Waterbirds galore on Roebuck Plains

Broome Bird Observatory Sightings Update

December 2016 - April 2017

After several below-average Wet seasons, including a terribly dry 2016, we’re pleased to report that this Wet season has lived up to the forecasts for a big Wet! The BBO has received around 1,000mm of rain since the Wet season kicked off in December, almost double our annual average! As a result, Roebuck Plains is in flood, the vegetation is thick and green, our previously parched wetlands are full to overflowing, and waterbirds have arrived in numbers!

 Roebuck Plains grassland at the end of a very dry 2016. Photo: John Graff

Roebuck Plains grassland at the end of a very dry 2016. Photo: John Graff

 Roebuck Plains grassland at the start of April 2017. Note the subtle changes in vegetation structure following the Wet. Photo: Nigel Jackett

Roebuck Plains grassland at the start of April 2017. Note the subtle changes in vegetation structure following the Wet. Photo: Nigel Jackett

Out on the plains, waterbirds have descended on the flooded grasslands from far and wide. A single Magpie Goose was recorded in the Broome region for the entirety of 2016 but there are now thousands breeding across the plains, whilst other species rarely recorded last year like Wandering Whistling-Duck, Glossy Ibis, White-necked Heron and Intermediate Egret have also arrived in reasonable numbers. Australian Painted Snipe have been seen at several sites through February and March, including a pair with a nest on Roebuck Plains – unfortunately the nest appeared to be abandoned before the eggs hatched. Other waterbirds not commonly seen around Broome that have made an appearance so far include Buff-banded Rail, Australian Crake and Baillon’s Crake. Thousands of Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns are also a conspicuous sight feeding over the plains, with most of the White-winged Black Terns moulting into breeding plumage. Button-quail are also turning up on the plains, with Red-chested and Red-backed Button-quail both appearing to be present, along with Little Button-quail, though getting a good look at them to confirm this has been challenging as usual.

 Pair of Australian Painted Snipe on Roebuck Plains

Pair of Australian Painted Snipe on Roebuck Plains

 Female (left); male (right). Photos: Nigel Jackett

Female (left); male (right). Photos: Nigel Jackett

 The Taylor's Lagoon gate in February. Guess we'll walk in then. Photo: John Graff

The Taylor's Lagoon gate in February. Guess we'll walk in then. Photo: John Graff

 Taylor's Lagoon in February. Our usual parking area is just to the left of centre of the photo! Photo: John Graff

Taylor's Lagoon in February. Our usual parking area is just to the left of centre of the photo! Photo: John Graff

Shorebird migration is now well underway in the bay. The Eastern Curlews kicked things off in early March, with the first birds heard calling over the observatory after dark on the 3rd March. Other early birds (pun intended) like Greater Sand Plovers began soon afterwards, before other species such as Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Grey Plover and Curlew Sandpiper joined the exodus for the north. Now the later departures like Whimbrel and Grey-tailed Tattler are leaving in earnest. Birds should continue to migrate until the first week of May, and BBO staff continue to monitor the migration from our corner of the bay each evening from 4pm to 6pm and visitors are always welcome.

 Grey Plover migrating for guests on our Wave the Waders Goodbye course. Photo: Jack Winterbottom

Grey Plover migrating for guests on our Wave the Waders Goodbye course. Photo: Jack Winterbottom

Prior to migration commencing, the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG) Expedition was once again based at the observatory during late February. Tricky tides and a flooded road made catching difficult at times in the bay, and one catch ended up netting as many fish as it did shorebirds! Despite the challenges though, the expedition was still successfully in banding approximately 2,600 shorebirds in Roebuck Bay and at Eighty Mile Beach, including deploying 41 satellite tags on Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler and Red Knot.

 AWSG expedition battling floodwaters along Crab Creek Road. Photo: John Graff

AWSG expedition battling floodwaters along Crab Creek Road. Photo: John Graff

 Satellite-tagged Whimbrel 'JX'. Photo: Jack Winterbottom

Satellite-tagged Whimbrel 'JX'. Photo: Jack Winterbottom

Around the observatory in recent times there have been some interesting passage movements of birds, as the Wet season gives way to the Dry. Nomads like Cockatiel and Budgerigar have been seen moving east in small groups, and Masked Woodswallow flocks have been a daily sighting in recent weeks. Two Little Woodswallows over the observatory on the 14th April was also an unusual sight for the BBO, though they are quite regular a little further east, and three Eastern Yellow Wagtails overhead on the 29th March were also interesting – they have been very thin on the ground since the Wet kicked off, presumably having spread out over the floodplains.

The most notable sighting of the period in the BBO’s area of interest was a probable Himalayan Swiftlet photographed over Broome town, and subsequently seen on several more occasions. Identification of swiftlets can be nightmarish, but good photographs were obtained which should help to nail the identification in this case. A Grey Phalarope was found by Danny Rogers during shorebirds counts at Bush Point in early December. Also seen at Bush Point during the counts was the long-staying Eurasian Curlew. A pair of Gouldian Finches were seen around the Dampier Creek area in late December. Broome's famous Semipalmated Plover was last seen at the sewage works in late March. Somewhat outside of BBO’s area of interest, but still noteworthy was a Nicobar Pigeon that turned up on the northern Dampier Peninsula at Chile Creek near Lombadina. Originally photographed by some of the local Bardi Jawi rangers on 29th March, it was subsequently refound by George Swann on the 8th April but has proven elusive since – this is the second record for Australia and the first record for the mainland. Anyone interested in searching for the bird should contact us for access information and contacts. And even further afield, one of our observatory staff was recently involved in the historic re-discovery of a Night Parrot population in Western Australia – a subject for a blog post of its own perhaps!

 A possible Himalayan Swiftlet photographed near Town Beach during the passing of Tropical Low. Photo: Damian Baxter

A possible Himalayan Swiftlet photographed near Town Beach during the passing of Tropical Low. Photo: Damian Baxter

 A juvenile Nicobar Pigeon re-found by George Swann at Chile Creek Community north of Broome. Photo: George Swann

A juvenile Nicobar Pigeon re-found by George Swann at Chile Creek Community north of Broome. Photo: George Swann

Frogs have also been particularly active as a result of the bumper Wet. Observatory staff made a trip to a very flooded Taylor’s Lagoon and nearby Willaroo in February to survey the frog diversity. Ten frog species were recorded for the night, including some local specialties like Hidden-ear Frog (Cyclorana cryptotis), Derby Toadlet (Uperoleia aspera), and West Kimberley Toadlet (Uperoleia mjobergii).

 Hidden-ear Frog ( Cyclorana cryptotis ). Photo: Nigel Jackett

Hidden-ear Frog (Cyclorana cryptotis). Photo: Nigel Jackett

 West Kimberley Toadlet ( Uperoleia mjobergii ). Photo: Nigel Jackett

West Kimberley Toadlet (Uperoleia mjobergii). Photo: Nigel Jackett

In other news, the observatory’s newly revamped shadehouse was opened in early February, just in time for the expedition. The new higher (and insulated!) roof and better layout for airflow means it’s a bit more comfortable in hotter weather, and it’s proven popular with guests so far! This is the start of what will hopefully be a series of much-needed infrastructure upgrades for us!

Now, as the Wet gives way to the Dry, staff are recovering from our busy (but very rewarding) Wave the Waders Goodbye courses and gearing up for the start of the tourist season!

 The new-look shadehouse has kept most of its historic charm, but is now a much more comfortable space for our guests and staff during hot weather.

The new-look shadehouse has kept most of its historic charm, but is now a much more comfortable space for our guests and staff during hot weather.