Saturday, July 2, 2016

Britannia Seamount

Some trips don't go quite as smoothly as one would want. For example pelagic seabird trips are notorious for getting cancelled at the last moment by bad weather. There is no point in getting upset, bad weather can make a proposed trip anything from just too uncomfortable to see the birds to downright dangerous. It was bad weather that took sea conditions off Coolangatta from being dangerous, to downright suicidal that caused the postponement of our February 2016 pelagic trip. Cyclone Tatiana was heading right toward where we wanted to go.
Phoenix One at her dock

The Britannia Seamounts are some 200 kms east of Coolangatta in Queensland and the organisers had planned a three night trip starting on the 12th of Feb and getting back into port on the 15th. We watched the weather maps all week and at first it looked promising with storms out over New Caledonian promising steady winds from the east. Sadly, as the week went on the storms grew into two cyclonic centres and moved toward Australia with winds exceeding 65 kph off Coolangatta and stronger toward their centres. Right up to Friday morning there was a chance we would go out but by Friday afternoon, after I had flown up from Melbourne, the trip was called off. We spent Friday night on the boat and then caught the plane back to Melbourne.
Bureau weather map

The twin centres of cyclone Tatiana marked up by Rob Morris. We wanted
to go out to where the right hand corner of the mouth is.

After negotiations with the boat's owners a second booking was made for the weekend starting on the 8th of April. This time the weather goddesses smiled on us and we got out. We boarded the Phoenix One and were allocated our cabins and then went and had a very good meal at one of the dock-side restaurants. The boat left harbour late at night and by morning, when we got on deck before sunrise, we were over the south end of the seamount.
The cabin I shared

and our en suite bathroom

Course for the weekend

The main purpose of the trip was to do research on the unusual storm-petrel that has been found in the area. The organisers had the required permits and the hope was one could be captured and have blood and feather samples taken in the hope that an identification of the bird could be made. As it turned out the birds did not co-operate and none were captured but some were seen on the berley slick behind the boat.
Tahiti Petrel

Arctic Jaeger

Bridled Tern

The trip was still a major success though with more than 20 species of seabirds being seen. Included in that total was the first confirmed sighting for Australia of a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.
Ventral view of storm-petrel

Dorsal view of storm-petrel

Our track as we tried to catch one of the storm-petrels

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

Gould's Petrel

And besides the birds we also had the excitement of a rare mammal. We had lowered the tender and were attempting to canon-net a storm petrel when whales started rise near the boat. They turned out to be a pod of the very rare Cuvier's Beaked Whale and we got good views and photos of both adult and juvenile whales.
Tender with Cuvier's whale in the background

Head of Cuvier's Whale

Markings on back of whale

Whale and young

The next morning we were further north, over the Brisbane Seamount, and the birding was fairly quiet. We had hoped for more of the undescribed storm-petrels but none were in sight. Any bird approaching the boat was carefully watched as other rare birds had been reported from this region on past trips but all was quiet until Rohan suddenly called the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel and the usual panic started to make sure all on board saw it and that confirming photos were taken. It is not every day that a new bird for Australia is seen.
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Providence Petrel

Flesh-footed Shearwater

 All images & text © Jenny Spry

Monday, June 27, 2016


The trip from Boigu only takes a few hours and on the way we pass Dauan where we stopped on my last visit but this time we have not been given permission to come ashore. Each Island is controlled by a local council and they have full control on who can visit.
Dauan Island

The day is hot and calm and most people are relaxing in the cool of the air-conditioned cabin, chatting, looking at Boigu photos or reading. A large swarm of dragon flies is following the boat and the red/orange ones want to land but aren't game to. Some black and green ones do and they are easier to photograph.

Soon after lunch we arrive off Saibai and anchor. We are much closer to New Guinea now and there is constant boat traffic between the local New Guinea village and Saibai. We go ashore and Richard's first job is to make contact with the local council head and let them know we are on the island so we wander around until he returns. We don't find anything too interesting but there is a large swamp just behind town and Richard leads us to it through waist high grass. We are sure this grass is full of snakes and as we arrive beside the water we are warned not to go too close as this swamp could have crocodiles in it. What a great place to bird watch; snakes behind us, crocodiles in front and we are absorbed with hunting for rarities, not looking for something that may want to kill us. Ducks and geese are flying in to roost for the evening and in amongst them as they fly in Richard spots one that is paler. After a lot of panning with the scopes we finally find it on the water, a nice male Gargany and a tick for most of the group. It is only our first evening on Saibai and we have a mega tick, the trip is going well.
Ducks on the Saibai lagoon with Gagany in centre

Gargany with white strip on head

It is now getting dark and back at the jetty I bend over and undo the anti-snake gators and unlace my shoes in preparation for boarding the tender. I hear an outboard motor-like noise and assume the tender is coming and look up, but there is no tender. I can still hear the noise though and adjust my vision and ears ... and realise the noise is actually a huge cloud of mosquitoes humming around me. Luckily the first tender does arrive and the first of us on the jetty jump on and we head away from shore as fast as we can and soon the mosquitoes are left behind.

