Definitely the highlight and best two days of our trip. From the outdoor teatime along the river to the unbelievable grilled fish, grilled cheese (yes, grilled cheese) fresh salad and wine, to the remarkable guide, the first day was truly exceptional. The things that we got to see up close and personal were sensational
Kangaroo Island has retained close to 50% of the original wildlife habitat in a mix of National and Conservation Parks, roadside reserves and a large complement on private property.
The underlying geology is quite diverse as are the resultant soils. The rainfall is also quite variable across the Island and the fusion of factors has resulted in a diversity of habitat types. This, combined with a relatively small number of introduced pest plants and animals, means our native wildlife species thrive. The long period of isolation from the mainland (last connected at the peak of the most recent ice-age about 18,000 years ago) has meant that our plants and animals have evolved to be distinctly different from the adjacent mainland. Many animals and 15 birds are distinct to sub-species and 52 plant species are found nowhere else on earth.
We have compiled lists of all species encountered on Kangaroo Island and the surrounding waters. This is presented as 2 separate lists - birds and other vertebrates. Please select the button below to access the list which interests you. We also have some more detail on the seasonality of observations in a wildlife calendar and some key species information:
SEEN ALL YEAR ROUND
Kangaroo Island kangaroos, tammar wallabies, koalas, echidnas, brush-tailed possums, bottle-nosed dolphins, Australian sea-lions, Australian and long-nosed fur-seals and many of the 268 birds listed for the Island can be seen year round in their natural habitats.
In December, black swans move in large numbers to the sheltered waters around American River as the freshwater wetlands dry up. Australian and New Zealand fur-seal breeding peaks in January with fierce territorial battles which can be viewed by visitors from the safety of the boardwalk at Admiral’s Arch. Hooded dotterels nest on many of the Island’s sandy beaches in January. Watch out for the Island’s largest terrestrial predator, the threatened Rosenberg’s goannas on the roadside. They are active Island-wide as February is courtship and egg-laying season. The lime green and yellow shades of new growth transforms thousands of hectares of mallee wilderness across the Island.
Glossy black cockatoos begin to choose their nesting hollows in preparation for their annual nesting (April through June and in October). Little penguins return in April to start their annual breeding, with males selecting burrows and renovating them in the hope of attracting a female. Black Swamp in Flinders Chase National Park becomes alive in May with Cape Barren geese selecting nesting territories.
June sees Southern right whales make their annual visit to the protected waters around Kangaroo
Island and they head back south to Antarctic waters in October. Black swans nest on their large an elaborate nests in the wetlands and along the rivers in June. Echidna mating trains are seen occasionally across the Island during winter with one female doggedly pursued by up to ten males. In August, migratory waders arrive from their Northern hemisphere summer breeding (best sites include American River, Murray Lagoon and Reeves Point). Kangaroos and wallabies have their joeys emerging from the pouch and starting to explore in August.
Shearwater migration – in September, hundreds of thousands of birds move past the South Coast of the Island in a continuous stream rising and falling on the air currents above the ocean swell (best site for viewing is any of the lighthouse promontories). In November, Australian sea-lions use the broader Summer beach to bask on the sand in between fishing trips to the continental shelf. Tiny terrestrial orchids can be found flowering in deep protected leaf litter in many habitat types across the Island. These are part of a flora of almost 900 native plant species, nearly 50 of which are found nowhere else on earth. On the Eastern end of the Island, striking white or pink-tinged Centenary Starburst (Thryptomene ericaea) dominates the roadsides.
Kangaroo Island was named by English navigator Matthew Flinders as a tribute to a good feed: In gratitude for so seasonable a supply I named this southern land Kanguroo (sic) Island. This was on day two of European contact in 1802 and it has been referred to Kangaroo Island ever since. The name is still relevant as these animals form an integral part of our wildlife tour experience at Exceptional Kangaroo Island.
Kangaroo Island has its' own subspecies of kangaroo - named oddly enough - the Kangaroo Island or Sooty Kangaroo, and is related to the Western Grey. Compared to Western Greys they are shorter, stockier, have luxurious chocolate brown fur with black tips (ears/feet/paws/tail). Kangaroos are browsers and grazers - and as such fill the same ecological niche or do the same “job” as deer in much of the northern hemisphere.
The first recording of kangaroos travelling abroad was when Frenchman Nicolas Baudin took Kangaroo Island kangaroos to Paris in 1804 - one of which became the type-specimen to formally describe the species at the Museum of Natural History in Paris in 1817. Now Wallabies travel to France regularly but that is to play rugby!
