Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cocos Keeling – a tropical Indian Ocean Attu

When I was on Christmas Island preparing to fly to Cocos Keeling (CK) in February this year a Virgin plane broke down on Cocos. Another plane was flown to CI from Perth with spare parts and we queued up to get on it. Our bags went onto the plane, we went through customs and security and sat in the departure lounge – then our bags came off the plane and we were told that the flight was cancelled because of storms, and we ended up staying on Christmas Island – and the broken down Virgin plane stayed on CK.
Cocos Islands and the approx route of the pelagic trip

On this trip – a Virgin plane had broken down on Cocos and our plane was scheduled to take parts to it so I was a little nervous ... but in the end all was well and we took off on time. When we arrived on Cocos we were greeted by strong winds, just like I had had in Albany – very de-ja-vu. It was also very dry because, like CI, the wet season had not started.

Cocos International Airport with the "Cocos Club" bar at back right

The airport on Cocos is tiny and the motel is just across the road. The twelve of us dressed in varying shades of khaki, grey and brown trundled our bags across the road in a ragged line, and an image came to mind – picture the scene in the movie “The Big Year” when the birders arrive on Attu – we all looked like we had just arrived on an tropical Indian Ocean Attu.
Runway with football oval and part of the motel in the background. The golf course is on the other side of the runway, between it and the lagoon

Cocos, like Attu, is a small island at the extreme edge of the national Birding Area and is a magnet for those looking for vagrant birds, just like Attu. The accommodation is much better than the Nissan Hut on Attu but there are similarities; The Cocos Motel could be called “1950s chic”. It is clean, comfortable, right on the beachfront (what isn’t on Cocos) and has fans in the rooms that work and air conditioners that sometimes work. The economy of Cocos depends on the metrological station, the airport, the customs and navy people, birdwatchers, kite surfers who like the steady trade winds and the protected lagoon and a few tourists who just come because the place is so beautiful and remote.
Becher Besar is becoming more and more civilised. Local birder Geof has wheelbarrowed in  loads of sand and Richard has now added more chairs and a table, all recycled from the island tip.

Again we deposited our bags in our rooms and immediately went birding to check out the area around the school. A Large Hawk-cuckoo and an unidentified passerine had been seen just before we arrived. The identified Hawk-cuckoo was interesting but an unidentified passerine on Cocos was special because, apart from some CI White-eyes on Horsburgh Island, there are no resident passerines on Cocos. Any passerine seen is going to be a vagrant and a potential tick, maybe a first for Australia. We walked the length of the West Island village and back but did not see either the passerine or the Hawk-cuckoo.
Green Junglefowl

Female Green Junglefowl

Next morning we headed out to check some of the regular birding spots on West Island such as the runway and Bechet Besar Swamp where the Common Teal lives. For people who had not been on the island before the “ticking” was well under way. There is only one road on West Island, about 10 km of it, running the length of the island from the fuel tanks in the north to the “Yacht Club” and kite-surfing beach in the south. Along this road Green Junglefowl and White-breasted Waterhen are ubiquitous, they dot the road verge every few metres but dash for cover as soon as you slow the car or stop. The runway also has Green Junglefowl on it and is good for waders and this time we found a pair of Oriental Pratencole on it. In at Bechet Besar swamp the Eurasian Teal was still in residence but still very shy. A Western Reef Egret in the start of breeding plumage stalked in the shallow water and up to 60 Pacific Black Duck are seen there at high tide.
Western Reef Egret and White-breasted Waterhen at Becher Besar

Western Reef Egret showing white neck stripe

At low tide the birds move to the sand and mud flats of the lagoon at the north end of the runway and on this trip we found Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, and Grey-tailed Tattler. Resident Little Egret, Eastern Reef Egret and Great Egret were also seen regularly.
Redshanks and a Grey-tailed Tattler

That afternoon was scheduled for one of the highlights of the trip, the expedition to see the Saunder’s Terns. The Saunder’s Terns are found in small numbers, maybe 5 to 12 birds, on sandbanks in the lagoon at South Island. To see them it is necessary to get there as the tide is rising and they are forced onto one of the last sandbanks in the lagoon. This trip it meant a midday start so we arrived at the canoe beach and Ash and Kylie gave us the safety lecture and we headed off to South Island in their motorised canoes with outriggers.
Waders and a Saunder's Tern with its wings raised

After the canoe ride there was a walk through, on me, knee-deep water until we got to the sandbanks and not only found the terns but a collection of waders that include Ruddy Turnstones, Greater and Lesser Sandplovers, Red-necked Stints, Sanderlings and Grey Plover. By the time we were heading back the tide was well advanced and the water was now getting close to my waist.
South Island tidal sand flats from the air. Saunders Terns are found near the small treed islet centre bottom

West Island and South Island. Saunders Terns use sandbanks under blue writing bottom right

A short ride in the canoes takes us to our dinner location and Ash and Kylie turn on the most magnificent spread imaginable. Now, close your eyes and picture a turquoise lagoon lapping onto sparkling white sand. Palm trees arch over a rough wooden table and on it is a full array of pâtés, smoked salmon, tasty and soft cheeses, fresh bread, water crackers, chocolate cake, and beer, wine, sparkling wine and soft drinks all sitting in an esky full of ice. Now feel your self wading into the warm lagoon with your drink and sitting neck deep as you chat and dream. This is birding at its best on Cocos.
Soaking in the lagoon after the Saunder's Tern trip

Ash and Tania with a useful piece of driftwood coming home

The next day we were out on the water again, this time on the inaugural Cocos Pelagic trip. Richard had been thinking about doing the trip since 2010 when we had seen Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Bulwer’s Petrel, Jounanin’s Petrel and an unidentified storm-petrel as we came back from North Keeling Island. Because the Cocos Islands are a coral atoll on top of an old volcano there is no shelf and extremely deep water occurs within a few hundred metres of the coast. We went out about 6 nautical miles but did not have as good a trip as in 2010, but we did see Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Masked Booby’s so it seems with birds like these around it will a be pelagic well worth repeating.
The pelagic trip boat