The second tender is not as lucky. People pile in and it heads out but then it stops. We are now back on board the Eclipse so our tender heads back to help but hey are underway again and soon join us. As they come on board they tells us that when they stopped they were still close enough to shore for the mosquitoes to reach them and they all had to swat and wave frantically to protect themselves. I have no idea how people live on Saibai at dusk, it must be by remaining indoors with the doors closed.

Next morning the hunt is on for more new birds. This time we board the tenders and motor around to the back side of the island and land on a beach. We had landed here on the last trip I was on but it is now much more overgrown. Large flocks of Rainbow Bee-eaters are flying over, migrating north to New Guinea but nothing else of note is seen.
Hundreds of Rainbow Bee-eaters were heading north while we were on Saibai

Back on board for lunch we watch as flocks of Torresian Imperial Pigeons fly across the water to New Guinea. It is possibly to tick them off in Australia and a moment later add them to our New Guinea lists. The same can be done with the Rajah Shelducks and Pied Herons.
Torresian Imperial Pigeons on their way to New Guinea

After lunch we go back and land at the jetty and walk out of town heading for the cemetery. It has new cement walls around it since I was last here, probably because sea levels are rising and it is now prone to flooding as it is right beside the mangroves and only just above a normal high tide level. Our hope is to find a Common Paradise Kingfisher. They have been reported from the island so we spread out along the edge of the mangroves and wait. Richard plays the call but there is no reply. As we gather back at the cemetery a call is heard. We check through our calls on the ipods and the bird is provisionally identified as a Little Paradise Kingfisher. It calls 3 or 4 times more from way off but we never do find it. It will remain a bird for the next trip. As we start to walk back toward the town Barb calls she has found an Owl. It is a Barking Owl right over the wall of the cemetery. Biggles does his Barking Owl call and a second bird replies and soon we have two owls watching as we head back.
Waiting for the Kingfisher to call (image Barb Williams)

Barking Owl race assimilis

Orange-flash Crow Butterfly

Next we walk out toward the town dump where on the last trip we had found some good birds. This time there is more water around and there is also a huge pile of earth that is probably for filling the sandbags that are being placed along the waterfront to protect the town from flooding. From the top of the pile we can see the swamp but there are no ducks visible. Cisticola are calling and I am hoping for a Zitting but only find Golden-headed.
Golden-headed Cisticola

The radio mast has an Osprey nest in it and as we watch it flies in with a very large piece of nest material. A new raptor is seen approaching, a Peregrine Falcon, and it lands on the tower below theOsprey.

Peregrine Falcon

The local New Guinea people have heard we are in town so have set up with all their handmade goods, hoping we will buy. And buy we do. Biggles and I buy a carved wooden dugong each and the skipper buys a large, very lifelike, carved crocodile.
New Guinea market on Saibai (image Sue Lashko)

Next morning before breakfast we get in the tenders for a bit more playing at tourists. We motor north to a gravel island that sits on the border between Australia and New Zealand. Two Osprey sit on the Island, one in Australia and the other in New Guinea. Heading back a pair of Channel-billed Cuckoos fly over heading toward New Guinea and I watch until they cross the border. I add two new birds to my growing New Guinea list.
Island on the Australian New Guinea border

Foreground Osprey is in Australia, background one is in New Guinea

Town in New Guinea that the traders on Saibai come from

New Guinea trader heading for home

Back on Board Eclipse and we up-anchor again to head for Horn Island. It has been a good trip and I saw 50 species on Boigu, 69 on Saibai and 7 in New Guinea, with two new birds for my Australian life list, the Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove and the Gargany. It was a really good trip with a great group of people and an excellent boat and crew. We could not have asked for better, except if we had also seen a Gurney's Eagle, I really wanted to see one of those.
Torresian Imperial Pigeon

