Sunday, January 12, 2020

Cocos and Christmas Islands ~ Part Five: Christmas Part Two


Monday, 9 December began with the culmination of a practical joke on me. That is something that I would normally not be keen on, but it was truly in good fun and I was pleased that these birders felt comfortable enough with me to do it. It began because I had heard that the birding group on Christmas the week before us had dipped on Java Sparrow. This was true. But Richard (and Glen and others) decided to let me think that the Sparrows were going to be very difficult for us to find, if we could find them at all. He told me that there had been a family feeding them in the settlement and that is where the birds were easily seen. But that family had moved away (this part was true as well). So we really might not find the sparrows (this was the joke part). That morning after driving around the neighbourhood a bit building my anticipation, Richard pulled up beside a house with a birdbath in the yard. He got out and spoke with the fellow that lived there. And in a small tree right in front of us were eight or ten beautiful Java Sparrows. He ‘got’ me and that was actually very cool and an enjoyable joke (with a happy ending!).

I do not recall the other parts of that morning. I had Java Sparrow lifer high and I was also excited because just after noon, we were going to take a boat ride. We were going sightseeing and snorkelling. It was Richard, Jenny, Joy, Bill Betts and I. This was the regularly scheduled half-day boat trip for Richard’s tours. But my barely containable excitement was because we had heard that Whale Sharks were around. They were being seen regularly. They are the largest fish in the world and had been a fascination for me since I was about ten years of age. That was when I had read (or been read) Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s book about travelling across the pacific on a large balsa raft. As a kid, I would take that book out and stare at the old black and white photo plates, especially those of that massive fish. I no longer have that book and I do not know how it got lost. It should still be amongst my treasured family possessions (the few that are left after all the insane amounts of downsizing I have done). But sadly, Kon-Tiki got away at some point (I just stopped in the midst of writing and ordered a copy online).

We were told by the man driving the boat that if he spotted a Whale Shark, we should instantly hit the water and swim as quickly as we could toward it because the sharks can just sink down and disappear. We were holding our masks and fins. We were all excited. Not more than ten minutes out, he dropped the boat out of gear and shouted, “WHALE SHARK!” He pointed across the port side saying “There! There! Quick! Quick! Swim! Swim! There!” We were all in the water in seconds and swimming as hard as we could. And then there it was.

I can still see that first Whale Shark in my mind as it materialised out of the deep blue gliding slowly through the water in front of us, massive and graceful. These huge fish swim with effortless ease and elegance. It was everything I had hoped for. I swam along with it as it slowly began to sink down into the depths. Time had stopped. I watched it until I could barely distinguish its shape beneath me. I surfaced and swam back to the boat. We were all in a state of amazement. As my dear friend Jenny said, “It was rapturous.” And that is not hyperbole. We hugged. You can see Jenny and Joy swimming in their beige birding clothes. Birders underwater…

We stopped and swam again with a second Whale Shark as well as snorkelling in another spot with some beautiful reef fish. This is all now like a blur in my mind; a wonderful blur of disjointed, joyful memories. However I will never forget the third and last shark. We were on our way back in, and as he had done twice before, the skipper yelled, “WHALE SHARK! It’s there! Swim fast! Swim! There! Quick!” We did and this one remained closer to us. I was for the third time swimming beside, and then over, a Whale Shark. I can remember so clearly gazing down on the back of the magnificent creature that was gliding slowly along beneath me. The shark drifted up closer until it was just under me, closer than I would have swum to it. It had indeed come to me. The pattern on its skin looked like a living, moving Aboriginal painting. Yes, I can see it as I write these words. I remember the water playing along my skin and the sound of my breathing through the snorkel. I remember these things all at once and my heart catches for a second, but I cannot hold onto it. That is why I must write, why I need to write, because I can reread my experiences and hold onto them for a few moments longer. And I have Bill’s photos. That first one below is "going in the pool room." (Aussie film, "The Castle" reference).

My friend Bill Betts had an underwater camera and took these photos. I am more grateful for these pictures than any photos that have ever been taken of me. Thank you my dear friend. I will have at least one framed. I have never printed and framed a photo of myself (not counting the hundreds of headshots, posters and promotional photos that were put up in venues over the years when I was an entertainer). But this will hang in my study (no, I don't have a pool room) where I can look at it, gaze at it in wonder, and re-realise the magic of those moments with these majestic, benevolent behemoths.

