On 31st January 2001, I did a short boat trip from Fortescue Bay to Hippolyte
Rock (Tasmania) with a boat-owning friend who regularly goes on fishing trips
past the edge of the continental shelf there.
I'd only recently arrived back in Australia after living o.s. for
several years, and
my head was full of middle eastern birds.
We cruised out to Hippolyte Rock, I think there was a combination of kids and
grown-ups on board. I looked up and said "there's a tropicbird!".
The boat owner,
while not a birder, took an interest in things natural history, and
had been telling me
about all the many albatrosses they saw out at the edge of the shelf.
He had never seen a tropicbird before, didn't recognise it. I had
the coral-red bill as clearly as anything and the long whitish tail-streamers.
I'm not proud of the fact that in my mind
Red-tailed = red bill + red tail
Red-billed = red bill + white tail
White-tailed = yellowish bill + white tail
was not as clearly cemented as it should have been at that moment.
In my flimsy defence, the tropicbird of the region I'd been inhabiting was the
Red-billed, and although I'd not seen it in the flesh, it was the
image in my field guides.
I seemed to remember that in parts of the country (i.e. Australia), tropicbirds
were on the increase - Sugarloaf Rock near Cape Leeuwin, SW WA, I
think is a case in point.
I'd never lived in Tasmania, but figured they must have been
increasing down that way too.
After everybody on board had had a look through my binoculars, the bird landed
on a rock shelf 2/3 of the way up the rock - perhaps 100m up. I could
still see it sitting
on the ledge with its bright bill clearly visible.
We looked some more and went ashore.
After a few more birds at Fortescue Bay, including Strong-billed,
and Black-headed Honeyeater, we went back to Nubeena where my friend's
I looked in my Australian field guide, and my heart simultaneously
sank and leapt.
As an indication of the level of interest in natural history, there
was at least one
of Peter Harrison's seabird guides on a shelf at the shack.
So, I looked at what reference material was around and kicked myself
for not being more
on top of the situation.
Anyway, there was no phone where we were staying, I didn't have a
mobile, and there
probably wasn't any reception anyway. And who would I have rung?
If it was Red-tailed Tropicbird, it would have been the third record
or something for Tasmania.
And it couldn't have been Red-billed, because they don't occur
anywhere near Australia.
Eventually we were back in Hobart and I contacted whoever
I could and finally got onto Tim Reid - but several days after the event.
Tim was keen to go and look for it, but we didn't get to do that until
9th February, 2001.
We didn't see it.
When I was at Sugarloaf Rock, WA, a couple of years later, watching Red-tailed
Tropicbirds flying around, I tried to convince myself
that red tail-streamers can look white in the right light.
At that stage, I more or less convinced myself that they could. But now...
I've still got some notes, written after the event, but they don't
include any smoking guns
about the amount of barring on the back to support Red-billed vs Red-tailed.
It's my best "one that got away story", I think.
Hope the charter flight has better luck!
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