Christmas & Cocos Islands Trip Report
A really fabulous trip and I would like to thank the tour participants Irene Denton, Dorothy Devery, Barbara Harvey and Mathew and Helen Skellett for making it work so well. I would like to thank Janene for her excellent organisation.
Oriental Pratinacole by Dion Hobcroft
We experienced all Christmas Island had to offer-the incredible spectacle of Red Crab migration in a scene of unparalleled crab diversity; treacherous razor sharp eroded coral, stunning rainforests and outstanding noodles. Even the birds performed and we encountered all of the endemics and a good collection of rarities.
14 December: Our long day of flying became even longer when our National Jet plane developed a fault grounding us in Learmonth airbase for a good seven hours. Whilst whiling away the hours we spotted a few birds including Banded Lapwing, Richard¹s Pipit, Tree and Fairy Martin plus Welcome Swallow, Osprey, Nankeen Kestrel, Magpie-lark and Zebra Finch. Best spotting award went to Irene who during the take-off of our replacement plane spotted Australian Bustards on the runway! We made it to the Cocos late at night. The fault cost us one full day on Christmas Island.
15 December: With a full half day on West Island before continuing on to Christmas Island we did some exploring mostly in dense palm scrub and the shallow lagoon at the north end of the airstrip. We were quickly rewarded finding our first Western Reef-Egrets. With their distinctive long legs, graceful necks and energetic hunting style they were much more reminiscent of Little rather than Eastern Reef-Egrets. We also located a vagrant Great Egret we were to encounter on almost every visit to the lagoon, our first stunning Green Junglefowl, plenty of Rufous Night-Herons and some fleeting White-breasted Water-hens. Purple Crabs were common, both timid and feisty.
Post lunch we continued our journey to Christmas Island finally arriving at about 1630. Into the bus we immediately headed along the Blowholes Road in search of the Malayan Night-Heron that had been present here in early December. It was not to be and the bird had moved along. We still had a good time encountering our first endemics including great views of the distinctive subspecies of Emerald Dove, Island Thrush, Christmas Imperial-Pigeons and Christmas White-eyes with good views of the jet black Christmas Flying-Fox. It was time to celebrate at the Season Palace in Poon Saan. Following this delicious meal with only two nights available and a raining forecast it was imperative we have a go to see the delightful Christmas Island Hawk Owl. At the strategic location a quick burst of playback and we enjoyed immediate superb views of this great nocturnal hunter.
16 December: Our only full day on Christmas Island was action-packed. We kicked off with an early morning drive towards the Blowholes before detouring to North West Point. We enjoyed excellent views of Abbott¹s Booby and the golden subspecies of White-tailed Tropicbird. We made the lengthy hike down to the Dales enjoying an incredible crab spectacle (so good it was filmed by National Geographic). At Flying Fish Cove we walked up to the Governor¹s House enjoying the spectacle of hundreds of Christmas and Great Frigatebirds on the wing. An almighty storm rolled in putting an immediate cessation on all birding activities. Luck was on our side as we made it to the bus before the deluge.
By 2pm it had rolled through so we were back out birding. We had a golden run that commenced with a great view of a rather bedraggled Asian Koel. In interesting plumage it appeared to be a second year male. This was followed immediately by a trio of handsome Java Sparrows. We continued to the small cove behind the Casino. Here we located an interesting Black-winged Stilt that may have been either an immature leucocephalus or adult non-breeding himantopus. Still working on this one! We also found our first Common Sandpiper and white morph Eastern Reef-Egrets.
We tracked back up to Drumsite and payed a visit to the Parks Australia office. A juvenile Red-tailed Tropicbird was being rehabilitated by Max Orchard. Sharp-eyed Irene turned up the hoped for Christmas Island Goshawk-a lovely adult male that allowed the typical close approach. Our last key endemic! We continued onto the Orchard hoping for a wagtail. No luck on this but yet another Christmas Island Goshawk. A last light visit to the tip gave a great view for everyone finally of the White-breasted Waterhen. Dinner at Rumah Tinggi and a good night sleep to follow.
