Sunday, July 19, 2020

Bushy Islet – The Eagle has Landed (okay, Osprey)

[Kyle]We had the usual dawn departure from Bird Islets for our continuing push northward. When I was downloading the weather in the pre-twilight darkness, we had three big ships pass nearby going southbound. The last one was just leaving AIS range by the time our anchor was up. That turned out to be the last other boat we saw all day.

Once again - lots of dolphins come and play

The sail was just lovely. The clouds and rain of the last couple of days had moved on, leaving only a scattering of fair weather cumulus behind. Our route slowly edged toward the York Peninsula, where we got much better views if the massive white sand dunes there that were occasionally topped with grasses. After a few hours, we were joined by at least twenty playful dolphins. They would zigzag and leap and seemed to love to play a game where they all squeezed between the bows, bumping into each other and us as they did. One guy tried to switch sides by going over the group. He ran out of space and ended up thumping into our starboard bow pretty hard. I think that's the first time we've ever hit a dolphin. He shook it off by the time our stern passed him and came racing up for more. Another one really seemed to like swimming upside-down. He'd come up to spout and then roll over to shadow the dolphin next to him, matching every move. Then, someone must have said something because they all vanished at once. We couldn't even tell which way they went.

Bushy Islet first came into view with about five miles to go. The main islet is about three hundred meters long and is covered by grasses with just a few trees poking through. Adjacent is also an extended reef which sprouts a few stands of mangroves. This made Bushy look very scraggly from a distance. The name seemed appropriate.

View from Begonia

Up close at low tide, the islet was more picturesque. The main islet was connected via a long spit to a five meter high bulb of sand. Dark colored reefs extended out to the distant mangrove stands and enclosed the anchorage on the north side in a protective semi-circle.

We set our anchor in clean, flat sand at a depth of five meters near the hill at the far end of the sand spit. Once we were secure, I studied the area with our best binoculars. On the main islet, I could clearly see two fairly big croc slides; one up, one down. From the look of where they started and ended, it looked like the animal was probably back in the water. Still, the rest of the large sandy areas within the system looked croc-free. We decided we would take another good look and then plan to go ashore for the next day's low tide, which was mid-afternoon.

As we were eating our breakfast, a Variable Honey Eater arrived on our foredeck. Knowing that the last ones we had aboard really liked apples, Maryanne sliced one up and then tossed the pieces out of the hatch towards him. He took no interest, but instead flew around to the cockpit and landed on the edge of the coaming. I tossed a couple of apple slices his way. He looked at them, then hopped down to the floor and onto the door sill. We said hello. He looked at us for a second and then let himself in for the tour.

He wasn't panicked at all. He landed on the nav station, made a couple of flaps to the edge of the table, and then fluttered over to the galley. Perhaps he was wondering where we keep the grapes. When he got to the window, he started getting confused as to why he couldn't leave by flying through it. Before he got a chance to get into a full panic, I gently picked him up and took him back out to the cockpit. He went over to the lifelines and sat there a while. He was eyeing the apple slices, but eventually seems to have decided they weren't worth the drama and went back to the island.

{Maryanne} From aboard our boat Begonia, anchored off Bushy Islet in the Far North, Queensland, we checked the sand for crocodile slides with the binoculars, and feeling we’d identified a safe place to land the dinghy we rowed ashore. We had timed our landing a couple of hours before low tide in order to fully explore the island, the sand spits, mangroves, and exposed coral flats.

{Kyle} As we were rowing, something nipped at one of our oars. It didn't just bump, but grabbed, twisted and pulled. We never saw anything – no fin or tail, but whatever it was, it was big enough to get the blade into its mouth and strong enough to give it a good pull. That kept us alert. The water around our chosen landing spot was surrounded by clear water, so we were satisfied that whatever it was that grabbed our oar wasn't following us. The beach was also nice and steep. That meant I could land with only one step in the water and then pull the dinghy up so that Maryanne could have a dry exit.

I climbed over the sand mound to check for crocs hiding on the other side. Nothing. We grabbed our stuff and headed out.

Exploring ashore

Noddies and terns

{Maryanne}We saw a family of ospreys, a kingfisher, a varied honeyeater, a beach-stone curlew, oyster-catchers, a flock of black-naped terns and a host of other birds ashore. As we waded through the shallows we spotted an epaulette shark (they are quite small and harmless), and regularly were startled as blue-spotted ribbontail rays darted off to clear out our way.

Wading out in the shallows

{Kyle} Our route took us first along the edge of the hard coral to the mangroves at the southern end of the reef. We were 'saving' the main island for last, mostly because of the croc slides there. On our way back along the reef, an Australian Border Force plane (a Dash-8) flew low overhead, did a 180-degree turn and flew back. The u-turn wasn't unusual, as we were pretty much at the end of the coastal patrol route. This is the first time we've had such closely spaced north and southbound runs. We had a portable marine radio on us. They never attempted to call, so we figured they were just verifying our progress north. We gave them a big wave as they passed, making sure to use only one arm (a two-arm wave is a distress signal).

