Saturday, September 26, 2015

Raine Island

Our route to Raine Island going out to the south and back on the north track. Map Google Earth

All the time we were at Lockhart River we had been watching the weather. Each morning when we got up at about 0530 it was partly overcast with a wind from the south-east. As the day progressed the wind got stronger and by afternoon it was a strong south-easter. It was the time of year for the trade winds and they do blow hard but what we wanted was one of the calmer periods that do occur.
Loading our gear into the dingy at Portland Roads. Photo Barb Williams

The goal for our trip to Raine Island was to see a Herald Petrel and then any other uncommon birds that may be in this rarely visited area of pelagic water and coral isles. The Herald Petrel is a rare bird in Australia and very few people have seen one in Australian waters. Raine Island is its only Australian breeding location and at the moment there are about 20 pairs on the island so seeing one is very special to an Australian birder.
Our luggage heading for the boat

Being a born optimist I was hoping for all sorts of vagrants on the trip such as Collared Petrel, Grey-backed Tern, Polynesian Storm-Petrel, Tropical Shearwater or even a Vanuatu Petrel or Beck's Petrel. In reality I knew that seeing any of these birds would be a rare stroke of luck, and that a couple on my list were totally improbable, and one or two were even basically impossible, but still I hoped (smile).
The Eclipse. Our boat for the trip

As we arrived at the beach to board the boat we were told that the weather was too rough to bother leaving that evening and we would sail at about 0300 the next day. Our time at the island was limited and each delay shortened that time. Our conciliation for the delay was that the crew had been over to one of the prawn fishing boats that anchor at Portland Roads and had picked up a large box of fresh prawns. We had these on the top deck as the sun went down accompanied with white wine or beer, depending on one's personal preference.
Fishing boats at Portland Roads. Commercial reef fishing is done by hand line from the small boats that can be seen behind the mother ship

Portland Roads from the boat

Sunset the night we went on board

We up-anchored and headed north before any of us birders were awake and after a long rough trip we arrived at a sheltering reef, Mantis Reef, at about 1600 but it was way too rough to go the last few kilometres and check out Raine Island for our target bird. Watching huge, rolling, breakers crash onto the reef that evening it was very easy to see how any wooden ship who hit the coral reef would break up and sink very quickly.
Raine Island tower just visible from Mantis Reef

Breakers on Mantis Reef

Brokers on Mantis Reef

Tucked in behind the reef we settled down to wait for the next day. People scattered throughout the boat and some of us stayed on deck taking photos of this magic place and watching boobies and noddies flying over the reef and rolling seas break on the reef. At one point Peter came past me looking for some bird that had been called. I checked where he was looking and took some photos in that direction. Later I learnt that he had been looking for a possible Herald Petrel that Joy had seen through the cabin window. That evening I checked my photos but it seemed that I had not caught an image of the bird. Now that I am home and preparing this blog though I wanted a photo of the waves crashing on the reef. I cropped one and in the corner of the cropped image was a pale bellied brown bird flying low over the reef. I checked the next image and the bird showed up again. I had two very average images of what was probably a Herald Petrel.
The probable Herald Petrel. It can just be seen in the bottom left corner of the image above.

Raine Island is a low sand and coral island and is notable as being at a deep water channel through the reef and into the Coral Sea. In 1844 HMS Fly and HMS Bramble came to the island with a contingent of 20 convict stonemasons and labourers to build a navigation beacon on the island. The tower was constructed from rock quarried on the island and is still in excellent condition having had some restoration work done. Later on, in 1862, guano was mined on the island and this continued on and off until sometime in 1892.
The Tower on Raine Island

In the late 1950's Green Turtles were harvested from the island for sale to the Australian Market as fresh meat. This project was never successful but many turtles were sold to the company "Master Foods" and made into "Real Turtle Soup". I have a memory of a can of Turtle soup in our kitchen cupboard back in the 1950s and I wonder if that can contained soup from Raine Island turtles. Based on the Cape York map illustrated on the can label as shown in "Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, p. 368" I think there is a chance that it did.
Green Turtle on the beach

Label from the soup can from the "Memoirs of the Queensland Museum" report.

