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Birding Australia’s Indian Ocean Islands

Donna Belder recently travelled to Australia’s Indian Ocean Islands with Birding Tours Australia. Read all about her island experience here…

I spent my 29th birthday the same way I did my first – airborne, leaving behind the Australian mainland for somewhere far-off and unfamiliar. Twenty-eight years ago, I flew with my parents to the UK, where they were to spend a year on a working holiday. The excitement of travel, the bustle of airports, the rush of take-off and lurch of landing, would have meant little to a baby yet to take her first steps. This time, though, I was thoroughly immersed in the experience, with at least half an idea of where I was going and what to expect.

I had spent the past five years becoming an increasingly obsessive birdwatcher, after my university classes and involvement in several research projects exposed me to 1) other people who cared about wildlife, and 2) the beauty and diversity of Australian birdlife. My competitive personality and penchant for list-making meant that once given an insight into the world of “twitching”, I had no chance. I was in.

Most birders I know have been birding since they were in nappies (or thereabouts). Being a relatively late bloomer, I wasted no time in trying to catch up to the big leagues. In 2015, when I first constructed my “life list”, I had seen a mere 256 of Australia’s roughly 950 recorded species. I rocketed through the milestones, reaching 300 in 2016, 400 in 2017, 500 in July 2018, and 600 in November that same year. 2018 was also an impromptu “Big Year”, in which I saw nearly 600 Australian bird species and added 167 “lifers” – new species for my life list. I saw my 650th Australian bird – Black Grasswren – in June 2019. As I boarded the plane in Perth, my life list stood at 658.

 

Cocos (Keeling) Islands

I’d been to tropical islands before, but the shimmering sight of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, materialising out of the deep blue expanse of the Indian Ocean, was nonetheless a shock to my retinas, which were accustomed to processing infinite shades of drought-tinted brown. An iridescent turquoise lagoon, fringed by sandy white, palm-clad islands… every bit the quintessential tropical paradise. I snapped half a dozen photos through the smudged glass of the plane’s windows, knowing they would do little to capture the thousand shades of dazzling blue.

We landed on West Island, and I had my binoculars in hand. Any bird hanging out on the airstrip was bound to be worth looking at, and I didn’t want to be frantically rummaging in the overhead locker during the post-landing cabin fever. I scanned eagerly, but the airstrip presented nothing but green grass, bordered by palm trees. See, the thing about Cocos Islands is that one goes there expecting to see very few birds. This fact, when mentioned to a non-birder, inevitably results in a puzzled look, followed by the question: “Why would you go there if there are hardly any birds?”

We’ll come back to that in a bit.

It’s easy to see why holidaymakers would be drawn to Cocos Islands. It’s like the Whitsundays, but with 99% of the tourists gone and the hum of the commercial tourism industry traded for the lazy vibe of a surfing village. You can kitesurf on a beach with practically no one else there. The pub is never crowded. You can order delicious woodfired pizza and have it hand-delivered to you at the pub. You can drive a motorised outrigger canoe across the pristine lagoon and pass islands inhabited only by seabirds and hermit crabs. The weather is also persistently pleasant – tropical, but without the raging humidity of the northern Australian summer. Passing a week or two in Cocos would surely recharge anyone’s batteries.

Typical Cocos scenery – sparkling lagoon, white sand, and not a person in sight. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

 

White-breasted Waterhen. Photo: Richard Baxter

Birders, however, don’t tend to take holidays. They bird. And many of them bird hard. This was the objective and purpose of my trip – joining guide Richard Baxter, of Birding Tours Australia, and 14 other like-minded obsessives, on a two-week birding tour of Cocos Islands and Christmas Island.

Our first targets were the Cocos specialties. First, on the grassy road verges, we spotted a tiny waterbird with a dapper white front and purplish back, wandering around on huge, long-toed feet and flicking its little tuft of a tail. This was the White-breasted Waterhen, an adventurous species that has colonised many islands in the region by flying hundreds of kilometres across the oceans (and probably crash-landing into palm trees).

