Friday, 30 December 2016

Ashmore Reef 04 -- East Island and Splittberger Cay

East Island and Splittberger Cay 

These were our middle-of-the-day destinations on our second day at Ashmore Reef.

Here is the view from the boat at 4.30am.

Both tenders, The Pig and The Blue Boat, were capable of getting up on the [aqua]plane. It took 15 minutes to plane over across the shallow reef to our destination.

A link to a video of our trip across to East Island is here.

East Island is just a sand atoll and at midday, with no clouds in the sky, the solar reflection gets the temp up to 50*C. At least. It is roughly circular and about 300 metres across. There is virtually no vegetation, just a couple of small dead trees that Red-footed Boobies were nesting in. Lesser Frigatebirds had made it their nesting central. As we approached we could see the ascending cloud of thermal-grabbers. Terns and Frigatebirds spiralling so high they were out of sight.

juvenile Lesser Frigatebirds Frigata ariel

We tied the tenders together and quietly tootled across to Splittgerber Cay which was about 5-600 metres away. We couldn’t get there too early as it is totally submerged at highest of tides but becomes an epic shorebirds roost when exposed. We quietly alighted, got all the scopes and cameras ready then, as a group, very slowly and silently moved over the top of the cay to witness more than 4,000 shorebirds roosting on the water’s edge no more than 20 metres to the closest birds. It was epic. 
There was no panic, human or avian, and the birds continued on nonchalantly as we observed them, discovered species we hadn’t seen before and counted them. The asian form of Gull-billed Tern, Asian Dowitcher, Terek Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and a single Marsh Sandpiper were the highlights. 

Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus

On our way back to the mother ship, we were followed by Sooty Terns and Brown Boobies whose white chests and bellies were green from the reflected light of the shallow water of the reef.

Brown Booby
Sooty Tern

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Ashmore Reef 03 -- West Island

The routine for each of the four mornings we were there was ...
  • Awake at 4.30 for light breakfast for a 5am visit to West Island
  • Two circuits of the island
  • An 8.30-9am return to the mother ship for a proper breakfast - continental on odd days and cooked on even days
  • After morning tea, we went to one of the other islands. East Island and Splittgerber Cay on the second day and Middle Island and Horshoe Cay on the third day. The fourth day was free time in the middle of the day and we left after breakfast on the fifth
  • On each day we revisited West Island again in the later afternoon for another two circuits. It was busy schedule.

West Island

This is the largest of the Ashmore Islands. Although oval-shaped, it is about 800 metres long and about 300 metres at the widest. There is one small patch and one larger patch of kikuyu-like grass, the centre of the island is a bare-ish patch and the rest is covered by low scrub to about a metre high. The western end has a "herb garden" of approx. 200 x 400 metres which, after a normal wet year, would be 6" tall. There is a ring of taller vegetation around the entire edge ranging from 3 - 8 metres tall. Some are big shrubs and some are almost like tangled trees. Ashmore Reef has been in a drought for over three years hence most of the ring of shrubs/trees was looking pretty sick with few brown leaves [dead?]. This made finding the passerines easy as. The second last palm tree had died and most of the vegetation was looking pretty ordinary. Where there had been fields of herbs and plants, there was nothing, just some dried out stems. And fire-ants were present. An eradication program had been underfunded and the ants not eliminated. We found some. One Red-tailed Tropicbird on a nest was being harassed by the ants. You could see the effect on her/him with continual blinking and head shaking.

One feature of West Island this year was the presence of Sooty, Bridled and Crested Terns plus the multitudes of Noddys. Rohan Clarke and Mike Carter have been to Ashmore many times. Rohan estimated he had been on West Island more than one hundred times! In all of those visits, not one tern had ever been seen on West Island so the entire birdscape and noise level was different to any visit previously.

