Christmas Island: 5th -9th September 2017   1 comment

In September this year I went on a Birdquest tour to Western Australia. I am only now getting round to sorting and editing the photos.

In addition to the tour of the state of Western Australia there was an optional pre-tour extension to Christmas Island and it seems appropriate that rather than posting photos of family stuffing themselves, I upload an account of Christmas Island at Christmas time.

Christmas Island, although an Australia external territory lies a full 1550 km from the nearest point of the mainland but only 350 km from Java. Ornithologically it is known as the sole breeding site of two seabirds, Christmas Island Frigatebird and Abbott’s Booby plus the ‘golden’ form of White-tailed Tropicbird and has four endemic land birds (plus two more endemic subspecies that are likely to be promoted to species status in the future).

I have seen Christmas Island Frigatebird and a golden White-tailed Tropicbird off Java and remarkably saw a vagrant Abbott’s Booby in Micronesia. After that I declared that I would save my money and not ‘do’ Christmas Island. I’m very glad that I changed my mind as I really enjoyed the place (although due to changes in flight schedules we were there longer than was needed). It was an expensive few days (it’s no longer practical to fly from Jakarta so we had to fly all the way to Perth first and then back north) but the fact that I was asked to drive the second vehicle helped reduce the cost somewhat.

The flight from the UK was predictably lengthy and boring. On arrival at Perth I stayed for what remained of the night in a nearby hotel before returning to the airport the following morning for the flight to Christmas Island. Economically the island is known for phosphate mining and several of these mines could be seen as we came into land. The island is 135 sq km in extent and home to 2000 people, a mixture of white Australians and those of mainly Chinese Malay descent. Although first noted by navigators in 1615 it wasn’t named until 1643 when Captain William Mynors sailed past on Christmas Day. It wasn’t settled until the mid 19th century.

 

We had hardly left the airport when our leader Andy Jensen pulled to a halt. There perched in full view was a Christmas Island Goshawk, a bird that many birders have failed to see during their stay. We only saw two more and they were just a brief flight views. It’s taxonomic position is controversial. Currently considered a subspecies of Brown Goshawk, it has also been considered a subspecies of Variable Goshawk. Either way, it lies well to the west of the range of either Brown or Variable Goshawk. Most people agree that the most sensible thing is to consider it a species in its own right, something that has been done in the most recent Australian field guide.

 

There is universal agreement on the species status of Christmas Island White-eye however.

 

Christmas Island Imperial Pigeons were large and quite conspicuous.

 

Christmas Island Swiftlet was considered a subspecies of Edible-nest Swiftlet until a few weeks before the tour commenced. Identifying these small swiftlets in flight is nigh on impossible unless you can get near-perfect photos. Some are best identified by the composition of their nests: Edible-nest Swiftlet – only saliva, Black-nest Swiftlet – breast feathers and saliva, Mossy-nest Swiftlet – moss and saliva. It goes without saying that Edible-nest Swiftlet nest are the most valuable and sought after for the manufacture of bird nest soup.

 

Island Thrush was common and tame all over the island including in the towns. The Island Thrush complex involves some 50 or so races spread across the islands of Wallacea and the western Pacific. Many of the subspecies look very different from each other, some are black,some are brown, others have white heads, most occur on remote mountain tops and are very timid and elusive. Again the general consensus is that this tame species, which occurs to sea level should be split as Christmas Island Thrush.

 

The other endemic landbird is Christmas Island Boobook which showed so very well in a small park in Settlement on our first night.

 

The following morning we visited this viewpoint overlooking Flying Fish Cove and the conurbation known as Settlement. All of the above photos except the goshawk and owl were taken near here.

 

In addition we saw the endemic Christmas island Flying Fox  ….

 

…. and also Common Emerald Dove which is considered a different species from Pacific Emerald Dove that occurs in eastern Australia.

 

Breakfast time, indeed many meal times, were enlivened by Island Thrushes begging for scraps.

 

By breakfast time on our first morning we had seen all the endemic land birds so we set off to explore the rocky coasts. With three and a half days in front of us we had plenty of time to concentrate on the seabirds. Unfortunately flight schedules meant we could only spend two nights or four on the island. If we chose the former and there was bad weather or the flights were routed via Cocos Island we could have well dipped on the goshawk or the owl. Of course an extra day in such a lovely place was no hardship but we really could have done with an extra day at some locations on the mainland.

