A Weary Traveller – The Tale of an Abbott’s Booby
The first time Odd-dog brought his leash to me to insist we go for a walk was also the day I discovered that the distance from Christmas Island to my little piece of paradise on the Queensland coast is 5,155 kilometres.
Odd-dog’s cleverness was all the excuse I needed on that glorious autumn afternoon with its striking azure sky and light southerly breeze. I retrieved my sunhat from the rickety, driftwood hat-stand on the back veranda, grabbed a towel, and Odd-dog and I headed off. We made our way down the street, with my short-legged buddy marking his passage on every power pole and fence-post from the house to the beach while I pretended not to notice.
The moment my feet sunk into the warm golden sand, I unclipped the leash from Odd-dog’s collar. My little tan Staffie disappeared into a copse of she-oaks in search of a suitable stick, and I headed down to the water. Turning south, I started for the distant outcrop of boulders that always remind me of a gathering of large, leatherback turtles lazing at the water’s edge. As was often the case, there wasn’t another soul in sight. Being a local, I am acutely aware that any more than a handful of people on the entire beach at any given time is grounds for much tsk tsk-ing, and at least a month’s griping about how great the place used to be before the caravan park opened.
Before long, Odd-dog joined me as I splashed along through the shallows. At least half a metre of stick jutted out from each side of his mouth, and I was instantly on guard to the danger of getting whacked in the back of the legs every time he ran past. About two-thirds of the way into our five kilometre walk, I noticed the night tide had left a generous line of seashells and driftwood along the high tide mark. Leaving the water’s edge, I headed up the sand bank with my trusty side-kick in tow so I could browse among the treasures as we continued our journey. Here and there, the line of shells was cut by broad paths of trickling water returning to the ocean from the protected wetland area behind the beach, which carved wavy lines in the sand, like luscious locks of hair, all the way to down to the gently swaying waves at the ocean’s edge.
Quite a way ahead, I caught sight of a large, white object amid the high tide treasures. My first impression was that of a plastic fuel container, and my temper flared at the thought of all the man-made garbage littering the ocean. But as we drew closer, I wondered if it might be a large shell. Hopeful of adding a significant find to my sparse collection of shells bigger than an Oreo biscuit, I made a beeline for it. Odd-dog kept his pace, several metres ahead of me, discarding sticks for other apparently better ones, while I continued to eye the object. Closer and closer we drew, yet still I was unable to identify what it was. At this point, Odd-dog spotted it and trotted ahead for an investigative sniff. When a slender neck brought a long, grey, pointed beak up to snap several times at the short-muzzled intruder, I realised it was a sleeping bird.
I called Odd-dog to me and moved us back several metres. I watched the bird sit back down on the sand, and was intrigued, and somewhat concerned, as to why it hadn’t tried to flee. I continued to watch from a distance, contemplating the bird’s unusual behaviour. It ignored the dog and me, and simply sat facing the ocean. It was a largish bird, white with black wings, black tail feathers, and large back eyes. Every now and then, it would spread its wings as though drying, or warming, them in the mid-afternoon sun. But it made no attempt to leave.
After watching the bird for a time, Odd-dog and I left to resume our walk to the ‘leatherback’ rocks. We reached our endpoint, turned around, and started the trek home.
From quite a way back, I could see that the bird was still there. As we neared, I decided to tie Odd-dog up to a large driftwood tree before making my way closer. The bird was asleep again, its head tucked under its wing. I had no idea what breed it was. There is a great variety in the area, from pheasants, to brahminy kites, to endangered red-tailed black cockatoos. Such is the diversity of our feathered inhabitants that busloads of ornithologists can often be found prowling about the wetlands wearing their tribal binoculars and cameras. But I’d never seen anything like this fellow.
I took the towel from my shoulders and slowly approached. Nearer now than I had been previously, I noticed the bird looked time-worn. I didn’t know whether it was sick, or whether the poverty of its plumage was a sign of a hard life or old age. But I did know that it was vulnerable, and I was concerned that someone might come along with a big nasty dog, instead of a sweet, old staffie. Readying myself, I gently lay the towel over the sleeping bird. I picked him up (I decided it was a ‘he’), and carried him several metres inland toward some mangroves and she-oaks edging one of the estuaries. The bird let out a couple of honks, a sound not unlike that of a goose, but made no real effort to resist. I placed him down carefully in the shade at the edge of the estuary, removed the towel, which was now sporting a dozen or so of the biggest lice I’d ever seen, and stepped back. The bird wobbled a little on one and a half large, pale grey, webbed feet then sat down again.
Odd-dog and I took ourselves home. The next day when I returned, I found the bird exactly where I’d left him. He’d died during the night.
After a studying dozens of online photos of water birds common to the area (the one and a half webbed feet was the clue), I finally found him. He was an endangered seabird, one that breeds in only a few spots on the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean, known as an Abbott’s Booby. And although they apparently tend to remain around that area, individuals have been known to travel thousands of kilometres.
The distance from Christmas Island to where I live is 5,155km.