Monday, 7 April 2014


West Island, Ashmore Reef
I recently visited Ashmore Reef aboard the luxury catamaran Reef Prince.  It was an 8 day cruise leaving from Broome on Wednesday 26 March 2014.  There were 29 of us on the boat:  16 birders (plus two students and two world travellers) led by George Swann, Adrian Boyle and Mike Carter, in addition to the captain and five crew.

Trips to Ashmore Reef have normally been in spring when birders hope to see Matsudaira's, Swinhoe's and even Leach's Storm-Petrels.  This inaugural autumn trip was aimed at rare passerines.

A bus picked up all the participants from their various lodgings in Broome (nearly forgetting one hapless fellow, who was sitting patiently waiting when we belatedly returned for him!).  We were delivered to the beach and expected to wade out to a dingy.  In the surf a helpful assistant intercepted my slow progress to hand me a name tag.  How very thoughtful.  I didn't swear at her.  Instead I clambered aboard the dingy.  No one said I had to be elegant.

The Reef Prince was a beautiful boat and I had a very comfortable room.  We had early starts every morning and everyone retired to bed directly the evening meal was over.  I found a DVD about the identification of storm-petrels and lay on my bed watching it happily.

The first day was characterised by Hutton's Shearwaters in the morning and Streaked in the afternoon.  We saw Common Bottlenose and Swarf Spinner Dolphins, one large manta ray, several sea snakes and lots of pretty flying fish irrupting from under the catamaran like water from a fountain.  I believe I identified six different species of flying fish.

At breakfast on the second day I suggested that this might be the best day of the trip.  We would be travelling all day.  I would not have to get into a small boat.  And there was a good chance of a lifer:  Bulwer's Petrel.  Sure enough, I was on deck at 5.40 a.m. and was greeted by a Bulwer's sitting on the water in front of the boat.

We were to see a total of 68 Bulwer's that day, and a couple of hundred Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.  We were to see Bridled, Sooty and Crested Terns just about every day of the trip.  The birds we saw most were Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns, followed by Lesser Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies.

Early that morning, an inquisitive Abbott's Booby flew over the boat for a close look, and, later in the day, we were buzzed by a customs plane.

We saw our only Short-finned Pilot Whales that day too.  It was very hot, so I sat in the shade at the back of the boat and chatted with Biggles, who had recently been guiding Pearl Jordan (the woman assuming Phoebe Snetsinger's number one world birding spot).  Biggles, a renowned Darwin birder, told me that he had seen 799 Australian birds.

The next morning we saw what we assumed to be an illegal Indonesian fishing vessel.  We also saw a drum in the water called a FAD - a fishing aggravation device.  How it worked I do not know.

We arrived at West Island in Ashmore Reef at lunchtime on day 3.  At about 5 hectares, West Island is the largest of the three islands.  Ashmore Reef is uninhabited but because of assylum seekers, there is a very visible Navy presence.

I struggled onto a dingy and (with the help of fellow passengers) managed to get off at the other end.  While I was wading ashore, I lost the soles off both my Tivas, so it was barefoot for me thereafter.

Walking around the island was hot and difficult.  The beach is a minefield of turtle holes and, off the beach, vines trip your every step.  West Island has two prominent coconut palms.  Large bushes are dotted around the edge of the island and the rest of the land is covered with grasses, shrubs, vines and bushes with various degrees of penetrability.  One patch of spinifex was particularly impenetrable, so of course, a line of brave birders walked through it several times, while the rest of us watched to see what they'd flush.  Nothing.  While walking across the island we'd often flush Buff-banded Rail and once Biggles set up a small snipe.

We examined every bush carefully looking for any small bird.  Each time we visited West Island, we saw different birdlife.  The predominant bird on that first occasion was the Sacred Kingfisher - we saw about sixty.  We also saw Eurasian Tree Sparrows, a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, an Oriental Cuckoo and an Oriental Reed Warbler.  There were several Red-tailed Tropicbird nests with chicks at different stages of development.  I was hot and irritable and tick-less.

