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The tale of the Papuan (Blyth’s) Hornbill

R. Bruce Richardson | Guest contributor


Editor’s note


R. Bruce Richardson’s report below of Blyth’s (aka Papuan) Hornbill occurred on Dauan Island in the northern Torres Strait. Dauan Island and its close neighbour, Saibai Island, are among many Torres Strait islands located within Australia’s Territorial Waters. It’s understood that record of this species in Australia is yet to be ratified by Birdlife Australia’s Rarities Committee before it can be formally included in Australia’s (and Northern Queensland’s) official Bird List. R. Bruce Richardson’s report, modified from his blog, is presented here, enhanced by two images by Dominic Chaplin, as provided by Lindsay Fisher of Birdlife Northern Queensland.


Jennifer H Muir


 


It is very rare that Birdlife Northern Queensland can potentially add a new bird to our already amazing bird list and this one may not only be new for us, but for Australia as well – and a new family too! Many of you will have read R. Bruce Richardson's entertaining books “Australian Birding Tales” and “More Australian Birding Tales”. His overwhelming enthusiasm is quite infectious and we are very pleased to have his permission to republish part of the report from his online Blog of his sightings of Blyth’s (aka Papuan) Hornbill on Dauan Island in Torres Strait...

Lindsay Fisher


 

On 22 February 2024 my friend, Alison Nisbett, posted a photo on the Australian Twitchers Facebook group with the caption:


AUSTRALIA'S FIRST HORNBILL – BLYTH’S HORNBILL photographed on Dauan Island (Qld) in the Northern Torres Strait.

 

Alison was on the first of Richard Baxter’s Birding Tours Australia’s three Torres Straits trips of 2024. I was going on the third one. When I read Alison’s post my head, as well as the majority of all Australian twitchers, metaphorically and almost literally, exploded. This was the bird of a lifetime. This was a twitcher’s dream bird. Could it possibly still be there two weeks later? I dared not even dream that it would. No, I tell a lie. I did dream, hope, pray, wish and think about it still being around and being able to see it for myself. Oh yes I did and yes it was.

 

Blyth’s Hornbill, also known as the Papuan Hornbill, was named for Edward Blyth an English Zoologist based predominately in India. I know very little about him except that he had a most  excellent beard. I googled him of course.


Edward Blyth [after whom Blyth’s Hornbill was named] and beard. Image from R. Bruce Richardson’s online Blog – probable source: Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Blyth


A quick note on Richard Baxter. I consider Richard a genuine friend as well as my birding hero. I have complete confidence in his knowledge and the utmost respect for his birding abilities. Richard has seen more birds in Australia than any other birder. His list is currently up to about 915. Only he and the late, great Mike Carter (who I truly liked as a person as well as a birder) have seen over 900 species in Australia. I do hope to get to 800 one day. We will see. I am working toward it.


On 7 March I was living with nine other birders on the Tropical Paradise powered catamaran in air conditioned comfort and eating like a Hobbit. We had visited Boigu Island before sailing over to the very small island of Dauan where Richard had made the arrangements for us to go ashore. There is a per-day fee paid to the Dauan Council and visits are not easily arranged. We landed there twice, once in the arvo of the 7th and then again on the morning of the 8th.


The northern Torres Strait Islands that belong to Australia including Dauan Island. Image from R. Bruce Richardson’s blog.

 

When we arrived that first afternoon the excitement amongst our little group was palpable. You could taste the anticipation. If you have ever truly been as excited and hopeful as I was then you know that feeling. It fills all of your senses and yes, you can actually taste it.


Arriving by boat at Dauan Island where the author, R. Bruce Richardson and other tour group members saw and photographed Blyth’s (Papauan) Hornbill. Image from R. Bruce Richardson’s blog.

 


We signed-in at the council office and then walked the kilometre or so to the sports oval by the mountain ridge line. There were aluminium ‘bleachers’ and we turned one to face the mountain. In about ten minutes time, at 3:44 pm (God bless photo time stamps) a large, broad-winged, uniquely shaped bird flew up above the ridge for a few seconds. Everyone saw it. Everyone knew it. Everyone had beheld the Papuan Hornbill. 

 

We saw him many times over the next few hours – he now had a nickname – Randy, courtesy of the owner of our boat, Joe. He would rise up from the other side of the ridge, fly around for a few moments and then once again, disappear behind the mountain. It was joy, massive, heart filling joy! Lifer high reigned. We were all geeking out over this bird. We stayed there until dusk before beginning our walk back to the jetty and boat ramp where we would be picked up.

 

On that walk back, an almost magical thing happened. As we floated along on broad Hornbill wings of Lifer High we began to hear rock music: distantly at first and then louder. It was the Bruce Springsteen song, “Blinded by the Light”. I love that song. As we got closer it got louder. Some Dauan islander was playing it through large speakers on his porch. It was a perfect song to hear at that time. Yes, we rocked, both literally and figuratively. “Revved up like a deuce another runner in the night.” 

 

Back on the boat we had (as always) an excellent dinner and we toasted Randy. Richard had purchased some delicious Little Creatures non-alcoholic beers which he shared with me. I am having one now as I write these words. And it is in an Eclipse FNQ Charter’s stubby-holder (the Eclipse was the charter boat that was replaced with the Tropic Paradise).

 

The next morning we left on the Zodiac at our usual 5:30 am start and went ashore on Dauan. It was a wet landing since it was a low tide. I was wearing my gum boots but in one spot the water went just over the top of them and soaked my double socks. When we got to the sports oval, I took them off in an attempt to let them dry.

 

At 6:52 am Randy made his first appearance of the day. And then at 7:03 am he flew down and perched on our side of the ridge: still far from us, but now we could have excellent scope views. I asked James to try and get a digiscoped photo through my scope. Using my old iPhone 8, he was able to get some record shots. One of those has replaced the photo of a Whale Shark and me that had been my lock-screen wallpaper since January of 2019. I know a few other birders have gotten better shots, but these were through my scope on my phone. Thank you James my buddy, for getting these photos. I suck at digiscoping.


“Randy” the Blyth’s (Papuan) Hornbill on the distant ridge at 7:03 am: taken by my buddy, James, using my old iPhone 8 through my birding scope. Image from R. Bruce Richardson’s blog.

 

So we had done it. We had beheld the Papuan Hornbill, Rhyticeros plicatus, a first for Australia and even a new family of bird for Australia. The mega of all mega-rarities that has ever been seen in Australia. Thank you Richard Baxter and all involved. Truly a bird of a lifetime. 



 

 

R. Bruce Richardson’s original blog posted on 13 March 2024 can be accessed here:



 


Below are two images taken by Dominic Chaplin and provided by Lindsay Fisher.


A pair of Blyth’s (aka Papuan) Hornbill: male on right, female on left: Waigeo Island, Indonesia. Image by Dominic Chaplin, March 2017; courtesy of Lindsay Fisher.

Composite image of Blyth’s (aka Papuan) Hornbill in flight: Sidangoli, Indonesia. Image by Dominic Chaplin, April 2012; courtesy of Lindsay Fisher.

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