Peregrine Bird Tours
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Darwin and Ashmore Reef Tour Report 12 - 22 October 2010

Our tour to Ashmore Reef was without doubt, the most successful birding tour to Ashmore Reef so far. The tour began with a superb birding day in Darwin, where the highlights included a very obliging Chestnut Rail and a superb Rainbow Pitta. The three and a half days at sea, in order to reach Ashmore Reef, were fairly calm and very rewarding. We enjoyed good looks at Bulwer's Petrel and both Matsudaira's and Swinhoe's Storm-Petrels and a party of three Long-tailed Jaegers. However, our best find was a flock of 35 or so Arabian Shearwaters, a species that breeds on two islands off the coast of Yemen and one island in the Comoro Islands. Their wintering area has remained unknown for decades, and we managed to find it, right here in Australian waters. So the bird is a new species to any Australian territory. We also observed during the tour a total of 8 species of whales and dolphins, including a group of the rarely observed Omura's Whale, several of them with calves, so this area is most probably an import breeding area for this endangered species. At the reef itself, West Island was overflowing with rare birds, which included Oriental Plover, Little Curlew, Long-toed Stint, Little Stint, Grey Wagtail, Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Island Monarch, Tiger Shrike, a juvenile Dark-sided Flycatcher, which had only previously been seen on Australian territory, on one occasion, on the Cocos Keeling Islands, and best of all, yet another new bird for Australia, the Grey-streaked Flycatcher. To put this tour into perspective; we found a new wintering seabird for Australia, a new species of passerine for Australia, four species recorded less than five times, 20 species of waders and a good selection of whales and dolphins. What an amazing tour.

The tour began with a full days birding in hot tropical Darwin, in the `Top End`. The rains had come early this year and it had already been raining on a daily basis, for the past couple of weeks. When the day dawned it was already raining heavily, however, fortunately for us, the rain did not last long and we enjoyed a clear sunny day. Niven McCrie, the top birder in Darwin, was our local guide for the day and we began our days birding in the Darwin Botanical Gardens where we quickly saw Australian White Ibis, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Masked Lapwing, Forest Kingfisher, Black-faced and White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes, Helmeted and Little Friarbirds, Figbird, Spangled Drongo and Magpie-lark. Our next port of call was the rocky coastline at Nightcliff, a shimmering tropical beach, which is a well known high tide roost, right in the suburbs of Darwin. The birding was very lively and we quickly added Pied Cormorant, an uncommon bird in Darwin, as well as Eastern Reef-Egret, Striated Heron, Pacific Golden-Plover, Lesser and Greater Sandplovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler, Common and Terek Sandpipers, Great Knot, Red-necked Stint, Silver Gull, White-winged Black, Little, Crested and Lesser-crested Terns, Torresian Imperial-Pigeon, Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves, Rainbow Lorikeet, Sacred and Collared Kingfishers, Rainbow Bee-eater and Brown and Rufous-banded Honeyeaters. We then traveled to Buffalo Creek, a mangrove lined tidal creek, where we were hopeful of finding the very uncommon and very seldom seen Chestnut Rail. While watching for the rail as the tide turned, we enjoyed observing a supporting cast of Great and Little Egrets, Straw-necked Ibis, Pacific Baza, Black, Brahminy and Whistling Kites, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Caspian Tern, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Red-winged Parrot, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Pheasant Coucal; Azure Kingfisher, Dollarbird, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Brown Whistler, Leaden Flycatcher, Dusky Honeyeater, Yellow Oriole, White-breasted Woodswallow, Black Butcherbird and Torresian Crow. Buffalo Creek is a superb place to find birds which are endemic to the mangroves, and we were not to be disappointed, one by one, they slowly revealed themselves, they included Shining Flycatcher, Mangrove Grey Fantail, Large-billed and Green-backed Gerygones, Red-headed Honeyeater and Yellow White-eye. The tide had just turned it was time to go and look for Chestnut Rail along the mud that was about to be exposed along Buffalo Creek. In no time at all, we were watching a very sprightly and surprisingly obliging Chestnut Rail, walking along on the exposed mud, in full view. This was undoubtedly the highlight of our days birding in Darwin. Our next stop, as the heat saturated us, was Knucky Lagoon. Here new birds for us included Australasian Grebe, Australian Darter, Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants, Intermediate Egret, Royal Spoonbill, Magpie Goose, Wandering Whistling-Duck, Pacific Black Duck, Green Pygmy-goose, Comb-crested Jacana, White-headed Stilt, Australian Pratincole, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Brush Cuckoo, Paperbark Flycatcher and somewhat surprisingly a fine flock of Silver-crowned Friarbirds, who were feeding in a flowering tree. In a nearby patch of bush, we added Bush Thick-knee, Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Galah, Grey-crowned Babbler, Blue-faced, White-gaped and White-throated Honeyeaters and a fine looking Silver-backed Butcherbird. A quick stop at the Darwin Rubbish Tip produced Pied Heron and Black-necked Stork. Our final port of call was the East Point Reserve, where new birds for the day included Little Corella, a stunning Rainbow Pitta, surely one of the prettiest birds in Australia; White-winged Triller, Northern Fantail, Bar-breasted Honeyeater, Striated Pardalote and Double-barred and Long-tailed Finches. We also saw Agile Wallabies here, which was our first mammal for the tour. It was now time to drive to Mandoorah Harbour at Cullen Bay, from where we would commence the next leg of our journey, as we sailed on the Auriga Bay II, to Ashmore Reef. An Osprey flew over as we were boarding the boat and as we set sail, three Brown Boobys were observed sitting on a small marker buoy.

