The Big Twitch- Christmas Comes In March: Part 2

To: "Birding-Aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- Christmas Comes In March: Part 2
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Wed, 10 Apr 2002 00:18:21 +1000
Christmas Comes in March Part 2
As the last rays of the sun faded over the Indian Ocean, Mike and I were joined by David James, Jeff Middleton and Glenn and Jenny Holmes who regaled us with what they'd been seeing whilst on their research postings. As we sat there, beer in hand gazing out over the ocean to where Java lay just beyond the horizon, it was odd to think that though we were talking of birds such as Malayan Night Heron and Asian House Martin, we were technically still in Australia. Ah the quirks of international politics. Here are two interesting facts about Christmas Island 1) it is the only Australian territory that once belonged to someone else- it was for awhile part of the Colony of Singapore, and 2) it is the only piece of Aussie real estate ever to be invaded. Yes in 1942 the British and Australians evacuated leaving the island undefended. The Japanese occupation force that followed brutally murdered hundreds of the remaining Chinese and Malay population who had been abandoned by their white "superiors".
I reckon if Christmas Island was invaded again today, no-one in Australia would bother much to defend it, except for twitchers, who would fight to the last to protect this sacred birding soil. Look at the BARC submissions and a huge percentage emanate from Christmas Island. David James made the comment that if enough birders visit Christmas Island fifty new species could be added to the Australian list. All it takes is a good cyclone to whip a Javan or Sumatran species out of its comfortable existence and onto the Aussie list- "I don't think we're in Yogyakarta anymore Toto."
Fully armed with all the latest news we turned in early so we could be up before dawn (5 ish) to be out looking for the Night Heron. Dion Hobcroft said to me once when describing Norfolk Island, that it was a bit like the movie "Ground Hog Day" in that every day felt the same. Well Mike and I lived the Ground Hog life over the next week as we followed the same routine every day. It went something like this.
Up just after five and out to the patch of forest where Glenn had seen the Malayan Night Heron. It was less wary of cars, so the best method of finding it was to drive slowly around the forest tracks. We would do this for at least an hour every morning. Then we would head back to the Settlement for breakfast via the rubbish tip, the sports oval and the Poon Saan area where others had seen Brown Shrike.
Breakfast around nine, then out on our big trip for the day to a more outlying area such as the Golf Course or South Point or The Blowholes. Back for lunch via the tip. After lunch a bit of a siesta was planned but generally the afternoon would find us back out at the golf course, of the harbour or the tip, re-checking something. As the sun started to sink towards its cool ocean bed we would haul out to one or other of the spots we had looked at earlier in the morning (Poon Saan, the tip), winding up the day with a visit to the tip. On four of the seven nights we went spotlighting. I even checked out the tip at night just to be sure.
For the whole seven days our routine remained this way. Our daily totals were: 21, 27, 20, 24, 22, 20, 20. Our total for our time on Christmas Island was only 32 species- but what species! And always there was the promise of something more.
On the first day we saw Oriental Pratincole and the first of White Wagtail of the trip at an open borrow pits type of area. Later that day at the tip we saw what I thought to be another individual White Wagtail - they were both of the race occularis but I felt the second bird had slightly different eye and chest markings to the first. The second bird hung around the tip for another day, and why wouldn't it? For a bird that was supposedly off course there were some easy pickings to be had there. I have some footage of a fly literally flying into the wagtail's open mouth. We saw no other wagtails of any species for the trip until the final day when we discovered two magnificently fresh plumaged males of the leucopsis race. One at, you guessed it, the tip,and the other sheltering from the tropical sun under a piece of mining machinery.
Virtually all the endemics on Christmas Island are dead easy to see. The Silvereye must number in the millions and they have filled virtually every niche on the island. They even manage to sound like different birds- one call I thought resembled a fig parrot. Abbot's Booby is easy enough to pick up incidentally around the island as I did on the first day, but it is nowhere near as common as the Red-footed.
