Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Island, again.

After a week in south-west Western Australia looking for Rock Parrots, Western Whipbirds and Western Ground Parrots I now have one more dip to add to my list of Australian dips. I found the Rock Parrot and Whipbird but dipped on the Western Ground Parrot. As usual it is nowhere near any of the other “dip” birds I need to clean up my list. The nearest to it would be the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren in Alice Springs. Then there is the Carpentarian Grasswren in Mt Isa and beyond that to the north-east is the Red-bellied Pitta on Cape York. South down the east coast is the Pale-vented Bush-hen and out on Christmas Island is the Savanna Nightjar. The most geographically impossible of all is the Common Redpoll I missed on Macquarie Island. Ah, it is so good to have an excuse to revisit all those place.
Brown Goshawk on Christmas Island

I was now in Perth with 11 other excited birders waiting to board our flight so I could revisit Christmas Island (CI) and Cocos Keeling (CK), for the 4th time, and second time this year. I was quietly hoping I could clean up one of my outstanding dips, the Savanna Nightjar, which is sometimes seen on the island in November. It is either a regular vagrant or regular migrant to CI but it is not often seen so it is definitely not a guaranteed tick.
The group looking for birds on Christmas Island

When going on one of Richard Baxter’s trips to CI and CK there is a set pattern for the first day; meet at Perth International terminal – yes, I know, Christmas Island is part of Australia but for some reason one needs to go through customs and immigration at Perth, and then again in CI, and then again for CK, complete with filling out departure and arrival forms. You know, the little yellow forms covered in boxes to tick, “What country will you visiting?” Answer, “Australia” and coming back “What country did you spend most time in?” Answer, “Australia”. The really hard one though is “How long will you be out of Australia?” Ummmm?, well, we will be flying over international water for about 2 hours. Does that count?
North end of CI with the airstrip at top

Christmas International Airport

Settlement from the lookout. Phosphate loader in foreground and our accommodation, QV3, is at far end of the road. As Settlement is at the north end of the island it is the place many vagrants first land and are found 
On arriving at CI the hire cars are waiting for us and we pile in, drop our bags at the accommodation and head to the supermarket for breakfast and snack provisions, unload them at the accommodation, go birding for the afternoon, BBQ dinner at Flyingfish Cove beautifully catered and cooked by Lisa Preston, the trip’s CI-resident birdwatcher and travel agent, then bed. 
(By the way, if you are planning on a visit to CI and/or CK make sure to book through Lisa because she knows were all the vagrant birds are as well as all the best accommodation and food options)
Red Junglefowl

The following days all start the cars at about 0530 with pre-breakfast birding and end late, after looking for owls and nightjars, followed by dinner. By the time we line up at the Christmas Island International Airport to fly to our next International destination, Cocos Keeling, many in the group are starting to look a bit ragged, including me. On CK the days are a bit shorter because there are no owls or nightjars to chase.
Common Emerald Dove, a different species to the Pacific Emerald Dove found in eastern Australia

As we started birding we steadily ticked off the CI endemics and Joy turned up our first vagrant, an Eastern Yellow Wagtail on the golf course. That night we were down at the south end of the island at the Chinese Temple where there was a ceremony happening that included fire-walking. This was going to be interesting to watch, people actually walking over hot coals. When we arrived the fire was still being prepared and we stood around watching.
Ceremonial table with offerings at the firewalking ceremony

Preparing the fire with offerings of blessings written on paper

The temple is so far from Settlement where Lisa Preston lives there is basically no mobile reception but Richard happened to stand in the right spot, or turn the right way, or a signal bounced off a cliff somewhere, and suddenly he got a SMS – there was a Yellow Bittern in the tiny ornamental garden across the road from Lisa’s house. This was a tick for most of the group so the fire-walkers suddenly became unimportant and we were dashing for the cars. By the time we arrived at the garden it was too dark to find the bird so we arranged for a first light start the next morning. No bird and no fire-walkers. Bother.
The Yellow Bittern ran into these low plants and could not be found. The cat was sitting below one of the small purple tree/shrubs in the background

When we arrived the next morning all was quiet. Even the fat black cat lying on the wood chip mulch beside one of the ornamental shrubs looked half asleep. Joy and I looked at the cat and joked that it probably had the bittern “treed” and we peered in from a distance but couldn’t see any sign of a bittern. For about an hour our group patrolled this tiny 10 metre by 20 metre patch of vegetation but couldn’t see any birds, and the cat lay quietly in the early morning sun and occasionally looked up into the shrub. The bittern must have moved on during the night. The fat cat bolted across the road and went into a house, and I told Richard I was walking back to the accommodation.

