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NATURE ON MASTHEAD ISLAND by Ray Channells, OAM, EFIAP, HonEFIAP, HonFAPS

Masthead Island is a true coral cay in the Capricorn Group of islands at the southern end of The Great Barrier Reef. The 45 ha coral cay lies between Polmaise Reefs and Erskine Island, almost 60 km north-east of Gladstone. The island was named by Matthew Flinders on the Investigator in 1802. It has been a national park under the control of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service since 1988, and is important biologically for vegetation, nesting seabird colonies and sea turtle nesting. There is a camping area on the north-western aspect, with a limit of 60 people, reducing to 30 people in bird nesting season. A permit issued by NPWS is essential for camping on the island.

The average tidal range is about 2 metres, and the highest part of the island is only a few metres above high water mark. It lies just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, and can be subject to cyclones between December and April. To the east lie Wistari Reef, and the world renowned resort of Heron Island, which is considerably smaller than Masthead. Unlike Heron, human impacts are kept to a minimum on Masthead. A zone delineated on the island bans all forms of fishing and collecting. In other areas limited shell collecting and fishing are permitted. There are no facilities of any kind on the island, and all water, provisions and camping equipment must be brought along. No fires are allowed, so gas must be used for all cooking.
Masthead Island as seen from Erskine Island, 15km east.

Norma and I joined a group of 26 people for a stay of 17 days on the island in September-October 2000. The trip was organised by some members of the Yeppoon Shell Club, who have been visiting different coral cays in the region for more than 20 years. They are well experienced in arranging boat hire, permits and all food and water for these trips, and advised everyone on personal equipment. The 40’ fast catamaran Freedom Adventurer was hired, to take us from the marina at Rosslyn Bay to the island, 100 km. away. Loading the mountain of gear onto the boat took a full afternoon, with all hands working. 1,250 litres of water were taken, giving a daily allowance of 2.5 litres/person/day. This was well under the recommended 5 litres allowance, but proved adequate.

Sea hare, a Mollusc, photographed in shallow water with 60mm, macro lens
The swift-footed Crab, Grapsus strigosus, photographed in shallow water with 60mm macro lens

A 5.30 a.m. departure, and a smooth sea saw our arrival within 3 hours at our destination. Three aluminium dinghies with outboard motors were launched from the Freedom Adventurer at the reef edge, and all the gear was unloaded to the beach. A large mess tent was erected, where all the party could be seated for meals, then each group erected their own tents. An awning over each tent was essential equipment, as the nesting white-capped noddy terns christened everything with their droppings. The casuarinas, pandanus and pisonia trees provided shady sites for the tents.

A morning walk around the island revealed many thousands of noddy terns, numbers of crested and black-naped terns, and a pair of pied oyster-catchers with 2 young chicks, one of whom was a delinquent, never coming when his parents called him. Reef egrets (herons) both light and dark phases, were perched high on the pisonia trees. These birds were extremely man-shy, and we could not get within range with our 400 mm. lenses to get worth while photos. A group of 20 small pied cormorants was perched in the casuarina trees, while the ever present silver gulls made themselves objectionable by chasing all the other birds.

On the southern side of the island there was evidence of a big storm having eroded the sand bank, and brought down some huge pisonias, casuarinas and pandanus trees. It was interesting to note that some of the pisonias, although supine on the sand, were sending up small shoots and green leaves. They are genuine survivors! A ton shell on the exposed reef sported a small hole bored through the shell, where the predator had forced an entry, and made a meal of the animal. The magnificent colours of pure white sand, bright green water shading to light blue, then de per blue, then navy blue, were always a joy for us to behold. A dip in the water each day at high tide was invigorating, the water being surprisingly cool.

In the centre of the island the massive size of the pisonias was remarkable. Again, many had been felled by storms, and nearly all were sending up vertical shoots capped with foliage. The rudimentary leaf nests of the noddies were thick in the trees, but it was too early in the season for eggs or chicks. The buff-breasted rails were in almost plague proportions throughout the island, and they were always to be found both inside and around our mess tent, looking for scraps. In one place we found a colony of silver-eyes, busy with food gathering. The mortality rate of the noddies was surprising.

 
A coral trout, caight on Polmaise Reef, adjoining Masthead Island - a tasty treat.

Every day several would be found, either dead or expiring, on the ground. We had 4 young children in the group, ranging in age from 2 to 10 years. They were very sad to see the falling out of the birds. One little one came to me with tears streaming, saying that she had just felt the heart beat of a noddy tern stop, while she held it in her hands. All of them were pleasantly surprised to feel the silky softness of the plumage of the birds. It was a great education for the children, making up for missing a week of schooling.

Two of the party found a nest on the sand at the eastern point of the island, containing two speckled eggs. This was a pied oyster-catcher’s nest, and we observed it for several days. We decided to put up a hide, and did so in stages, placing it 20’ from the nest, well camouflaged in a thick tournefortia shrub. The frame work consisted of 3 expanding tent poles, joined at the top, tepee style. A canvass tent side panel, with centre zip fastener, was used as the covering. It was rather cramped for room inside, with the camera mounted on a tripod, and a folding stool as seating. The lens protruded from the zip fastener, the section below being held closed by clothes pegs. Four days after completing the hide, Norma installed me inside, then walked away. Within 12 minutes the bird, presumably the female, was settling on the eggs. It was some time before I risked taking a photo, so as not to alarm the bird. She just cocked a wary eye, but was soon completely used to the noise of the camera shutter. This session was not good photographically, as the side of the bird facing me was in shadow, and the black plumage and lack of a catchlight in the eye from the sun did not help the pictures. The next session 3 days later was in the afternoon, when the lighting was better. Again the bird was quickly back on the nest. She was disturbed a number of times by people walking around the beach, but soon resumed her incubation duties. At one stage she became hot, and stood over the eggs panting, shading them from the sun.

