I’ll be visiting the Mangroves frequently because, like Tilly, a recent commenter from Kingaroy or some place in Queensland, I still need a male. It’s another Whistler, the Mangrove Golden. My best efforts to date are not up to scratch. Meanwhile I take whatever is offered. Like this young male Red-headed Honeyeater …
Presently he’s merely blushing but when he’s all grown up he will be positively glowing.
The rump is also scarlet so the shot of one with its back to the camera looking over the shoulder is on the wanted list.
The Broad-billed Flycatcher is another adorable denizen of the mangroves.
Once again the male is more striking, darker above and brighter below than the female but not all birds are sexually dimorphic. In the Yellow White-eye sexes are similar.
They may not be scenically splendid but they are the nursery for enormous numbers of sea creatures and protectors of the coast against storms. And they have birds.
Australia is home to about 45 species of mangrove in 18 families. They like the tropics, Darwin Harbour has about 36 species, Broome about a dozen. Species drop out as you head south. By the time you get to Victoria there is just one – Avicennia marina. Tasmania has none. As well as the right amount of sunshine each species needs the right amount of tidal inundation.
Birds enjoy the mangroves everywhere but the opportunities for mangrove specialists are much better in the north where there are large patches of mangrove forest.
The birdo who wants to photograph these specialists must first work out the tide and then do battle with mud and mosquitoes. The birds rarely sit still for you and the tangle of roots and branches complicates things further. One bird that has eluded me on previous visits is the male White-breasted Whistler. The females are confiding, almost brazen but drab. The males are gorgeous if you can get a clear view of them. Perhaps their skulking behaviour is to make up for their lack of camouflage. Now that I live here I can afford to sit and wait (don’t scratch those bites) …
These two are much easier to tell apart than the crested terns …
except they are both the same species, Egretta sancta (sacred egrets so named in 1789 because they were supposedly venerated by some Polynesians). They are found along rocky coasts in the Pacific ranging as far north as Japan and as far south as New Zealand. They are fairly common around the Australian coast except Victoria where they are infrequent and Tasmania where they are absent. There are plenty around Broome.
The popular name is Eastern Reef Egret but they are also called Pacific Reef Heron or any other permutation of the words. They are not the only egret or heron to occur in white and grey forms. In my experience the grey ones outnumber the white ones. The cause of the difference is unknown but stable polymorphisms like this can occur where two forms of a gene (allele) exist for a particular spot on a chromosome and having one of each (heterozygosity) confers an advantage compared to two of the same (homozygosity). The advantage may be due to body colour or it may be due to some other unsuspected effect of the gene combination.
The short greeny-yellow legs distinguish the white ones from other egrets. Distinguishing the grey ones from White-faced Herons should pose no problem if relatively sober.
My first visit to Broome was in 1996 in pursuit of the shorebirds that visit Roebuck Bay. I played a minor part in an expedition that captured, examined, marked and released a few thousand birds. Broome has its beaches, camels and dinosaur footprints but the main attraction for me will always be its birds.
High tide this morning was at 08.22, a very civilised time to hit the beach. Once there I came upon a mixed flock of terns. There were a few Crested Terns and lots of their smaller cousins, Lesser Crested Terns. The big guys are found all around the Australian coastline whilst Lesser Cresteds are only found along the coasts of the northern half. Both are found far and wide overseas but not at high latitudes or in the Americas.
Both are white birds with black caps and a crest. Their calls and behaviour are very similar. So how does a southerner spot the difference? Size can help when both are present but their is an easier way. Their beaks are as different as orange peel and lemon peel …
Allied – the careful movers – took splendid care of the furniture. Gayle, Fifi and Bobby McGee chased them across the Nullarbor in our latest camping solution.
Our timing was perfect. The last cyclone of the season had knocked over the Pardoo Roadhouse just a week or so before we left. The northern big wet had turned to a settled (we hope) dry and Victoria had not quite dipped into ice-age conditions.