Masked Booby

Masked Booby

Immature Red-footed Booby during a rain squall

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

Pair of Red-footed Booby

Approaching rain Squall during the pelagic trip

Perhaps because it is the island facing Java many vagrants are found in the gardens on Home Islands. At the north-east tip of the island there are the banana and vegetable gardens belonging to the Malaya islanders as well as the pens for all their pigeons, chickens and ducks. Barb, Joy and Helen found and photographed an immature pond heron here and snipe and Asian Koels were also seen.
Chinese Sparrowhawk

Chinese Sparrowhawk being harassed by White Terns

At the other end of the island is Oceania House, or as it is locally known, the Big House. It was built by the original European on the island, John Clunies Ross, who imported Malaya workers and planted all the islands with coconut trees for the copra trade. Around the house are the remains of walled ornamental gardens and mature trees and these plantings attract many vagrants. While we were there we found an immature Blue & White Flycatcher in front of the house and in a tall tree at the back of the gardens many of the group finally got a good look at the Chinese Sparrowhawk we had chased for 2 days.
Immature Blue & White Flycatcher
With the ever present possibility of a rare vagrant every bird gets just that little extra attention. The Oriental Plover, could it be a Caspian Plover? It has white on the upper wing! And then it flies and shows the underwing. No, just an Oriental. Or how about the Oriental Pratencole on the runway, could it be a Collared? Again it flies and shows that it is just an Oriental, as we first thought. There is a shearwater coming in, what is it? OK, just a Wedge-tailed, but the hunt is always on, no bird is taken for granted, even the dozens of immature Nankeen Night Herons have to be checked twice in case they are an immature vagrant night heron.

Oriental Plover

Oriental Plover

Clunies-Ross cut down most of the native trees, a species of Callophyllum, but the few remaining are huge. One we measured had a diameter at breast height (dbh) of approx. 15 metres or 45 feet.
Trunk of Callophyllum tree on West Island

The number of vagrants on the island can often provide one with a real dilemma. When the pond heron was found I was looking for the sparrowhawk near the hospital. Joy came running up with news of the pond heron but when we were about half way to it Biggles came running from the Big House to say a flycatcher had been found. We stood for some minutes not knowing which way to turn. North, for the pond heron, west for the sparrowhawk or south for the flycatcher? I felt instant panic for a few seconds, north? west? south? Aaargh! South to the flycatcher finally won out. Birding Cocos is great fun but when three mega birds are available at once, which ones do you sacrifice ....? I eventually saw the flycatcher and sparrowhawk but not the pond heron. Sigh
Eurasian Teal

West Island was searched again and again for the Large Hawk-cuckoo but it wasn’t found. We did find an Oriental Plover near the quarantine station as we drove up and down the 10 km road and another (or the same) sparrowhawk at Bechet Besar swamp. In trying to relocate the sparrowhawk Richard found the remains of a White Tern on a broken off coconut palm and I was designated to sit under a too-small camouflaged mosquito net and watch the carcass in the hope that the bird would return to it and I could get a photo, in case it wasn’t a Chinese Sparrowhawk after all. The bird did not return to its kill but I could see mosquitoes in front of my face and soon found they were not outside the net as they should be but were inside with me and were enjoying a meal.
Remains of the White Tern as seen through the mosquito netting

Bechet Besar provided another challenge for one of the group, this time Biggles. While we all sat at the south end Biggles was given the job of walking in through knee-deep mud at the north end in the hope that something interested would be flushed from the muddy verge. Nothing was and poor Biggles had to trudge back out through the mud.
Biggles striding through the knee deep mud. He said walking wasn't too bad. it was trying to turn around that was hard

While there has been a marked reduction in the number of asylum seekers reaching Australia’s Indian Ocean islands there was one interesting boat moored off Home Island while were. The story we were told is that the very large and beautifully painted boat had been stolen from its rich owner in Sri Lanka by a group of men and sailed to Cocos. We were told that the owner has been told his boat is at CK but he evidently feels it is up to the Australian Government to return it to him – the Australian Government has politely said “no way” so the boat just floats there; a shame really to see it sitting unused, it would be excellent for overnight pelagic trips, but I guess that’s not going to happen (smile).
The customs ship "Trident"

The stolen boat that was sailed from Sri Lanka

Sadly, our Virgin plane did not break down when we were due to depart and on Saturday morning the “Indian Ocean Attu” group trudged out of their rooms, wheeling their cases to the airport and we flew back to Perth. My final count for Cocos was 37 species and just one tick, the Blue and White Flycatcher.

I thought this trip might cure me of CI and CK but I am still addicted. I will need to do another trip with Richard so I can find a Cinnamon Bittern on Christmas Island, do another Cocos pelagic trip, and float again in the clear turquoise waters of the lagoon while sipping chilled wine and nibbling on pâté and smoked salmon. Sigh, it’s a tough life chasing birds, but someone has to do it (smile).
Western Reef Egret

Chinese Sparrowhawk and White Terns

White-breasted Waterhen

Nankeen Night Heron at Bechet Besar

Immature Nankeen Night Heron

White Terns on Home Island

Clouds as we left Cocos Keeling

Sunset from the plane with the Moon and Venus.

All text & images © Jenny Spry


  1. Great tales from a land far, far away, Jen. Feeling very green & working some schemes & dreams too. Keep those gorgeous pics coming. Thanks for sharing.

  2. wow, what am amazing trip! I loved the Masked Booby image - it was stunning!