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  • Georgina Steytler

Christmas Island: The Galapagos of the Indian Ocean




Hands up who thinks that the only thing of note on Christmas Island (CI) is a very ugly and controversial detention centre?


Yep. You would not be alone. In fact, when I mentioned I wanted to go there to my sister she immediately screwed up her nose and exclaimed with horror, 'Why?'


Unfortunately, amid all the negative publicity surrounding its use as an Australian refugee/immigration detention centre, and then as a Covid-19 quarantine station, the true nature of this gem in the Indian Ocean has been lost to the world. For a gem it is. Not only does it have beautiful azure waters brimming with tropical fish (a snorkellers delight), jungle walks to stunning waterfalls and secret coves of white sandy beaches (with the odd nesting sea turtle or giant coconut crab to boot) it also has around 80,000 nesting seabirds every year, including the world’s rarest booby and frigatebird, and around 50 million red crabs. In fact, CI's annual red crab migration has been described by David Attenborough as one of the '10 greatest natural wonders on earth'.




On the road to Dolly Beach, close to the migration season in the early morning, you can come across hundreds of crabs and it's very slow going as you have to constantly stop and move them off the road (and let me tell you, they are not happy chappies about it either!). During peak season, many roads are closed. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F2.8L/16-35mm Lens, F7.1, 1/160, ISO1600.



To be fair, most avid birders are already familiar with it's treasure trobe of avian delights, not least amongst them the indefinably beautiful Golden Bosunbird, a golden morph of the White-tailed Tropicbird, only found on the island.



Golden Bosunbird (a.k.a White-Tailed Tropicbird, Phaeton lepturus fulvus subspecies). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F8, 1/8000, ISO1250. Some of these birds are so 'yellow/orange' it looks like you slipped on the saturation button! Most of my images of these birds were taken from the very conveniently located lookout at the entrance to Territory Park (next to the HQ of the CI National Park). It overlooks Flying Fish Cove and the tropicbirds, as well as frigatebirds, are constantly flying below you over the azure waters of the cove - sublime!



Each year in September, CI hosts an annual Bird ‘n’ Nature Week. There are also 'birding' tours run by different tour operators throughout the year which specialise in scouring the island for it's ten endemic birds, of which 7 are threatened (Abbott's Booby, Golden Bosunbird, Emerald Dove, CI Thrush, CI Goshawk, CI Frigatebird and CI Hawk-Owl) as well as the odd vagrants that invariably find themselves on its shore (Christmas Island being closer to Indonesia than to Australia) from time to time (when I was there, there was a Grey Heron!).


But it's potential as a bird (nature) photographer's paradise has yet to be fully explored with no less than 3 species of boobies, 3 species of frigatebirds and white and red-tailed tropicbirds. I spent ten days there last year and I can safely say that I'd be back in a heartbeat. This is NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY HEAVEN. In case you need convincing, just check out my photos below.


(I have also included some helpful information for planning your tour, below).


THE PHOTOGRAPHS


I have included information about each species from a fabulous book you can get at the tourist information centre titled "Christmas Island: Animals, Plants and Island Ecology", by Elizabeth Rippey and Nic Dunlop. Please note that the book was published in 2015. Therefore, the bird population numbers and status may not accurately reflect the current position.



Lesser Frigatebird (Fregata ariel). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens @400mm, F5.6, 1/1600, ISO800.



Red-footed Booby, juvenile (Sula sula rubripes). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F8, 1/2000, ISO1600. These are the world's smallest boobies, though still quite large seabirds. There are around 12,000 pairs resident on CI and you can always see them in the trees near Ethel Beach. I took this image, though, from the Golf Course Lookout. I can't resist photographing a booby coming in to land as that is when they put down their feet (landing gear), even if it's the backside view! They are simply adorable and a total pleasure to watch.



White-tailed Tropicbirds (one white morph, one golden morph). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F8, 1/5000, ISO800.