We couldn’t dawdle on the way but we did have time to look in on the sealions at Point Labatt near Streaky Bay SA.
Broome is where the desert meets the sea. As I drove past the airport on the way into town I couldn’t help thinking how different this place is to the the Australia that most Australians live in. This could be arabia!
The Eyre Highway runs from Norseman, WA to Port Augusta, SA. It is very fittingly named after Edward John Eyre who was the first of the white colonists to travel the route.
He was just a young man of 25 when he accepted the chance to lead a party from Adelaide to the far west of Western Australia. Born in England Eyre had learned his bushcraft moving stock from Sydney where they were expensive, overland to sell in Melbourne and Adelaide where they were even more expensive. Following these trips he took cattle and sheep by ship to King George Sound – modern day Albany,WA, a fine natural harbour then overlanded them to the Swan River Settlement – now Perth. Whilst there he found considerable interest in the establishment of a stock route across the continent. When he got back to Adelaide he found a committee had been formed for that very purpose.
On 18th June 1840 Eyre set out as the leader of 6 white men including John Baxter who had frequently been overseer on Eyre’s previous ventures and two South Australian aborigines Joey and Yarry. A third aboriginal, Wylie, that Eyre had brought back from Western Australia subsequently joined the party.
The initial thrusts were to the north but were frustrated by lack of water. Progress, if it were to be made, would have to be nearer the coast. November found the party at Fowler’s Bay. Three attempts over the next few months won another 200 km to the Head of the Bight.
In February 1841 Eyre sent the majority of his party back. He and Baxter pressed on with the three aborigines and 11 pack horses. It was to be do or die. In March they found good water at Eucla. By April the going was exceedingly tough. Their load had been lightened to the extent that they now had inadequate clothing. The aboriginal contingent had consented to the doing but had probably not been consulted about the dying clause in the contract and friction arose.
On the night of 29 April while Eyre was taking his watch over the horses he heard a gun shot. By the time he made it back to camp Baxter was dying from a gun shot to the chest and the two South Australian aborigines had decamped with all the serviceable firearms and most of the provisions.
A grave could not be dug in the solid rock. Baxter was wrapped in a blanket and left on the surface. Eyre and Wylie pressed on to the west. On the 2nd June they encountered a French ship near modern day Esperance and they enjoyed some relief from their hardship. Eyre insisted on completing the overland journey, accepted some supplies and the pair pressed on.
On July 7 Eyre and Wylie stood on a hill overlooking Albany, their journey just about over. Wylie was greeted by friends and family. Eyre was left to ponder “the embarrassing difficulties and sad disasters that had broken up my party.”
Eyre’s trek, Adelaide to Albany via the modern Eyre Highway is 2,695km (1,675 miles). The journey takes you across the Nullarbor Plain. Between Port Augusta and Norseman I don’t recall seeing any surface water whatsoever, a combination of dry climate (<250mm rain annually) and the limestone geology. Nullarbor comes from Latin and translates as No Trees but in fact much of the journey is through mallee and on the South Australian end there are even wheat fields by the side of the road. Only on the clifftop section near the South Australia border do you really have a barren landscape (although on foot that would seem more than sufficient).
The entire highway is sealed (since 1976).
Norseman has a population of about 1000 people, Ceduna about 2,500. In between there is Caiguna (8), Cocklebiddy (19), Madura (18) and Eucla (53) for a total of 98 people spread over 1200km. Port Augusta is almost a metropolis at 13,500. Therein lies the challenge. This is not the place to breakdown or realise that you left your insulin at home.
There are two hills. Traveling west to east it seems as though it will be flat forever until the Madura Pass. Trucks are invited to take low gear and down you go. Off to the left now is a cliff that extends to the horizon, a reminder that sea level was not always what it is today. At Eucla you get to climb back up again.