KI kangaroos become sexually mature at about 20 months old. Gestation is 31 days - births occur throughout the year if conditions are good, and peak in summer. Young stay in the pouch for 40 - 45 weeks, gradually spending more time out than in. Male and females are born in equal proportion. If a mother KI kangaroo loses a pouch young, she comes into oestrus within 6 days and mates again. Unlike other large kangaroos the Kangaroo Island kangaroo does not exhibit the extraordinary embryonic diapause where the development of young in utero is suspended in due to poor environmental conditions pending arrival of the rain. The relatively consistent winter and spring rainfall through their range means they have avoided the need to go down that particular evolutionary path.
Dominant males have a strong scent gland on their chest (middle on the sternum) and they physically mark their territory with the scent - you can often smell this when you go walking though the bush. There is one boss male kangaroo in a mob who spends his time visiting all of the girls assessing their reproductive status. They do this by tasting their urine and if he finds one in oestrus they mate. When he encounters another male, that male must submit by lowering his head and saying in kangaroo "yes you are the boss" - failure to do so is a challenge to fight and winner takes all.The losers all hang out together in the old blokes' club talking about how good they were when they were the boss!
KI kangaroos are most active late afternoon, at night and early morning, with the middle of the day spent resting in the shade, particularly in hot weather. No-one likes being in full sun with a thick fur coat on. In winter we often see them grazing in open pasture adjacent to woodland. Kangaroos are quite sociable and move as a mob with female young staying with mum to help out with younger joeys as they come along.
Kangaroos often move on all “fives” - taking their weight on their small front paws and tail and bringing their hind feet forward as a pair. Moving faster is via the unique hopping gait - an extraordinary adaptation providing higher efficiency the faster they go - up to a point. Energy is stored in their thick achilles tendon and movement of the internal organs whilst hopping assists in making breathing effortless. The rising mass expels air from the lungs and as their viscera fall it draws air in. The structure of their legs makes it very difficult to move backwards. The only way they can do this is in an awkward shuffle pushing back with their forearms.
If cornered by predators such as domestic dogs or dingos (which we do not have on Kangaroo Island) kangaroos can defend themselves very well. Often kangaroos will take refuge in deep water and if the dogs follow them the kangaroos turn around, grab the dog and disembowel it with a well placed kick with the hind legs. A local Kangaroo Islander has lost two dogs in this manner - he is not well known for well disciplined dogs!
Our guides are always careful to ensure you are able to observe the kangaroos as close as possible without disturbance. This is not the same in every situation - it depends where we are, what history we have had (or other people have had) with those kangaroos, whether it is windy or still and often, the age of any joeys present. Our aim is to develop a trust with the animals so we can share their space without disturbance and often than means we need to change our behaviour. If we see animals resting when we arrive, we aim to have them relaxed and resting when we leave.
One of the strangest and most enduring animals on the Island are echidnas. They are monotremes - the oldest of the three mammal groups (the other two being marsupials and placentals). The group name comes from the single waste and reproductive vent which is similar to birds and reptiles. Monotremes lay eggs which are soft and leathery and young are born highly dependent on the mother. Monotremes go back at least 110 million years so they shared the earth with dinosaurs.The echidna is the only native Australian mammal found through-out the country in a vast array of different climatic zones and habitat types.
Kangaroo Island's echidna
Tachyglossus aculeatus is the short-beaked echidna. Ours is a Kangaroo Island subspecies T. A multiaculeatus - one of 5 sub-species across Australia. Its’ genus refers to “fast tongue” and the specific aculeatus refers to spines covering the upper surface of the body - hence the name is quite descriptive - spiny with a quick tongue! The KI subspecies adds a bit - “fast tongue, spiny, actually very spiny!
Ouch - a temporary pouch?
Echidnas do not have a permanent pouch - it is a temporary structure formed by a contraction of the abdominal muscles and both males and females can create this pocket on their belly. This led to an over-estimation of numbers of females in the population by early observers. Telling male from female is difficult - Peggy Rismiller who is the world expert on the species and local resident can only do it by palpating (feeling with a bit of pressure) on the lower belly to identify the boys bits or absence thereof. See more about Peggy and her partner Mike.
In excess of 50 years - Peggy is still working on this and we hope she has a long life!
How long is that quick tongue: tongues can protrude 18 cm from the tip of the snout and flick in and out over 100 times per minute! The tongue brings back insects, larvae and a whole lot of dirt which constitutes a fair percentage of the tubular droppings. The lack of teeth and a mouth that opens a little way means that if echidnas encounter a fat juicy insect larvae they will batter the body and split it open and then lap up the good bits inside.
Echidnas are solitary except for breeding time. Females have a lovely perfume (pheromone) which attracts up to 10 males (3 -5 more commonly) which follow the female in a procession which lasts for days on end. Males jostle for position and the last one remaining (dogged persistence beats brains or brawn!) then digs beside the female and mates from a prone position on his side. A single egg is laid directly into the temporary pouch 22 days after mating and hatches after 10 days.