I walked into the garden for one last look and the bittern dashed across in front of me and hid in the lowest, thickest plants. I yelled to the group but the bird had disappeared and the wait was on again until at last the bittern broke cover, raced across the road, stood for a few minutes, then dashed back into the garden and disappeared. It takes very little cover to hide a Yellow Bittern. It also adds one more saying to my list of birding truisms: If you’re looking for a rare bird and there is a fat black cat looking into a shrub, “believe the cat”.
The Yellow Bittern ran across the road, stood for a while and then flew back into one of the purple tree/shrubs

The Brown Goshawk was found quite easily and the little Glossy Swiftlets skimmed in and out of the trees wherever we looked. The Christmas Island White-eye were as cute as ever as they twittered and jumped through the foliage. The Christmas Island Hawk-owl, now the Christmas Boobook, had been hard to find in Feb but this time we found one calling at the airport and had very good views of it.
Brown Goshawk Christmas Island style

Christmas Island White-eye

Christmas Boobook

Abbott’s Boobies were nesting in the emergent trees on top of the island and Red-footed Boobies roosted in the trees lower down the slopes, and from a distance looked like white fruit hanging in the trees. Golden morph, White and Red-tailed Tropicbirds soared along the waterfront with the Brown (Common) Noddies and the Greater, Lesser and Christmas Frigatebirds.
Abbott's Booby on nest

Abbott's Booby
Golden Bosunbird (Tropicbird). It is actually a colour morph of the White-tailed Tropicbird

On one afternoon there was a feeding frenzy offshore and we watched the Boobies, Noddies and Tropicbirds diving on a ball of baitfish. The Frigatebirds patrolled above the mêlée and attacked any bird that was flying off with a fish until it dropped its prize, which was then caught in mid air by the Frigatebird. Some birds tried to escape attention by sitting on the surface and I watched as the Frigatebirds attacked these birds in the water. On a number of occasions a Frigatebird would grab a Tropicbird by the feathers on the back of its head and lift it bodily out of the water, then drop it. The Tropicbird was not lifted high but the aggression was obvious and violent.
Searching for the Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

A disappointment was the lack of vagrant swifts. In previous November trips north winds and thunder clouds over the airport would bring swifts down from Indonesia but this year the wet season was late and the island was dry and calm. We looked again and again for any sign of a swift but the best we got were a few Barn Swallows down at the cove.
Java Sparrow

Tree Sparrow

A favourite bird of mine on the island is the Australian (Nankeen) Kestrel that is found on the island. While it is the same bird as is on the mainland some are much more strongly marked and there have been some discussions held as to whether or not a Eurasian Kestrel had been found. One never has been found but it is fun to look. One day ....
Nankeen Kestrel

As we drove around looking at these beautiful birds we eventually found two Grey Wagtails, one at the plant nursery and one on the road at Drumsite but apart from the semi-regular Asian Koels that live in Silver City that was the end of the vagrants. Well, except for one; my Savanna Nightjar. We had tried the airport one night without luck and I was getting worried. Richard said we would try the golf course and so we went down at dusk and parked beside the road and started playing the call. After a while we heard an answering call and then suddenly there was a bird circling above us and about 4 torches caught it as it flew. Savanna Nightjar! Yes, my one and only tick on the island but it was the one I really wanted. 
Grey Wagtail

Well, that is, it was the only tick I wanted until Richard pointed out that if the Yellow Bittern had been a Cinnamon Bittern I would have seen 6 Bitterns in Australia, so far the maximum number possible. He has seen all six but the chances of finding a Cinnamon Bittern was very slim and it didn’t happen before we took off for CK. But today, guess what? Yes, four days ago (11/12) a Cinnamon Bittern was seen at the Dales, a place we couldn’t get to because the Red Crab migration was on and the road was closed!! Bother!! Sigh, and I thought I had cleaned up the birds on CI but now I have another dip on the island and it is one I must chase. I guess I just have to go back there next year and try again. Sigh, it’s a tough life chasing birds, but someone has to do it (smile).
Red-footed Booby

Birding on CI is, however, always a matter of quality of species, not quantity. Over the 5 days we were on the island I saw 25 species.
Christmas Island Fruitbat

Grasshopper, The staple diet for both the Goshawk and Kestrel

A clumpf (sorry for technical term) of brightly coloured moths on a street sign. 

Robber Crab with coconut. The crab has stripped the husk off and will break the inner nut with its claws to get at the flesh

Striped Albatross butterfly

All text &images © Jenny Spry

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Looks like a wonderful adventure and such a great collection of birds, not to mention the other stars, like the Robber Crab. Thank you for sharing.