Ashmore musings

To: birding-aus <>
Subject: Ashmore musings
From: jenny spry <>
Date: Thu, 19 Nov 2009 16:40:37 +1100
Hi all,

Here is a view of the 2009 Ashmore trip from one of the watcher on the top
deck, in fact often from seated inside of one of the three 4 metre tinnies
that were strapped to the top deck (used to ferry us around the islads).

Back in about Feb I booked a place on this year’s Ashmore trip and, soon
after, the emails started coming. First we received the extensive and
carefully annotated word and excel spreadsheets of birds seen in previous
years, and then lists of what to bring and finally the emails to ensure that
all the possible field guides would be on board: who was bringing the
cetacean guide? Who had Birds of Wallacea? Was someone bringing the latest
editions of Harrison and Robson etc etc etc. We ended up with guides for
everything from moths and lizards through birds to tropical fish and whales.

The big night finally arrived and we all met in the outdoor dining area of
the Roebuck Bay Hotel (not, thank heavens, in the bar in which the
subsequent Melbourne Cup Day fight caused ALL bars in the hotel to be closed
for days). Departure times were confirmed and details of how we were to get
to the boat were given out, and we all went to bed and set our alarms for
about 0400. Luckily this is 0700 Melbourne time and I had not got over the
jet lag so it did not seem too bad.

Getting from the beach to the boat was interesting as, between the 16 of us,
we filled a 4 metre tinny with gear. Clothing was at a minimum as we were to
be ensconced on the boat for 8 days, so no need for party frocks or bow
ties. We did, as we were heading into very hot areas however, have lots of
boxes of everything from Gatorade and ginger-beer to distilled beverages
that would knock the sox of any crocodile.

Then there was the equipment. We had our scopes, binoculars, computers,
battery chargers, small digital cameras, DSLR cameras and lenses for DSLR
cameras. And then we had the massive lenses that look more like naval canon
barrels than camera lenses. One of these lenses was so big that the owner
regularly stood it on its end rather than hold the weight; and the camera
came to his waist, well nearly. When approaching Ashmore Reef with all these
lenses pointing seaward dear little Flying Fish V seemed to have more
armament than the Australian frigate that lay at anchor and watched our

Each morning we were up no later than 0530 and by 0600 at the latest the
first of the watchers were on deck scouring the seas for birds. This was
mainly done from the top deck where there was no shade from the tropic sun
in its cloudless blue sky, and there we sat with only the shortest breaks
for lunch until dusk at about 1900 – how the hope of a rarity, or perhaps a
tick, will drive an avid birder; not even age nor a broken wrist slowed down
our enthusiastic group. Well not much anyway, though I do admit that on one
morning I seriously considered the option between another hour in bed
against an hour in the dry, relentless heat of West Isle – the island won.

Sometimes at sea the birds and sea-life were a continuous passing parade,
and at other times we would sit for a whole afternoon seeing no more than
one bird every hour or so. How I wished at those times that I had memorized
the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, it would have been so appropriate.

The food was excellent and even I, a confirmed cereal and toast person,
partook of the full egg, tomato and bacon breakfasts so skillfully prepared
by Maurice. And when you told him how you wanted your steak cooked on the
bar-b-que for dinner, picturing it succulent in your mind’s eye but not
quite being able to describe that point somewhere between rare and not quite
cooked enough – Maurice delivered it perfectly cooked, just as you had
imagined it. And to top it off, the trip organiser brought out his red wine
and shared it around with all on board.

At Ashmore we had, thanks again to the impeccable planning of the whole
trip, the rare permission to walk on all three atolls; West (Ashmore),
middle and east. They are barren places with rank grasses, low vines and a
few scrubby trees around the perimeter of west isle. East Isle is just a
sandbank while Middle Isle has some brown grass-like cover and the stump of
a palm tree four years dead. West Isle has two live palm trees, but young
trees planted or self-seeded in hope are now nothing but 50cm high piles of
brown fronds. Four old, forlorn little graves belonging to Indonesian
fishermen huddle below the tallest palm; how sad and far from their

The heat was continuous and totally enervating, as you would expect for so
close to the equator with no shade, and we all went through gallons of
water. Initially it came cold from the huge refrigerated hold in the back
deck, so big that on occasion someone had to jump in to get cans and bottles
out from the bottom. Not long after, the water warmed up but we each took a
warm water-bottle ashore with us, and as well a couple of spares were left
at the palm tree. At sea we each had our water bottle somewhere close to
hand. On the boat there was always a breeze, especially when we were moving,
and this helped a lot.

Over Middle Isle there was a constant low shimmering black umbrella as tens
of thousands of breeding boobies, noddies and frigatebirds came and went
from their nests. Along its edge the frigate birds sat on the cool wet sand
and spiraled up in a column until they disappeared from view. On East Isle,
where sadly we had very little time due to the tides, thousands of waders
crowded the edging sand spits.

At sea the record keeping was a wonder to behold. We had a “rough-duty”
laptop computer on deck and it was permanently linked to a GPS and
information about time, location, heading and speed were fed in
automatically and continuously as we traveled. As birds were seen this
information was immediately keyed into a linked spreadsheet so that we ended
up with a precise log of the location of every bird seen. This information
was then supplemented with hourly readouts from the boat’s instruments
adding water temperature, depth and other details.

And it was the little things that were often the most interesting; like the
two terns sitting on the back of a sleeping turtle some 200 kms from
anywhere, the subtle bands of smooth water that showed where water currents
flowed, or the Needletail on West Isle as it tried and tried again until it
finally latched onto a palm frond and crawled up it to roost, or the
unexpected Abbott’s Booby circling the boat, or the sudden burst of a whale
just a metre from the boat that stopped conversations in mid sentence, the
sunrises shining on wet sandbanks and the tiny Green Turtle, not more than
20 cm long, that was trying to climb over a wall of rocks to reach the sea
on West Isle.

After we got back to Broome, at low tide, and climbed up the 6 metres of
open, iron-grid steps to the top of the dock I looked back down on the
Flying Fish V as George, the owner, and Jackie, his wife, prepared to sail
for Perth and I wished I was going with them. What a wonderful trip we had.



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