Thursday, 24 March 2016


I visited Boigu and Saibai in March 2016 with Richard Baxter.  His touring company, Birding Tours Australia, ran back-to-back trips to Torres Strait and I was on the second trip.  I hoped to see several new birds.  I expected to see Coconut Lorikeet, Red-capped FLowerpecker and Singing Starling.  I didn't dare to admit I was hoping for Gurney's Eagle, Uniform Swiftlet and Papuan Spine-tailed Swift.  I'd been to Boigu before (in January 2006) and had seen Collared Imperial Pigeon then.  On that occasion, it was unbearably hot.  So, on this occasion, I steeled myself against the heat and the mossies.  I expected some rain - it was the wet season after all - but for some reason I was not prepared for the ubiquitous, sticky, slippery mud.

Surprisingly, I did not find the heat or the mossies to be unbearable.   The only easy bird was the Singing Starling, which I saw on both Boigu and Saibai.  The Red-capped Flowerpecker required a bit of work, but I did have great views of a spectacular, colourful male.  Regrettably, I did not see Coconut Lorikeets or Spine-tailed Swifts.  By way of compensation, I did see:

  • Zoe's Imperial Pigeon
  • Coroneted Fruit Dove
  • Uniform Swiftlet 
  • Pacific Swallow and
  • Gurney's Eagle.
Both Saibai and Boigu are mainly swampland, surrounded by mangroves and saltwater crocodiles.  Both islands were created from silt washed down New Guinea rivers.  Saibai is eight kilometres south of the New Guinea mainland.  It is about 22 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide.  It has two villages with a total population of around 300.  Boigu, the northern most part of Australia, is just 6 kilometres from New Guinea.  It has an area of about 90 square kilometres and a population of a little under 300.
Mainland New Guinea seen from Boigu

There were 13 of us on the fishing charter Eclipse:  Richard with his nine birders, the captain, Joe, his wife, Bianca and Justin, the crew.  We were an intrepid little band.  We flew to Horn Island, spent the night in the Gateway Torres Strait Resort and boarded the boat on Sunday 12 March.  The Gateway Torres Strait Resort (which would more appropriately be called the Horn Island motel) was basic and very overpriced.  I paid $169 for my room and $27 for a plate of vegetables for tea (there was a smorgasbord, but nothing vegetarian).  In my room there was a television but no remote control - that is to say no way of turning it on.  There were noisy ceiling fans (which didn't always work) and most welcome air conditioning (which thankfully did work).

It was very hot on the afternoon I arrived on Horn Island as I struggled off to the sewerage ponds in search of Spotted Whistling Ducks.  Blue-winged Kookaburras didn't seem to mind the heat; nor did the sunbirds, Leaden Flycatchers or Dusky Honeyeaters.  Hornbill Friarbirds loudly proclaimed their appreciation of the conditions.  Alas! there were very few ducks on the sewerage ponds - some very wary Radjah Shelducks and a couple of Pacific Black Ducks.  No sign of whistling ducks anywhere.
Eclipse fishing charter

On Sunday we boarded Eclipse and set sail for Saibai, stopping briefly at Little Tuesday Island for those who hadn't yet added Ashy-bellied White-eye to their lifelists.  The tide was uncooperative and it was judged that the tinny could accommodate just four people.  Someone had to stay on board.  So I did not make it to Little Tuesday Island.

It rained overnight and the next morning when we went ashore on Saibai, it was exceptionally muddy.  We were all thinking of the Garganey seen here last week and plodded purposefully through the mud to the swamp.  The rain had converted the swamp into a lake.  Undaunted, we strode straight into the ankle-deep water, following Richard to the spot where the Garganey had been seen.

Garganey used to be seen every summer in Darwin, but I'm reliably informed that they have not appeared since the outbreak of avian flu in 2006.  Hence everyone was keen to add this bird to their lists.  Luckily the single bird (seen amongst hundreds of Radjah Shelducks) was a male.

We visited that swamp several times hoping that the Garganey would see fit to grace us with his presence.  He did not.

We saw neither snakes nor crocodiles and suffered our wet feet in silence.  Once, when we were standing around hoping that the Garganey would fly in to roost overnight, I managed to find some dry ground to stand on.  Luxury!  However, I was immediately infested with green ants and chose to return to the water.

Although we came home without our Garganey, that swamp did deliver two other very special birds - a Zoe's Imperial Pigeon and several Uniform Swiftlets.  On our first visit to the swamp, we flushed a Black Bittern, and stood wondering what else we might see.  Suddenly a peregrine appeared chasing a pigeon.  Necks were craned and cameras clicked.  The pigeon outflew the peregrine, who missed out on his meal.  Richard examined the photos and identified the pigeon as Zoe's Imperial Pigeon, the first record for Australia!  What a coup!

On another occasion, we stood watching and waiting, while storm clouds gathered overhead.  Steve Reynolds, a birder with fantastic eyesight plus a handy camera, suggested that swifts might precede the storm.  No sooner had he voiced this opinion than Fork Tailed Swifts (aka Pacific Swifts) appeared.  We all raised our binoculars.  Quite unmistakably, together with the Fork Tailed Swifts, were smaller birds, Uniform Swiftlets.  They flew above us for some time, giving everyone the opportunity to have a good look.  Thank you, Steve!

We saw the Pacific Swallows on the first day on Saibai.  We were standing watching various birds at some water in the township.  Suddenly I saw swallows.  I was too ignorant to know that this was exciting, but Richard's reaction soon put me right on that.  Our Welcome Swallows do not make it to Saibai, so these birds were interesting by definition.  Again, Richard's incredible identification skills came to the fore and we all had Pacific Swallows on our lists.

The Gurney's Eagle appeared on our final day on Saibai, as we were returning to Eclipse on the zodiacs.  Someone called 'raptor' and we all raised our binoculars.  Very obligingly, the large, dark bird flew towards the boat, giving us all excellent views.  At that stage, we'd been in the Torres Strait birding for three days, and most of us had seen six lifers.  Of course we congratulated ourselves, but in truth, our birding skills had little or nothing to do with it.

After Saibai, we sailed to Boigu.  This was where Orange-fronted Fruit Dove had been seen the previous week.  We went to the spot and waited.  We saw White-breasted Woodswallows, a Cicadabird, Dollarbirds, lots of sunbirds, and Varied Honeyeaters.  It was hot with few opportunities for a comfortable spot to sit down.  We returned to the same place the next morning at dawn and waited for a rarity to show itself.  Sure enough it did!  A single fruit dove flew over.  Again the cameras clicked and Richard identified a Coroneted Fruit Dove, another first for Australia!

We did extraordinarily well, although, in perverse birder's fashion, I did regret dipping on Coconut Lorikeet.  Some people saw them, proving that they are there, but not in big numbers.  I think everyone saw Collared Imperial Pigeons too, although, they too, were not in big numbers.

It was a great week.  We returned to the motel on Horn Island, which had seemed basic and expensive.  It was still expensive, but now, my room seemed luxurious.  So much space!  

Now, thinking of Torres Strait, I look back on the birds, not the mud and the mossies.  I have booked to go again in 2018.  Next time I am determined to get my Coconut Lorikeet.  And perhaps (if I am very lucky) a Garganey as well.

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