That night we went out spotlighting and after a few stops, Richard found us a Christmas Boobook. This again is an example of Richard keeping track of things on Christmas and Cocos. If a bird is not in one expected location, he is usually able to check a second, or fifth, or however many locations that he has found or found out about. It is his knowledge of his “patches” that is so key to his success. It is what he does.

The next days were birding and sightseeing whilst navigating around the crabs (see the photo of the road closed sign). The Christmas Island Red Crab Migration is world famous and quite a sight to see. It’s a lot of crabs and a lot of closed roads, which can limit accessibility to parts of the island. Fortunately it really did not affect our plans much if at all and it was fascinating to see this incredible natural phenomenon taking place.

Here are some photos are of various views around the island as well as the old railway, including a map of the original area showing the 5 brothel houses. Priorities.


And I will leave you with two of my favourite photos from the trip of two of my favourite people, Glen and Jenny. And I will throw in one last photo of our intrepid leader grabbing just a moments' rest after lunch one day.


I could have written a book about the two weeks on what I have called: Richard Baxter's Tour of Abundant Birding Bliss. There is so much I have left out. Maybe I will do an additional blog entry. Maybe not. I will tell you this. I'm going back.

I write therefore I am. I share therefore it's real. I love because love is all there is.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Cocos and Christmas Islands ~ Part Four: Christmas Part One

I have struggled with trying to find an appropriate way of comparing Cocos and Christmas. I loved Christmas. If I had not just been to Cocos, I would rave about Christmas (and I still will) but it is not Cocos. Cocos is magic. Christmas is wonderful, but for me, it did not have the vibe of Cocos. Really, nowhere else I have ever been does. I love Christmas. I am in love with Cocos. It remains inside me.

We arrived, hit the grocery and then dropped our stuff in our rooms (nice shared ground floor motel suites, four of us with three bedrooms one bath… it was nice). I was sharing with Richard, Biggles and Glen. They are all three congenial, good company. I am comfortable with all of them and that makes it easy sharing quarters.

We went out for a couple of hours that arvo and I added four of the fairly effortless lifers: Christmas Imperial Pigeon (everywhere), Island Thrush (everywhere), Christmas Island Swiftlet (everywhere and very fast) and the oh so cool, Christmas Frigatebird.

(Christmas Frigatebird, photo courtesy of Jenny Spry)
Then we met for a beach cookout with Lisa and staff. Lisa is the facilitator of these tours. Her company is Indian Ocean Experiences and she knows her stuff. She is the one who coordinates the travels and accommodations for Richard's Birding Tours Australia and she does it very well. She is also a keen birder and lives on Christmas Island.

The next morning, Saturday, 7 December we met outside the rooms at 5:30am under a beautiful rainbow (I reckon “beautiful rainbow” is redundant). The island has been in an awful drought and any rain is a good thing. It even finally started the Red Crabs migrating (more about that later). I wish I could remember exactly where we went and when, but I don’t. I can check the timestamps on photos and sort out the order as best I can, the exact chronology is not as important as trying to adequately convey these experiences. I do remember (now that I was just reminded by my friend Biggles) that we headed first to the garbage tip in hopes of flycatchers or the Chinese Sparrowhawk that had been there a few weeks ago. However they were not around. Birders, we do love our garbage tips.

On our way out to the tip, we stopped and looked at a beautiful Brown Goshawk perched by the road. Once (or twice) considered a separate species, but currently a subspecies. It can be a very confiding raptor and this one allowed close photos from the vehicle. 

Next I officially ticked the gorgeous Common Emerald Dove split from the also gorgeous Pacific Emerald Dove. They are a very common sight on the island, but stunning. We looked about the mining areas for the Purple Heron that Richard had located in November. It would be the big-deal mega rarity for us and even a tick for Glen (not an easy thing for him to come by). We searched around a lot of spots without success.

