Saturday, March 23, 2013

Christmas Island & Cocos Keeling

Christmas Island and the Cocos Keeling Islands sit in the Indian Ocean south of Indonesia, and I love going there. This was my third visit (Feb/March 2013) and I am planning on doing another visit as soon as time and finances allow.
Bechet Besar Swamp on West Island, Cocos, where the Common Teal, Japanese Sparrowhawk and Chinese Goshawk were found in Nov 2010

This time we arrived on Christmas Island just as a cyclone hit so our "week" on CI was wet and windy. Theoretically it should have been perfect for blowing in vagrants but in fact it just made birding really hard, birds don’t like to sit up and be seen when it is windy and wet. Even coast watching for pelagic vagrants was well nigh impossible because the spray covered us, and our gear, in seconds.
Storm waves hitting the cliffs where the refugeé boat was wrecked. We estimated that this spray is rising close to 30 metres high. Seas on the night of the wreck were much worse.
But birding on CI is always rewarding so out we went, walking and driving down miles of roads and tracks in sunshine, wind and rain. And it did pay off, with repeat sightings of Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipe as we drove across reclaimed mine sites, Barn Swallows were found at two locations and there was an Asian race of Striated Heron down at the Dales.
Striated Heron race javanica
We also got some interesting photos of storm waves breaking on the cliffs, and of some very small refugeé boats.
Three refugee boats rafted together in Flying Fish Cove

This small out-rigger canoe with a 30 hp outboard arrived at Christmas Island just before the cyclone hit. It had 18 men on board.

For bio-security reasons all refugee boats are towed out to see and burned.
By the end of the week the cyclone was getting close to Cocos so we tried to fly there a day early, on the Friday, but missed the flight because of a flat tyre, so we fell back on our original Saturday booking. Cocos had 500 mm of rain on the Friday and 980 over 3 days! 
Jave Finch. We saw a flock of 40 birds in Poon San

Tree Sparrows are very common on Christmas Island
We got to the CI airport on Saturday am and the bags went out to the plane - and then came back to the terminal - Cocos was closed because when the Friday flight landed and took off again water was bubbling up through the runway! Flooding on Cocos is not uncommon because it is a coral atoll and the high point is about 6 metres above high tide, but why did it happen before we got there. Really, when you know there are no vagrants on CI and there might be some on Cocos it is all very frustrating. All we could do was wait for the water to drop. The next plane was scheduled for the following Thursday - but that plane landed with a "computer fault" and needed a part from Brisbane. The part arrived on the following Saturday.
Abbott's Booby nest in the top of emergent trees on the top of Christmas Island. They need a lot of hight to get airborne so only nest on the top of the island and in the tallest trees

Abbott's Booby with its long, thin wings 
Our "week" on CI had ended up as 2 wet and windy weeks. Also, because planes were coming in and unloading passengers but not going to Cocos, accommodation on CI was over full. Folding beds were put in double rooms to make triples and four of the guys had to share the back of a house where one slept on a mattress in the bathroom, two in living room on cushions and one in the kitchen.
Red-tailed tropicbird

Brown Goshawk race natalis

Brown Goshawk race natalis
The weather was so bad that the food and fuel ships could not come in so petrol was rationed. Our allowance was $20 per car, about 9 litres, per day. Three of us who had seen it before missed the CI Hawk Owl because we were short of petrol and could not take all the cars to go looking for it.
Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon in a fruiting tree

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeons look very drab brown when seen at a distance but when the sun hits them they shine

Common Emerald Dove
An upside of the delay was we got plenty of time to look at the local birds and see many plumage and behavioral sights that are often missed on CI in the rush to find new species.
Male Great Frigatebird shine iridescent  green on its back and breast
Common Sandpiper

Young frigatebirds enjoying the blustery conditions

Frigatebirds were breaking off branches and carrying them aloft, dropping them and catching them as they fell, presumably as practice for catching falling fish robbed from other birds

We even had time to look for non-avian species
Freshwater Crayfish
Varied Eggfly Butterfly
Robber Crabs feed on the inside of fallen palm trees
Robber Crabs strip the husk off coconuts and then break open the shell with their claws. This one was moving a coconut to a more secluded location.

As the plane to Cocos had been repaired four of us decided to extend our trip so we took the Saturday plane to Cocos. The rest of the group flew back to Perth, without seeing Cocos because their two weeks of leave were used up and couldn’t be extended. We had some very disappointed campers!
Blue Crab in the process of re-growing its claws. It is one of the many land crab species

Fungus seen on the walk into the Dales

Yellow Nipper. Another land crab
Red Crab. There are literally millions of these on Christmas Island. 
As usual though, all the CI island endemics had been seen so the first time visitors went home with a nice collection of new birds. The only vagrant we found was a Black-crowned Night Heron. Sadly only two of us saw it and the views were only of the flushed bird as it flew away. We did not see it on the ground or get any photos. Cry. On Cocos I and the three other birders saw a vagrant Tiger Shrike that had been hanging around for a few weeks but that was the only birding excitement for two of us who had been there before. The other two ticked off all the island specialties and enjoyed 2 ½ days of sunshine.
Christmas Island White-eye

Island Thrush

Gold morph of the White-tailed tropicbird
The cyclone has wrecked Cocos. The community vegetable patch on Home Island was swamped by the storm surge and had about 500 mm of salt water over it. All the banana palms were flattened. Huge trees came down around the Big House and a large section of the brick wall leading into the house has been knocked over. Pens that held Columia livia doves that were being fattened for food have been flatted and the birds are flying free. It is all very sad.
Green Junglefowl on West Island Cocos
Green Junglefowl hen

Tiger Shrike, a vagrant that had been on West Island for some weeks

Nankeen Night Heron

White-breasted Waterhen and Chick. They are very common on Cocos but are very shy
I must add that the trip organizer, Richard Baxter, and local travel agent, Lisa Preston, were brilliant. Richard gave the appearance of being calm all through the troubles, even after spending 40 + minutes on his mobile phone to make sure that the people going back to Perth on the Saturday all had a seat, and Lisa spent endless hours helping to find us accommodation and new flights.

There are two Green Turtles in this photo. We saw them mating as we passed in the ferry on the way to Home Island

White Tern

But, and a very big BUT, I don’t want to leave any wrong impressions. As I said at the beginning, both Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling Islands are must see places. The scenery is spectacular, coral reefs better than the great barrier reef and the Asian cafés on CI are as good as you will find in any Asian town, and the birding is brilliant and always offers up unexpected vagrants.
Re-claimed phosphate mining area on Christmas Island

In The Dales. All the leaf litter on the island is eaten by the Red Crabs.

Limestone cliff top worn to jagged and very sharp points. The rocks at settlement where the refugee boat was wrecked are like this.

Phosphate rock waiting to trucked to the dock.
Cocos is my favourite though. It is a true tropical retreat with crystal clear water, no tourists, good food, snorkelling, swimming and solitude – all with a special mix of resident and vagrant birds. Take the family, even non-birders will love a week on Cocos, as long as they don’t want bars, night clubs and noise.
South Island, Cocos, from the air. The Saunder's Terns and many wading birds use these sand-flats as a low-tide roost

West Island lagoon at low tide. We saw many waders here, including 3 Common Redshank

The rooms at the Cocos Island Motel all look out over the Indian Ocean

Sunset over the Indian Ocean from our motel room

All images and text © Jennifer Spry