills, and you'll see the beautiful red-tailed tropic bird, with its elegant red tail streamers. When courting, it will fly backwards, in circles, and, for good measure, throw in some vertical displays. It's a splendid sight, and one few birders ever get to see.
A speck off of Australia's east coast, equidistant from Sydney or Brisbane, Lord Howe Island is only a 2-hour plane ride from the mainland. Conveniently, there are just enough hotels on the island to handle all 400 visitors.
Contact: Lord Howe Island visitor center (tel. 1800/240 937 or 61/2/6563 2114; www.lordhoweisland.info).
Where to Stay: Blue Lagoon Lodge (tel. 61/2/6563-2006). Pinetrees Resort Hotel (tel. 61/2/6563 2177; www.pinetrees.com.au).