The stunning Whitsunday Islands are renowned as a Mecca for tourists, but they also form important habitat for biodiversity. In its Whitsundays Plan of Management 1998, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority recognised several Significant Bird Sites that were vital to nesting and roosting seabirds and shorebirds, and they cited several species that were potentially vulnerable in the region. However, monitoring of the sites has been inadequate in the years since, so in November 2014, a group of dedicated Wild Mob volunteers set out on an expedition to gather data on the current status of these species to better inform their ongoing management.
Our volunteer group comprised a healthy mix of experience, with Bob and Lorelle from the local Birds Capricorn group, Pam and Jan from Birds Queensland, David from the Queensland Wader Study Group, and Wendy, Daniel, Hannah and Emma with little birding knowledge but plenty of enthusiasm. The surveys involved inspecting outcrops and areas of beach, either by walking through the habitat or scoping from the boat, recording numbers of all birds present and noting any breeding activity. Bush birds adjacent to the survey beaches and around the camps were also recorded, as such data for the islands are patchy and limited.
Day one was calm and sunny as our catamaran captain Bill guided the Wild Cat out of Mackay. This provided ideal survey conditions, and after recording several incidental species along the way, we arrived at our first target areas of West Point (Brampton Island) and Finger and Thumb Islets. Several species were observed, with Crested Tern the most numerous. We then surveyed some productive beaches on Goldsmith Island before settling in at Roylen Bay for our first night, a stunning beachside campsite. Most had a refreshing dip in the calm waters before moving to the boat for a sunset cheese platter and glass of wine. We weren’t exactly roughing it!
Next day we motored over to Shaw Island, recording numerous Crested and a few Lesser Crested terns along the way, with the beaches home to both oystercatcher species, six Whimbrel and a Grey-tailed Tattler, along with a pair of sea-eagles and an osprey. Another overnight camp (preceded by the obligatory sunset cheese platter and delicious dinner from chef Derek), and next morning we were on our way towards Armit Island. En route, we came across our first Black-naped Terns, including 10 to 15 that appeared to be nesting on a small, rocky island, and several fishing Bridled Terns.
Armit Island became our base camp for the next four nights as we explored nearby islands such as Grassy, Gumbrell and Double Cone. Several Beach Stone-curlew pairs were discovered on these islands, along with good numbers of oystercatchers, Eastern Reef Egret (with the dark morph dominant), Pied Cormorant, osprey and sea-eagle. Large numbers of Pied Imperial-Pigeons were observed on the islands, while Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves were commonly heard and Silvereyes abundant. An added moment of excitement interrupted one survey when Derek had to rush to the aid of a stranded vessel bobbing precariously in a narrow cove on Armit’s rugged northern coast! Our group worked hard in surveying numerous sites over a few days, and everyone enjoyed cooling down while snorkelling on the Armit reef.
After leaving Armit, we spent a night at Airlie Beach to reprovision, and to enjoy a hot shower. Then it was south through Long Island Sound to survey the Repulse Islands (much more picturesque than the name suggests!) and over to Thomas Island. Again, the name of our campsite (Dead Dog Bay) was not a reflection on what a beautiful spot it was, and we extended our stay there by a few hours the next morning to allow an additional snorkelling session.
After leaving Thomas, we conducted our final surveys of Anchorsmith and Coppersmith islands. These didn’t produce many birds, but did allow a fleeting glimpse of the rare Australian Snubfin Dolphin. Then it was back to Goldsmith for another overnight stay before cruising over to Brampton for a relaxing final night. A leisurely departure the following morning saw us back into Mackay around lunchtime on the final day.
Bill said he’d never experienced such a run of perfect weather in the years he’s been boating in the region, which not only made for comfortable travelling and camping, but also allowed our group optimum surveying conditions and accurate counts. It also meant that everyone was able to see this stunning area at its finest, and make the most of everything it has to offer. We observed almost 70 species and camped on five different islands, with numerous others landed on or inspected from the boat.
The only negative to come from the experience was the scarcity of nesting activity observed. While the data are still being compiled and analysed, it seems likely that these islands have suffered serious declines since the initial management plan was released. However, at least through the efforts of our dedicated Wild Mob volunteers, the region’s managers now have some up to date baseline data to work with in their ongoing efforts to sustainably manage its avifauna.