As we approached the corner of the main islet, we could see what looked like some pretty big croc tracks in the sand. There was two of them, each going to the same place. We hoped that one was up, the other down, and we wouldn't actually encounter the animal itself. Upon closer examination, the tracks turned out to be from a big turtle. The swirly footprints left no claw marks and the central slide was wide and straight, not sinuous, clearly left by a carapace and not a belly and a tail. Hawksbill turtles nest around here. These tracks and the big sandy crater at their terminus seemed to indicate that's what had happened. Later on, we did find proper fresh croc tracks for comparison. The matted down grass at the top was probably about the size of the space I would need if I ever decided to do anything so daft as bed down for the night in the grass on an Australian island.

Turtle and crocodile tracks ashore

As we rounded the corner, the adult ospreys soaring overhead spotted us and started screeching out warnings to each other, which became more insistent the closer we got to their giant nest. The juvenile inside had been making short flights all morning, but they were still clearly worried about him. He had to work harder at staying aloft than his parents. He never soared and never got as high as they were. The only times he got to rest his wings on his little circuits of the island were when coming in for a landing.

Just before we left the nest tree to walk back across the sand spit to the dinghy, we got to see him perform one. At about thirty meters up, starting from a flapping hover dead downwind of the nest, he steadied his wings and then started a slow descent to pick up speed to about three knots over the ground. His approach was arrow-straight at about a twelve-degree angle. He never once floated above or sunk below the imaginary line. Just over the tree at three meters to go, it was feet down and forward, talons open. When he got above the bowl of the nest, he slowed briefly to a stop, then reached out and grabbed the lip of the nest in front of him. Then he folded his wings with a satisfied ruffle. Brilliant! Oh, it's nice to have an audience when you do a good job.

The Osprey lands

From the osprey nest, we took the long way back to the dinghy via the shallows behind the beach. The water was clear enough to know we didn't have to worry about crocs, but we did see a few other interesting things, as Maryanne has previously mentioned.

{Maryanne}After a few hours exploration, we returned to the boat. We’d thoroughly enjoyed our exercise and wildlife spotting ashore. Once back at Begonia, with muscle memory and an eye over the water for possible crocodiles, I climbed aboard and deployed the straps and lines required to hoist the dinghy while Kyle remained in the dinghy to connect everything.

As I stepped back from my task, starting to ponder what my next one might be, I noticed motion – a large brown something was scurrying towards me as I moved into the cockpit. After a scream and a second take, I was perplexed but relieved to see a juvenile osprey skating on the bench seat in our cockpit. Equally shocked at seeing me, it was now scrambling to get a foothold and get out of the way, its talons failing to get a grip on the hard flat surface, and making a distinct clattering sound on the gelcoat. At the same time I was still reeling backwards assessing the view ahead of me. Kyle, worried that there was somehow a crocodile aboard, was relieved to hear it was ‘only’ an osprey.

The bird managed to find a footing, but then found its wings hindered by the many obstacles: the table it had managed to be partially under, the posts holding the bimini (sun cover) up over the cockpit, the mainsheet (line), the preventer (line), and the many lifelines and stanchions; it must have crashed into all these items in a bid to escape, but it could not manage to take flight without striking its wings. Soon, the bird just dropped into the sea behind the boat.

Kyle, still in the dinghy wondering what the heck was going on, suddenly found himself with a swimming sea eagle beside him. The osprey managed to maneuver effectively through the water. Keeping its wings high, it ‘swam’ with a lunging motion from its legs and a scooping motion from its forward wing bones, but it was also clearly distressed and getting fatigued. Amazingly, the bird (without any evidence, I’ve decided it is a ‘he’) managed to scramble aboard at our lower swim step, but again he couldn’t get a footing, and slid off - twice.

Once back in the water and struggling to stay afloat, he then began to tangle in all the lines and straps we’d just dropped overboard for hoisting the dinghy. I tried to haul them up and out of his way, but was worried I might hurt the bird in the process so I was very timid about it all.

Eventually, Kyle decided the bird was slowly sinking, and that a rescue was in order. {Kyle} I would have thought ospreys would be better equipped for swimming, although they usually grab their prey with their talons while their wings remain high and dry. Perhaps this one was too young to have a waterproof coating on its plumage yet. This poor little guy was fighting against the weight of saturated wings and was slowly being pulled down like a land bird as he became waterlogged. {Maryanne}While nervous to approach such a bird, Kyle put out a boat hook from the dinghy for the osprey to climb up on. Amazingly, it worked. Its talons grabbed the pole and Kyle cautiously lifted and transferred the heavy bird back to the boat to take a rest. The osprey was compliant during the exercise and appeared thankful for the assistance and surprisingly calm about our interventions.