We went to a nesting area of the endangered and majestic Abbott’s Booby. It is a big bird with very long wings. It only breeds on Christmas Island. They are moving to see on their nests and when they fly, their wings look disproportionately long. Describing them as awkwardly elegant would not be far off the mark. I knew I would see them, but they turned out to be one my favourite birds of the trip.

We returned to our home base as a breathtaking sunset spread across the western sky.

The next morning, Sunday 8 December began clear with a chance of some showers, but not much expected. Three of the four cars were going to an area called the Dales (like in “over hill and…”). Jenny said it was an area I shouldn’t miss seeing. It was beautiful and I was very glad I went. On our way into the Dales area, we stopped and got up close with a “Robber Crab” or Coconut Crab. You can see here that it is a large as a coconut.

We parked and began our hiking. It was not a totally easy hike at my current fitness level, but I did fine with some puffing and blowing on the going-up sections. There were lots of crabs around including some very cool blue ones.

My friend Bill Betts. His photography skills proved invaluable on the trip. His photos are an integral part of the next entry of the Christmas Island blog. I am so grateful that he took them. You'll see...
The problem that developed was that the chance of showers became downpours. I did not have the rain sleeve on my camera, but I had at least thought (it can happen) to put a plastic camera cover into one of my cargo pockets. It saved my camera’s life. I put my iPhone Joy’s small canvas bag, and then later into Jenny’s small waterproof bag. I had not brought my dry-bag backpack. At the top of one trail, one can drink from Hugh’s Dale Waterfall (that is its name and I have no idea who Hugh was). I filled my water bottle from the waterfall and I drank (the water is pure). Jenny took my photo and I am grateful that she did. That is a memory I will cherish always.

As we hiked back to the cars, the bottom really dropped out and it bucketed down. We were all drenched to the bone when we reached the vehicles. We were driving out when the crackling CB radio came to life. Through the static, broken sentences could be discerned that included the magical words, “Purple Heron.” Glen had found it! He is a legend! Through the sketchy radio communications we established where he was and Jenny drove us straight there. We were the first to arrive. Here is the Heron...


                       Soaking wet lifer selfie Purple Heron!  As happy as I know how to be.                           
And the ink for Ardea purpurea (it's hard to get a good photo angle on it).
The bird was in the brushy, but fairly open area between the radio domes and the new “Detention Centre” (which is one, creepy, high tech, prison-looking complex. It looks like a sci-fi movie set. We stayed away from it). Creepy as, yes?

Glen had directed us to drive around the domes and then in behind his vehicle. It is amazing that an almost metre tall Heron could blend in as well as it did, but we saw it. And once seen well by all who were there, joy reigned (an expression that is particularly appropriate since Joy Tansey was in the car and she had been drenched in rain with the rest of us that morning). We marvelled at the bird. We took photos. We joked. We laughed. We hugged. We fist-bumped. We were in the midst of true Lifer High, Mega Lifer High and that is as good as it gets. We had all wanted that bird. Only Tania and Richard had it on their lists from earlier in the year. It was the third record for Australia (I think. I will fix it later if I have it wrong). It was a magnificent sighting and we rejoiced. There were a couple of others who did not arrive in time and needed to see it, but it was refound the next day (or day after) in the same general area. There was also an Oriental Pratincole hanging around the puddles by one of radio domes, always a cool bird to see.
Why I get the good flight shots (hahahaha). Photo by Jenny Spry.
That arvo we stopped by a Red-footed Booby nesting area. They are very cool birds with very red feet. I took some photos. 

We also did a little sightseeing that afternoon and here are a few photos of those sights, including the little Chinese Temple that overlooks the sea. The island is a beautiful place in so many ways. 


This is my face down by Lily Beach (the little beach in the photo above) after an amazingly wonderful day. Thank you again Bill Betts for getting a photo of me. This captures joy. This is the face of "Lifer High."
There was also an almost comical Brown Booby standing around on the rocks that needed his photo taken.

Back in the settlement, we had dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant (I had eaten earlier as I do, but did taste a few things. And I ate there later in the week when we had dinner earlier one night).

And that will do for now. In the next part, a lifelong dream comes true. Easily one of the top ten moments in my life. Stay tuned.

I write therefore I am. I share therefore it’s real. I love because it is life.