We visited West Island three more times.  There were always Reef Egrets on the beach.  I reckoned the ratio of white to dark morph was about five to one.  We saw lots of waders, mainly Greater Sand Plovers, Whimbrels, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings.  We saw one White-winged Triller, a couple of Barn Swallows, one Oriental Dollarbird, one Rainbow Bee-eater and several more cuckoos.

The only heart-pumpingly rare passerine was quite an anti-climax as it was identified days after it was seen.  John Weigel and Biggles found a warbler which they thought was something other than an Arctic Warbler.  As an Arctic Warbler can only be identified conclusively by its song, we all surrounded the poor little bird, willing it to sing.  It did not.  Photos were taken.  Everyone saw the bird fly and a few of us saw it perched.  It looked like an Arctic Warbler to me, but what would I know?  After much debate and deliberation, the experts decided it was a Yellow-browed Warbler.  Yippee!  Another tick.

After our early visit (5.30 a.m.) to West Island on day 4, we set off again to circumnavigate Middle Island.  At 2 hectares, this is the smallest of the three islands and it is deemed too sensitive for us to land there.  This is fine by me.  I'm quite happy not having to get out of the dingy.

Middle Island was populated maily by Brown Noddies, followed by Lesser Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies.  There were also about thirty Red-footed Boobies and half a dozen Masked Boobies.

Everyone (except me) clambered ashore on a nearby sand cay, which was well populated with waders.  I stayed on the dingy in the shade with my water bottle, watching my hot thirsty comrades looking at the waders I could see from my shady seat.

On the way back to the Reef Prince we saw a large tiger shark in the shallows.

On day 5 we visited West Island twice - very early as usual and again in the afternoon.  We found lots of tiny baby turtles, dead on the sand.  We were told that this was due to the invasive fire ants.  They bite the baby turtles which are then disorientated and head inland instead of out to sea.

Late that morning we visited East Island, half the size of West Island at 2.5 hectares.  This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip.  It is home to squillions of noddies:  35,000 Brown, 2,500 Black and just 10-20 Lesser.  Many people were excited to see Lesser Noddies, the most difficult of our noddies to tick.

Brown Boobies were sitting on eggs, usually one or two.  The Sooty Terns were (as always) very vocal.  Luckily they were not yet breeding.  George told me that their behaviour is well synchronised and when they're breeding they fly in the air and intimidate intruders.  This is called the dreads and I'm pleased I wasn't sujected to it.

On a nearby sand bar we admired thousands of waders - mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Greater Sand Plovers and Great Knots, but including several Asian Dowitchers in breeding plumage.  Spectacular!

Everyone was exhausted, compounded by the heat, the early starts but, mostly, the lack of rarities.

We set sail back to Broome at 9 a.m. on day 6.  A Red-necked Phalarope created great excitement landing on the water beside the boat and swimming in circles for us.  I confess I was much more excited by a Jouanin's Petrel that flew past, obligingly giving everyone a good look.  My third tick for the trip and a good one too.  What's more, it was Biggles' 800th bird.  Well done, Biggles!

Day 7 was an uneventful day at sea. 

We paused at the Lacepedes on day 8 and were disheartened to see so many Silver Gulls.  The Lacepedes are a very special place - lots of waders and turtles, but it was difficult for them to compete with the magnificent East Island we'd experienced two days before.

The only other bird we saw was a few Lesser Crested Terns flying past as we neared our mooring at Broome.

The fiasco of disembarking was worse than getting onto the boat a week before.  Of course it was a wet landing.  We were expeced to carry our own luggage onto the dingy.  If passengers had not helped, the crew could not have coped.

There was no explanation or apology for these wet landings in Broome.  I do not know why they occurred.  The crew are so adept at jumping on and off little boats and into and out of the water, that they really think nothing of it, and have no comprehension how difficult it can be for women of a certain age.  And it really is a shame to finish such a great trip on an unnecessarily sour note.

I must thank George Swann, Adrian Boyle and Mike Carter for their incomparable knowledge and expertise, and all my fellow participants for their company, bonhomie and most particularly, their assistance in getting on and off those wretched little boats.

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