The Big Twitch- Christmas Comes in March

To: "Birding-Aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- Christmas Comes in March
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Tue, 9 Apr 2002 09:58:16 +1000
G'day all and apologies for the lack of reports over the past month. When I have not been out gallavanting around the country, I have been moving house and Telstra managed to cut off my internet access for two weeks, so it is only now that I can give you an update.
So where was I? It all seems so long ago.
Oh yes. On the 9th of March, with the list on 331 ( I forgot to mention last time that on the 28th of Feb I added Purple-crowned Lorikeet and Banded Lapwing  in the outer suburbs west of Melbourne) I headed out to Melbourne Airport to meet up with Mike Carter for the beginning of our trip to Christmas Island. Mike, who has more species on his Australian list than any other twitcher, was hoping to find something new for Australia, whereas I would be happy in getting all the endemics with any vagrants a bonus. We were very hopeful of something good turning up as we had news that the day before on Christmas Island, Glenn Holmes had seen a Malayan Night Heron and David James a Watercock.
The next morning at Perth Airport I managed to keep the list ticking along with the addition of Singing Honeyeater along with Brown Honeyeater and masses of (well a dozen) White-cheeked Honeyeaters. A word of warning for those flying to Christmas Island, the airline rigorously enforces weight limits on the flight. As we were taking our binoculars and my telescope on board it took a lot of juggling and persuading to get our combined gear on board.
Why the need for the optics? Well the flight makes two stops en route to Christmas and both have good birding potential. The first stop is at Learmonth which services the Exmouth gas and oil fields. Located in the desolate Cape Range country, there is always the chance of seeing an arid zone species or two from the terminal. All I managed to add was Zebra Finch, but we think we could see two Western Bowerbirds sheltering from the heat under an airport structure by the runway, but the views weren't conclusive- I shall have to wait until later in the year to try again for that species.
The next stop is the Cocos Islands which sit in utter isolation out there in the Indian Ocean. Just how isolated these islands are was brought home when looking at the Qantas map, they seemed almost as close to Sri Lanka as they are to Australia. As we landed on the airstrip we could see several Green Junglefowl feeding on the grassy verges. This bird is the Indonesian cousin of the Red Junglefowl and must have been released sometime last century. There is now a healthy feral population of unquestionably genuine birds, unlike most of the other chooks in other parts of Australia. Quite a bonus species for me, as I didn't think I'd be able to get out here to tick them off.
It was here that the trip almost ended in disaster, as rather than go into the terminal, Mike and I wandered off across the runway for a better look at the birds, (also adding Eastern Reef Egret the only other bird we saw on the Cocos) thereby apparently breaking all sorts of civil aviation and customs rules. It looked like we were about to get into some serious trouble from a burly customs official after we sauntered back, until a local came to our rescue by creating a diversion with some other crisis allowing Mike and I to slink back on the plane. If anyone else does the trip, it is possible to scope the birds from the terminal, thereby avoiding any trouble with the authorities.
We finally arrived at Christmas Island around five o'clock and as the plane touched down I could identify my first endemic, a pair of Christmas Frigatebirds patrolling the runway like a a pair of pre-historic sentinals. By the time we had picked up our baggage and sorted out the hire car:- potential visitors beware: due to insurance problems the regular car hire firms have gone out of business and it may be difficult in procuring a car. Luckily for us, the place we were staying at had arranged for another operator to provide a vehicle.
So you've just arrived on a new, lush, tropical island, with the potential for all sorts of rarities, where would you go? We did what any self-respecting twitcher would do and headed straight for the rubbish tip. And what a magnificent tip it is- right up there with my all time top ten rubbish dumps. Within minutes of arriving and suppressing the gag reflex from the stench, I had added three more endemics: Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon, Christmas Island White-eye, and Christmas Island Glossy Swiftlet as well as a pair of Barn Swallow, decked out in bold, fresh summer plumage, and to top it all off, we got very excited over some odd looking Kestrels, for a while thinking we might be looking at a Common Kestrel amongst the many Australian Kestrels. It wasn't to be, but it gave us a brief thrill.
"Just how good is this place!" I was thinking, "No wonder they put the refugee camp here." For indeed, our wonderful, compassionate, caring government, had plonked the refugees alongside the tip, so that they could be near all those Asian species, just to make them feel at home. By the way, I hope all twitchers (and the people making the next checklist) realise that under new legislation, any migratory species seen on Christmas Island (or Ashmore Reef for that matter) must be taken off your Australian list as these places fall within the new Migrant Exclusion Zones pronounced last year by the Howards Government.
The refugees are doubly lucky as through the razor wire on the other side of the camp is some degraded land (an old billy cart track) that yielded Island Thrush and White-breasted Waterhen, both new birds for me. By the time we had dragged ourselves away from this magical area (gee I wish I was a refugee) and down to our motel in the main settlement, I had further added Red-footed Booby, White-tailed Tropicbird (in all its golden morph glory) and Greater Frigatebird.
As we watched the tropical sun set over the Phosphate loading facilities, my year list now standing at 345, with the last rays of the day reflecting off the Golden Bosunbirds (the local name for White-tailed Tropicbirds) making them positively glow, I thought, it doesn't get much better than this.
And this was only the first day.
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