Next, a handsome, glossy green specimen called the Green Junglefowl darted across the road in front of our car. Males of this species have impressive, showy tail plumes and heads adorned with a bright red comb. They are close relatives of the Red Junglefowl (aka the ancestor of our domestic chooks) and were introduced to Cocos Islands from Indonesia. The Cocos Islands Green Junglefowl are actually among the world’s last surviving individuals of “pure” heritage – the species has been extensively trapped and selectively bred in its native range. We scoped out some of the beaches in the lagoon looking for the Western Reef Heron – an elegant coastal egret that comes in three flavours – dark grey, white, and a rare piebald (patchy dark and white). This species is found throughout southern Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, but Cocos is the only place it can be seen in Australia.

Triumphant birders depart South Island after a successful day mastering outrigger canoes and ticking Saunders’s Tern. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

Finally, we set off on a day trip to South Island in motorised outrigger canoes, guided by Ash and Kylie of Cocos Islands Adventure Tours. After a fun voyage across the crystal clear lagoon, followed by a short walk through the palms and across the mudflats, we found ourselves in the only known spot in Australia where, at the right tide, one can set eyes upon a very special little seabird – Saunders’s Tern. Saunders’s Tern can be hard to find, even in its core range in the North-Western Indian Ocean. It seems to be fairly picky about where it sets down, and in Cocos, only this one little section of South Island meets its standards – it doesn’t get seen anywhere else. This species graces the bird nerds’ “800-club” badge, and the group was understandably ecstatic to tick this one off! To top off a fantastic day, on our way back to West Island, we encountered a magnificent Green Turtle gliding swiftly above the coral beneath our canoe.

Once we had cleaned up the mainstays, it was time to get down and dirty with vagrant hunting. For the uninitiated, a “vagrant” is a species occurring outside of its normal range. Being located fairly close to Indonesia, and south of a major Asian bird migration route, Cocos Islands are a vagrant magnet. So, for those asking why birders would travel to a place that has hardly any birds, herein lies the appeal. Birds might be few and far between on Cocos, but anything you do find is going to be exciting.

We started our search on West Island, spreading out and searching likely hiding spots. Our first eureka moment occurred when my partner, Ashwin, spotted a Javan Pond Heron lurking in a tree near the old quarantine station. The bird promptly took flight and settled in some palm trees around 100 metres away, thankfully remaining in sight until everyone managed to get eyes/binoculars on it. Jackpot! The next six days were filled with such moments, although we had to work hard for them. Many hours were spent staking out locations of previous sightings, cruising the water’s edges, tramping through knee-high grass, and sneaking up on swamps, with some very nice species picked up for our efforts. Highlights included Asian House Martin, Pin-tailed Snipe, and Chinese Pond Heron. Ashwin and I also proved ourselves quite skilled at turning up species that were great records for Cocos, but common as muck on the Australian mainland – including White-throated Needletail, Striated Heron, and Nankeen Kestrel. Hopefully, on our next trip, we can channel our energy towards uncovering some real vagrants!

We ventured across to Home Island on the ferry, spending several days staking out the Big House gardens and being rewarded with such gems as Asian Brown Flycatcher, Eyebrowed Thrush, and Asian Koel. Home Island is an interesting contrast to West Island – there are no cars, the streets are narrow and tidy, and small-scale farming plots of bananas and papaya are scattered throughout. It brought back memories of my travels through Southeast Asia – even down to the selection of thirst-quenching beverages on the supermarket shelves, and the delicious Malaysian-style food served by the locals at the café.

White Tern. Photo: Richard Baxter

While waiting for vagrants to show themselves, we experienced some close encounters with curious White Terns – incredibly beautiful seabirds with snowy white plumage and huge, dark eyes. This species lays its eggs precariously on top of tree branches, and the chicks hatch and cling on to their branch, attended to by their parents until they are ready to fly. We had seen some fluffy little chicks in the trees nearby, and the adults – evidently suspicious – came to check us out, hovering within 30 centimetres of our heads.

Our final destination on Cocos was Horsburgh Island. Horsburgh Island is home to three very important things as far as birders are concerned: a swamp, some cool resident birds, and the chance of a mega vagrant. On the trip over, we were treated to some of the most idyllic scenery imaginable – a remote, sandy island, water an incomprehensible shade of aqua blue, and plenty of photo opportunities for our friends and family back home to drool over. Our skipper took us to the island in two groups, and I raced off for a cheeky snorkel while waiting for the second half to arrive. It was excellent and I wish I’d had more time!