Lemon-bellied Flycatcher in the Mangroves


Up a creek

It is sad to get off on Horn Island, especially as Eclipse is about to head out again with a second group to do the trip we have just done. What is worse, we heard later that they did see a Gurney's Eagle. Sigh, there is nothing else for it, I will just have to go again.
Bulk carrier seen just before we arrived back at Horn Island

All text & images © Jenny Spry 

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Before going ashore we are given instructions. Keep to the roads and paths, do not walk anywhere that might be some ones yard or garden. In the cemetery areas keep away from the graves. These are important rules as telling a garden plot from the surrounding tropical growth is sometimes difficult and the locals, while happy to have us on the island are really protective and sensitive about any encroachment that may be seen as damaging their land or sacred areas, and they have the power to ban us from the islands. We also have to make sure we have our anti-snake gaiters as snakes are evidently common and a number of locals have recently been bitten.
The Eclipse with her tenders and New Guinea in the background

Once ashore the locals are really friendly and we chat breifly and wave as we look for our first two targets, Singing Starling and Red-capped Flowerpecker. Boigu is our best chance for these species and these small islands in Torres Strait are the only places in Australian territory that they can be found. The starling comes first and is not hard as it lives in town and is seen on the powerlines. The flowerpecker is different. It is extremely small, the size of a mistletoe bird, and feeds on fruit and insects high in the trees along the edge of the mangroves.
Walking through Boigu town (photo Barb Williams)

Singing Starling

We walk down through the rubbish tip, looking for the start of the small path that will take us into the trees and suddenly all plans stop. Richard calls a small bird, a pigeon type, in the top of an exposed tree. Binoculars come up, 400mm camera lens come up and then the excited call, "Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove!!!, it's an Australian first!!" And the bird sat and posed for us, left profile, right profile, full face ... gorgeous. Then it was gone. Elation.
Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove

So, back to the flowerpecker and the group walks in to a known tree. Because I have seen one before I am left to guard the dove tree in case it or something else returns. Sometime later the group wanders out of the trees complaining about mosquitoes and no flowerpecker. Our attention then turns to walking all the tracks and paths, looking for more local birds but nothing new appears.
Spangled Drongo

Singing Starlings, adult and immature

Tawny-breasted Honeyeater

Next morning it is back to the flowerpecker tree and this time I wander in with the group and we all stand around staring at the treetops. Birds come and go, some new to the trip list, some not. But no flowerpecker, only mosquitoes. Then one arrives, high in a palm next to the fruiting tree and, thankfully, it stays there. I have seen one before but this view was special as it was out in the open, not surrounded by large leaves.
Red-capped Flowerpecker

Then it is back to the boat for a late breakfast before we load into the tenders and do our first exploration of the mangroves along the edge of the island and up one of the creeks that that wind in through them. We hope for a Gurney's Eagle as we cruise slowly along but all we see are Whistling Kites. Up one creek though our sharp eyed deck hand spots a green lizard on a branch and we have our best view of a small Emerald Tree Monitor (Monitor viridis) on a mangrove branch.
Entrance to a creek

Emerald Tree Monitor

It gets hot sitting in an open boat in the tropics

Whistling Kite

After lunch it is back to the island for the afternoon and the excitement starts again. Yesterday Biggles had an unidentified mystery bittern flush from some tea-tree type bush so we returned to the spot. This time we were lucky. The bird had returned to the spot and flushed up onto some exposed branches allowing some quick shots before it disappeared. It took some time with the field guides but it was finally identified as the uncommon cinnamon morph of the Black Bittern.

Cinnamon Morph Black Bittern

Black Bittern

On our final day we are back in the tenders looking for more birds down the creeks that line the edge of the island. We do not see any new birds but while up one creek we look up, birders instinct I guess, and overhead is the weirdest plane anyone has ever seen, and it is being re-fueled in flight. 400mm lenses point up and a new "bird" is added to our list. Back in Melbourne it is identified for us as a B-2, an American stealth bomber, arguably the rarest "bird" we saw on the trip (smile).
Red-headed Myzomela race infuscata

Scanning for birds

B-2 bomber being re-fuelled over Boigu

There are some large trees on the island

We motor down to the largest creek on Boigu that actually bisects the island making Boigu actually two islands. We don't see any new birds but it is an interesting trip and we finally emerge on the other side of the island. Eclipse has moved closer to the river while we have been on board and we join her for the trip on to Saibai.

Navigating up a creek on Boigu
Torresian Crow race orru
Rajah Shelduck
The barge at the Boigu wharf

All images & text © Jenny Spry