Following Mike Carter's recent posting to this forum concerning George
Swan's sightings on Ashmore Reef, I have been motivated to finalise the
write-up about my recent trip to that part of the world. As I had been asked
to give a talk to the Canberra Ornithologist Group (COG) (which I presented
last Wednesday night) I didn't want to publish this report until after then.
The sub-title of my talk was 'how to go birdwatching when someone else is
A friend of mine is the commanding officer of the RAN patrol boat HMAS
Fremantle. In my capacity as a naval reservist he rang me in November to ask
if I was interested in joining his boat in January to allow his navigator to
take leave. He indicated that the boat wasn't doing anything interesting or
special, just routine patrols from its base in Darwin to the Tiwi Islands
(Bathurst and Melville) and to Ashmore Reef. I told him I was willing accept
his offer if he would allow me to get ashore on Ashmore Reef to go bird
watching. He was a little bemused and readily agreed thinking he was getting
the better end of the bargain!
Despite 14 years in the navy, I am very much a pelagic novice (I kept my
interest in bird watching well hidden during those years, interested in more
'manly' pursuits). I left Canberra, therefore, armed with both of Peter
Harrison's seabird field guides (thanks Geoff Duggan), advice from Mike
Carter and a copy of his most recent trip report to Ashmore Reef, which
included the birds I was likely to encounter. Importantly I had also spoken
to Barry Baker the president of COG who had put me in contact with Suzanne
Ferguson at Environment Australia. Suzanne is responsible for Marine
Protected Areas so she too had a comprehensive list. I flew to Darwin on 4
January and sailed with Fremantle the following morning.
The trip out was unspectacular from a bird watching perspective. I only
observed Brown Boobies, Lesser Frigatebirds and terns that I couldn't
identify; unspectacular that is until the morning we approached Ashmore and
I had my first sighting of large numbers of Sooty Terns. Mike had advised to
keep an eye out for shearwaters, petrels and the like, but I saw none.
Indeed in the whole three-week patrol I saw very few such seabirds, and all
of which I was unable to identify.
When we arrived in the vicinity of Ashmore Reef on 7 January, Fremantle was
met by a tender from the Australian Customs Vessel (ACV) Dame Roma Mitchell.
The crew of DRM had been forewarned by Suzanne that I was on my way. An ACV
is always present at Ashmore Reef and these boats spend their three-week
patrols moored to a buoy, providing an Australian 'presence'. One of the
crew of each ACV has been trained by EA to act as 'EA warden' on
environmentally sensitive islands and cays around the top end of Australia,
and on Dame Roma Mitchell it was Keith Purvis. I was introduced to the
skipper who noting my interest asked if I would like to go ashore on East
and Middle Islands too, normally off-limits to the public. Customs is
obliged to conduct litter patrols on the two islands and in order not to
disturb the birds, these are only conducted every second patrol. With a 4
metre tidal range, timing is the all-important factor if you are to navigate
the reef to get to these islands and back to the ship in one piece and on
the same day. A quick glance at the chart and tidal information indicated
that in order to achieve this, we would have about an hour on each island,
and would need to leave the ACV soon after midday. This left me the forenoon
for West Island.
After the obligatory cup of coffee, Keith and I went ashore on West Island,
the only part of the reef where the public are allowed ashore. Even then
access is restricted to the front beach of the island and only as far inland
as a fresh water well. Compared to what I was to see later in the afternoon,
West Island is rather ornithologically barren, reportedly another example of
the result of rats from visiting vessels getting ashore and having a
devastating impact on the native wildlife. I am advised that a rat
eradication program has been successful.
With timing critical we limited ourselves to a circumnavigation of the
island via the beach and we did not venture into the green interior. Reef
Egrets (both morphs) were by far the most prevalent bird we encountered as
well as a number of waders; particularly Whimbrels, Lesser and Greater Sand
plovers, Red-necked Stints and Ruddy Turnstones. In trying to get a closer
view of an egret I also stumbled upon a juvenile Red-tailed Tropicbird
sheltering from the intense heat in the shade of a tree. Later White-tailed
Tropicbirds overflew us and both Brown Boobies and Lesser Tropicbirds were
constantly overhead. Evidence of turtles coming ashore to lay eggs was very
much apparent on the island, both their tracks leading in and out of the
water and huge scrapes where they had laid their eggs.
We returned to the ACV for lunch and to await the change in tide. Keith
announced he wouldn't accompany me to the remaining two islands as his feet
were blistered from the hot sand as we had both walked barefoot. Mine feet
were in the same state too but I wasn't going to admit that. Two other crew
members and a boat coxswain volunteered take me, first to East and then to
Middle Island and I noticed that they wore neoprene divers booties!
Approaching these islands you get a feeling that you are in for something
special as the sky is full of boobies, frigatebirds and terns. Again with
limited time (because of the tide) we agreed with the boat coxswain that we
would spend no more than an hour on each island. So as to disturb the birds
as little as possible, Keith had asked us to restrict our roaming to the
beach and not venture into the (smallish) interior of the islands.
The first bird I observed on wading ashore on East Island (and a tick for
me) was an Oriental Pratincole, which proved to be relatively common on this
island. East Island teemed with boobies, predominantly brown but also I had
my first views of the Red-footed Booby, resplendent in both white and
intermediate morphs. East Island was also the only Island where I
encountered terns (with the exception of the Sooty which was omnipresent)
and this genus was represented by Gull-billed, Bridled and Crested terns.
Common Noddies were also present in large numbers, both alive and dead. The
interior of the island was littered with thousands(?) of dead noddies, which
I have subsequently reported to EA and been told that this is thought not to
be an unusual event. Whether I also saw Lesser and Black Noddies, I am
cannot be certain. Indeed a constant frustration was the lack of time to
identify unfamiliar birds and my general lack of expertise. While being
looked upon as somewhat of an expert by the Customs officers (they knew
nothing so I certainly knew more than they did) I spent the day wishing I
had packed Mike Carter in my kit bag along with the field guides. Other
birds I saw on East Island included Great and Little Egrets, Nankeen Night
Herons and White-headed Stilts.
>From East it was off to Middle Island, which lacked the same density of
birds of East, but where I had my first and only sighting of all the three
boobies together. Indeed I took many photographs and my favourite is a
single Masked Booby in amongst hundreds of Brown Boobies. It brings to mind
the song from Sesame Street 'one of these things is not like the other'.
With our time up and the tide on its way out it was time to return to the
ACV via a deep hole in the reef where we has a swim to cool off.
Fremantle had spent the day boarding Indonesian fishing boats and returned
for me later that afternoon. From there we sailed for Scott Reef, which is
about 400nm north of Broome, but that trip report will have to wait.
My special thanks to those people mentioned in this report and to the others
I have forgotten, and of course to the Australian tax-payer, without whom
there wouldn't be many reservists!
Below is a list of the birds I observed during my day at Ashmore.
Eastern Reef Egret
Pacific Golden Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover
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