Each morning's walk started from the eastern end of the island.
Here is the dead palm tree.
Part way along the northern edge is the hand pump. It works fine.
Water tastes good.
The map at the bottom shows Joe Public where he can go without a permit!
Here is the kikuyu-like grass patch. Each day we beat our way through it
to flush any small passerine that could be hiding in there. No such luck. 
The smaller patch.
It is hard to see the size but this is an example of the 3-8 metre high
scrub around the edge. I think there may be a bird in there!
More edge vegetation. Not many leaves.
New birds for me were ...
Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Island Monarch
Sooty Tern
Rose-crowned Fruit-dove
Edible-nest Swiflet
Arafura Fantail
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis
Island Monarch Monarcha cinerescens
"Swarm" of Sooty Terns Onchyoprion fuscata
Rose-crowned Fruit-dove
Ptilinopus regina xanthogaster
This is one of the 'Grey-capped' group of
Rose-crowned Fruit-doves!!
Edible-nest Swiflet Aerodramus fuciphagus
Arafura Fantail Rhipidura dryas
Other birds included ...
Buff-banded Rail
Great Frigatebird
Crested Tern
Oriental Plover
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Black Bittern
Rainbow Bee-eater
Horsefield's Bronze-cuckoo

Great Frigatebird Frigate minor amongst a swarm of Sooty Terns Onychoprion fuscata
Crested Tern Thalasseus bergii
Buff-banded Rail Gallirallus philipensis
Oriental Plover  Charadrius veredus
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata
Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis
Rainbow Bee-eater Merops ornatus
Horsefield's Bronze-cuckoo Chalcites basalis

Monday, 26 December 2016

Ashmore Reef 02

Once border formalities and lunch had been completed, we hit the boats and landed on West Island, the biggest of the three islands. It was about 2 in the afternoon and a touch hot [to say the least]. I had my camelback full of iced water with a touch of raspberry cordial. I also had a scope and a phone and a camera. Grunt.

Essentially, the idea was that we circumnavigate the island checking in each and every single tree/large bush which grew along the beach edge around the whole island. Twice. The idea was to make sure that any passerines were spotted.

You just couldn't miss some birds because

  1. There were loads of them [Common Noddy - 800, Brown Noddy - 900], or 
  2. They were creating a din [Sooty Tern - 24,000 {yes, twenty-four thousand, admittedly an estimation}], or 
  3. They flew past in your face [Red-footed Booby; Brown Booby, Lesser Frigatebird, Great Frigatebird, Red-tailed Tropicbird, White-tailed Tropicbird], or 
  4. They were roosting or on open ground [Crested Tern, Bridled Tern, Lesser Noddy, Oriental Plover], or
  5. They were shorebirds out in the open on the beach [Great Egret, Little Egret, Eastern Reef Egret, Nankeen Night-heron, Buff-banded Rail, Pacific Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-necked Stint, Common Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Greater Sand Plover].
Others included a Little Curlew, a Horsefield's Bronze-cuckoo, three Sacred Kingfishers, one Rainbow Bee-eater, one Island Monarch and three Eurasian Tree-sparrows. The Tree Sparrows have been there for a few years now. Always three. Perhaps the same gender as there is no population increase!

So, not a bad effort. Eleven lifers in one circuit!

One unexpected feature of all three Ashmore Reef islands was the fact that they were Green Turtle nesting grounds. Hence the fresh trails of heaving turtles, female of course. More on that in another post.

By the time we had had enough, the sun was setting, the tide had gone right out and we had a 1,000 metre walk back to the edge of the sandflats where the tenders took us the last 100 metres to the Reef Prince!

The setting sun silhouettes Sooty Terns.
Walking out from West Island towards dinner.
180* panorama with West Island on the left and the Reef Prince on the right.
West Island, Ashmore Reef
It was a magic way to end a magic day.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Ashmore Reef 01

Each year George Swann [Kimberley Bird Watching] runs the annual pelagic trip to Ashmore Reef from Broome in October/November. This year we left Broome on Wednesday 02 November and returned via Browse Island on Thursday 10 November. George, Rohan Clarke and Mike Carter were the guides. Rohan placed a post on the Australian Twitchers Facebook page way back in March-ish and I booked straight away. This gave me time to do a few mainland pelagic voyages [Kiama and Port Fairy] to see how I got on seasickness-wise and, perhaps, tailor a dose of anti-seasickness medication for me. Reports on those trips are here and here.