Pied Oystercatcher, Haematopus longirostris, standing over eggs, taken with 200mm zoom lens + 2x teleconverter
White-capped Noddy Tern, Anous minutus, taken with 200mm zoom lens + 2x teleconverter

All of the group showed interest in the nest, and were allowed to inspect it at a safe distance. We let one young woman sit in the hide for a short time. She was ecstatic at being so close to such a beautiful wild creature, and sharing the experiences of the bird. She will remember it all her life. Two NPWS rangers showed up one afternoon, having come from Heron Island in a rubber ducky. They had a large telescope and a tripod, and were looking for a pied oyster-catcher that had been banded at Swains Reefs. We were able to tell them that none of the oyster-catchers on Masthead was banded. They also expressed interest in the nest, and examined it.

Our photographic equipment consisted of Leicaflex SL and R3 cameras, with 28 mm., 50 mm., 60 mm. macro, and 75-200 mm.zoom lenses, and a 2x televerter. Film used was Kodachrome 64 and 200 i.s.o., and T Max 400 i.s.o. A tripod was an essential piece of equipment, and several small electronic flash units, with plenty of batteries, were needed. Filters used were U.V., polarising and yellow. It was necessary to limit the gear because of storage and travelling facilities, and it is always difficult to choose which pieces of equipment to leave behind. When photographing from the hide, the 200 zoom + televerter was used, giving the equivalent of a 400 mm. lens. The televerter had the disadvantage of losing 2 stops of exposure, thus ‘fast’ films were needed. A larger flash to provide fill-in on the oyster-catcher would have been useful, but the small units were satisfactory for fill-in on most other subjects. The very strong sunlight and reflected light from sand and water, required short exposures with flash fill of shadows. The slow shutter speed of 1/100 second for flash synchronisation was a limiting factor in avoiding camera movement. We do not have underwater housings for below surface photography, but many surface shots were taken, when conditions were suitable. Even slight wind causes impossible ripples on the water surface, and one must wait for windless conditions. Light reflections from the surface can be largely overcome by using a polarising filter.

Reef walking outings at low tide were popular. The brilliant colours of the clam mantles in shades of blue, green and brown were a delight to photograph. Many shells were found, such as money cowries, tiger cowries, cone shells, abalone, spider shells, and the prize one of a large trumpet shell. This one is totally protected, as it is a predator on the larval stages of the crown-of-thorns starfish, which has devastated large areas of coral reefs. After a photographic session, the shell was returned to the area where it was found. A large hermit crab in a ton shell was another interesting feature. The best coral formations were observed while snorkelling over the edge of the reef. A night walk found sea hares, a moray eel and several octopuses.

Trumpet Shell in shallow water, taken with 60mm macro lens. This shell is totally protected as it feeds on the larval stages of the Crown of Thorns starfish, which has cuased much damage on the Barrier Reef by feeding on the live corals.
A small Clam shell on hard coral. Taken with 60mm macro lens in shallow water.

Each day, weather permitting, the 3 dinghies were taken out to Polmais Reef for fishing. They would return with 30 – 40 reef fish, which were filleted and cooked for the evening meal. We had never tasted such succulent fish meals. Calamari was also on the menu, most days. We did have several steak and sausage meals, and bacon and eggs for breakfast on four occasions. The cooks baked fresh bread most days. Not bad , for a deserted coral cay!

One day we identified three ringed plovers, rare migrants from the northern hemisphere. Another thrill was to see three lesser frigate birds, circling high in the sky. Also a pair of white-breasted sea eagles lives on the island, having a nest in the highest pisonia tree. We were surprised to find several sacred kingfishers, mudlarks, a bronze-winged pigeon and a peaceful dove on the island. They must have ben blown here in strong winds. The highlight for us was the arrival of the bridled terns. These lovely birds come here to nest on the ground. They are reasonably trusting, and on an occasion we were able to approach within 8’ of a pair. They soon paired off, and began to select ground nesting spots, under the tournefortia shrubs.

On one of our morning walks we were surprised to see twelve sting rays and a shovel-nosed ray, apparently resting, in shallow water within 3’ of the shore. We waded in and photographed them, without disturbing them. At the edge of the reef one afternoon, we observed eight white-tipped reef sharks, up to 5’ long, feeding. We saw only one large shark, a bronze whaler, late in our stay. On the day of departure we were greeted with a N-W gale force wind of 30 knots. Loading the gear onto the Freedom Adventurer was a hazardous and wet task, and the rough sea on our homeward voyage sorted out the sailors from the rest.
A large Clam shell, Tridacna maxima, with very colourful mantle. Taken wiht 60mm macro lens, in shallow water.

 

BIRDS OF MASTHEAD ISLAND.

White-capped Noddy Tern Pied Oyster-catcher

Crested Tern Sooty Oyster-catcher

Bridled Tern Silver Gull

Sooty Tern Silver-eye

Black-naped Tern Buff-breasted Rail

Reef Egret (Heron)-light phase Pied Heron

- dark phase Ruddy Turnstone

White-breasted Sea Eagle Lesser Frigate

Ringed Plover (rare migrant) Brown Booby

Little Pied Cormorant Sacred Kingfisher

Little Black Cormorant Bronze-winged Pigeon

Mudlark (Peewee) Peaceful Dove

Eastern Curlew (migrant from Asia) Sandpiper (? type)

Wedge-tailed Shearwater (Mutton bird)

FLORA OF MASTHEAD ISLAND.

Pisonia brunoniana

Pandanus tectorius

Casuarina equisetifolia

Tournefortia argentea

Silverwood (only on Masthead and Lady Musgrave)

© All images and text are copyright to their respective authors

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