17 December: Our last morning on Christmas Island was highlighted by fine weather, great photographic opportunities and close-up views of nesting Red-footed Boobies. Our only new bird for the list was Barn Swallow. We found singles at both the Airport and Flying Fish Cove. A visit to Ethel Beach produced Painted Morays, a massing Red Crab spectacle and at least five Common Sandpipers.
Mathew on Cocos Islands by Dion Hobcroft
Our plane came through and we returned to West Island in the Cocos group. A visit along the Airstrip and lagoon areas produced a trio of Oriental Pratincoles. These elegant shorebirds gave a first rate view, one bird still in complete breeding plumage.
18 December: This morning I decided against the pelagic trip to North Keeling Island due to a rough swell. We explored both West and Home Island. Our first visit to Bechat Besar Swamp turned up our first Pacific Black Ducks. Trannies Beach and Home Island produced good views of the ethereal White Tern; a visit to Oceania House previously owned by the Clunies-Ross family was highlighted by massive gardens and trees. Barbara even introduced herself to the new owner and had a tour inside. Good work Barbara! With not much bird action in the middle of the day we turned our attention to fish-watching with Moorish Idol and Black-tipped Reef Shark amongst the highlights. Returning to West Island most folks opted for an afternoon of relaxing. Mathew and I kept birding and our highlights were a pair of Pacific Golden plovers on the airstrip and four Common Greenshanks in a sheltered cove near Rumah Baru.
19 December: The decision to delay the pelagic trip to North Keeling paid dividends as the weather had moderated substantially overnight. We duly assembled at The Jetty and boarded the R.J.Hawke. Powerful swell and crushing surf destroyed our chances for any landing but this was an incredible spectacle. With 60 000 boobies and frigatebirds commuting it was definitely awe-inspiring. We added new birds to our Cocos list in the form of Brown Booby, Common Noddy, White-tailed Tropicbird, a Wedge-tailed Shearwater but the major favourite were the Masked Booby. We enjoyed several views of adult and immature plumaged birds.
Our biggest highlight was yet to come in a most unexpected form. A family of False Killer Whales were found breaching-leaping out of the water and slamming the surface. We went to investigate and found the object of their desires was a spectacular marlin called the Sailfish. It was looking particularly tired and beaten up as it tried to avoid predation, the powerful shock waves from the False Killers exacting a punishing toll. On top of this in the breathtakingly clear water we observed a couple of pods of bow-riding Bottle-nosed Dolphins, a pair of mating Green Turtles with the snorkellers reporting sightings of Barracuda and Rainbow Runner.
Possible Western Reef Egret by Dion Hobcroft
Returning to West Island most folks opted for a relaxing afternoon. Mathew and I decided to visit South Island in a canoe with a small outboard motor. We were accompanied by Ashley, barman of the Cocos Club and canoe entrepreneur. We had great luck on a perfect tide. Mathew and I enjoyed excellent scope views of seven Saunder¹s Terns including one in nearly complete breeding plumage. This poorly known species was only discovered here last year- a first for Australia and a massive range extension.
Over 160 shorebirds of 10 species were present at the high tide roost. As the tide receded the shorebirds dispersed around us providing superb views in the telescope. Amongst them were at least three Lesser Sand-Plovers, apparently the first recorded for the Cocos. Just as we were about to return I glimpsed the distant silhouette of a Dollarbird. About five minutes of searching turned it up and I was able to get a few digiscope shots confirming it as one of the north Asian migratory subspecies.
20 December: Today we visited Horsburgh and Prison Island on a glass bottom boat captained by Geof. As we departed across the lagoon into a horrible pounding swell things were looking quite miserable. Once in the lee of Horsburgh Island things improved dramatically. A lengthy walk to the lagoon on this island produced Christmas Island White-eyes and an adult Black-winged Stilt of the Australian subspecies leucocephalus. We found a few beach-washed Nautilus shells and enjoyed the antics of the abundant Red Hermit Crabs. Snorkelling turned up some interesting fish including the striking Wedge-tailed Triggerfish.
After lunch we relocated to Prison Island enjoying some good snorkelling that was interrupted in my case when I swam into the tentacles of a bluebottle-ouch. Crossing the lagoon on the way home we made another snorkelling stop-this time truly superb. Sightings included Giant Moray Eel, Spotted Sweetlips, schools of 150 Green-cheeked parrotfish, Threadfin, Raccoon and Saddled Butterflyfish and Blue-finned Unicornfish to mention a few.