The car journey to Broome and return will be blogged later. I arrived in Broome on the Saturday prior to embarkation and stayed at the Broome Bird Observatory managed by Nigel Jackett and his wife Jaimie. Neither was present with Jaimie being in Sydney and Nigel returning from there and immediately going on the Champagne Division of the National Twitchathon the next day, Sunday, which meant a 3am start to drive to their nominated starting point at 5am, twelve hours of twitch ending at 5pm at Derby and a two hour drive back to Broome. Man. His team, the Roebuck Ruffians, won their division. Well done Nigel.

On Sunday, Cathy Mahoney arrived via the weekly direct flight from Melbourne. She lives near Sale and is a relatively new birder, a member of Birdlife Australia and a keen participant on the Monday outings of the BA East Gippsland branch. She had booked her place on the cruise entirely independently to me.

The pelagic was on board the Reef Prince, chartered from Kimberley Expeditions. It is a 38metre catamaran. Each of the 14 passengers had a room and en-suite to themselves. The crew of 6 included a chef with in his industrial strength kitchen and a purser.

MV Reef Prince
Right from the word go it was exciting as we boarded via the Reef Prince's tender, the Pig, being picked up off the beach, dodging the waves, luggage and all. A fishing charter was doing the same thing but their method of embarkation involved dry feet.

That is the way to have dry feet.
Soon it was "anchors away" and steaming [a Captain's term] at full cruising speed north towards Ashmore Reef. It took 2 and a bit days to get there. We initially headed northwest reaching pelagic water [essentially the open sea with a depth greater than about 200metres]. This is where true pelagic birds live. At one stage we had 1,400 metres of sea below us. One lady came on the trip to see one bird, Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel, which migrates from breeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean south of Japan to the northern Indian Ocean. We didn't see one.

The drill for the trip was to occupy the chairs on the foredeck and spend the entire time [bar meals and breaks] from dawn [5am] to dusk [6pm] searching the oceans for anything.

We saw flying fish, dolphins, whales, boys, terns, boobies, storm-petrels although it was a quiet voyage so the regulars said. I became a tad unwell on the afternoon of Day 01 so missed several species of birds that would have been life ticks. Day 02 was good and we arrived on Day 03, about noon. Birds I took photos of included ...

Brown Booby
Here are some Brown Boobys aboard a FAD
 -- Fish Attracting Device -- essentially a buoy which fish
congregate at. You need a permit to fish at these devices,
unless you are a native Indonesian. I think you can only
fish with a single line.
Sooty Tern
Eventually we were able to see the "lens" above Ashmore Reef. This is a pale, sky-blue, colour in the clouds above the reef which is a reflection of the sun from the shallow water and sand.

As we got closer, we could make out the single palm tree on West Island, then the second dead palm tree trunk, then the Australian Border Force vessel and three fishing boats anchored in the lagoon. We slowly entered the lagoon, tied up at a very large buoy, the ABF vessel came over, they checked out the paperwork, and we were free to go. As a member of the public, you are allowed to enter the lagoon, land on west Island and collect water but that is all. The rest of the area is accessible by permit only, which had been arranged for our party.

Ashmore Reef is about 600km north of Broome and less than 200km south of Indonesia slightly north of the latitude of Darwin. The proximity to Indonesia means any decent low pressure trough blows bird to Ashmore Reef and hence can be added to your Australian Bird List.

We visited Browse Island on the way back.
Browse is part of WA and hence a bird seen there
can go on your WA list!
This shows the prohibited access area where our permits
allowed us to go. We were anchored in the lagoon just to
the east of West Island. The two islets are high enough
to be out of water at all times barring a cyclone.