Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A BIT MORE ABOUT COCOS, 22-29 November 2014

View from our motel room on Cocos
On Saturday afternoon we flew from Christmas to Cocos Island, and were settled into our room in the motel by 4 p.m.  It was uncomfortably hot as we convened to investigate a small bird that had been sighted towards the end of the runway.  We flushed the bird several times, splashing backwards and forwards across a small creek.  It kept returning to dense vegetation.  We all had reasonable sightings and, although we did not see a red throat, were happy with the identification of Red-throated Pipit.  
Red-throated Pipit, photo by Roger Williams

Richard had recommended Birds of South East Asia by Craig Robson and it proved to be a most useful guide.  It informed us that the Red-throated Pipit is often found near water, and that first year birds have no red.  This was my 747th Australian bird and I began to hope that I'd reach the 750 milestone on Cocos Island.
White-breasted Waterhen, common on Cocos, photo by Roger Williams

Cocos (Keeling) Islands comprise West Island (where the airport and the motel are located), Home Island (where the Clunies Ross homestead is located and where we saw most of our exciting birds), South Island (home to Saunders' Terns - the reason for my trip), Horsborough Island (an uninhabited hostile place, overwhelmed by dodder) and nearby Direction Island (where the grounding of the Emden is commemorated).

I spent Sunday morning in a state of wretched anxiety because Richard had announced that this was the day we'd take the motorised canoes over to South Island to look for Saunders' Terns.  The first time I'd visited Cocos Islands in 2007, Mike Carter had been there to confirm the identity of this exciting new bird for Australia.  I'd been with Richard Baxter on that occasion too, but no one knew much about tides and tern behaviour then, and no one in our group saw the terns on that occasion.  Richard had told me that he'd seen the terns on every trip since, so I had high expectations of finally adding this bird to my lifelist.  I also had a high degree of apprehension because I knew the expedition involved wading a fair distance through waist-deep water.  I don't have good balance; I don't like getting wet; I'm always anxious around small boats.  From my point of view, this tick demanded a fair amount of dedication.  I was up for it of course (it was what I'd come for) but that didn't stop me worrying about it.

The motorised canoes accommodated just two people each:  one driver and one passenger.  I was allocated to Richard's canoe.  I felt smugly safe in our leader's boat.  He is an expert swimmer and diver, and I knew that no one would be better at operating the outboard canoes.  

The island we were headed for looked deceptively close, but seemed to take a very long time to reach.  We beached the canoes, took our cameras and binoculars and left our dry bags as high as we could reach in the palm trees, expecting the tide to come in while we were off terning.  Then we set off, wading in the warm tropical water, pretending nonchalance at the resident reef sharks, heading for a distant sand bar where we could see a big flock of waders.

The water was much deeper than this on the way back!
Through binoculars we identified the waders as Whimbrels, Eastern Curlews, Ruddy Turnstones and Grey Plovers.  Through Jenny's scope we saw three Saunders' Terns loafing on the sandspit (#748).  Seldom has the sight of a small tern given me such pleasure!  Thanks to Jenny, we each had a quick look at the terns before, for some unknown reason, all the waders and terns flew off.  If Jenny hadn't taken her scope, Richard would have led his first unsuccessful tern hunt since 2007.  As it was, we were all delighted with our sighting.

We celebrated with nibbles and bubbly, supplied by Ash, the bloke who hired the canoes.  When it came time to return to West Island, I learned that Richard expected me to drive the boat!  It is no false modesty for me to say that I was utterly hopeless.  Nor can I blame my alcohol consumption for my total lack of seamanship.  Enough said.  Richard chose to swim rather than share my dangerous canoe.

On Monday morning we took the 6.30 ferry to Home Island.  In the gardens of Clunies Ross House we saw a Chinese Sparrowhawk (749), the black wingtips obvious in flight.  After lunch we wandered through a banana plantation, hoping for Asian Koels.  Some members of the group saw both male and female koels.  I did not.  But I did see a Javan Pond Heron - my milestone 750th Australian bird!  In flight its obvious white wings made me think Cattle Egret.

Clunies Ross House
We started Tuesday looking for Watercock on our way to Bechat Besar swamp, where we saw Eurasian Teal (751) and all had excellent views of the Chinese Sparrowhawk.  After breakfast we flushed a Pin-tailed Snipe (752) beside the airport.  We visited the bottle dump, the tip, then the beach for a Common Redshank.  After lunch, we looked for vagrants in the big trees beside the airport, then visited the swamp again.  At dusk we spoltlighted for nightjars, but did not see a thing.

On Wednesday we visited Horsborough Island in a glass bottomed boat.  People wanting to dive, snorkel or swim with sharks all enjoyed this trip.  Then we went to Direction Island, where a large gazebo commemorates the First World War battle between the German cruiser SMS Emden and the Australian HMAS Sydney on 9 November 1914.

Dodder strangling plants on Horsborough Island
Thursday found us back on Home Island.  In the Clunies Ross garden I had wonderful views of Hodgsons Hawk Cuckoo (753).  Later we saw both male and female Asian Koels (754).  After lunch, we went looking for a Chinese Pond Heron.  This involved twenty minutes wading through quite deep water.  One couple declined to go, on the grounds that he couldn't swim.  I can't swim either, but I wasn't going to let that stop me.  We braved coral, clams, unexpected holes, reef sharks, moray eels, a huge sea slug and hundreds of beches de mer.  The sharks frightened shoals of silver mullets into jumping high out of the water - a spectacular sight.  The wind was quite strong and could easily have blown me off balance.  Thank you, Steve, for holding my hand on this very brave venture.  I could not have done it without you.  We walked as directed, I held up my binoculars to look around, and the Chinese Pond Heron (755) flew into view!
Chinese Pond Heron, my 755th Australian bird, photo by Roger Williams

On Friday we added Dollarbird to our list, chasing it around the Quarantine Station until we all had good views.  This is the nominate subspecies that breeds in Indonesia.  The Dollarbird I'm used to seeing on mainland Australia is the race pacificus.

I was ready to head home on Saturday, quite unable to hide my glee at my remarkable score of 755.  I hope it's not another seven years before I return to Cocos again.

No comments:

Post a Comment