Late in the afternoon I checked out the West Island Airstrip. I discovered a Little Egret of the Australian breeding subspecies nigripes.
21 December: A hot day with little breeze, Barbara and Irene opted for reef walking and found a bunch of fish and marine invertebrates. Helen, Dorothy, Matt and I did a now familiar loop of the West Island birding sites. We re-located Great Egret, Western Reef-Egret, and Oriental Pratincole but unfortunately there was no sign of the Little Egret. With a late checkout we took in the last of the air-conditioning, had a cool shower and prepared for our flight. Arriving in Perth and clearing formalities it was off to bed to dream of Red Crabs!
Rufous Night-Heron by Dion Hobcroft
*Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus:(20) plus seen daily on CI; great majority looking like feral chickens. On Cocos we recorded a max. of (4) on West Island with (10) on Horsburgh Island on 20 Dec.
*Green Junglefowl Gallus varius: Up to (100) on West Island on 18 Dec. Seen daily here with large numbers out on the roadside early in the morning and late afternoon.
Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa: (2) on 15 Dec on West Island lagoon area north of the Airstrip; a high count of (12) at Bechat Besar Swamp on 18 Dec with (2) in flight on 20 Dec near Rumah Baru. All records on West Island, Cocos.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater Puffinus pacificus: (4) on 18 Dec off West Island in a mixed flock of Red-footed Booby, frigatebirds and (1) Common Noddy chasing flying fish and bait fish brought to the surface by Dolphinfish with (1) possible on pelagic trip to North Keeling on 19 Dec.
Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda westralis: (1) on 16 Dec, a juvenile was being cared for by Parks Staff. One adult was seen over Rumah Tinggi on 17 Dec.
White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus fulvus: (20) daily on CI with great views of golden individuals. One of the white subspecies was seen off North Keeling on 19 December and Irene saw at least a couple more.
Abbott’s Booby Papasula abbotti: Recorded daily on CI with max. (6) on 16 Dec, most around Northwest Point and the Blowholes Road.
Masked Booby Sula dactylatra: (10) off North Keeling Island, mostly juveniles on 19 Dec gave some great views.
Red-footed Booby Sula sula rubripes: (200) daily at CI, all adults white morphs. Present in roosting and nesting colonies. Very tame. Seen daily on Cocos Islands; mostly in small numbers (10-20) over or offshore from West Island but many thousands ff North Keeling.
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster plotus: (10) daily on CI; mostly in Flying Fish Cove, Casino and Ethel and Greta Beach. At least (2) seen off North Keeling, both adults.
Great Frigatebird Fregata minor listeri: (50-100) plus daily on CI. Recorded almost daily on Cocos group. Small numbers (2-4) over West Island and a larger flock of (30) on Horsburgh Island over lagoon. Difficult to estimate numbers on North Keeling but at least (1000).
Lesser Frigatebird Fregata ariel: Not seen this year at Christmas Island where scarce but (10-20) daily over West Island, perhaps (1000) over North Keeling and at least (10) mixed in with Greater over Horsburgh Island on 20 Dec.
Christmas Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi: (50-100) recorded daily on CI, with most over Flying Fish Cove and Poon Saan.
White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae: (3-8) daily on CI, mostly on the airstrip and around South Point.
Little Egret Egretta garzetta: (1) of Australian subspecies nigripes in breeding plumage was photographed on the West Island Airstrip on 20 Dec. Photographed.
Eastern Reef Egret Egretta sacra: (2) at Waterfall Beach on 16 Dec and (3) Ethel Beach on 17 Dec, CI. All white morph birds. (10-30) mixed white and dark morph birds seen on Cocos, mostly West Island. Photographed.
Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis: (5) at lagoon on West Island on north end of Airstrip on every visit. One white morph bird at Home Island on 17 Dec. This species was distinctive with longer tibia and tarsus showing much longer legs than typical Eastern Reef Egrets. Several birds with breeding plumes on nape, chest and back. Many dark morph birds with distinctive white throats. One, an intermediate morph bird seen near Rubbish Tip on West Island. Feeding actions centred on deeper water with erratic Little Egret like feeding behaviour. Photographed.
