We spent 3 to 7 December on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and 7 to 10 December on Christmas Island, amidst genuine monsoonal rains, record-breaking rainfalls and a flood of exceptionally rare birds. In the Cocos Group we stayed on West I and visited, South, Horsburgh, Direction, Home and Moon Islands in the Southern Atoll and cruised around North Keeling Island without landing. We recorded a total of 57 bird species for the trip, with a balanced 36 species on both the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island. We saw all the endemics on Christmas Island and most of the breeding birds of the Indian Ocean Territories bar a few confined to North Keeling Island (Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Sooty Tern, Lesser Noddy and Buff-banded Rail). We found one new bird for Australia (Eurasian Hobby), saw three other major rarities (Watercock, Yellow Bittern and Red Collared Dove), some mega specialties of the Territories (Western Reef Egret,White-breated Waterhen, Pin-tailed Snipe, Asian Koel, Asian House Martin and Grey Wagtail) and a host of other rare birds for the islands. Land crabs, marine turtles, dolphins, flying foxes, colourful reef fishes, massive coral bommies, fine Asian food and plenty of jocularity rounded off a trip that none of us will forget.
Lesser Frigatebird by participant Rae Clark
Friday 3 December: Our party of five assembled from all corners at Perth International Airport before jetting to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. We landed at West Island just after lunch with Nankeen Night-Herons and various egrets flushing from the runway as we taxied in. Stepping off the plane the tropical humidity hit us like a wet brick wall. Cocos was on the verge of smashing the 110 year old annual rainfall record of 3.3 metres, so it was a little soggy to say the least. Storms a brewing. Puddles under foot. Binoculars fogging up. Too sticky to move. This would usher well for the birds!
After freshening up at the Cocos Beach Motel we fired up the bins, jumped in the bus to head out and got besieged by Green Junglefowl (Green Chooks) and White-breasted Waterhen only 100 m down the road. We weren’t even out of town! They lured us onto the edge of the airstrip were there were more Nankeen Night-Herons, and a crowd of Eastern Reef Egrets. Heading north up West Island we stopped at a quarry just south of the Quarantine Station and added 4 Pacific Black Ducks and a couple of Little Egrets. Purple Land Crabs scurried from under our feet, disturbed from dining on the odorous Rotten Cheese Fruits. Driving on we saw some Feral Chickens (Red Chooks) and some stray goats and the odd lamb chop along the roadside near the Quarantine Station. At the jetty a lone White-winged Black Tern loped by lazily. At Trannies Beach a pair of distant frigatebirds was heading towards the rookery at North Keeling Island, while we inspected a huddle of Red Hermit Crabs and a scuttle of Horn-eyed Ghost Crabs; a refreshing dip was had by one eager punter. Retracing our steps, we investigated a track into the coconut groves and came to a scrape where there were three Eastern Reef Egrets and our first Western Reef Egret, a grey bird with a whitish chin and vent. Driving back to town at dusk we counted roughly 40 White-breasted Waterhens and many times more Green Chooks diligently tending the 7 km of road verge.
Airport Lagoon Cocos
Saturday 4 December: Early in the morning eagle-eyed Rae found a lone Oriental Pratincole on the airstrip that we all got to see. Over breakfast we lazily watched troops of Red-footed Boobies and a smattering of Brown Boobies commuting southwards off the coast of West Island. With full bellies we headed to the north end of the airstrip and the shore of North Lagoon. Egrets, Nankeen Night-Herons and Green Chooks conspired to block our passage, but we pushed on. We flushed a few Pin-tailed Snipes from the samphire. Two Bar-tailed Godwits and a Whimbrel fed on the sandbanks in the lagoon, while a couple of Black Ducks swam around. Then we flushed a female Watercock from under a Pemphis bush and watched her fly off, arcing around us and affording extended views. This is the second record of the species for the Cocos (K) Islands. Before lunch we ventured down to the southern end of West Island and found three Barn Swallows south of the runway. After lunch we joined Kylie of Cocos Islands Adventure Tours for a canoe trip to South Island. This, I thought, might be a challenge since the canoes were fitted with outboard motors, scrumptious hors d’oeuvres and a bottle or two of bubbly on ice. An inquisitive Black-tipped Reef Shark inspected our legs as we boarded. Our main quarry was Saunders Tern but we were out of luck because exceptional king tides had swallowed every bank in Telok Semberang (Worship Bay). In the Calophyllum forests we could find no White Terns, apparently temporary victims of the cyclonic winds a month earlier. On the seaward side of the island we found the displaced warders huddled on a tiny scrap of beach: 80 Lesser Sand Plovers, some Red-necked Stints, a Ruddy Turnstone and another sandpiper (a Curlew or a Broad-billed Sandpiper, perhaps), while a winsome of 30 Whimbrels wheeled by. The refreshments went down a treat as we watched the sunset over West Island from a salubrious Pondok on Moon Island.
