Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Island November

Location with thanks to Google Earth. Ashmore Reef can also be seen

Two of my favourite birding places are Christmas Island (CI) and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, off the west coast of Australia. As territories of Australia, birds seen on these island are on the Australian birding lists, even though they are closer to Indonesia than Australia. I guess they are our equivalents to Attu and Adak for the American ABA birders. Attu is some 700 km from the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula and Christmas Island is some 350 km from the coast of Java. The Cocos Islands are some 1,000 km from Java. Both CI and Attu are about 1500 km from their respective mainlands.
"Golden Bosunbird". The golden race of the White-tailed Tropicbird

Another similarity is that getting to the islands is controlled by the weather. Sitting at home in Melb I saw that the forecast for CI was rain, and this was not good. The top of CI is a plateau about 350 metres above sea level and in rainy weather clouds sit right on the plateau, and the airstrip. If the plane can't land it just circles and then flies on to Djakarta in Indonesia. People going to CI are recommended to take their passports or they might have to spend a night sleeping in the plane on the runway.
Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon

Red Collared Dove

Red-tailed Tropicbird

Female Christmas Island Frigatebird

As we approached CI the pilot announced that the cloud was low and landing could be impossible. He would try three times and then fly to Djakarta, he said with an apology. As it happened though, as we made our first approach the clouds lifted off the runway and we landed. The sight was spectacular because we were flying in cloud and then suddenly we were in clear sky with tall coastal cliffs and dark green jungle just below us, and a solid, dark layer of cloud just above us. Thirty minutes later, as we loaded our bags into the cars, the cloud had settled back down onto the runway and it was raining. The Birding Goddesses were looking after us (smile).
Island Thrush

Brown Goshawk race natalis. It used to be a species "Variable Goshawk" and many people say it should still be.

Common Emerald Dove

Watching for swifts

November is a good time for birding on CI because it ties in with the northern hemisphere migration season and some birds can either overshoot their normal wintering grounds or get blown off course. One draw back, however, is that November and December are the months when the Red Crabs spawn and millions of them make the annual migration from the plateau and hills of the island to the ocean. When this happens, usually when the first rains arrives, all but a few main roads on the island are closed to traffic, so the crabs don't get squashed. Crab migration is a great spectacle if you want to see the crabs migrate but a disaster if you want to look for birds. As we had arrived the day after the first rain in 2 months the roads were closed. Cry.
Red Crab migration

The fence is meant to keep the crabs off the road, but it doesn't always work

Taken in 2010. Female at beach with eggs

Female allowing waves to wash eggs free and into ocean. She has to be careful because, as a land crab, she can not swim and will be drowned if she is washed into the water. The crab in background may be in trouble.

But the birds were still there, both the endemics and the vagrants so one can't be upset. The "Golden Bosun-birds" (gold race of the White-tailed Tropicbird) soar over the cove and Settlement. Frigatebirds and Red-footed Booby roost in the trees on the escarpment and, on this trip, our first vagrant, a Red Collared Dove was waiting for us on the grass in front of some houses in town.
Christmas Island Swiftlet. Almost impossible to photograph

Abbott's Booby, found only on Christmas Island

Abbott's Booby nest only in the tops of emergent forest trees

Adult Brown Goshawk

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon

Red Junglefowl. Few, if any, pure birds left on island. This bird is close to pure with white spot on lappet and white feathers on rump

Watching birders enjoy their first visit to the island is also fun as they "oh wow!" at their first sight of a Golden Bosun, then try to sort distant frigatebirds into Christmas, Greater and Lesser. They then stand open-mouthed as they watch them drink by dragging their lower mandible through the water as they fly low over the puddles. Sorting vagrant swifts and martins from the local Christmas Island Swiftlet is also fun as they fly fast and never in a straight line. Just as they enter the binoculars or camera view finder they zig, then zag, then do a double zag and all you are left looking at is blue sky. Conversely, the Emerald Doves like nothing better than a dark roadside in the jungle from where they can skulk away into obscurity.
Java Sparrow. There used to be lots but we struggled to find them this trip

Christmas Island White-eye

Moth Swarm

On the island they are called "Swell Moths" because they arrive when the ocean swells at the island are largest

Varied Eggfly Butterfly

A Gold Orb spider, but I don't know which species.

For the first-time visitors the new birds came fast and even for me and the other repeat visitors the lure of the unexpected is always there. Standing on a road looking for swifts a sudden cry of "there! there! swift!!" got us running, but only 2 people saw it as it disappeared behind trees, never to be seen again. Later as we looked again for swifts a large raptor glided on flat wings along a ridge in the distance and down out of sight before anyone could get a photo. Another bird never seen again. Birding on CI is both exhilarating and exasperating. The number of seen but not identified birds also gets one thinking about just how many vagrants might be on the islands; there are just so many places one can't reach by car or foot, all covered in thick rainforest and precipitous escarpments.
Phosphate strip mine on the island

The supply ship "Island Trader". There is no harbour and ships need good weather to unload. The gantries are the Phosphate loading conveyors. "Settlement" and the main road. Our accommodation is at the far end.

Nodes on the mooring rope of the Island Trader

Young Frigatebird flying over coral reefs in "The Cove" near the ship loader

I ended the week with 2 new species for my list, Red Collared Dove and Red-rumped Swallow and saw a total of 30 species, which wasn't too bad for my 5th visit (smile). Some people on their first visit added over a dozen species to their lists.
"Blue Crab" feeding on a flower

Purple Crab

Robber Crab. They come in red ......

..... and in blue. Part of their diet is coconuts and they can rip the husk of a coconut and break the shell to get at the flesh. They are larger than a coconut

Hiking out to the "Blowholes"

Frigate bird drinking from a rainwater pool on one of the cleared mine sites.

All images & text © Jenny Spry


  1. Just incredible! I've never been to CI so I would've even been fascinated by the red crabs. In fact, despite being an avid birder, that spectacle would've been my number one experience.

    Those Imperial Pigeons are lovely, as are many of the northern hemisphere type birds like thrushes and doves. And that moth swarm!

    But not a fan of Abbott's booby ;-)

  2. How wonderful to see the red crab migration in person!


  3. This is really a nice post.Very nice blog. Thanks a lot.