Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus on Christmas
Island: a second record
MIKE CARTER1 and RICHARD BAXTER2
130 Canadian Bay Road, Mount Eliza, Victoria 3930 Draft 2; 17.03.08
224 Greystone Street, North Lambton, New South Wales 2299
This account of the second Australian record of Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus is presented as a submission to BARC. The bird was found alive, photographed and caught by hand. As the area where discovered was not suitable habitat it was taken to an area with a flowing fresh water stream and released. It was not seen again.
At about 08.30 on 1 March 2008 a Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus was found by a group of birdwatchers on the cliff top adjacent the main road that passes through the Settlement at the northern end of Australia’s Indian Ocean Christmas Island. The group consisted of the authors together with Dougald Frederick, Nigel Harland, David Stickney, Roger Wheatley, John and Katrina Young. Whilst we studying the bird, Lisa Preston, an island resident, joined us and advised that she had seen the bird near the same spot the previous day.
It was standing in grass with seed heads that stood about 0.3 m tall. As the grass was not dense it was fairly easily seen. After studying the bird from some distance during which time the bird moved cautiously into slightly thicker cover whence it adopted a cryptic posture, the group surrounded the bird closing-in gradually until we caught it. In the final stages of the capture the bird assumed threat postures and stabbed at approaching hands.
In the hand the bird felt thin and wasted but was not exhausted and indeed was reasonably vigorous and aggressive in attempting to escape. The area where found was the top of the cliffs of the first terrace at the northernmost part of the island, the sort of place a tired disorientated migrant might make landfall. As the area was dry and unsuitable for a Bittern and as Max Orchard, the National Parks Officer normally responsible for the rehabilitation of sick birds was not on the island, we released the bird by a flowing fresh water stream near some dense growth in Waterfall Cove. It was not seen again.
Numerous photographs of the bird were obtained three of which form part of this submission.
This was a typical small bittern, with a long dagger-like bill and longish legs, similar in shape to Australian Little Bittern I. dubius. Mike Carter, who had recently seen Australian Little Bittern both in the wild and in the hand, considered that it was about one-third larger than that species, therefore about 40 cm long.
The three accompanying photographs adequately illustrate the bird so a full plumage description is unnecessary.
According to Clements 2007, worldwide there are eight species of small bittern, all in the genus Ixobrychus, but now that the Australian subspecies dubius of Little Bittern I. minutus has been raised to specific level (Christidis & Boles 2008), there are nine. Five occur in the Oriental and Australasian regions, likely sources for vagrants to Christmas Island. These are Cinnamon Bittern, Little Bittern, Australian Little Bittern, Yellow Bittern I. sinensis and Schrenck’s Bittern I. eurhythmus. Only one, the Cinnamon Bittern, has the cinnamon flight feathers possessed by this bird. All other species have black remiges (Hancock et al. 1984).
The dark crown, gular stripe and streaking on the neck, identify the bird as a female. Because the black-centred feathers forming the tuft on the shoulder have whitish not bright yellow borders (see the profile shot P1045), we suspect the bird may not be adult.
The Cinnamon Bittern ranges throughout India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Philippines, southeastern China, Taiwan and the small southernmost islands of Japan (Clements 1991; Coates et al. 1997; Kanouchi et al. 1998; MacKinnon & Phillipps 1993). With respect to range, the text and map in Hancock et al. (1984) appear to have several errors. The southernmost parts of its range in Sumatra and Java are omitted whilst it is shown and stated to be present in areas in the north, Korea and Manchuria, from which it is absent. Close to Christmas Island, it is a common resident of freshwater swamp and rice paddy throughout the Greater Sundas (MacKinnon & Phillipps 1993). Populations in the north of its range are migratory, wintering in the Philippines, Borneo and Sulawesi (Coates et al. 1997; Hancock et al. 1984). Migrants returning north in the boreal spring arrive in Hong Kong well before mid-April (Hancock et al. 1984).
The only previous Australian record was also from Christmas Island, a live but emaciated bird found on 22 February 2002 (Carter 2003).
The bird’s appearance coincided with the monsoon season. Apart from the resident White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae and Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus, other herons seen on Christmas Island at this time included Striated Heron Butorides striata javanica, a Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus, and one or perhaps two as yet unidentified Night Herons Gorsachius spp.
There is no suitable wetland habitat for the long-term survival of small Bitterns anywhere on Christmas Island. It is assumed therefore, that its arrival there was accidental, a vagrant from Indonesia, perhaps a wandering resident or a victim of reverse migration. Java is just 360 km to the north.
Carter, M. (2003), ‘Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus on Christmas Island: A New Bird for Australian Territory’, Australian Field Ornithology 20, 55-58.
Christidis, L. & Boles, W. E. (2008), Systematics and Taxonomy of Australian Birds, CSIRO, Melbourne.
Clements, J.F. (2007), The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, Cornell University Press, New York.
Coates, B.J., Bishop, K.D. & Gardner, D. (1997), A Guide to the Birds of Wallacea,
Dove, Alderley, Queensland.
Hancock, J., Kushlan J., Gillmor, R. & Hayman, P. (1984), The Herons Handbook, Croom Helm,
Marchant, S. & Higgins, P.J. (Eds.) (1990), Handbook of Australian, New Zealand &
Antarctic Birds Vol. 1, Ratites to Ducks, Oxford, Melbourne.
Kanouchi, T., Abe, N. & Ueda, H. (1998), Wild Birds of Japan, Yama-Kei, Tokyo (in Japanese).
MacKinnon, J. & Phillipps, K. (1993), A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra,
Java and Bali, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Cinnamon Bittern on Christmas Island 1 March 2008
Plate XX Photos: Mike Carter
17 March 2008