Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dowitcher Twitching at Tutchewop

After getting back from Ashmore I was hoping for a quiet week to settle down and get ready to go to Christmas Island next Monday. The birding godessess had other ideas though, a Dowitcher, probably Long-billed, appeared at Lake Tutchewop, up near Kerang. 
Melbourne to Tutchewop in n-w Victoria

News of "a Dowitcher" hit the Facebook twitchers group at about 1100 on Monday. By 1400 it had been confirmed as either a Short-billed or Long-billed. There have been 3 Short-billed seen in Aus but no Long-billed so both would be a new bird for me. Both these birds breed in the tundra of North America and right now should be wintering somewhere in Central America, although some Long-billed Dowitcher have been found in Bali, Brunei and Thailand. Where this bird is even more impressive is, it has somehow arrived here still in full breeding plumage when it should have been well into its winter moult.
Lake Tutchewop with a car just visible on the irrigation channel track

Long-billed Dowitcher with Curlew Sandpiper, Red-capped Plover and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Long-toed Dowitcher

By 1600 I had arranged to go up with friends and we left my place at 0430 yesterday, Tuesday. After a frantic four-hour drive filled with the excitement of seeing such a rare bird and the fear it had already left we arrived at the lake.
In flight

Of course the sighting had to be filled with stress. We arrived at the north end of the lake where it had been seen the day before and joined a few people gazing at a few common waders – not a Dowitcher in sight!! Then a phone call from the south end of the lake, the bird had been found – a mad dash along the dirt track on top of an irrigation channel BUT, the bird had flown, we "should have been there 10 minutes ago", that age old curse. A nervous group of birders, now about 14 people, huddled around scopes for half an hour in the cold morning wind looking at where the bird had been seen and willing it to emerge from behind a pelican or stilt. Another phone call! The bird is at the north end! A convoy of 6 cars dash wildly back along the irrigation channel and stop, people fall out of cars and creep toward a small group peering into scopes. There it is, a sigh of relief from all and lots of relieved laughter. If it is confirmed as a Long-billed it will be a first for Australia. Quite the mega-twitch.
The cars. The one with the green P is just heading out for the 17 hour drive back to Sydney

To finish the day off we pulled into a small dust track beside a billabong at Kerang and there we found a small family of Grey-crowned Babblers, a bird not often seen in Victoria and rarely anywhere near Kerang, a real surprise.
Grey-crowned Babbler

As of Wednesday morning the birding services are running hot. Confirmation is now nearly 100% for Long-billed Dowitcher, a first for Australia and new Australian bird 777 for me. The sad end to this tale though is, as of 1430 today, Wednesday the 30 or so people at the lake can't find the bird and there are lots of long faces.

A green beetle that distracted me during the twitch

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ashmore Reef, October: Part 2

West Island, Ashmore Reef

Pulling into the anchorage at Ashmore Reef on the third afternoon we were greeted by Brown Booby's and Bridled Terns on the mooring buoy, and then by the customs officers. The customs officers arrive in their high powered tender from their even more high-powered ship and check that all our permits are in order. One of our group commented on their ship and asked how fast it could go, 30 knots? The customs guy just smiled and said "oh, she's fast enough", no secret information from these guys.

The Customs ship at Ashmore

As we approached Ashmore from the south west we were buzzed by the customs patrol

Once the formalities are completed we are off to West Island for our first vagrant hunt. There are plenty of waders such as Pacific Golden Plover, Sand Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, and our first specialty, a Grey Wagtail. Once off the beach we find our next specialty, an Arctic Warbler. This one bird then became five as we wandered the island on our second day and that is when the fun of an Ashmore trip starts. Are they all Arctic or could any of them be Kamchatka? Each night photos are loaded onto laptops and the field guides come out ..... and the discussions go on for hours. Phyolloscopus warblers are the ultimate id challenge because the variations between them are so small and subtle, the width of a wingbar, the length of the superciliary stripe, the amount of primary projection ..... hours and hours of fun (smile). The expected birds like Island Monarch and Oriental Reed Warbler were missing but we did have Oriental Cuckoos, a stray Peregrine Falcon of the Asian race and some Eastern Yellow Wagtails.
Grey Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

Oriental Cuckoo

The joy of visiting East Island is that it is the nesting place of literally thousands and thousands of frigatebirds, noddies, terns and boobies. The adults rise in clouds over the island and the young birds scream and yell for food as their parents return from fishing. 