Horsburgh Island – one of Cocos’ less-visited islands. Photo: Donna Belder

With the group assembled, we ventured across the island to the swamp and were almost immediately rewarded with excellent views of one of our target species – Northern Pintail. This is a northern hemisphere duck that has strayed far from its usual range and evidently decided that Cocos is an alright place to live – the individual in question has apparently been resident on Horsburgh Island for at least the last four years. A bonus pickup at the swamp was a rare sighting of the endangered Cocos endemic subspecies of Buff-banded Rail. This skulky little waterbird was once common throughout the atoll, but declined dramatically after human habitation of Cocos, due largely to habitat loss and predation by introduced cats and rats. The only remaining breeding population is on North Keeling Island, in Pulu Keeling National Park. It is the focus of targeted conservation efforts to prevent its extinction, and there are hopes that a reintroduction and habitat restoration program will help to re-establish the Cocos Buff-banded Rail on other islands.

We packed our bags at the end of a thrilling week. Not only was my life list now at 673, but I had also enjoyed some of the best experiences that Cocos Islands has to offer. For anyone thinking of a tropical getaway, Cocos is a remarkably underrated Australian option. Plus, if you keep a sharp eye (and a pair of binoculars handy!), you might even be lucky enough to spot a bird species that has made its way to Australia for the first time ever. 

 

Christmas Island

If Cocos Islands stunned with infinite shades of blue, Christmas Island’s wow factor, when viewed from above, was both its size (much larger than I was expecting), and the magnificent sight of sheer, rainforested cliffs plunging abruptly into the ocean. Landing on the island, I was immediately struck by the number of birds wheeling about high overhead – a conspicuous change after the quiet skies of Cocos. As we drove from the airport down the very steep and winding road to the main settlement, the abundance of birdlife was almost overwhelming.

Christmas Island presents another thoroughly underrated opportunity for a tropical island getaway. It’s closer to Indonesia than it is to the Australian mainland, and offers many of the perks of international travel (including duty-free booze!) without the hassle of queuing through international borders. Its combination of stunning natural beauty and a multicultural population creates an atmosphere unlike anywhere I’ve travelled in mainland Australia, and visitors can enjoy an impressive assortment of activities. You can swim with whale sharks. You can eat roti canai as delicious as any you’ll find on the streets of Malaysia. You can stroll through ancient monsoon forests with seabirds chortling in the treetops and adorable little land crabs scurrying about on the forest floor. The sunsets are unreal, and so is the snorkelling. Christmas Island is an adventure waiting to happen.

Island Thrush. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

By the time we reached our accommodation at Cocos Padang Lodge, I had already ticked off two of the island’s endemic species – Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon and Christmas Island Swiftlet. Upon arriving at the hotel, we quickly discovered that another endemic species – Island Thrush – was nesting just outside our room. We watched with delight as the doting parents boldly made their way along the veranda to deliver food to their adorable, squeaking offspring. After briefly settling in, we ventured out for a drive along the coast.

When we pulled up at our first stop, I immediately discovered a creature of interest – not a bird (surprise!), but a famed Christmas Island Red Crab. These crabs are known around the world for their infamous, traffic-stopping annual migration. The migration usually occurs in December, but the crabs had started late this season and most of the roads on the island were still closed in January. Driving on the open roads, particularly in the higher sections of the National Park, was like playing Mario-Kart. Some ingenious locals have modified their cars with contraptions that gently sweep the little guys away from the tyres, parting the crab tide and allowing a casualty-free passage.

Male Christmas Island Frigatebird. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

We admired the crabs going about their business, unperturbed by the presence of ogling humans, and then turned our eyes skyward. The skies were filled with spiralling seabirds, pterodactyl-like in flight. Some were several kilometres overhead, soaring effortlessly on the updraughts created by the island’s knife-like coastline. We watched as Red-footed Booby, Great Frigatebird, White-tailed Tropicbird, and the endemic Christmas Island Frigatebird and Abbott’s Booby wheeled above us, making guttural cries. There was something very prehistoric about this scene, and it is sobering to think that these ancient species have patrolled the skies for millennia, untouched by human contact until relatively recently.

