Just the ticket for twitchers
An abundance of bird and animal life makes rich pickings for naturalists, reports Paige Taylor
IN the politely competitive world of twitching, Christmas Island is a place to get the edge on your mates. Australia’s smallest territory is the only place on earth where the endangered Abbott’s booby nests; the island’s steep cliffs are just 360km south of Java, attracting vagrant birdlife that excites serious twitchers. Ticking off new species is the name of the game.
Leading the mainland’s growing interest in the wildlife of the remote island is Mike Carter. He is atop the twitching tree in Australia with a personal tally of 719 bird species seen. Carter first visited the island, about 2600km northwest of Perth, in 1992 and was charmed by what he describes as ‘‘ the prehistoric-looking’’ Abbott’s booby and the Christmas Island frigatebirds, which look as seagulls may have in the Jurassic era.
‘‘ It’s an extraordinary place with lovely rainforest and different to anywhere else because of the red crabs everywhere,’’ he said during his latest trip, his fifth.
Until the arrival of the Tampa asylumseekers in 2001, and the construction of the yet-to-be-completed $396 million Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, the island was known mostly for its phosphate mining.
But uncertainty surrounds the future of the mining leases, and the local tourist association has big hopes the island can reinvent itself as a tourist destination.
This weekend, ornithologists and bird enthusiasts from across Australia are arriving on the island for Bird Week, an annual event that offers opportunities to see four local birds listed as vulnerable and two listed as endangered.
Tourism must play a large part in the future of the island’s small economy, according to Amzi Yon, a parks ranger and president of the Malaysian Association on Christmas Island. Born and reared on the island, which is 63 per cent national park, Yon says he feels proud and protective of it.
‘‘ What we have here is special and we need to manage it for younger generations, but I also think the right kind of tourism will be very good for our people,’’ he says.
Perched on the edge of the 5km-deep Java Trench, the island is surrounded by spectacular reef that attracts migrating whale sharks each year. News of the vagrant birds that Carter and his party spied on Christmas Island earlier this year has whipped around the international twitching community.
These include an Asian house martin and a savanna nightjar, thousands of kilometres from their usual homes. The highlight of Carter’s more than 10,000km return trip from Mt Eliza was seeing nine Saunders’s terns on South Island in the Cocos Atoll. The Saunders’s tern is a small, brown bird that ordinarily breeds on the shores around the Arabian Sea.
‘‘ It was tremendous,’’ Carter says.
Christmas Island Bird Week starts this weekend, until September 6. More: www.christmas.net.au.
Sweet tweet: Mike Carter, front, and Colin Judkins on the look-out