Arctic Warbler

Arctic Warbler

The three days back to Broome can get a bit quiet for birding as the boat crosses shallow coastal waters but it is often a good time for whales and sea snakes. There is a break in the trip though at the Lacepede's, the low islands and shoals about 25 km off the coast just north of Broome. The Lascepede's are another major breeding location for terns, boobies and noddies as well as final chance to find a vagrant before the boat gets back to Broome and we again unload into the tinnies and head for shore, which is a little easier as we no longer have a week's supply of wine and beer with us.
East Island with young Masked Booby in foreground

Juvenile Masked Booby

Frigatebirds and terns over East Island

Brown Boobies on East Island
Indonesian fishing boats at a "fish attracting device" (FAD)

A FAD with boobies. Small fish are attracted to the shade and bigger fish come in to feed on them

This fish was caught near a FAD but was thrown back. One caught later was  turned into delicious sashimi

Tuna, either hunting or being hunted

The final joy of the trip, for me anyway, is to go back to the Roey for the night and to stand under a hot shower with soap, shampoo and conditioner and thoroughly remove a week's accumulation of salt and sun cream. Yes, the boat has showers and we do use them but the Roey has an endless supply of hot water and one does not need to consider rationing the desalinated water on the boat.
We passed a few small pods of whales on our way back to Broome

Birding around Broome before and after the trip I saw 75 species without actually chasing anything except for a Little Ringed Plover. On the boat travelling between Broome and Ashmore I saw 26 pelagic species including Tahiti Petrel, Streaked Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Bulwer's Petrel, Jouanin's Petrel, Swinhoe's Storm Petrel, Matsudaira's Storm Petrel, Wilson's Storm Petrel, Abbott's Booby and Masked Booby. On the Ashmore Islands I had 59 species including Arctic Warbler, Grey Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Peregrine Falcon, Oriental Cuckoo, Horsfield's Cuckoo, Common Redshank, Asian Dowitcher and Oriental Plover.
Sea snake trying to swallow a large fish

Sea snakes were quite common, especially in the more shallow waters between Ashmore and the Lacepede's

It was a brilliant trip but I think I am getting old, it has taken me over a week to recuperate ... or maybe I shouldn't have got up at 6 am on the last day, birded all day, got on the Broome-Perth-Melbourne flight at 7 pm, flown non-stop through the night and landed in Melb at 6 am. When I booked the flight it seemed like a good idea because I was saving a night's accommodation.
This Barn Swallow spent the night on board, sleeping on a bar beneath the deck canopy

Returning from the Lacepede's. Green Turtle tracks can be seen in the sand. They nest on both the Lacepede's and Ashmore.

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Ashmore Reef, October: Part 1

Ashmore Reef is a small cluster of sand banks about 150 km south of West Timor, 850 km west of Darwin and 650 km north of Broome. It is made up of West Island, the largest island with some large bushes around the perimeter and two Coconut Palms; Middle Island and West Island, both of which have some low vegetation of grass and woody herbs; and then a few sand bars that barely get above high tide mark.
Trip Map – with thanks to Google Earth

The islands and the surrounding waters are a protected Nature Reserve and access requires a number of permits. The only inhabitants are the residents of three or four small graves of Indonesian fishermen, under the Coconut Palm on West Island, and the crew of the Australian Customs and Border Patrol ships that are moored there permanently, on watch for any "illegal immigrants" who attempt to enter Australia by boat from Indonesia.
Being rescued on our way to see the Little Ringed Plover

Australian birders have been visiting the islands for many years, normally aboard the 20 metre Flying Fish V, and due to the wonderful work of the trip organisers we usually have all the permits, even one to land on the restricted East Island. The attraction is that birds migrating to Australia from Indonesia, or those that are lost or are just touring vagrants often land on the islands for a rest
Little Ringed Plover through the heat haze

Little Curlew

An Ashmore trip is exciting from beginning to end. First you need to plan how to get to Broome. There are one or two direct flights and many more that get you there via places you weren't planning to go to, like Perth or Darwin.