It took almost four days to reach Ashmore Reef, and we very much enjoyed our time looking at seabirds along the way. Our excitement began not far out of Darwin, when we crossed one of the richest, but surprisingly, least known areas of ocean in the world. Here we found a wintering seabird that had never been previously recorded in Australian waters. We saw approximately 35 Arabian Shearwaters Puffinus persicus, which had traveled all the way from the Gulf of Oman. Other seabirds during the journey included Bulwer's Petrel, Streaked Shearwater, Wilson's, Matsudaira's and Swinhoe's Storm-Petrels, Masked Booby, Great and Lesser Frigatebirds, White-winged Black, Common, Sooty, Bridled and Little Terns, Brown and Black Noddies and Long-tailed Jaeger. This is a superb selection of seabirds. At one stage of our journey an exhausted Barn Swallow came and sat on the boat and on another occasion, an exhausted juvenile Sooty Tern slept on the boat one night.

By the time we reached Ashmore Reef, we had encountered four species of dolphins, Bottlenose, Long-snouted Spinner, Pantropical Spotted and Risso's. These were a delight to watch, and as we neared Ashmore Reef we enjoyed a superb encounter with a small pod of False Killer Whales, one of which breached right out of the water. This was a tremendous thrill, but our best find by far, was four groups of 15 or so Omura's Whales, several of which had newborn calves with them. Omura's Whale is a recently described species of baleen whale, and almost nothing is known about it.

We were permitted to land on Ashmore Reef in return for collecting bird count data for the islands, which are famous for their seabirds and as a staging post for waders migrating from Siberia. Even more importantly; it also gave us a chance to search for migrating birds from Asia, which had `overshot` their wintering grounds and ended up on Ashmore Reef. We were not to be disappointed.

