Saturday, November 8, 2014

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

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