The next day was just as rough and the poor boat pounded its way across the 10 kilometres from Mantis Reef to Raine island and we spent most of the day cruising back and forward in the lee of the island and hoping. At about 1500 we came out from the lee of the island and headed into deeper water. At a depth of about 400 metres a single petrel flew across the stern of the boat and everyone started shouting, pointing and lifting binoculars. It was only a brief view but at the last moment we had a confirmed Herald Petrel that everyone had seen, and the mood in the boat lifted as we all celebrated.
The navigation screen showing our anchorage, bottom centre, and our track to  Raine Island. We finally saw the Herald Petrel approximately where the hand is on the screen.

Brown Booby

Common Noddy

Young Common Noddy

Great Frigatebird

Bridled Tern

Young Masked Booby

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

Masked Booby pair in courtship flight

From here it was a solid slog back to the west and the comparative protection of the Great Barrier Reef and the coast of Australia. We hid in calm water behind another reef for the night then the next morning made for Portland Roads. Even now though the weather and seas were bad and the cabin windows started to leak. Then the boat crashed down on the top of a wave and knocked a large section of the bow rail off. The weather was not pleasant.
Rough weather on the way back

Black-naped Terns with coast in the background

Mothership and one of the small boats for line fishing

We made Portland Roads and its protected anchorage late in the afternoon and enjoy a magnificent steak meal and wine before going to bed. We left the boat early in the morning as most of us were on that day's flight out. It had been an exciting trip and we had seen our bird and 14 other species as well. Not a large number but again, quality not quantity.
The bow of our boat where the handrail had been snapped off

Sunset on our last night. Photo Joy Tansey

Our trip was to be followed by two more, making three back-to-back trips out to Raine Island in total. When the plane that was to take us back to Cairns landed, birders who were going on the second trip filed off the plane. They of course wanted to know how we got on so we told them we had seen one bird and then told them how bad the weather had been. This of course got them all talking about their sea-sick medication regimes and many in our group were glad they no longer had to worry about such things.
Coffee at the Veranda Cafe, Lockhart River

Between arriving back at Lockhart River and boarding our plane we had had time for one more special treat. Back in early September there was an article in the Melbourne papers about the high schoolers from Lockhart River opening a cafe where they were serving espresso coffee. It had been closed when we were first there but this morning it was open and we all gathered on the Veranda for a farewell cup and a chat with other people who were enjoying the very good coffee.
Administration Building at Lockhart River Airport built in 1942

This second trip turned out to be a bit calmer than ours and they saw seven Herald Petrel. For the third trip a lull in the trade winds had arrived and the seas were calmer and the sun came out. Even with this improvement I am told they only saw one Herald Petrel. When there are so few on the island I guess this is to be expected and I know we are all very glad to have seen this uncommon bird, even if only briefly.
The departure lounge and check-in at Lockhart River

Interesting distortion by the camera of our propellor.

All images and text © Jenny Spry

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lockhart River and Iron Range

Map from the local travel brochure 

On the Monday morning after our stay at Julatten we arrived at the Cairns airport, returned our rental car and waited for the Skytrans flight to Lockhart River. This is not your normal airline because it is owned by locals to service their remote communities on Cape York and today the plane stopped at two small towns on our way north, Kowanyama and Pormpuraaw. We flew low and had excellent views of this lightly inhabited area of Australia before arriving in the middle of the day at Lockhart River (LR).
Landing at Lockhart River. Photo Barb Williams

Airport building built in 1942

Things happen slowly around LR and we learnt this when we asked how to get our rental car. It should have been at the airport, we thought, but the owner had forgotten the booking and we had to wait for about an hour while someone found him and he arrived. He was a lovely guy and very relaxed and after we had signed some forms he drove us back to where he had been working and then handed us the keys.
Joy and I walking from the airport to our accommodation which is just to the left of us. Photo Barb Williams

There is only one supermarket in town and as we checked the shelves to stock up for lunch and breakfast essentials a helpful local said "check the use by dates" and sure enough just about everything on the shelves was at or past its use-by date.
Fawn-breasted Bowerbird in Lockhart River

Fawn-breasted Bowerbird in Lockhart River

We stayed at the cabins at the airport and they are really good with all the cooking and bedding you need for a comfortable stay. The airport was built in 1942 as a US bomber base and all the cabins have been named after the B 24 Liberator bombers that were based there. We stayed in big Emma and when I went and browsed in Google I even found a photo of her.
Our cabin, Big Emma, and rental car

Big Emma and her crew. Sadly she crashed during a storm in New Guinea and all on board were killed. Photo from Google.
Bombers on the runway at Lockhart River, 1942.  Photo from Google
"The Dude" in flight. Another B 24 that has a cabin named after it at Lockhart River. The emblem on the nose is a top hat, and a pair of white gloves on a swagger stick. Photo from Google.