Just like Cocos, Christmas Island is a magnet for vagrant birds (and, therefore, birders). Finding them presents a daunting challenge – one must search hectares of rainforest and countless clearings, and every Island Thrush and Christmas White-eye (a tiny, olive-green songbird) must be checked in case it turns out to be something else. Of course, there are also plenty of Christmas Island specialties – seven species found only on Christmas Island, and a further three unique subspecies. We set out eagerly every day, touring the island and venturing into the National Park on our hunt for new birds.

Driving along the coast on our first morning of birding, we came upon another fascinating crustacean – a Robber Crab. Also known as Coconut Crabs, these are the world’s largest (and most terrifying) arthropod, and the top order predator on Christmas Island. Their favourite activities include sauntering about the island with a somewhat sinister sense of purpose, sitting in the middle of the road, and terrorising the red crabs. Robber Crabs are actually a type of hermit crab, but stop carrying shells to protect themselves when they reach adulthood and leave the ocean. They are incredibly long-lived, and only reach their maximum size after 40-60 years. Note that one must take care to drive around, not over a Robber Crab on the road, lest their claws get knocked off by the underbody of the vehicle. This is handy to know since the Robber Crab is a protected species as well as a really important part of the Christmas Island ecosystem.

Adult Robber Crab and small human for scale. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

Christmas Island Brown Goshawk. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

We soon had sightings of two more endemics – the Christmas Island Brown Goshawk, and Common Emerald Dove. We became very familiar with the winding road up into the National Park, and expert crab-dodgers. Plenty of time was spent on the golf course, as the forest fringes are a great spot to look for small songbirds. As birders are wont to do, we also visited some less glamorous sites, including the rubbish tip. Richard had found two mega vagrants at the dump on his last trip, so we were all more than willing to take a tour. Anything for a tick.

Travelling up to the highest sections of the National Park, we were able to get much closer views of one of the rarest seabirds in the world – the Endangered Abbott’s Booby. These graceful birds are solitary hunters, travelling thousands of kilometres over the oceans from their breeding colony on Christmas Island and only returning to raise a chick every two to three years. They rely on wind currents for take-off and landing, so they must nest in the treetops at the highest points of the island. If an Abbott’s Booby falls to the ground, it will starve unless it manages to climb to a high point or crawl to a cliff edge and catch the wind. This also means that young birds leaving the nest must get it right first time. The destruction of forest habitat for phosphate mining is the primary cause of decline for Abbott’s Booby. Clearing forest not only removes nesting sites, but the cleared areas generate unstable wind currents, which makes take-off and landing much more dangerous for both adults and young birds. Protecting nesting sites in the National Park is crucial for this species’ conservation, but replanting cleared areas is also necessary to improve environmental conditions and the birds’ chances of survival.

Abbott’s Booby in Christmas Island National Park. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

Taking a rare break from birding one afternoon, we grabbed our snorkels and climbed aboard one of local Hama’s Whale Shark cruises. This was a bucket list item for many of us, and we were super excited to head out into the deep blue. In the end, the Whale Sharks proved elusive, but we were treated to other marine wonders, including beautiful coral and some enormous, charcoal-coloured fish. Christmas Island is home to several fish species found nowhere else on earth, and I managed to spot one lurking in the deeper coral trenches – the tiny Green Dottyback (which is actually yellow; classic animal names). We also had very close encounters with some inquisitive young frigatebirds, which hovered at the back of the boat, apparently under the illusion that food would be forthcoming.

On another balmy afternoon, Ashwin and I headed out to the north-west of the National Park to explore The Dales. We followed boardwalks through the dappled forest and eventually found ourselves at a series of spring-fed pools, with a dainty waterfall at one end. We also noticed an endemic mammal – the Christmas Island Flying Fox – hanging out in some fruiting trees above the water. Like many of Christmas Island’s endemic species, the flying fox is Critically Endangered, and the subject of urgent research to address its rapid decline. Conservation measures include controlling cats, rats, and invasive ants, as well as protecting the remaining forest habitat.

Golden Bosun – the Christmas Island variety of White-tailed Tropicbird. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

On our final afternoon, we couldn’t resist escaping the heat and making our way to the jetty one more time. We’d been tipped off by the locals that the best snorkelling on the island is off the jetty, and it definitely checked out. Honestly some of the best snorkelling I’ve done – easily as impressive as parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Floating in warm water, between tropical fish, coral, and exotic seabirds, was the perfect way to top off a fantastic week on the island. And my life list? 682.