Tuesday, 12 April 2011


I have a three page article on dotterel in the current, April, issue of the Leopard magazine - click on the link on the side panel. This is a general account of the birds, describing how they are adapted to breed on the high Scottish hilltops; and how the population there is linked by migration with Norway and Morocco.

I have studied these birds for over thirty years, they are wonderful to work with and the hills they live in are wonderful to visit.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Lady Elliot Island - 4

Several species of waders forage on the coral platform, arctic-breeding waders, some of which I am familiar with in their nesting grounds on the tundra. Some like the Ruddy Turnstones and Pacific Golden Plover also feed on the paths and lawns of the resort complex and on the runway.

Other species I saw were Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Lesser Sand Plover, and two species of Tattler, Wandering and Grey-tailed.

 Wandering Tattler

                                                                                       Grey-tailed Tattler, note white belly and under tail.

When seen separately, the Tattlers are difficult to identify, but when seen together, as I saw these two feeding in the same pool it was more simple. Both birds were coming into their summer breeding plumage with flecked flanks, the Wandering Tattler having flecks right down its belly, while the Grey-tailed had a pale unmarked belly. It also had a brighter white stripe above the eye. However, the main difference was in their behaviour. Both foraged in the water's edge, but the Grey-tailed was far more jerky and jumpy as it fed and although it allowed close approach it was more nervous looking. The Wandering tattler was a slow methodical feeder, casually probing along the shore in a smooth action, it merely looked up quietly when approached.

Wandering tattler, note black and white markings all along the belly and under the tail.
Lady Elliot Island - 3

Coral and shells

Lady Elliot Island is entirely built of coral and shell (with a bit of guano and plant matter added later). It rose from below the surface about 3500 years ago and the foundation platform can be clearly seen to be formed from the coral and shells, and the current coral platform which surrounds the island can be seen forming the next extension to the island if it is uplifted again in another few thousand years.

Although most of the colour in the coral is seen when it is alive and underwater, bits and pieces are washed up on to the beaches along with sponges.

And there are thousands of seashells on the beaches. The island is a green zone, where removal of anything natural from the island is prohibited, and as a result every visitor has the joy of walking the shore and discovering a variety of shells. It is the best beach I have ever seen for shells, with several species of cowrie and cone shells - the builders of some of which are deadly poisonous if picked up when alive. Then there are clams, spiders and others I cannot remember, there were so many.

My prize find was a nautilus shell with barnacles growing on it.

I also found a splendid growth of barnacles on an old washed up log. The whole shore is a beachcomber's delight. 

Lady Elliot island - 2


Two species of Noddy nest on Lady Elliot Island, the White-capped (Black) and the Common (Brown), and despite their clearly different names they are rather similar when first seen.

The most common species on the island is the White-capped and they build flimsy nests of rotting leaves in the lower forks of the trees, many right next to the paths in the centre of the resort complex. The adults are a bit darker than the Common Noddies, but it is their smaller size and habits which distinguish them better from the Commons. 
I find it interesting how their chicks, even when downy, also have white-caps and their body down is sooty black.

The larger Common Noddies (on the right below) are more brown in general, but this can be difficult to discern in poor light, and the difference between the amount of white on each species' crown is also similar.

When nesting, the two species are easily identified because the Common Noddies nest on the ground, on the storm beaches,   
or in the shorter grasses at either end of the runway. The birds fly up whenever an aeroplane passes overhead, but they return immediately to their nests every time.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Lady Elliot Island - 1

I am just back from a family holiday on Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef. A great venue for snorkeling, with wonderful coral, fish, turtles and the star attraction - manta rays.  

As we flew in we had a good overview of the island and its reefs. In 1805 an industry started up collecting and exporting sea-cucumbers to Asia, then a guano industry began and almost the whole island was stripped bare of vegetation as that was collected. Three feet or more of guano covered the island then. Now the island is largely regenerated, since a programme was began in the 1960s. The light house is the obvious man-made landmark on the island and there have been numerous shipwrecks in the past.

Now there are thousands of white-capped noddies nesting in the trees, and they roost on clear sunny perches like old tree branches over the beach as below. There are also large colonies of common noddies which nest on the storm beaches, especially at either end of the runway. Other sea birds which nest there include Red-tailed Tropic Birds, Bridled, Black-naped, Crested and Roseate terns.

And there are nesting Green and Loggerhead Turtles. The green turtle below was marooned on the reef platform at low tide so I lifted her into the water and she swam off gratefully. It was a tremendous experience to swim with these animals. They are used to humans and allow close contact and some individuals actually swam towards us to be scratched, probably using us as cleaning stations, but I didn't mind helping them at all. 
I will cover other wildlife of the island in subsequent blog-pages, but for now here is a shot of a white Eastern Reef Egret, there is also a dark grey morph. They forage along the reef and roost and nest in the trees.