 

The coastal scenery was characterised by jagged volcanic rocks ….

 

…. quiet coves ….

 

…. and dramatic blowholes.

 

Nankeen Kestrels were regular if not exactly common ….

 

…. it’s interesting that this species, widespread in mainland Australia has colonised rather than Spotted Kestrel which can be found in Indonesia, including Java, only a quarter of the distance away.

 

Unlike the Red-footed Boobies, which nest in trees, Brown Boobies were seen along the rocky shores.

 

So we got great close-ups of their long gangly necks.

 

For an hour or so after dawn large numbers of Brown Noddies passed close inshore.

 

Red-footed Boobies gave wonderful views ….

 

…. Red-footed Booby is one of the most widespread of the Sulidae, the family that comprised the ten species of Boobies and Gannets, being found in the tropical Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

 

A brown phase also occurs which is a pale brown all over unlike the dark brown upperparts and white belly of Brown Booby.

 

Some of the delights of Christmas Island were the excellent views of Red-tailed Tropicbirds that we saw all along the coast.

 

Pairs would perform their ‘rowing backwards’ aerial display, but as the pair keep some distance from each other whilst doing this it didn’t result in great photos, but as they drifted past on the updrafts from the cliffs they posed nicely for the camera.

 

But the highlight was the ‘Golden Bosunbird’, currently classified as the race fulvus of White-tailed Tropicbird. Bosunbird or Boatswain Bird  was the name given to Tropicbirds in the days of sailing boats (for reasons I can’t establish).

 

There are those who consider that this form should be split as a separate species, but whilst this is an attractive proposition, I think they don’t even warrant subspecies status and they are no more than a colour morph. The bird in these two pictures represents the extreme of golden colouration, most are much paler ….

 

…. and white morph individuals, looking just like the White-tailed Tropicbirds that are seen elsewhere, are not uncommon.

 

Once when driving past the golf course someone in the group saw an Intermediate Egret. We turned round and went back to investigate ….

 

…. but only found a white-morph Pacific Reef Egret.

 

However the next day we saw an undoubted Intermediate Egret in the same place. Talk about the ‘two bird theory’.

Tree Sparrows, introduced to Christmas Island from Asia, could be easily seen around habitation ….

 

…. but the introduced Java Sparrow (which isn’t a sparrow at all but a member of the Estrildidae) was much harder to find. Fortunately we heard that a resident put out food for them at 4pm every day on the roof of her garage so we had great views along with a few Tree Sparrows. I missed Java Sparrow when I went to Java but have seen introduced population in places as far-flung as Hawaii, St Helena and here. Java Sparrow is one of just two or three species which I have only seen as introduced individuals rather than in their native range.

 

One of the most bizarre experiences of the trip, indeed in all of my 40+ years of birding occurred when we visited the part of the town by Flying Fish Cove, immediately under the viewpoint that I illustrated at the start of this account. About half an hour after sunset a strange call was heard offshore and we followed it round until it turned and came directly towards us up the street.

 

It was a Tropical Shearwater, possibly only the third or fourth record for all of Australia. The bird continued up the street, dodging traffic, calling all the time, before it swung back out to sea. It repeated this performance twice more before flying up the hill. I didn’t get any photos worth publishing so have used this photo from one of the local birders, Hickson Ferguson.

 

Imagine a small shearwater zooming up this street at shoulder height as you were driving down it! What made the experience even more bizarre was that this was a Muslim part of town and whilst we were listening to the shearwater’s calls an Iman from the local mosque was preaching in (I presume) Arabic and his sermon was being relayed over the loudspeakers.

 

We also spent time in the forested interior of the island.

 

In some areas there were colonies of Frigatebirds ….

 

…. but the main attraction was Abbott’s Booby.

 

Undoubtedly the rarest and most range restricted of all the ten members of the Sulidae, this species is restricted to Christmas Island where it nests in tall trees. I was lucky to see one in a Red-footed Booby colony on Rota in Micronesia (the bird was probably ship assisted) but seeing them and their chicks in the breeding colonies on Christmas Island was a superb experience.

