Flying home – the beauty of a pied imperial-pigeon count

A glimpse of North Brook. Photo courtesy of Lucy Smith.

A glimpse of North Brook. Photo courtesy of Lucy Smith.

Way back in December 1994 I was privileged to be included in one of the famed pied imperial-pigeon counts on North Brook island – five nautical miles east of Hinchinbrook. I had heard so much about these counts, then in their 30th year, but even the huge expectations I had built up were easily surpassed by the actual experience. The stunningly beautiful land and seascapes, the warmth and friendship of the band of crew and counters, the real passion they brought to the task, and the spine-tingling spectacle of the birds which streamed home for hours across the sparkling waters with the setting sun behind them – wow! I later described how these exquisite birds seemed to be turned to gold as the sun caught their luminous white plumage and how the whole forest was alive and humming with their gentle calls. Adding to the extraordinary nature of the day, though I did not know it at the time, was the fact that the final total of 45,134 birds massively exceeded any previous tally since the counts began began in 1965. Even now that figure has only once been passed – by the record 47,168 birds counted in 2008.

Over the intervening years I have had the immense good fortune to be included on many more of these unforgettable counts, each one a highlight of my year. So it was a delight last week to be heading once more across Rockingham Bay in the company of outstanding conservationist Margaret Thorsborne – who, with her husband Arthur, began this great tradition – zoologist and count coordinator John Winter, QPWS trip organiser Julie Russell, two Girringun rangers and three other local volunteers. Within an hour we had reached the islands where we immediately noticed large flocks of terns on the northern beach of North Brook. In order not to disturb this breeding colony we did not, on this occasion, land on the island. While this meant that we were unable to carry out some of the regular tasks of the past (land bird survey, pigeon nest survey, seed collection, rubbish collection) we used the time to survey and identify the terns and other seabirds as we circumnavigated North, Tween and Middle islands.

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Rows of nesting terns occupy the north-facing beach. Photo courtesy of John Winter.

The birds on the beach were identified as being mostly crested terns (about 300) and black-naped terns (about 100). A few bridled terns were sighted on the rocks on the ocean side but no nests could be seen. Beach stone-curlews are known to nest on North Brook but none were sighted on this occasion. However a white-bellied sea-eagle soared over South Brook and the western-facing beach on North Brook was occupied by one pelican and an eastern reef heron for most of the afternoon.

Scribers and counters get busy. Photo courtesy of John Winter.

Scribers and counters get busy. Photo courtesy of John Winter.

By 3.30pm, the counters had their gaze fixed to the north and south and scribes were equipped with count sheets and pens, ready for the influx of birds from their daytime feeding grounds. As usual they trickled in slowly to begin with and at this point counting was relatively easy, but as the pace quickened and the size of the flocks increased it was certainly not a task for the faint-hearted or bleary-eyed. Even scribing required an iron wrist (or fist?) and intense concentration.  Julie was our careful time-keeper ensuring tallies were recorded in separate columns every 15 minutes, while John used his decades of experience as a counter to supervise and advise those new to the task. The participation of Girringun rangers in these counts, and their obvious enthusiasm and skill, was particularly heartening.

Pigeons fly home against the golden sky. Photo curtesy of John Winter.

Pigeons fly home against the golden sky. Photo curtesy of John Winter.

By 7pm, although a few birds were still coming, it had become too dark for accurate counting. Before heading for shore, under the stars and a nearly-full moon, John gave a summary of the history and importance of the counts – as worthwhile for the old hands as it was for recent recruits. In this post-Yasi period it is particularly important to monitor the return of the birds to such an enduring colony after the cyclonic destruction of nesting habitat and food resources forced their dispersal. It is not known where they went but, in the summer following the cyclone, only 5311 were recorded at North Brook.  It was thus with some anticipation that, next morning, Margaret, John and I took on the task of adding up the columns of figures on no less than thirty count sheets. The final tally of 20,151 was very encouraging, being almost double that of the first count in early October. All being well the December count may see it rise further – to the mid or high twenties perhaps? Long may these counts continue.

North Brook Island PIPS count 13/11/2013 Inflying Outflying
Northern sector   8,020  590
Southern sector 12,131 2670
TOTAL 20,151 3260
Sunset flight. Photo courtesy John Winter.

Sunset flight. Photo courtesy John Winter.

 

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