Fishing for birds on Christmas Island

Blogger Karen Hunt describes the first time she ‘fished for birds in the jungle’ during Christmas Island Bird’n’Nature Week, an annual week-long event that supports research on the island’s endemic species and tropical seabirds. This story was originally published on Christmas Island Tourism Association’s blog.

Fishing for birds in the jungle.

A sentence I never thought I would write, a thing I never thought I would do.

But hey, this is Christmas Island, and here, it’s not just a very cool way to spend a day, it’s helping save a laconic little raptor.

The Christmas Island goshawk is about the size of a pigeon, sleek and slim, with golden eyes and a yeah, whatever attitude.

Mark Holdsworth and Sue Robinson, goshawk gurus and guides, have instructed many an amateur in the fine art of trawling for birds.

First thing you need is a teddy bear, willing to sacrifice an arm in the pursuit of goshawk research. Two teddys, bearing indubitable signs of amputation, sit sadly on the legless lounge chairs strapped to the back of Mark’s ute, silent witnesses to many years of trawling.

Trawling teddy bears, courtesy of Christmas Island Tourism Association.

Then you need some enthusiastic, albeit somewhat skeptical, volunteers to sit on the back of the ute trailing a long fishing line with the teddy arm, impersonating a rat, hooked on the end. The line runs behind the vehicle as it bumps along a series of forested back roads. Scooting along the ground at high speed, the lure is irresistible to a goshawk, even one with a yeah, whatever attitude.

It’s a fine thing to be sitting in a legless lounge chair on the back of a ute, with the breeze keeping the mozzies at bay, cool in the shade of the trees, trawling for goshawks. Even the occasional halt to shift red or robber crabs off the road is no major inconvenience, because there is time for Sue to give us a quick lesson on crab life cycles or discuss the finer points of lure handling.

Amazingly, after only a short time of trawling, there’s a flash of movement. Out of the impenetrable jungle canopy, a goshawk has launched an attack on the lure, scooping it up neatly off the ground and alighting with it, still attached to the line, in a tree nearby.

Mark and Sue swing into action.  Mark approaches the tree quietly, carrying a long pole equipped with a peg at the far end. Sue gets ready to twitch the lure up and down the side of the road, enticing the bird back should it decide it’s not happy with being the focus of all this attention and fly off. It doesn’t bolt, instead it watches, vaguely interested but not terribly concerned, while Mark slips the peg around its leg and pulls it out of the tree to be weighed, banded, photographed and released by one of the now not-skeptical-at-all volunteers.

Mark Holdsworth with a goshawk, courtesy of Christmas Island Tourism Association.

The banding serves many purposes – a way to count the population, assess their breeding successes, determine the proportion of males to females, track their movements and work out how long these unique goshawks live. The data accumulated over years of banding the birds will help researchers discover more about this relatively unknown aerial predator.

The photography and release by the volunteers is really just for fun.

By the end of the day we’ve finessed our skills at trawling the lure, and caught two goshawks which haven’t been banded previously – one a juvenile, striped in rich terracotta and white, and an adult female, beautifully turned out in charcoal grey and russet. Another three birds fall victim to the siren song of the lure but two settle too high in the trees to be caught and the other has already been banded.

Its Day 2 of Bird and Nature Week and I’ve spent it fishing for birds.

There’s a first.


Christmas Island Bird’n’Nature Week is an annual week-long event that supports research on tropical seabirds like the Endangered Abbott’s booby, Christmas Island frigatebirds and more, as well as species found only on the island, including the Christmas Island goshawk.

You can read more of Karen Hunt’s stories on Christmas Island Tourism Association’s blog.

Main image: Christmas Island goshawk, credit Shaun Tierney / Christmas Island Tourism Association.