The joy of staying at LR is that it is in easy driving range of the Iron Range National Park as well as Portland Roads and Chilli Beach. The road condition varies with the weather but while we were there they were good with manageable corrugations and a few scattered potholes. The road passes through various habitats but the best stretch is where it is in the rainforest.
Female Eclectus Parrot in nest hole. Female is bright red and male is bright green

Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo

Northern race of the Australian Brush-turkey with a purple collar rather than the yellow one the southern birds have.

In the rainforest we came across wonderful birds such as Northern Scrub-robin, Green-backed Honeyeater, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Frill-necked Monarch and Red-cheeked Parrot, Eclectus Parrot and Black Butcherbird. We even had one of those "OMG!!" moments when we entered the forest road one evening and a Cassowary walked across the road in front of us. I have seen Cassowary down around the Cairns area but they seem sort of tame because people know where they are and they are seen regularly. This bird in Iron Range however was truly wild. With a bright blue head and neck and standing over 2 metres tall it walked across the road and we gasped in awe! It was large and brightly coloured so we believe it was a female in breeding plumage. This was one moment I will never forget.
White-faced Robin

Green-backed Honeyeater

Sadly on our first afternoon I accidently left my camera in the cabin and missed a really special events. We had been told where an Eclectus nest hole was and as were drove up we could hear the birds calling. As we watched a male flew in and called from a branch. He was soon joined by a female, then another male arrived, then another, then a second female. In the end there were two bright red females and 5 bright green males all calling and displaying around the nest hole. It was a perfect camera moment and mine was in the cabin. Cry.
Northern Scrub-robin on the rainforest floor

Trumpet Manucode high in the rainforest canopy

The elusive Red-cheeked Parrot also put on a special display for us. We had stopped beside the road as we tried and failed to find a Yellow-billed Kingfisher when I caught movement high in an emergent tree. I put my binoculars on the spot and saw a Red-cheeked Parrot. I swapped to my camera for a shot of this rarely seen bird and saw that there was a male and a female so I started taking pictures. Much to my surprise the two birds started to court and over 20 minutes I took 200 photos as the birds courted and then mated. When they finished and the male flew off followed by the female I took a deep breath and sighed as I realised what I had been privileged to see. Mating Red-cheeked Parrots in the wild! That was special.
Red-cheeked Parrots

Male feeding female in courtship before mating

At one point we met a researcher from Melbourne University and she put us onto some great reptiles and gave me a very special non-birding sighting. Ever since I was about 10 and I saw a colour drawing of a Spotted Cuscus in a book I had wanted to see one. Our new friend stopped us beside the road and pointed up into the trees and there it was. Sadly it didn't have spots but it was a Cuscus and one more childhood dream was realised. Sigh. I have seen a Cuscus; it took about 60 years but there it was!
Spotted Cuscus, sadly without spots

Green Python, Morelia viridis. A rare python of the Iron Range area.

The rest of our stay consisted of driving and birding along various roads, including the road to the local dump where we found Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds, until it was time to join the group and head for Portland Roads and our boat. My bird count was 76 but in Iron Range it is the quality of the birds, not the quantity that is spectacular.
Male Olive-backed Sunbird at Portland Roads

Female Olive-backed Sunbird at Portland Roads


Walking along the road through the rainforest

A Ulysses Butterfly. They flew very high near the top of the canopy and so were very hard to  get a photo but I just love the shape of this one.
 Bare-backed Fruit Bat

Watching the Burton's Snake-lizard

Burton's Snake-lizard, Lialis burtonis.

Giant White-tailed Uromys (Rat) ,Uromys caudimaculatus

Wood Frog

Australian Scrub Python, Morelia kinghorni.

Waiting to leave for the bus to take us to Portland Roads and the Raine Island trip