 

With their fluffy plumage and black surround to the eyes, the chicks looked almost owl-like as the gazed down from their tree top nests.

 

With its drooping neck and thin, elongated wings held in strangely pushed forwards manner, Abbott’s Booby’s flight has been likened to that of a Pterodactyl, which is a bit strange as we all missed adding Pterodactyl to our list by at least 65,000,000 years so how does anyone know?

 

Although Christmas Island has some great bird spectacles, most people know it as the site of the world’s largest crab migration. This occurs later in the year at the onset of the monsoon so we didn’t get to see it.

 

However there were plenty of the giant Robber Crabs about ….

 

…. but far more Christmas Island Red Crabs. The population is estimated at 40 million or 20 thousand for each human inhabitant.

 

In order to reproduce the crabs must migrate to the coast and lay their eggs in the sea so the males can fertilise them. With 40 million crabs on the move all at once island life does get disrupted but this is what the island is famous for and it brings in tourist dollars. Judging by what was on sale at the gift shop, the islanders were proud of their unique wildlife spectacle.

 

We were initially puzzled by these apparent ‘cattle grids’. There was no stock to contain and the grids weren’t for water drainage as they were usually situated at the top of a rise rather than in the dips ….

 

… closer examination showed guide rails on each side – they were to protect the migrant crabs from traffic by channeling them under the road.

 

This is the sight tourists see when they visit during the crab migration Photo from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/12/march-christmas-island-red-crab/ a site which contains more information on this amazing spectacle.

 

Where else in the world would roads be closed due to crab migration? As we were a month or two too early I think Circuit Tracks and Boulder Track are closed for reasons other than crabs.

 

I haven’t mentioned the frigatebirds. Christmas Island is probably the only location in the world where three species (out of a total of five) frigatebirds breed in sympatry. Telling them apart was a different matter though.

 

It’s not that the different species don’t have a distinct plumage, they do at least in adult male or adult female plumages. This is an adult male Christmas Island Frigatebird.

 

…. and here is an adult female.

 

Juveniles however (like albatrosses and large gulls) go through a complex series of plumages before they are adult. The youngest have brown heads like this immature male Christmas.

 

This particularly ragged looking bird is an immature female Christmas with a partial pale collar and limited and poorly defined white spurs in the axillaries. I have seen Christmas Island Frigates off southern Thailand and Java but Christmas Island is their only breeding site.

 

Adult male Great Frigatebirds are relatively easy as they are all black. This one is having a quick preen in flight. This species is the commonest frigate on Christmas Island but bizarrely I took far more photos of the eponymous species.

 

The pale backward-pointing horseshoe on the adult female Great Frigatebird makes it fairly easy to identify.

 

The brown head of this bird marks it as an immature but I’ve not been able to identify it conclusively to species.

 

The pale head and breast without spurs in the underwing indicate that this an immature Great Frigatebird .

 

One of the easiest to identify is the much rarer Lesser Frigatebird, especially the male which is all black except for the narrow white spurs in the axillaries.

 

Christmas Island has a superb National park covering some two-thirds of the island. Large areas were destroyed by phosphate mining but this has largely ceased. However there are plans to renew the mining, it is critically important that these activities don’t impact on the only nesting grounds of Abbott’s Booby or Christmas island Frigatebird. The above photo shows the loading facility for the phosphate at Settlement.

 

Well that was it for Christmas Island, a fairly relaxing destination by bird tour standards.

 

Our four-hour flight to Perth took us down the west coast of Western Australia where the huge expanses of arid wilderness could be seen. the route to and from Perth is a triangular one with flights visiting the even more remote Cocos Island either before or after visiting Christmas Island. Unfortunately on both our flights we were on the direct route. That did save several hours in the air but I would have liked to see Cocos Island, even if it was just briefly from the plane or departure lounge.

 

I’ll end with a sunset taken from our hotel on Christmas Island. This island is never going to get a lot of visitors from far-away Europe but it is an enchanting destination with some wonderful wildlife.

 

 

One response to “Christmas Island: 5th -9th September 2017

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  1. Hi Gryllo – Tropicbirds are called Bosun Birds due to the call that reminded sailors in days of old of a Bosun’s whistle
    Steve

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