Abbott's Booby (Papasula abbotti). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F4, 1/2500, ISO2500. These enormous seabirds are listed as endangered under Australalian legislation, with only about 2,500 pairs on breeding on CI. It is a joy to watch them return to their nests (at the tops of the highest trees in the middle of the island) in the evening, landing gear down. The babies make wonderful welcoming grunting noises that echoe for miles.



Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster plotus). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F6.3, 1/3200, ISO1600. There around 5-6000 pairs of Brown Boobies nesting on CI in colonies on the ground near the sea. This image was taken from the wooden walk platform near Lily Beach.


Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon (Ducula whartoni). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F5.6, 1/3200, ISO800. This large pigeon is endemic to CI. They are quite common throughout the island and offer wonderful photographic opprtunities. I especially love their yellow eyes.



Christmas Island White-eye (Zosterops natalis). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens @400mm, F5.6, 1/2500, ISO1000. These endemic birds are the most abundant on the island with a population of around 20,000 adults.



Christmas Island Frigatebirds, juveniles (Fregata andrewsi). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/4000, ISO500. This is the largest of the 3 frigatebird species on the island, and the rarest, being listed as vulnerable with 1,200 breeding pairs.



Christmas Island Thrush (Turdus poliocephalus erythropleurus). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F8, 1/3200, ISO500. This endemic subspecies is very common and super duper friendly. You wont have to find this bird, it will find you - I promise!



Christmas Island Goshawk (Accipiter natalis). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens + 2x Teleconverter, F8, 1/1250, ISO1000. As of 2015, there were around 100 adult Goshawks in the rainforests of Christmas Island, making them the rarest of the island's endemic birds. They hunt large insects as well as birds, rats and Giant Centipedes. I found a couple on powerlines towards the late afternoon. There was also one hanging outside the Blue-tailed Skink (see below) breeding enclosures - luckily they are covered in nets!



Lesser Frigatebird (Fregata ariel). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens @400mm, F6.3, 1/4000, ISO3200.



Christmas Island Emerald Dove (Chalcophaps indica natalis). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F8, 1/250, ISO1600. This is a delightful subspecies endemic to CI. It is quite shy, so getting a good shot will take a bit of time to find a good location and be very patient.



Red-footed Booby, adult (Sula sula rubripes). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F6.3, 1/2000, ISO1600.



Lesser Frigatebird (Fregata ariel). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens @400mm, F11, 1/6400, ISO1000.



Red-footed Booby, juvenile (Sula sula rubripes). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F4, 1/5000, ISO1600.



Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon (Ducula whartoni) at Grant's Well. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F5.6, 1/3200, ISO1600.



Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster plotus). Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F5, 1/1250, ISO1600.



Frigatebirds (mostly juveniles) circling above me at the Golf Course Lookout. I used a wide angle lens to take this shot so that gives you an idea of how close they came!!! Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F2.8L/16-35mm Lens, F8, 1/800, ISO500.



Red-footed Booby, adult (Sula sula rubripes). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F6.3, 1/4000, ISO3200.



Red-footed Booby, juvenile(Sula sula rubripes) and probably a juvenile Christmas Island Frigatebird. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/4000, ISO500.



Red-footed Booby, adult (Sula sula rubripes). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F6.3, 1/3200, ISO1600.



Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon (Ducula whartoni) at Grants Well. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F6.3, 1/2000, ISO1600.



Golden Bosunbird (a.k.a White-Tailed Tropicbird, Phaeton lepturus fulvus subspecies). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/2500, ISO640.



Red-footed Booby, adult (Sula sula rubripes). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens @400mm, F8, 1/4000, ISO640.



Juvenile Frigatebird photographed against the early morning sparkling ocean. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/6400, ISO640.



Christmas Island Imperial Pigeon (Ducula whartoni). Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens + 1.4x Teleconverter @560mm, F6.3, 1/1000, ISO500.



Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster plotus). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/6400, ISO640.