I notice as I am writing this (9th April) there is a posting on Birding-Aus alerting everyone to the risk to the boobies posed by the new detention centre to be built. While we were on Christmas Island, the great Wilson Tuckey, former Minister Against forests, now Minister against Territories flew up to announce the construction of the new detention centre. As if Christmas Island isn't far enough away to hide asylum seekers from all those pesky journalists and do-gooders, they've decided to build the centre on the uninhabited western part of the island, about as far from the settlement as it is possible to be without being in the ocean. The actual detention centre site is on an old mining lease, but it is surrounded on at least three sides by the primary rainforest that holds much of the (world) population of the Abbot's Booby. In order to get to the site, the construction trucks, and all vehicles will have to drive through roads that cut through the Booby nesting areas. Even an hour after a downpour, the roads on Christmas start to kick up some dust, so you can imagine how bad it would be during the dry season. Very worrying indeed.
By the end of that first full day I had added Common Sandpiper, and Java Sparrow and only had two endemics to get. That night we heard the Hawk Owl at the golf course, but couldn't call any in. Out again the next night, we saw a Black Bittern  by the roadside just before it got dark and then at the golf course managed to get a close and long look at a Christmas Island Hawk Owl which is a truly cute little critter.
The remaining endemic is the Christmas Island Goshawk (which is not yet a full species), which we only saw on two occasions. Some people have more luck and for a raptor they are meant to be incredibly tame, following the observer through the forest. Seeing them is a matter of spending enough time in the forest areas. One of the birds that we saw flew down to the roadside and appeared to crack open a hollow stick to get at the lizard within. Currently these birds are considered to be a race of our own Brown Goshawk but they look nothing like our birds. Structurally and jizz wise they seem much closer to Variable Goshawk (of which our Grey Goshawk is a race). I am sure that when somebody gets around to studying this bird's genetics it will be proved to be a new species and will be added to my Big Twitch list.
And so the routine continued. Same route, a slightly different mix of species every day. The only other bird I added on Christmas Island was quite a spectacular one: Pintailed Snipe. Mike and I had diverted from our usual routine and had gone to the billycart track BEFORE the tip. As we got out of the car we heard a Snipe like call, but looking around, could see nothing. Then a bird "parachuted" down in front of us. It seemed so short-winged and short tailed that our initial impression was that it was a pigeon. Then it dawned on us that that weren't no pigeon.
"It was a snipe!" I kept repeating to Mike like an idiot. Before we could move forward to see the bird on the ground, three more flew over calling the same call- much duller, flatter and less penetrating than the call of Latham's Snipe. This sent the first bird back up and they all headed off steadily in the direction of Java.
By the time we left the island, after a week of what in the almost equatorial sun was quite a punishing schedule, we were exhausted but happy- well I was happier than Mike as I had seen all my required species and a couple of bonuses to boot, whereas he had failed to find a newie for his Aussie list.
What made it all the more galling was that we knew there were rarities on the island while we were there: Malayan Night Heron and Watercock being two we failed to turn up. But even more frustrating was the Bittern situation.
We did actually see a new bird for Australia- a Cinnamon Bittern. But it was dead in the freezer of Environment Australia. The bird, an adult female, had been found emaciated two weeks before and had not survived. It would be interesting to know if there has been a disturbance on any wetlands in Java or Sumatra as many as nine species of heron had turned up on the island.
One morning as we headed out again in the pre-dawn light for another futile search for the night heron, we flushed a Bittern from the gutter of the main road in the settlement. All we could see of it as it flew to an area of lawn at the edge of the forest was that it was a small bittern with a uniformly dark upperwing pattern. We flushed the bird again a few minutes later and I could see the upperwing colour was a dark brown. We saw the bird land, and run to the edge of the forest. In the dim light we could see where it had run to. While I stood watching the dark shape through my bins, getting slaughtered by swarms of mozzies, Mike tried to get closer to the bird by using an abandoned building as cover. The theory was that as long as the bird didn't move we would be able to see it once the light got better, and we wouldn't have flushed it by spotlighting it. We got into position. The light improved. Dawn broke and we could see the bird. It was a stick. The bittern had actually run behind the stick and kept going into the forest while we stood there staking out a bloody stick.
Adding Australian Ringneck (Twenty-eight Parrot) and Laughing Turtle Dove near Perth Airport on the way home did little to dampen the disappointment of what may turn out to be the biggest dip of The Big Twitch.
So arrived back in Melbourne with my total on 355, and the news that both the Sydney and Southport pelagics had been hugely successful with both trips getting birds I still needed, and that there was a Hudwit in Adelaide. I thought my travels would ease off for a couple of months. Oh how wrong I was  to be.
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