Great Egret Ardea alba: (1) seen on every visit to lagoon north of airstrip on West Island recorded on 15, 17, 18, 20 and 21 Dec. Photographed.
Nankeen Night-Heron Nycticorax caledonicus: Not recorded at Hugh¹s Dale, CI on 16 Dec. (20-50) recorded daily on Cocos, mostly on West Island.
Christmas Island Goshawk Accipiter fasciatus natalis: (1) adult male at Drumsite on 16 Dec and (1) near The Plantation on the same date, also an adult male. While currently classified in as a subspecies of the Brown Goshawk it appears likely this taxa may be moved to Variable Goshawk Accipiter hiogaster of New Guinea and eastern Indonesia.
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides: (10-20) seen daily on CI where common and conspicuous in grassland-forest edge and townsites.
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus: (2) at the Tip on late afternoon on 16 Dec with another pair seen fleetingly at Northwest Point near the new Detention Centre the same day. A high count of (5) on West Island on 18 Dec with sightings on three dates scattered from Bechat Besar, Airfield, early morning and late afternoon roadside sightings near Quarantine Centre and Rubbish Tip. Recorded in three days in total, all sightings on West Island. All birds seen were adult. Photographed.
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica: (8) South Island on 19 Dec.
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus: (1) South Island on 19 Dec.
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia: (4) Rumah Baru, West Island on 18 Dec.
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos: (1) seen on 17 Dec at Flying Fish Cove with (1) Waterfall Cove on 16 Dec. A further (4) present at Ethel Beach on 17 Dec. On CKI (2) on Home Island on 18 Dec and (1) Horsburgh Island lagoon on 20 Dec and (1) same date at lagoon area north of Airstrip, West Island.
Grey-tailed Tattler Heteroscelus brevipes: (5) South Island on 19 Dec.
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres: (60) South Island on 19 Dec.
Sanderling Calidris alba: (5) South Island on 19 Dec.
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis: (7) South Island on 19 Dec.
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus: (1) immature at Waterfall Cove, Casino, CI on 16 Dec. (1) adult leucocephalus at lagoon on Horsburgh Island on 20 Dec.
Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva: (2) at West Island Airstrip on 15, 18-19 Dec with (4) at South Island on 19 Dec.
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola: (8) South Island on 19 Dec.
Lesser Sand-Plover Charadrius mongolus: (3) South Island on 19 Dec. Photographed as possibly first record for Cocos.
Greater Sand-Plover Charadrius leschenaultii: (40) on South Island on 19 Dec.
Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum: (3) on West Island at the north end of Airstrip and lagoon area on 15 and 17 Dec. Single bird present here on both 20-21 Dec. Photographed.
Saunder’s Tern Sterna saundersii: (7) South Island on 19 Dec. Photographed.
Common Noddy Anous stolidus: (100) daily mostly at Flying Fish Cove, CI with (1) seen from West Island on 18 Dec and (50) around North Keeling on 19 Dec.
White Tern Gygis alba: (10) daily on West Island; (50) North Keeling Island and at least (20) Horsburgh Island where several pairs roosting and possibly nesting near the lagoon here on 20 Dec.
*Rock Pigeon Columba livia: (3) present on West Island; two pure white ones and one chestnut. Presumably some-ones personal birds.
Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica natalis: (10) daily on CI. Distinctive subspecies with white forehead and silver crown is considered specifically distinct from Australian birds by certain authors.
Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon Ducula whartoni: (20) daily on CI where abundant in every forested habitat.
Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopacea: (1) opposite VQ3 in Settlement on Christmas Island on 16 Dec was a second year male bird with banded tail and primaries on an otherwise inky black bird.
Christmas Island Hawk-Owl Ninox natalis: (2) gave a sensational view at the Golf Course on dusk on 16 Dec.
Cave Swiftlet Collocalia linchi natalis: (100) seen daily on CI. A recent unpublished genetic study shows this island population is more closely related to the Cave Swiftlet Collocalia linchi than to the Glossy Swiftlet C. esculenta.
Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis: (1) South Island on 19 December was an adult seen perched in tall dead tree in thick coconut scrub. Red bill and legs aged as adult. Dark head contrasting with green mantle identifies as one on the north Asian subspecies either nominate orientalis or abundus. Photographed.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus: (50) plus daily around Settlement on CI.
Java Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora: (3) near VQ3 on 16 Dec.
Christmas Island White-eye Zosterops natalis: (200) plus seen daily in every forested habitat on Christmas Island. Abundant. Common on Horsburgh Island in the Cocos group on our visit here 20 Dec.
Island Thrush Turdus poliocephalus erythropleurus: (30) plus seen daily in every forested habitat on Christmas Island. Moderately common, tame and approachable.
Christmas Island Flying Fox Pteropus melanotus natalis: (2) recorded daily on CI with sightings along the Blowholes Road and behind Flying Fish Cove. Also heard as we walked to Margaret Knoll on 17 Dec.
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus: (10) seen from boat at both North Keeling Island and in lagoon near West Island Jetty on 19 Dec.
False Killer Whale Pseudorca crassidens: (5) in a family unit seen off North Keeling Island on 19 Dec were actively breaching and attempting to predate a Sailfish.
Asian House Gecko Hemidactylus frenatus: Common around accommodations at VQ3 Lodge ad elsewhere in settlement.Also present on Cocos Islands
Gehyra mutilata: Cocos Islands, one in rubbish bin on Home Island and one caught on West Island by Barbara.
Wolf Snake Lycodon capucinus: (1) found road-killed on Christmas Island
Robber Crab Birgus latro: Moderately common, seen daily often scavenging road-killed Red Crabs. Some real giants seen, especially inside the national park. The world¹s largest terrestrial arthropod and spectacularly coloured.
Red Hermit Crab Coenobita perlatus: Common on Cocos Islands
Red Crab Gecarcoidea natalis: Abundant- several thousand encountered. Truly impressive phenomena.
Purple Crab Gecarcoidea lalandii: Common in palm scrub on the Cocos Islands.
Blue Crab Cardisoma hirtipes: (200) around Hugh¹s Dale on 16 Dec with (20) around Waterfall Beach the same day.
Little Nipper Geograpsus grayi: A few encountered daily on Christmas Island
Grapsus Grapsus tenuicrustatus: Common on intertidal rocks on Christmas Island.
Horn-eyed Ghost Crab Ocypode ceratopthalmus: Common on beaches on Cocos Islands.
A partial list of fish species seen with many more recorded by Barbara and Irene.
Black-tipped Reef Shark Carcharinus melanopterus: Common in lagoon-tidal flat areas on CK.
Giant Moray Gymnothorax javanicus: (1) in main lagoon on Cocos.
Painted Moray Eel Gymnothorax pictus: (2) in reef flats on Christmas Island.
Crocodile Longtom Tylosurus crocodilus: Possibly the common garfish at Jetty, West Island.
Trumpetfish Aulostomus chinensis: CK
Leopard Rockcod Cephalopholis leopardus: Prison Island, CK
Sharksucker Echeneis naucrates: One attached to bow-riding Bottle-nosed Dolphin in main lagoon, CK.
Bluefin Trevally Caranx melampygus: Around the Jetty on Home Island.
Rainbow Runner Elagatis bipinnulata: North Keeling
Spotted Sweetlips Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides: CK
Goldsaddle Goatfish Parupeneus cyclostomus: Horsburgh Island, CK
Threadfin Butterflyfish Chaetodon auriga: CK
Saddled Butterflyfish C. ephippium: CK
Raccoon Butterflyfish C. lunula: CK
Humphead Maori Wrasse Chelinus undulatus: CK (1) threatened species
Green Moon Wrasse Thalassoma lutescens: CK
Greencheek Parrotfish Scarus prasiognathus: CK
Moorish Idol Zanclus cornutus: CK
Clown Unicornfish Naso lituratus: CK
Bluespine Unicornfish Naso unicornis: CK
Wedgetail Triggerfish Rhinecanthus rectangulus: Horsburgh Island, CK
Sailfish Istiophorus platypterus: NK-being attacked by False Killer Whales.
By Dion Hobcroft leading for FTB