The 2014 annual Spring eight-day Broome-Ashmore-Lacepedes-Broome expedition through Queensland, Australia, organized by George Swann of Kimberley Birdwatching (KBW), ran from October 20 – 27, 2014. The birding personnel were Tim Faulkner, Liz Faulkner, Rob Gibbons, Ian Halliday, Brian Johnston, Peter Madvig, Wayne Merrit, Scott Ryan, Jenny Spry, John Weigel, George Swann & Mike Carter. The following details about this expedition were written by Mike Carter and George Swann.
We sailed from Town Beach at Broome on 20 October (Day 1) at 08.40 and spent the next two days and nights traveling at sea. Our boat was the air-conditioned 21 m MV Flying Fish V. The skipper was Anthony, the deckhand Paul and our chef was Bronson. We maintained a NW course throughout Day 1 but at night changed our heading to NNE. Throughout the morning of Day 2 we sailed along the shelf slope in waters gradually increasing in depth from 420 m to over 500 m and this trend continued throughout the afternoon when we traversed very deep water up to 1,800 m. We awoke at 05.00 on Day 3 still in deep water but becoming shallower and within 2 hours had crossed the 1,000 m depth contour where we began to encounter unprecedented numbers of Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrels. By 12.00, when we arrived at Ashmore Reef, we had logged 501 of this species which until recently had been regarded as extremely rare with all reports requiring submissions to, and endorsement by, BirdLife Australia’s Rarities Committee. Having received clearance from the Australian Customs Vessel guarding the Reef we entered the lagoon and tied up at the inner mooring (12º14.35’S 122º58.84’E) just off West Island.
For the next three nights (Days 3, 4 & 5), we were secure at the inner mooring. Most members of the party went ashore on West Island each morning and afternoon of those days. In the morning of Day 4, we circumnavigated Middle Island ferried there by two dinghies but did not land. We also spent some time at the adjacent ‘Horseshoe’ sand bar enjoying great views of shorebirds and terns resting at high tide. Next day we were ashore on East Island for ~1.5 hours and at high tide, spent an hour on Splittgerber Cay again enthralled by massed shorebirds.
After a last visit ashore to West Island, we released our mooring at Ashmore at 09.10 on Day 6 (25 October) and changed our itinerary to sail directly for the pelagic ‘hot spot’ that we found on our way up. Unfortunately, the strategy failed. The Storm-Petrel congregations had moved elsewhere. Having passed through the area we headed due south to the Lacepedes passing to the east of Seringapatam and Scott Reefs. At daylight on Day 7 we were still in 400+ m deep water but crossed the ill-defined shelf break by 09.00 and for the remainder of that day were in shelf waters of less than 50 m deep. We were anchored off West Island, Lacepedes (16º50’S 122º07’E) by 23.00. Next morning, Day 8 (27 October), we were ashore on West Island, Lacepedes, from 05.30 to 08.10. Back aboard, we sailed for Broome where we were put ashore on a beach near the port (18º00’S 122º13’E) at 17.15.
Weather was hot and humid but not unbearably so, with cloudless skies, constant sunshine and little if any breeze other than on the first day. Therefore seas were generally calm. For most of the time whilst at sea, a continuous log of position and faunal observations was recorded on ‘Palm pilots’ as well as manually.
86 species of bird were identified: 40 seabirds, 24 shorebirds, 6 waterbirds, 1 raptor (2 Siberian Peregrine Falcons) and 15 landbirds. Also, in addition to two leaf warblers that were identified to species, Arctic Warbler and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, among a probable total of seven phylloscopus (up to 5 at the same time) we believe is at least one other species. If the identity of this can be established, it is likely to be new to Australia. Two-barred Greenish and Greenish Warblers are among the species under consideration.
However, the sea-birds command the most attention as there were some staggering observations. At-sea highlights included a Heinroth’s Shearwater a first for Australia and a totally unexpected occurrence being that it is a very rare species that breeds in Melanesia and is not known to be migratory, but in this case has passed from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean! Unfortunately, this was present at a time when the boat was surrounded by a large number of seabirds so wasn’t detected at the time but found by Tim Faulkner when culling his myriad of images for the umpteenth time. John Weigel has since found that he too has photos of it. Also unprecedented was the huge number of Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrels (524), 500 of which were seen in just one morning. One was in shallow, 36 m deep, on-shelf waters, 66 Nm (122 km) north of the Lacepede Islands. Other Storm-Petrels were 11 Matsudaira’s, 39 Wilson’s, and 4 with a white rump that did not wrap onto the flanks and was bisected by a dark line. These were thought to be Leach’s Storm-Petrels but as the feet appeared to trail there is some concern about this ID. They could even prove to be an undescribed taxon! A discussion paper on these birds will be produced. Others were some rather pale-necked Hutton’s Shearwaters (8), Tahiti Petrel (21), Streaked Shearwater (102), Flesh-footed Shearwater (2) (rare in these seas), Bulwer’s Petrel (54), Jouanin’s Petrel (3), Abbott’s Booby (1) and all three Jaeger species.
The usual tropical seabirds that breed locally, Masked, Red-footed & Brown Boobies, Great & Lesser Frigatebirds, Common & Black Noddies, Bridled, Sooty, Great Crested and Lesser Crested Terns were seen at sea as well as ashore. Some 1,500 Roseate Terns were seen at sea near Broome and 15,000 at the Lacepedes. Three Australian Gull-billed Terns, now split as a full species by sensible authorities were at the Lacepedes and singles of one of its relatives that breeds elsewhere in the world usually referred to in Australia as Asian Gull-billed Tern (affinis) was seen at Ashmore and the Lacepedes. 240 Little Terns were at Ashmore and small numbers of migrating Common, Whiskered and White-winged Terns were seen at sea. On West Island, Ashmore, 3 pairs of Red-tailed and one pair of White-tailed Tropicbird were nesting.
Shorebirds were numerous and included 7 Asian Dowitchers together at a high tide roost on Ashmore and an Oriental Plover.
Other than the phylloscopus warblers, landbird highlights on West Island, Ashmore, included at least two Grey Wagtails, Oriental Cuckoo (up to 5) and Eastern Yellow Wagtail (up to 8) both species probably heading south for Australia.
Other unusual finds were a pair of Eurasian Tree Sparrows nesting in a coconut palm and a dead Hardhead, this being only the second record for Ashmore. On our return journey south, we were also delighted to provide overnight accommodation and assist the passage of a Sacred Kingfisher and a Barn Swallow.
Cetaceans included a Hump-backed Whale, a pod of 9 Melon-headed Whales, a Rough-toothed Dolphin, Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphins and two forms of Spinner Dolphins
Reptiles included Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Australian Flatback Turtles and various sea snakes.
Fish, sharks and rays of various species were also welcome sights.
– by Mike Carter & George Swann
This trip will be repeated in March and October of 2015. To learn more about this expedition and others like it, visit the Kimberley Birdwatching website. Additional photos of many of the species mentioned above have or will be posted on photographers’ personal blogs.