Golden Bosunbird (a.k.a White-Tailed Tropicbird, Phaeton lepturus fulvus subspecies). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/5000, ISO1600.



Christmas Island Thrush (Turdus poliocephalus erythropleurus). Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F2.8/100mm Macro Lens, F9, 1/1600, ISO3200.



Red-tailed Tropicbird/ Silver Bosunbird (Phaethon rubricauda). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens + 1.4x Teleconverter (@840mm), F7.1, 1/5000, ISO640. There are about 1,400 breeding pairs on the island, selecting shady spots on cliff edges near an open landing area to nest.



Christmas Island Frigatebird (juvenile). Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F6.3, 1/2000, ISO640.


BLUE-TAILED SKINK - Critically Endangered



Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens, F5.6, 1/4000, ISO1000.


These absolutely beautiful lizards, endemic to Christmas Island, are sadly now extinct in the wild, having been ravaged by introduced predators. Fortunately, there is a very successful captive breeding program that you can visit for free and learn and meet these handsome little critters. Bookings can be made at the tourist office (see below).


CHRISTMAS ISLAND FLYING FOX - Critically Endangered



Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F4, 1/4000, ISO2500.



Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F4, 1/4000, ISO2500.



Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens, F5.6, 1/500, ISO6400.


UNDERWATER DELIGHTS!!


The snorkelling is fantastic! Absolutely no idea what they are so if you know, please do let me know!!



Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F2.8 100mm Macro Lens, F11, 1/1000, ISO1000 (-2.7 Exposure compensation) with Ikelite Housing.



Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F2.8 100mm Macro Lens, F11, 1/800, ISO1000 (-2 Exposure compensation) with Ikelite Housing.



Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F2.8 100mm Macro Lens, F11, 1/800, ISO1000 (-2 Exposure compensation) with Ikelite Housing.


CRABS, CRABS AND MORE CRABS! ... DID ANYBODY SAY CRABS?




Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4/600mm Lens + 1.4x Teleconverter, F7.1, 1/3200, ISO800.



The Dales. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens, F5.6, 1/400, ISO1600.



Dolly Beach boardwalk. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F2.8L/16-35mm Lens, F11, 1/100, ISO1600.



The Dales. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens, F5.6, 1/250, ISO1600.



The Grotto. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F2.8L/16-35mm Lens, F3.2, 1/320, ISO1600.



Blue Crabs at The Dales waterfall. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F2.8L/16-35mm Lens, F18, 1/2sec, ISO100.



Robber Crab, also known as the Coconut Crab, is the world’s biggest land crustacean and guess where has the world's largest and best protected population? Yep, Christmas Island! They can weigh more than 4 kg and measure up to a metre across and can live to be more than 50 years old! What a privilege to see! Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F2.8/100mm Macro Lens, F8, 1/400, ISO1000.



Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F2.8 100mm Macro Lens, F6.3, 1/1250, ISO400.



Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F8, 1/3200, ISO640.



Waiting for the rains. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Canon F4/600mm Lens, F7.1, 1/500, ISO2000.



Robber Crab hanging out at The Grotto. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, Tokina 10-14mm Lens, F5.6, 1/500, ISO3200.



Red Crab skulking under our accommodation. Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F4.5-5.6 100-400mm Lens, F5.6, 1/500, ISO3200.

Some Helpful Info


You can easily arrange your holiday to the island with the assistance of the very helpful Christmas Island Tourist Association. They have a very useful calendar you can use to plan your trip. They will also organise your car hire.


Accommodation


The island has not been developed as a tourist mecca. In fact, there is only one luxury resort on the island (Swell Lodge, owned by renowned photographers and tour leaders Jess and Chris Bray). But there is a range of mid-level accommodation that will more than service your needs. We stayed at VQ3 Lodge and Hibiscus House and both offered excellent value for money.


Tours


For island and bird tours I recommend you use Indian Ocean Experiences (say hello to Lisa from me).


Happy Holidaying!




Ps. This is not a sponsored article.


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© 2020 by Georgina Steytler Photography

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