Raine Island - Nature's Cradle on the Edge of the Coral Sea
Satellite Web Cast From Turtle Heaven and Hell
Journal Entry - 01- 31 - 03
A Nice One!
Another stunning day in Paradise. Several of us began the day about 8:30 with a quick boat ride up to the tower to set up another blind so I could photograph the rufous herons on their evening hunt. After much debate and discussion we decided on a spot - the wrong spot, will be unless we spend a month of evenings in the blind, and with a bit of ingenuity, a piece of camouflage, a small tent fly and a bunch of duct tape, presto a bird blind is built, which sort of looked like a dead turtle, just a bunch bigger. I guess we we're hoping the herons wouldn't notice the size difference.

Emergence - the mob of herons around the emerging hatchlings. If I was able to send a larger image you would be able to count four herons with hatchlings in their mouths.
It would be nice to be able to leave the blind in place for several days to allow the birds to really adjust to it but with the number of turtles coming ashore every night the chances are better than not that a turtle would be wearing our bird blind as a hat before the night was over. That would not be a good thing - not a good look, as they say here in the land down under. Besides our Parks and Wildlife Services liaison Ian Bell gave me the strangest look and just walked a way when I postulated that it might be an interesting idea. A sort of, You HAVE got to be kidding me, whata' ya nuts? type look. So the blind is taken down each night.

By the time we finished setting up the blind and made our way back down the beach to the Floreat the sun was really beating down, making each step in the soft sand a labour. I think back to the years I spent working on an oil rig in the Qatari desert, it was very hot there in the summer. I remember heat but not like this. It was never dizzying hot. The sweat runs off you and what little breeze there is brings no relief. It just saps the strength out of you. Stops me in my tracks and makes me think about just staying on the boat in the cabin.

A heron with hatchling in its beak.
This is why we each carry personal water bottles with us when go on to the island. It is also why I only work in the early morning and late afternoon on the island. The light of course, is best at these times and it is the most comfortable time for the birds as well - if I should disturb a nesting bird the mother has more time to return to the nest before the chick or eggs is harmed by the heat.

On our way back to the boat we came across several large pools indicating where tidal waters are percolating up into depressions beneath which egg clutches may be buried. The water will have drowned the eggs but as with all things at Raine Island there is a fine balance. The area where the pooling water is, appears, to the non-scientific eye, to be limited and having the tidal moisture percolate up in to the sand supports other egg clutches. If the sand moisture content is too dry the eggs will dry out and once again the egg clutch is lost.

Back at the boat several of the team geared up and went for a dive ....in a raging current it turned out. More to see. Fish like the current it brings nutrients...food.

I went off for a dive later in the day and made friends with a cuttlefish. That and a remora fish (a shark sucker) which I picked up some where. I noticed it at one point and ignored it. Then when I was lost in concentration shooting my new friend, the cuttlefish, something tried to take my temperature through a hole in the outer layer of my dive suit. Luckily the hole didn't go all the way through. I would have been a sight trying to get a remora out of the my dive suit at 20 feet after I got my heart back in my chest. Needless to say the little foot long snot gave me quite a scare. It was a nice dive. Several large bottlenose dolphins passed by just off the reef, close enough to see but not to photograph, as usual. Just hearing them underwater is a thrill. I can't help but think of flipper every time I hear those squeaks and whistles.

Lockloaded - The heron fixated on a spot and ready to strike. And they do.
Then it was back into the blind in the late afternoon heat. I thought we had picked a good spot for the blind. But no matter where you put it you are still counting on placing the blind close to a location where hatchlings will emerge from the sand. Picking that spot is like finding a needle in a hay stack. I the herons predate on two very large hatchling clutch emergencies. One heron would spot the first hatchling and snatch it attracting the attention of others wishing to steal the turtle. Their activity would then bring more to the site until in the end there would be 20 - 30 herons milling around a spot in the sand trying to snatch hatchlings. There is obviously a well defined hierarchy and the birds posture and fight for position, even attacking each other from behind to drive each other from the immediate area. The action around the desert bowl sized spot in the sand goes on as long as there are hatchlings climbing up out of the sand. One by one they are picked off and the action diminishes until the herons begin to move off and turf battles come to end. In the end only one or two birds will remain holding out against hope that there may be one more hatchling to emerge.
One behavior I found fascinating, was to see a heron lean forward and fixate on a spot in the sand at its feet. They will hold this position for long periods waiting for a hatching to burst out of the sand below them. The heron snaps its neck forward and snatches the hatchling and must then be prepared to move as its rivals will quickly attempt to steal its newly captured meal.

By the time the sun set the herons had returned to preening themselves calmly as the last usable light of the day faded away. It was a productive session cooped up in the blind with the sand flies and the heat.
All in all good day. Any day when you make a new friend underwater, watch an incredible behavioral show like the herons feeding can only be called a nice one!

Up tomorrow to do it all over again!

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