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The island of Kiritimati (pronounced Ki-ris-mas’, or Christmas) is the largest of the 33 islands in the Pacific Ocean that make up the nation of Kiribati. The island has some 388 square kilometres of land area, which equals that all the other 32 islands of Kiribati combined. About 5,000 people live on Christmas Island, while the total population of all the islands of Kiribati is about 92,000. All but one of the islands of Kiribati are coral atolls. Christmas Island is not only the largest atoll in this nation but also in terms of land area, the largest coral atoll in the world!In addition, Christmas Island is notable because of its proximity to the International Date Line. People there are among the first to experience the beginning of new calendar day, a new year and other annual observances, such as that of the death of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, this remote coral atoll is one of the mostly important breeding grounds for seabirds in the Tropics. Not long ago it was said that some 25 million sooty terns regularly nested there.
During one of our visits, a warden from the Wildlife Conservation Unit gave us a fascinating tour. As the warden led us onto a beach, graceful, inquisitive white terns flew out to greet us. Hovering teasingly just beyond arm’s length, they watched our every move.On the ground beyond the beach was a colony of sooty terns. Hundreds of thousands of these birds come to Christmas Island to breed. When they arrive, they fly day and night for weeks swirling, chattering mass above their breeding sites, waiting for all the birds to arrive before they finally settle to nest on the bare ground.
Fledging sooty terms begin their ocean wandering at about three months of age. They do not return to land until some five to seven years later, when they are ready to breed. During those years away, they spend most of their time in the air. There is not enough oil in their feathers to allow them to remain afloat on water.We saw black noddies sitting on nests, along with their chicks and un-hatched eggs. Whereas theses seabirds build a nest for their young, the white terns do not. They lay eggs on bare tree branches. Fortunately, their young hatch with well developed feet and claws, which are just right for hanging on. These fluffy baby terns clinging to the branches instantly won our hearts. The parents too are exquisite little snow-white birds with a contrasting black bill.
As we toured, a Christmas shearwater resolutely sitting on its egg kept a watchful eye on us from a sheltered area nearby, Christmas Island has the largest known colony of wedge tailed shearwaters in the world. And it is one of the last known breeding grounds for both the Polynesian storm petrel and the Phoenix petrel. Among the many other birds breeding there are the red-tailed tropic bird, the masked booby, the brown booby, the red-footed booby, the brown noddy and the frigate bird.Frigate birds soared effortlessly overhead, performing magnificent aerial acrobatics, stealing fish in midair from other birds, and vying for tidbits discarded by fishermen. This aerial skill is borne of necessity, since the frigate bird does not ordinary land water. As with sooty terns, their plumage lacks sufficient waterproofing properties and in addition their 1.8 meters wingspan makes takeoff a challenge.
We learned that a little brown bird seen earlier was a Pacific golden plover. It is one of many migratory birds that use Christmas as a vital refuelling and wintering stop after a long fight from their breeding grounds thousands of kilometres away above the Arctic circle. Excellent navigation skills direct these marathon fliers to this avian out post, some 2,100 kilometres south of Honolulu, Hawaii.We have warm feelings for these dear people so far away on Christmas Island. Also, there is a special place in out hearts for its magnificent feathered inhabitants. Long ago Captain Cook might have felt that the island was strictly “for the birds”, but today many people there beg to differ. They, like the birds, call it home.
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