Day 3: The Old Man of the Sea

So today is it!

The main reason why I came all this way to this tiny spot on the map.

It’s Abbotts Booby day.

I don’t know who Abbott was or why he had a seabird named after him, but he certainly got a good one – the rarest booby in the world, the evolutionary elder of the booby and gannet bird families, the true old man of the sea.

And today, Day 3 of Bird and Nature Week, I get to see one up close and personal.

If they cooperate, cautions Janos Hennicke, guide, researcher, passionate booby advocate, educator and tree hugger extraordinaire. Because there’s no guarantee the boobies will be in the place they should be, or that he’ll be able to catch one or that we will be able to band one of the ridiculously large, fluffy and awkward chicks.

Day 3 is starting to sound a lot less like the day I imagined.

I’m ready and raring to go, but Janos is determined to enlighten us all to the plight of the Abbott’s Booby. They only nest on Christmas Island, can only breed every two years and are facing potential starvation from rising ocean temperatures and pressure on fish supplies from the fishing industry. Their preferred habitat on the island was sorely impacted by mining in the past and this year, because its been so wet, the breeding effort has been pathetically small.

Finally, its time to head off to the tree Janos previously identified as containing a nest, a young chick and its attentive parents. Quietly we trek through the jungle, avoiding the red crabs, (because we’ve been on the Island for three days and are starting to get the hang of doing that) keeping our voices down so we don’t scare the booby into flight.

It’s a very long way up to the top of the tree to the brownish lump of a nest, and the vague outline of what Janos assures us is an Abbott’s booby. The plan is for him to climb the tree, catch the parent bird, then lower it and himself to the ground. The Booby gets fitted with either a natty little geo-locator or a more upmarket satellite tracker. After being photographed and admired by our group, the adult bird goes back into the bag and is hauled up the tree where Janos will release it so that it can resume its parental duties.  Whatever tracker is in use will send back data for a period of time, then the bird, still coming back to the nest to feed the chick, can be re-caught and stripped of its unobtrusive accessory.

Day 3 might just be OK after all.

It takes a long hour for Janos to organize the assistants and gear up to begin the climb. It takes an even longer hour for him to shinny up the tree trunk, hugging it  like a man truly aware that he’s a long, long way from the ground, draped about with safety harnesses and ropes and other impedimenta. Our group, gathered, in case of falling equipment, branches or Janos, some distance from the base of the tree, watches his progress,  only occasionally remembering to breath as he inches his way closer to the nest, all eyes flicking between the clumsy lumbering of the parent bird and the progress of the climber.

And then, the worst news.  The nest is empty.

janos

No use then trying to catch the parent bird, without a chick to entice it back to the nest the booby couldn’t be caught again to remove a tracking device. The fate of the chick is a mystery, perhaps it was taken by a goshawk, perhaps it fell out of the nest and was set upon by robber crabs, bowling-ball sized land crabs which roam the forest floor, ponderous predators of fallen chicks.

Whatever, our best chance of seeing an Abbots Booby up close and personal is gone.

Day 3 is officially going down the gurgler at the same rate that Janos is abseiling down the tree.

But ………

Tonight we’ll be going out to look for Christmas Island hawk-owls.

Night 3 might save the day.

2 Comments

  • Art Toh Keng Jeow says:

    Hi Karen,
    My name’s Art Toh and we (5 of us) were at CI from 20 – 27 Aug to do some birding. We are from Singapore.
    We met Dr Janus and his team at the airport and spoke a bit as our flight was delayed.
    On our trek to West White Beach, we chanced upon an adult goshawk holding on to its kill (an Abbot Booby chick).
    We told Dr Janus about it and he said the goshawk must have ‘pushed’ the chick out from the nest when the parents weren’t looking. We were hoping to catch Dr Janus doing his thing, but the team hadn’t found a ‘suitable’tree when we were there.
    It’s very interesting to read your blog and good luck with the ‘owl hunt’ – we spent considerable hours at the Golf Course and Chinese cemetery hoping to catch one but no luck, but we got to see the Milky Way which was a sight to behold.
    Best Wishes to All,
    Art Toh

  • Arthur Toh Keng Jeow says:

    Hi Karen,
    I’m Art Toh from Singapore. We met Dr Janus and his team at the airport and had a good chat with him. We (5 of us)were at CI from 20-27 August.
    While trekking West White Trail, we came across a goshawk on the ground with an abbot booby chick clutched in its claws which it held on despite us being only 5 feet away. We told Dr Jarus about it and he mentioned that he’s seen this before and explained that goshawks push the chick down from its nest when the parents are not on guard.
    We also spend considerable number of hours at the golf course and Chinese cemetery hoping to catch the owl but to no avail, hope you get to catch them with an expert guide (Lisa Preston).
    However, we were fortunate enough to look skywards and there in all its glory was the Milky Way – it was a sight to behold!
    Wishing you and all a great evening with the hawk owl.

    Regards,
    Art Toh