Sunday 5 December: At sparrow’s raspberry a couple of us made a quick visit to the ‘Scrape’ south of the airstrip where we found a Pin-tailed Snipe, our 3 Barn Swallows again and some mischievous egrets. After breakfast we took a charter boat on a tour of the Southern Atoll with Jeff. At Horsburgh Island we were greeted immediately by Eastern Reef Egrets, some hungry Red Chooks and flocks of Christmas Island White-Eyes. White Terns were sailing overhead. Rae picked up a falcon flying high and way-off in the distance. As we watched, a Eurasian Hobby gradually approached and landed in a dead tree 100 m away. After watching it for a while we edged closer before it eventually flushed and flew over our heads, showing the diagnostic streaked breast and rufous trousers. With the aid of some distant photos we will confirm this as a new species for Australia. On the seaward beach a lone Masked Booby flew by close to shore. At the internal lagoon we found 2 Common Sandpipers and a lone Black Duck. White-breasted Waterhen was calling. Chris and Janene enjoyed a refreshing snorkel at the Catalina wreck, with an awesome variety of fish, including one they said was dressed like a bird tour guide. Leisurely visits to Direction and Home Island produced Red Chooks, Eastern Reef Egrets and a lone Whimbrel. On the run home we paused enjoy fantastic views of a tumble of Green Turtles through the glass-bottom of the boat. Late in the afternoon we snuck into Bechet Besar (literally ‘big muddy’) the legendary swamp nestled in the coconut groves on West Island. It was full, it was muddy. It had 8 Black Ducks. The dredge ponds at Rumah Baru produced 2 more Black Ducks and a Striated Heron.
Golden Bonsun by participant Rae Clark
Monday 6 December: Sunrise saw us back at the ‘Scrape’ excitedly viewing a very cute juvenile Yellow Bittern found the day before by Richard Baxter’s group. There were also two Striated Herons, about 10 Western Reef Egret things (‘piebald’, ‘bleached grey’ and ‘white with dark flecks’ varieties), some Little Egrets, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a Common Sandpiper and 2 Barn Swallows. A platton of 20 Pacific Golden Plovers was on the southern end of the airstrip. After breakfast we took a charter boat out to Pulu Keeling (North Keeling Island), the mega seabird rookery. Travelling out over unusually calm seas we saw Red-footed Boobies and Common Noddies. As we approached north Keeling we were greeted by thousands of Red-footed Boobies, and fury of Great Frigatebirds. Hundreds of Lesser Frigatebirds soon appeared. About 15 Brown Boobies and 10 Masked Boobies were seen. Three White-tailed Tropicbirds cavorted overhead, while a lone Red-tailed Tropicbird barrelled past on a more serious mission. Common Noddies bustled about continuously. A pair of Bottlenose Dolphins road the bow and mating Green Turtles showed no interest in us. Sooty Terns and Lesser Noddies were not on show. Upon return a visit to the ponds at Rumah Baru produced the usual suspect herons and 4 Black Ducks. Another 24 Black Ducks were at Bechet Besar late in the afternoon. We couldn’t resist another peak at the Yellow Bittern on the way home. This time Christine found and identified from about 100 m away, which would surely be a long-distance record for the identification for this crippler in Australia!
Tuesday 7 December: For our final morning on Cocos we went back to North Lagoon. The tide was full, the water was like a mirror and the early morning clam was majestic. Over 60 impatient herons cluttered the meagrely exposed perches, eager for the water to recede. An Intermediate Egret stood out like a giant amongst its resident cousins. An Oriental Pratincole perched alone in the lagoon on a piece of scrap metal from WWII. Two White-throated Needletails buzzed us at the turn-off to Rumah Baru. The Golden Plovers were back at the south end of the airstrip. Driving along the edge of the runway we watched a hobby (or the Hobby?) dash at full tilt across the runway and dive into a grove of Calophylum trees. By the time we drove the long way round to the other side it was nowhere to be found. At 3 pm we departed for Christmas Island, and more monsoon birding.