The Osprey self-rescued a few times, but eventually needed assistance
Thank goodness for bird-lover Kyle

The osprey was now on our back step, protected from the wind and able to recuperate from his ordeal. He seemed much more stable grabbing with its talons onto some thick rope, rather than sliding around on the gelcoat. We too had time to calm down and appreciate the situation. Wow, what a pleasure to have such a beautiful animal aboard. Kyle abandoned hoisting the dinghy and made his way aboard, joining me in just admiring this beautiful creature that had somehow chosen to visit.

Looking a bit bedraggled

While resting, he seemed as curious about us as we were of him

The osprey soon felt it was time to depart, and took off again, but struggled to maintain flight, and looking fatigued, he dropped back into the water and swam back to the boat – managing somehow, after significant effort, to scramble up on our stern sugar-scoop steps. An hour or so later, as the tide rose, the seas around us became choppier and Kyle determined he couldn’t delay hoisting the dinghy any longer so tentatively set to work, all very close by to our resting osprey. The osprey didn’t seem to mind one bit, even when the dinghy mid-hoist was swinging back and forth beside him.

From time to time we saw one of the parents flying around over the island. We had no idea if they knew where their baby was, but were sure they must be concerned, or possibly even already mourning a loss. {Kyle} I did see him watching very intently, even longingly at one of the adults as it flew overhead, but for some reason he chose not to cry out to them. I don't think he was strong enough to benefit from an escort. Maybe he knew that, but perhaps a fresh fish would have helped him get his strength up. {Maryanne}While we were in awe of having such a beautiful bird so close, and who somehow seemed very relaxed about our pottering and fussing aboard, we were also concerned that he should getting back to the island before dark (we were doubtful if ospreys generally fly, land, or even see in the dark, especially a juvenile).

It seems what we’d come to think of as ‘our eagle' felt the same way (it was time to head home), and after significant rest, he decided to attempt flight again. He made a clean escape from the boat, and was pointed towards the island, but the strength of the wind meant he made no headway at all. We stood on the decks watching on. He looked from us to the island, and back to us, and decided to abort his attempt, and return to the safety of the boat. Unfortunately, the return wasn’t as clean as the departure, feeling much more frantic. This time, the bird collided into stays and lines. He attempted to land on a spreader, but somehow got a talon caught in the courtesy flag and we saw him hanging upside down and spinning and swinging along with the flag. As Kyle scrambled to lower the flag (osprey and all). The bird managed to free itself and it eventually found a place on the trampoline to recover again.

He tried various perches... And seemed quite happy for Maryanne to move a halyard out of the way.

In anticipation of his next attempt, we scrambled about the boat to relocate any obstacles (we moved the halyard lines, turned off the wind generator, etc), hoping to give the osprey a clear exit path from the boat. In the meantime, after yet another failed attempt to depart, he found a temporary resting place on top of our bimini (suncover), and we, having some time to check over him, were relieved to see he seemed uninjured.

A subsequent effort to launch soon found the bird flying into yet more rigging, and eventually dropping in the water behind the boat and attempting to swim back to us. Seeming even more fatigued and sodden, the bird repeatedly tried to climb the few inches up to the safety of the step. Kyle eventually felt compelled to intervene (with no regard for his own safety) and lifted the osprey out of the water and back to its resting place without any objection or fuss from the bird.

Eddie seemed OK with Kyle moving him forward

The Osprey made a few additional halfhearted attempts to depart the boat, but was fatigued, unnerved, and most likely sodden and bruised, so he stayed with the boat on his favored perch. We wanted him to have a clear flight path from the boat, so (given that he had seemed so compliant when Kyle plucked him from the water previously) we decided to move him to a perch right at the front of the boat on the martingale stay, where its talons could grip readily upon a metal turnbuckle. He sat there for some time while being buffeted by 18kt winds and taking the occasional splash from the waves at the bow.

We retired to the cabin, and occasionally checked on our bird, which by now we’d named Eddie (after the clumsy and accident-prone British 1988 Winter Olympic athlete nicknamed ‘Eddie the Eagle’. Ospreys are also known as sea eagles).

Eddie didn’t leave though, and eventually sunset was upon us. I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to maintain his hold overnight, and that if he tried and failed to fly home in the dark that we wouldn’t be aware, nor able to rescue him again. We determined it was best if we could bring him back to some kind of shelter where hopefully he would rest and recover, and choose to wait to take flight in the morning. We prepared a ‘nest’ from a shallow open crate, and Kyle went forward with a T-shirt to aid in bring the bird back to shelter. Again, he was compliant (with talons and beak designed to rip meat apart, we were never so sure it was safe to grab a wild raptor, but were at a loss how otherwise to help, and couldn’t just watch on). {Kyle} He was really lovely. When I draped the t-shirt over him like a cape, he didn't wriggle or even flinch. He was reluctant to let go of his turnbuckle though, and I had to gently uncurl his feet from them. (Kids, be careful when doing this at home with your osprey. Those talons are like sharp thorns at the end of each very strong toe.) Even while I was taking the time to do that, he never tried to come at me from the end I wasn't watching – the beak. He was also nice enough to not squeeze down any time his talons were on my bare skin before I was able to switch to the t-shirt-covered hand to support him.

