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

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