Monday, November 26, 2007

Australia - Broome and Roebuck Bay, WA, November 12, 2007

Red "Pindan" soils and limestone formations surrounding Roebuck Bay, near Broome in Western Australia

Within an hour of our arrival in Broome, we met most of the 30-member team -- our colleagues for the next ten days. Clive Minton leads the group as he has done for the last 28 -- years ever since he drove the dirt road that led from Alice Springs to Broome and discovered one of the largest populations of wintering (nonbreeding) shorebirds in the world. Clive began catching shorebirds at Roebuck Bay and 80 Mile Beach in 1980. By 1988, he and other members of the team created the Broome Bird Observatory (the “BBO”), our home for the next five days

For a complete list of wintering shorebird species and detailed descriptions of the marine and terrestrial ecology of Roebuck Bay and 80 Mile Beach, see the RAMSAR descriptions for these sites:

Clive Minton (left) and Ji Qui with a Bar-tailed Godwit

We were all to meet in the 'shade-house' of the BBO, which has a tin roof and fly-wire walls. BBO consists of about 10 buildings spread amongst the Pindan forest on the edge of Roebuck Bay -- a turquoise sea ringed with mangroves and red sand beaches. Pindan is the name of the red soils of the region. Throughout the year, but especially in the dry season (roughly April to November), the BBO hosts tourists, birders and campers, all hoping to get intimate with the gorgeous subtropical wildlife, especially the birds. The BBO follows the pattern of bird observatories in the UK and Europe; managed by a committee, and run by a warden, Pete Collins. Holly Sitters, Maylee and Naoko Takeuchi are deputy wardens. The compound can house and feed our entire crew in comfortable conditions that include showers, refrigeration, good drinking water, and there is even air-conditioning in some of the chalets. The showers are indispensable.

Northern end of Roebuck Bay with Mangroves

Bar-tailed Godwits and Great Knots on the shore of Roebuck Bay

Chris Hassell, who came to the Delaware Bay in 2006, once ran the BBO and now runs the cannon-netting operation of the expedition (under the eye of the always-watchful Clive). Chris conducts research on shorebirds in Broome in collaboration with Theunis Piersma of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, and Allan Baker of the Royal Ontario Museum, Canda. Chris leads a team that cannon nets shorebirds throughout the year. His partner Andrea, a business consultant, volunteers her time to serve on the BBO Committee and the cannon-netting team.

Chris Hassell and his partner, Andrea Spencer, at their home in Broome

A group of Aussies from around the continent anchor the expedition. Roz Jessop, Maureen Christie and Pru Wright are senior members of the 15 Australians on the expedition. They are supported by volunteers from around the world including New Zealand (2) China (4), England (3), US (4), Nigeria (1), and Japan (1). A number of these people have come to the Delaware Bay to help with our shorebird research including Roz, Peter Fullagar, and Alice Ewing. Dick Holmes of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire joined the team for a week, Sue Rice from US Fish and Wildlife Service in Virginia is also here. Seems that most people working on shorebirds throughout the world -- for any length of time -- come to Broome at one time or another, many repeatedly.

Jing Li holding a bird caught in Roebuck Bay, originally banded in China

After a luscious dinner of lamb, Clive and Chris hosted a two-hour program that provided the team with the basics, food issues, trapping schedule, camp care, etc. We were in bed by 10:00 p.m.

At 6:30 a.m. the next morning we were out at Richards Point on Roebuck Bay just north of BBO and south of Broome. We set two nets, one below the high tide line, which was expected to flood at about 12:00 noon, and a second just above the high tide line. The low tide set is unusual and a result of experimentation by Chris in the time before the team arrived. The morning air was unusually cool for this time of year, according to the veteran team members. To me, it felt hot and getting hotter by the minute. The 7.6-meter tide rushed in too fast to use the low net, and everyone moved into rescue the cannons and net from flooding. But within an hour we had a catch of 296 birds in the high-tide net.

Chris and Clive working on out a position for the net in early morning at Roebuck Bay

Mandy twinkling birds from the back of the net to move them out of the danger zone – the two-meter zone in front of the net necessary for the leading edge to clear a standing flock

The cannons being fired and . . . . .

. . . . .the net going out over the birds

We had already erected keeping cages so retrieving the birds from the nets and placing them into the cages took about 20 minutes. The next 30 minutes was spent protecting the birds and the crew from the hot sun. When Clive asked us to come Broome, he said I needed to do this to “complete my cannon-netting training”. Although one can spend a lifetime catching birds and not complete a cannon-netting degree, I soon learned what Clive meant. Our next catch would provide a more graphic example.

The team at the net ready to secure the edges, concentrate the birds at the top of the net, then lay shade clothe on to calm the birds and keep them cool.

The team processing birds under a secure tent to shade both humans and birds from the relentless heat

Peter Fullagar holding a Greater and Lesser Sand Plover

A Terek Sandpiper

As is the custom, one of the team presents a lecture on either something relevant to the expedition or on results of personal research. Adrian (“Addie”) Boyle presented a collection of his photographs of birds of the area.

The team is treated to an outdoor presentation of Addie's bird photos

Additional References:

Life Along Land’s Edge: Wildlife on the shores of Roebuck Bay, Broome. By D. I. Rogers, T. Piersma, M. Lavaleye, G. B. Pearson and P. de Goeij. Published by the Department of Conservation and Land Management, Western Australia. 162 pgs.

Available through the Broome Bird Observatory website (see above), select the link "life along land's edge".


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