Eventually we concede he needs a good night's rest

{Maryanne}While not constrained in any way, and free to leave at any time, we were glad to find he voluntarily settled in the crate. At 4am, when Kyle woke to start preparing for our continuing sail north, he reported that Eddie was resting still with its head under a wing – just what I wanted to hear.

Once daylight broke, we wanted to see the bird safely back ashore. Ideally, we wanted him to fly home, proving a full recovery. We had a back-up plan to motor out of our way and upwind, making it an easy flight downwind back to Mum and Dad and his island nest. Once it became apparent that Eddie was alert, and very aware of us watching him from our doorway, we decided to move him forward (we didn’t want Eddie making another attempt from so far back in the boat, and possibly crashing into rigging) – so Kyle again moved Eddie forward to the martingale to find a perch. Kyle noted that the bird felt much stronger, and certainly drier, so we had high hopes. Eddie did indeed stretch his wings a few times, and even lifted up a few inches for a few seconds, but kept returning to rest mode. We decided to continue preparing the boat for departure and cross our fingers. All the time the sky brightened.

As we were pottering, eventually one of us noticed, “He’s off!” And off he was, a clean escape from the boat and flapping constantly to make headway. Occasionally losing ground and occasionally looking back to us, we were concerned Eddie would give up and return. But inch-by-inch, he clawed his way back to the island and made a treetop landing - not quite back to the nest, but at least safely in the vicinity. We cheered like proud parents; we were so happy and relieved. We also instantly felt a bit of ‘empty nest syndrome’ ourselves, along with extreme pride in our efforts to save Eddie. We spent the remainder of the day thinking what a story he had to tell his worried parents now they are reunited.

And finally... off he flies home

While ashore at Bushy Islet, we’d noticed the juvenile several times. The first time it was in flight, and I even questioned Kyle’s identification that it was an osprey, since it just flapped constantly, there was no gliding or cruising around, just constant flapping. Later we spotted him standing on the exposed coral – again something we’ve never seen (unless a raptor is actively eating a recent catch, we’ve never see one stand on the ground when there are trees and other perches to use).

Eddie seemed healthy and well fed, was about 18” beak to tail, and given this we had no idea why he found himself stranded on our boat. We assume that he was just exhausted, and struggling to make way into the wind, so had used our boat as an island to rest upon while we were on the main island ourselves. It is hard to imagine how he came to find himself in the cockpit, He may have even had several collisions and mishaps aboard before our return, so having made it to the boat he was just further fatigued and battered. {Kyle}After reviewing our photographs, we are pretty sure the bird that we saw making the beautiful landing earlier was Eddie. By the time he made it to Begonia, though, he was so exhausted that the best he could manage was a mad grab at whatever he could reach followed by an ignominious belly flop on his breast and outstretched wings before scrambling to regain his balance over his giant feet.

Earlier 'Eddie' was hanging out on the rocky shore

{Maryanne}We’ve no idea how the trampoline will have coped with Eddie’s scrambling, and we have a few talon sized holes in our bimini cover to repair, but the pleasure of having such a beautiful bird share some time with us far outweighs any such damage. We were up close and personal with Eddie, ‘our eagle', for hours. We have some amazing photographs to go with our wonderful memories of this treasured time. {Kyle} Although wild animals, especially predators, don't make good pets, Eddie was a real pleasure to have around for the time we took care of him. While not exactly cuddly, he was way more docile than other actual pets I have known. I'm thinking specifically about our friend, Kate's cat, Jonesy. Eddie was a real lap bunny compared to that one.

{Maryanne} If any fellow cruiser finds themselves sailing by Bushy Islet this season, we hope they will consider a stopover and be able to report back to us that Eddie is doing well.


Mommy Carla said...

What a wonderful experience. Kyle is indeed a bird whisperer and I can tell this was quite the bright spot for you both. You saved that beautiful Eddie from his obvious distress and gave him a chance to hone his flying skills. Thanks for sharing such a marvelous experience.

Kate Rodenhouse said...

Of all your experiences as cruisers, this one's gotta be in the top 3! And it had a sloppy-kiss happy ending too :) A lucky break for an inexperienced and exhausted juvenille osprey and for the couple who happened to be spending time near his home. I'm just tickled that it worked out the way it did.