Christmas Island was shrouded in storm clouds as our plane approached in fading light. In the airport carpark a lone Abbott’s Booby and a few Red-footed Boobies flew overhead. A Nankeen Kestrel perched on the roof of a hangar. Driving down the hill we had glimpses of Christmas Island Frigatebird and Great Frigatebird. Eurasian Tree Sparrow and more Kestrels entertained as we did some quick food shopping in Poon San. There were glimpses of Christmas Island White-eye, Christmas Island Swiftlet and Island Thrush in the shadows of evening. During dinner the heavens opened with a tropical deluge. As the rain eased we snuck out to the Golf Course and were soon viewing a Christmas Island Hawk-Owl calling from a frangipani. After ogling over a couple of Robber Crabs it we retired for a well-earned sleep.
Red Crab Christmas Island
Wednesday 8 December: On Wednesday morning a single Asian House Martin flew past the Rumah Tinggi. As the sun came out in the Settlement, so did Christmas Island’s extra special Golden Bosunbirds (White-tailed Tropicbirds). Great and Christmas Island Frigatebirds and Red-footed Boobies flew about. Two Fork-tailed Swifts sallied in front of the accommodation. Six Java Sparrows waited for us at the Cocos Padang in Settlement. We saw them here again 2 days latter but couldn’t find them anywhere else. This beautiful little introduced finch may be facing its last days on the Island, thanks to the ravages of cats. By contrast, Eurasian Tree Sparrows have boomed in recent years. Brown Boobies and Common Noddies showed at Flying Fish Cove. In Poon San an adult female Christmas Island Goshawk was perched on a lamp post affording excellent views. At Territory Day Park lookout we enjoyed a birds’ eye-view of the seabirds as they cruised along the cliff face below us. Another Goshawk appeared at the Plantation. Near North West Point we found a fluffy juvenile Abbott’s Booby high in the trees waiting for its parents to bring some fish. At Field 25 we were besieged by a pontification of Christmas Island Imperial Pigeons feeding on the Japanese Cherries. Swiftlets and White-eyes were everywhere. Red Chooks were scattered around the township. During our lunch break the monsoon regrouped with a vengeance and lashed us unrelentingly. A couple of Eastern Reef Egrets were looking very soggy at Isabel Cove. We retreated to Mar Choi Nui Nui Temple and sat under cover relaxing in the ironic serenity of the pelting rain, still air, eerie light and the wafting of exotic incense. As we watched the seascape between the cellophane-like palm leaves a sodden White-faced Heron glared back at us from the jagged cliff edge. As the rain eased we headed to the CI Resort and found some Blue Crabs wandering on the road. A juvenile Brown Booby sat patiently on the cliff above Waterfall Cove, posing coyly for the cameras. A Christmas Island Flying-fox landed in the trees behind the Resort. Returning to Settlement we found a third Goshawk perched on a lamp post in the main street of town.
Thursday 9 December: Dawn was accompanied by continuing torrents and a bleak outlook for birding. At 6:30 the skies abruptly cleared and we were back in the hunt. Seabirds were out and about. A Striated Heron was on the roadside near the Grotto. However, it was time that we headed directly to a place that is arguably the best spot for vagrant birds in all of Australia: the dazzling and illustrious Christmas Island Rubbish Tip. Kestrels, Swiftlets, White-eyes and Imperial Pigeons greeted us. We soon found two White-faced Herons, a Wood Sandpiper and a Common Greenshank. Janene spotted a Red Collared Dove, the 4th Australian record. This shiny male was perched in the sun calmly eyeing his impeccable domain with obvious pride. Six flighty Grey Wagtails added some extra excitement. At the airport a platoon of 30 Pacific Golden Plovers contained a Lesser Sand Plover, a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. At Low Point we watched a Peregrine Falcon hunting a Common Noddy without success, and found two Golden Plovers too petrified by the falcon to fly off. On the road to South Point we finally had decent views of Emerald Dove and flushed a Goshawk on the roadside. Before lunch we visited the Sitting Room in Settlement to view courting Red-tailed Tropicbirds at close quarters. After lunch we returned to North West Point for more views of Abbott’s Booby and finished the day in fading light at Margarets Knoll watching a couple of Flying-foxes rising out of the forest, some Brown Boobies crashing around on the cliff-tops, and some hefty Robber Crabs feasting on cold a Red Crab salad.
Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon by participant Rae Clark
Friday 10 December: When our final day arrived we tracked down the Java Sparrows again at the Cocos Padang. A Peregrine Falcon was perched on the Telecom Tower above Settlement, apparently nailed there for the pleasure of birders by Lisa from Island Explorer Holidays. At Silver City we called in a pair of Asian Koels and had extended views of a regal, but possibly slightly peeved, female. The male, however, was rather shyer. On cue, Max from Parks called me to say he was watching a pair of Koels in Settlement, so we retraced our steps and soon had sensational views of an immature male down there. At Flying Fish Cove a Common Sandpiper teetered on the sea wall as an Eastern Reef Egret fished on the reef for once. But the rains were not giving up without a fight and the rest of morning promised to be a washout. Stopping at the Golf Course we found 40 Christmas Island Flying Foxes camped in a She-oak. We returned to town, but later a quick drive out past the Golf Course produced an Eastern Great Egret and a Whimbrel virtually drowning on the road side. On the way to the airport to check-in we took the scenic route through Quarry Road past some of the scars of Christmas Island’s mining history. Two groups of Asian House Martins totalling about 10 birds were darting recklessly about in the rain as a parting reminder that it is the birds, not the weather, that rule on this truly great Island.
David with Robber Crab
*Feral Chicken (Red Junglefowl) Gallus gallus: a few on West, South, Horsburgh, Deception and Home Is on CK; plenty seen daily on CI.
*Green Junglefowl Gallus varius: seen daily (up to 100) on West I, CK.
Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa: 1 on Horsburgh I on 5 Dec; on West I at North Lagoon, Rumah Baru, Quarantine Station Quarry and a high count of 24 at Bechet Besar on 6 Dec.
Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda: 1 adult at North Keeling Island on 6 Dec. On CI, 3 at Sitting Room on 9 Dec and brief or distant views at Steep Point on 9 Dec and Rumah Tinggi on 8 Dec.
White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus: 3 adults of subspecies lepturus at North Keeling I on 6 Dec; daily views of up to 30 of subspecies fulvus on CI.
Red Collared Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica: 1 adult male at the CI rubbish tip on 9 Dec is the 4th record for Australia but all may represent a single, resident individual.
Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica natalis: 3 to 4 daily on CI but mostly only heard, and seen well only on 9 Dec along the road to South Point.
Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon Ducula whartoni: seen daily on CI where often common in forest, in weed fields and around town.
Christmas Island Swiftlet Collocalia natalis: Seen daily on CI in moderate numbers; this taxon has been treated as a subspecies of Glossy Swiftlet C. esculenta and was recently moved to Cave Swiftlet Collocalia linchi but is better considered a unique species.
White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus: 2 on West I at the turn-off to Rumah Baru on 7 Dec.
Fork-tailed Swift Apus pacificus: 2 on CI in Settlement outside VQ3 Lodge on 8 Dec.
Great Frigatebird Fregata minor: around 1,000 at North Keeling I on 6 Dec; 50 or so daily on CI.
Lesser Frigatebird Fregata ariel: several hundred at North Keeling I on 6 Dec.
Christmas Island Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi: 50 or so daily on CI
Abbott’s Booby Papasula abbotti: single flying over the CI Airport on 7 Dec; 1 juvenile seen and several heard along NW Point Rd on 8 and 9 Dec; 2 adults flying over NW Point Rd on 9 Dec.
Masked Booby Sula dactylatra: 1 close of the seaward side of Horsburgh I on 5 Dec; about 6 off North Keeling I, including 1 juvenile on 6 Dec.
Red-footed Booby Sula sula: low hundreds daily off the west coast of West I; tens of thousands at North Keeling on 6 Dec; hundreds daily at CI, all white morphs.
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster: several daily off the west coast of West I; about 15 at North Keeling I on 6 Dec; up to 10 daily on CI.
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis: 1 juvenile on West I at the Scrape south of the airstrip on 6 Dec; found on 5 Dec by Richard Baxter.
Eastern Great Egret Ardea modesta: 1 on CI on the roadside opposite the Golf Course on 9 Dec.
Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia: 1 on West Island at North Lagoon on 7 Dec.
Striated Heron Butoroides striatus: 1 on West I at Rumah Baru ponds on 5 Dec; 2 at the Scrape on 6 Dec and 7 Dec; on CI beside the Golfcourse Road near the Grotto on 9 Dec.
White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae: on CI, 1 at MCNN Temple on 8 Dec and 2 at rubbish tip on 9 Dec.
Little Egret Egretta garzetta: 10-20 on West Island at airstrip, North Lagoon and the Scrape.