Young are carried in the pouch for about 45 days and suckle from an area of modified hairs on the belly known as the “milk patch”. Fast-growing young become too awkward for the mother to carry and she digs a nursery burrow. Young are fed and the mother leaves for 5 days before returning to feed again. At weaning the mother usually stops returning to the burrow so young need to rely on instinct for all life skills. However on at least 2 occasions young have been observed nursing out of the burrow so some behaviour may be learned. One of these observations was by our guide Tim Harris and with a photo taken by our guests:
Territories and home range and territories
Echidnas are very flexible animals and adjust their behaviour to suit current conditions. As a reflection of this home ranges can vary from 40 up to 150 hectares and their knowledge of their territory seems to be solid given they use the same features on a seasonal basis.
Echidnas core body temperature is usually lower than placentals (30 - 32C) but can fall as low as 5C in torpor situations when they take one breath every three minutes! In their respiration and metabolism they exhibit symptoms more akin to reptiles than mammals!
Despite having no external earlobes echidnas have excellent hearing and if you are lucky enough to encounter one in the wild your best chance of observing them feeding or exploring the landscape is to remain very still and quiet. Having said that they are one of the most variable animals we encounter - some are very confident and ignore quiet conversations. Others will bury themselves under a bush and will outlast the most patient observer - we have waited over 30 minutes and they still beat us! There is no habitat type we expect to see them in - they are truly one of nature's generalist. As long as they have some vegetation cover and good quality habitat with deep leaf litter they seem to be present here on Kangaroo Island and we average about one sighting every other day through the year with better observations on mild or overcast days. They are quite furtive and unless you are a careful observer you might walk right by them!
By the numbers it is pretty compelling: 268 species of birds lists representing 68 different bird families. 32% of these birds can only be found in Australia and as at July 2018 of them are recognised as a Kangaroo Island endemic subspecies. These are:
Kangaroo Island Emu (extinct)
New Holland Honeyeater
A fine-grained assessment of the vegetation would delve into detail not needed for an overview of bird habitat. To give some understanding of the land and seascapes where you are likely to find specific birds these are the broad habitat types:
Oceanic - open ocean over and beyond the continental shelf
Coastal - beaches, cliffs, salt-marsh and estuaries
Inland waters - lagoons, rivers, swamps and dams
Coastal mallee - coastal scrubs, heath and shrubland on limestone and calcareous dunes
Stringybark /mallee open scrub - woodland on the acid soils of the central plateau
Forest - river valleys and alluvial plains
Cleared or largely cleared farmland
A diversity of birdlife
The key factors in Kangaroo Island having developed and maintained a diversity of birdlife and relatively high level of endemism (found only on Kangaroo Island) are:
• A diverse geology leading to diverse soil and therefore habitat types
• Enough variation in topography to create significant changes in rainfall
• A high percentage of remnant native vegetation on public lands and private property
• Agricultural development retained a large amount of habitat as intact blocks or corridors
• A relatively low number of introduced pests, predators and weeds
• Long isolation from Australia with infrequent genetic “topping up” by glacial low sea levels
The pattern of land development has resulted in large areas of eco-tones where the “edge effect” gives plenty of foraging and shelter and, happily for birdwatchers, often makes birds easier to see than if they were deeper in the forest. Soils are relatively low in nutrients which typically drives a high plant diversity and short trees which again is good news for birdwatching - less strain on the neck! Having said all the birds which are present, there are also some anomalies - species which occur on the adjacent mainland only 16 kilometres away and for whom suitable habitat exists on the Island, yet are curiously absent. Birds such as the Red-rumped parrot, various Treecreepers and Sittelas, and the Jacky Winter are hard to explain whilst others are more obvious - no mistletoe and no mistletoe bird…
The typical target species for a birdwatching trip to Kangaroo Island is largely dependent on seasonality and your previous exposure to Australian birds. A local birder is likely to be trying to track down the endemic sub-species and try to get a read on how the Island birds vary from those with which they are familiar. For one not familiar with the birds of Australia the Island does give good access to a range of iconic species in one relatively compact space. A good target list (in no particular order) for a visit of 3-4 days might include the following:
Cape Barren Goose
Why visit Kangaroo Island?
The term “unique” gets a right thrashing in the tourism industry - everyone has the “best” this or the “biggest” that and nowhere else could possibly be as good. So it is probably best just to paint a picture using facts and let you be the judge of whether the destination merits further investigation. The avian diversity reflects the habitat types present as previously discussed - and this is largely a proxy for vegetation diversity. The plant list tops 1000 species including introduced plants and a similarly rich vertebrate diversity exists although a bit light-on in the snakes, lizards and frogs department compared to elsewhere in Australia. However the warm-blooded vertebrates certainly make up for this slippery shortfall - kangaroos, wallabies, 4 possums, bandicoots, bats, echidnas, koalas, sea-lions, fur-seals, whales (in winter and remember we are opposite), dolphins, platypus. Most of these are relatively easy to find and many locations you are able to get close enough for excellent photographs in the wild.