Grey Falcon, a very rare raptor and even more rare in the Broome area

Once you arrive you have a choice of up-market motel-come-resort or .... you can stay at the Roey! The Roey, The Roebuck Bay Hotel, goes back to the early years of last century and whilst it has been modernised it still has that outback, 1950s, country pub feel, and it is the cheapest.
Wilson's Storm Petrel

Matsudaira's Storm Petrel

Then the trip starts. There is one long jetty in town BUT the tides are massive, up to 10 or 12 metres, and there is very little fun in climbing 10 metres down a slippery steel ladder come stairway, with luggage, and then trying to step onto a small boat. The jetty is pretty much reserved for commercial shipping anyway and there is a charge to use it, which the tour boat operators don't want to pay. So we get the pleasure of wading out to Flying Fish Five's (FFV) tinny with all our gear, then riding for five or so minutes out to the FFV where she waits at anchor.
Swinhoe's Storm Petrel

FFV is about 20 metres long and you get a choice of accommodation, if you are first on board. You either get to share an air conditioned cabin below, or, you get a wind cooled bunk on deck and share with everyone until they go to bed. I grabbed a bunk on deck because when I go to sleep I sleep, you could drive a truck past me and I wouldn't know, and because on deck when you wake in the middle of the night the stars are right there, so close and bright, especially when it is new moon as it was for us.
Flesh-footed Shearwater

Once under way the trip to Ashmore gets, for me, even better. It is a three day pelagic trip from Broome to the islands!! How good is that!! Three days of storm-petrels, petrels, shearwaters and boobies!! For a pelagic-tragic it rarely gets better. The excitement starts immediately and by the time the sun sets we have ticked off Swinhoe's Storm Petrel as well as some of the more common birds like 70 +/- Streaked Shearwater and 30 +/- Wilson's Storm Petrel.
Abbott's Booby

Masked Booby

Brown Booby

Not everyone enjoys sea trips as much as me though and some conversations each morning were hilarious, for me, because I rarely suffer from seasickness. People would come up on deck, wish each other good morning and then ask "what did you take?" Replies were assorted and quickly commented on "I had a blue and a red"; "A red? huh! reds are just placebos, what you need is a purple, take a purple, here have one of mine"; "no, blue and red work great, and if I need a bit more I have a pink". "No, purples are the only ones, here, have one, what about a patch? Are you wearing a patch?" "Yeah, look" .... and so the conversation about seasick pills went, every morning.
Flying Fish don't "fly", they glide on long fins. They get propulsion by lowering the tip of the tail fin into the water and wiggling it really fast

..... and when they get frantic they can really move fast.

Day two continued in the same vein as day one with Tahiti Petrel, Bulwer's Petrel and all the rest, capped by a very special arrival, an Abbott's Booby. Abbott's Boobies live and breed in only one place in the world, on Christmas Island, and that is about 1,000 km to our west! It is only recently, thanks to these annual Ashmore trips, that people have realised how far they travel to feed.
Sunset over a calm sea

Day three on this trip turned up another surprise. We woke to a truly glassy sea and a wind of 5 knots or less and there, floating on the water were vast rafts of Swinhoe's Storm Petrels. We counted nearly 500 birds across the various rafts and smattered amongst them were our first Matsudaira's Storm Petrels and a few Wilson's-type Storm Petrel.
I didn't know it at the time but there were newsworthy sunspots occurring while we were away, and here they are,

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Monday, November 3, 2014

White-headed Stilt at the WTP

With spring in the air the White-headed stilts at the WTP are feeling frisky in the cool of the morning. I don't know if this was a pair doing a courtship display or two males expressing their macho feelings but whichever the display was very elegant.

To begin, the two birds came shoulder to shoulder and strutted for about 5 metres with the black feathers on their necks held erect ...

one bird then turned away and the second bird followed and a short, synchronised flight followed ...

staying close they flew a few metres ....

and landed close together just a metre or so from where they took off ...

they then turned their backs on each other and did a wonderful synchronised jump and wing display ...

followed by more more prancing ... 

and close flight ....

that finished in one last jump-and-follow routine before the birds separated and returned to feeding.
The whole display lasted about 1 minute.

All text & images © Jenny Spry