North Keeling Island by participant Rae Clark
Western Reef Egret Egretta gularis: several on West I: 1 at a quarry north of the Quarantine Station, up to 6 at the scrape, 3-4 at North Lagoon and 1-2 at Rumah Baru ponds.
Eastern Reef Egret Egretta sacra: Recorded daily on West Island, 20-50 birds of both white and dark morphs; also Horsburgh, Home, South and North Keeling Islands; on CI, 2 at Isabella Cove on 8 Dec and 1 at Flying Fish Cove on 10 Dec.
Nankeen Night-Heron Nycticorax caledonicus: recorded daily on West Island, 20-50 birds.
Christmas Island Goshawk Accipiter natalis: 1 adult female at Poon San on 8 Dec; 1 at Plantation on 8 Dec; 1 2nd year female at Temple Court on 8 Dec; 1 or 2 on N-S Baseline near Grant’s Well turnoff on 9 Dec. This taxon has been treated as subspecies of Brown Goshawk A. fasciatus and was recently moved to Variable Goshawk A. hiogaster but is better considered a unique species.
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides: 5-20 seen daily on CI in open environments.
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo: 1 adult flying and perched on Horsburgh I on 5 Dec will be a new bird for the Australian list; another hobby flying across the airstrip on West I on 7 Dec may have been a different individual.
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus: 1 on CI at Steep Point on 9 Dec and 1 at the Telecom Tower on Murray Road above Settlement on 10 Dec may have been different birds.
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus: recorded daily on West I with a high count of about 40 along the road north of town; 1 calling on Horsburgh I at the lagoon; none seen or heard on Christmas Island where cats are apparently having a huge impact.
Watercock Gallicrex cinerea: 1 on West I female-plumaged bird flushed at the shore of North Lagoon on 4 Dec is the 2nd record for Cocos and the 4th to 6th for Australia.
Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva: 20 on West Island at the airstrip on 6 Dec; 2 on CI at Low Point on 9 Dec; 30 on CI at Airport on 9 and 10 Dec.
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus: 3-4 on South I on 4 Dec; 1 on CI at Airport on 9 Dec.
Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura: about 4 on West I at the north end of the airstrip on 4 Dec; 1 on West I at the Scrape on 5 Dec.
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica: 2 on West I at North Lagoon on 4 Dec; 1 on CI at the Airport on 9 Dec.
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus: 1 on West I at North Lagoon on 4 Dec; 20 on South I on 4 Dec; 1 (probable) on Home Island on 5 Dec; 1 on CI on the roadside opposite the Golf Course on 10 Dec.
Rae, Chris & David by participant Pamela
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos: 2 on Horsburgh I at the internal lagoon on 5 Dec; 1 on West I at the Scrape on 6 Dec; 1 on CI at Flying Fish Cove on 10 Dec.
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia: 1 on CI at the rubbish tip on 9 Dec.
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola: 1 on CI at the rubbish tip on 9 Dec.
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres: 1 on South I on 4 Dec.
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis: about on South I on 4 Dec.
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata: 1 on West I at the Scrape on 6 Dec.
Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum: 1 on West I at the airstrip on 4 Dec and 1 at North Lagoon on 7 Dec.
Common Noddy Anous stolidus: several hundred around North Keeling I on 6 Dec.
White Tern Gygis alba: up to 10 on Horsburgh I on 5 Dec; up to 40 on North Keeling I on 6 Dec.
White-winged Black Tern Chilodonius leucopterus: 1 on West I off the Old Jetty on 3 Dec.
Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopacea: a pair on CI at Silver City on 10 Dec and a different pair at Rocky Point on 10 Dec.
Christmas Island Hawk-Owl Ninox natalis: 1 viewed closely on CI at the Golf Course on 7 Dec.
Christmas Island White-eye Zosterops natalis: common on Horsburgh I on 5 Dec; common on CI daily.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica: 3 on West I at the south end of the airstrip at and near the Scrape on 4, 5 and 6 Dec.
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus: 1 on CI at The Rumah Tinggi on 8 Dec; 10 on CI at Quarry Road (Phosphate Hill) on 10 Dec.
Island Thrush Turdus poliocephalus erythropleurus: seen daily on CI in forest, roadside and township habitats.
Java Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora: 4 to 6 at the Cocos Padang on 8 and 10 Dec.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus: on CI, abundant in Settlement and common in Poon San, daily
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea: 6 on CI at the rubbish tip.
Prepared by David James for FTB