On our first day on Ashmore Reef, we were greeted by strong northerly winds, lightning, thunder and heavy rain which mainly skirted the island. Although the weather was not ideal for birding, it was perfect conditions to force migrating birds, to make land fall, and rest and build up their strength, until weather conditions improved. On our first day on West Island we were greeted immediately by a Grey Wagtail, which was joined by a second bird, on the following day. Then, a Grey-streaked Flycatcher hopped up in front of us and showed very well indeed. This was a new bird for Australia; and caused tremendous excitement amongst the group. Later in the day we found a second adult and a juvenile flycatcher, which we initially thought to be another Grey-streaked Flycatcher. Following a great deal of research, I am now sure that the bird was a juvenile Dark-sided Flycatcher, which is only the second record for this species on Australian territory. After that came the Arafura Fantails, three in all, feeding with two Australian Yellow White-eyes. The fantails were not the Australian breeding race, but an obscure race, from Indonesia. Our next rarity was a couple of Arctic Warblers and this was followed shortly by the surprise find of a Spectacled Monarch, the first time this species has ever been recorded on Ashmore Reef. This bird will almost certainly have come from Timor, where it is a fairly common bird, and not from the east coast of Australia. The island was awash with waders; including a fine selection of rarities, which included a single Little Stint which was present on the rock platform next to the Grey Wagtail. In the grassland in the centre of the island, we found three Oriental Plovers, two Little Curlews and a single Long-toed Stint. More common waders included Pacific Golden-Plover, Lesser and Greater Sandplovers, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Common, Sharp-tailed and Curlew Sandpipers, Grey-tailed Tattler, Ruddy Turnstone, Great Knot, Sanderling and Red-necked Stint. There must have been 15-20 Oriental Cuckoos and about 15 Eastern Yellow Wagtails, as well as the usual trickle of migrating Barn Swallows and Fork-tailed Swifts. Resident birds included superb Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds, Red-footed Booby, Little Egret, Eastern Reef-Egret, Rufous Night-Heron, Buff-banded Rail, Australian Pratincole, Gull-billed Tern, Sacred and Collared Kingfishers, Rainbow Bee-eater and Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike. On our second day on Ashmore Reef, we had an exciting new find, an adult Island Monarch; this is the fifth record of this beautiful bird for Australia, all sightings are from Ashmore Reef. A second new bird also turned up today, this was a splendid adult White-headed Stilt.

The following day we went out to Middle Island, where there are large numbers of breeding boobies and terns. We were allowed to sail around the island in our tinny, but we did not have permission to set foot on the island. We had to make two trips, half the group in the first boat load and the other half in the second. Those in the first tinny, added a new bird for our visit to Ashmore Reef, they found a Common Greenshank. As the second group was visiting Middle Island, we received a radio message that the first group had found a Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler, on West Island! Needless to say, the second group headed for West Island as quickly as we could. Within a few minutes, we were enjoying super looks at an immature Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler; this great rarity has only ever been recorded on Australian territory, from Ashmore Reef. It is a very skulking bird; so we sat and waited for the bird to settle down and start to behave normally. This worked a treat, and soon we were enjoying prolonged views of the bird walking around the base of a large Argusia bush. As we were about to reluctantly leave the island, a juvenile Tiger Shrike popped into view, this is only the third record for Australia. This bird can be uncharacteristically skulking for a shrike, so we stood back and allowed the bird to settle. Once again, this tactic worked perfectly, and we were able to watch this bird perched out in the open, just a few metres away from us.

All that remained was to sail back to Darwin and watch for more seabirds on the way. Unfortunately, we were sailing into a very rough sea and bumped our way, all the way back to Darwin. As is often the case in rough weather, the seabirds seem to know it is coming and stayed clear of the area. This was very much the case on this occasion; we did not add any new seabirds during our journey back to Darwin, but once again, when we were sailing above Flat Top Bank during our third day of the journey, we once again found small numbers of Arabian Shearwaters. On the evening of our last full day at sea, we made an anchorage in Bynoe Harbour, to the west of Darwin, in a very sheltered bay. It was a great respite to have a good night's sleep, without being tossed around.

The following morning, the day dawned bright and sunny and we added several new birds for the cruise. These included a couple of Great Egrets, a single Eastern Curlew, a few Lesser Crested Terns, a few Torresian Imperial-Pigeons, a small flock of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and a few pairs of Rainbow Lorikeets. Here we also added both Indo-pacific Humpback and Australian Snubfin Dolphins, bringing the total number of cetaceans sighted, to eight. We then sailed back to Darwin Harbour, where the tour ended.

We had experienced, what is without doubt, the most successful birding tour ever, to Ashmore Reef. The skipper and crew of the Auriga Bay II had been extremely pleasant and co-operative and Simon had been a delight to work with, his boundless enthusiasm will be remembered by all of us and without his photographs, it would have been virtually impossible to substantiate the many rarities which we had seen.

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