Crossing the Nullarbor is on the bucket list for most Australians, it has an almost mythical appeal. Now that I’ve ticked it off I have to say
There’s about 25 km of beach running from Gantheaume Point north to Willie Creek. This is Cable Beach, sun, surf, camels, tourists, very popular. But the further north you get the fewer people you encounter. The numbers would drop off faster if driving on the beach was forbidden, sadly it is permitted. There is some debate as to whether a full-time or part-time four-wheel drive is better on the beach. Personally, I think the best car for the purpose is somebody else’s car.
About 13 km up the beach from the Cable Beach Resort, or 25 km by road, is the suburb I know as Coconut Well, officially Waterbank. If you have a spare three or four million you can buy a nice home here. It won’t have mains electricity or town water but it will have a nice view.
At low tide there are some rocks exposed that are interesting to poke around in. Fish dart around in the tidal pools. There will be some migratory shorebirds about and perhaps a Frigatebird will fly over and if you’re really lucky you may see a Beach Stone-curlew …
The photo at the top is of an Eastern Reef Egret hunting through the pools. They often stand motionless, sometimes with their wings out to create some enticing shade. When a morsel presents itself the neck uncoils like a spring.
William Dampier made his first visit to New Holland in 1688. He explored this part of the coast on his second visit in 1699. Roebuck Bay is named after his ship. The sea is rich in invertebrate life some of which made a meal of HMS Roebuck’s planking. On the voyage home the worm-eaten ship was run ashore on Ascension Island before it could sink in open water. Dampier and his crew were marooned there for five weeks before being picked up and taken back to England.
There are two tides a day in the bay of about equal height (semidiurnal tides). The tidal range is massive exposing about 160 km2 of mudflat. The mud is rich in invertebrate life which provides food for the more than 100,000 migratory shorebirds that use the bay each year … HMS Roebuck’s revenge.
The north shore of the bay from close to Broome to Crab Creek is readily accessible. The Broome Bird Observatory is located close to the east end. The eastern and southern shore is a world of mangrove swamp and tidal creek more easily accessed from the water.
Tropical mudflats are a very different habitat than the tundra and steppes where the visiting birds breed. In summer the breeding grounds are so rich in mosquito larvae and other invertebrates that young shorebirds can feed themselves from the moment they hatch. On the other hand there’s no food available when the puddles are frozen or covered in snow so migration it is.
The migrants arrive in our southern spring and leave in autumn. They don’t all stay in the bay all summer, for some it’s just a staging post. Towards the end of their stay it is a great spot to quickly gain the weight that will be the fuel for the long flights ahead. Some birds do stay a year or two before making their first flight to the breeding grounds so there are some to be found all year.
The bay is Australia’s most important site for migratory shorebirds. The bay regularly supports more than 1% of the population of at least 22 different species. On any day during the wet season there are about 120,000 shorebirds out on the mud. The smallest is the Red-necked Stint. Much of the time it weighs about 25 to 30 grams (my little Fox Terrier weighs 10 kg, equivalent to 400 Stints). They will increase their weight by as much as 50% prior to departure on their 15,000 km journey to Siberia. The largest visitor is the Eastern Curlew at about 1 kg fuelled up and ready to leave.
Migration may seem like a very risky strategy but if a bird manages to make the return trip once it is likely to do it many more times. Red-necked Stints have been known to live more than 20 years by which time they will have flown further than a return trip to the moon.
The bay is also home to the rare Australian Snubfin Dolphin.
At approximately 140 animals, the snubfin dolphin population occurring in the 100 km2 study area within Roebuck Bay is one of the largest reported in Australia to date and should be considered of regional and, indeed, national significance. Despite this relative magnitude, the population is small by conservation standards. We also provide preliminary evidence of fidelity to the study area for a majority of individuals … <Murdoch University report>
Roebuck Bay is a unique place. It’s also a place under increasing pressure as Broome grows in size. Careful management is required if the natural values are going to be preserved.
This post has been updated following discussion with my good friend Chris Hassell, a Birdlife International researcher involved in full time study of shorebirds in the bay.