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Pacific Birding - New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Samoa & the Cook Islands
By Dave Sargeant
Part 2 - Birding Information
Details are provided for all sites visited. Most are accompanied with a map made in the field at the time. All maps have salient GPS waypoints included. These waypoints are also available from the author as a Garmin mps format file that can be read into a compatible GPS, most GPS utilities, and Google Earth for those who have the GPS option enabled. A table also lists all waypoints.
New Caledonia [Map]
A week on New Caledonia should be ample time to get to grips with the endemics, and with luck a few days would suffice. A total of 20 endemics occur, plus New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar Aegotheles savesi, known recently from one sight record, and New Caledonian Rail Gallirallus lafresnayanus and New Caledonian Lorikeet Charmosyna diadema, which are currently classified as extinct but still might occur is some remote areas. See New Caledonia's most wanted, BirdLife International, 12 May 2006, which includes details of the sighting of New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar by Jonathan Ekstrom and Joe Tobias in 1998 in the Rivière Ni Valley.
The most difficult of the twitchable endemics to locate is the New Caledonian Grassbird, which is scarce and skulking. Key to finding several of the rarer species is access to Rivière Bleue National Park, as Kagu and Crow Honeyeater are only likely to be seen there. Other, non-endemic specialities include Red-bellied Fruit-Dove and Cardinal Myzomela.
New Caledonia Endemic species
New Caledonian [Gould's] Petrel Pterodroma (leucoptera) caledonica
New Caledonian Goshawk Accipiter haplochrous
Kagu Rhynochetos jubatus
Cloven-feathered Dove Drepanoptila holosericea
New Caledonian Imperial-Pigeon Ducula goliath
Horned Parakeet Eunymphicus cornutus
Ouvea [Horned] Parakeet Eunymphicus (cornutus) uvaeensis
New Caledonian [Red-fronted] Parakeet Cyanoramphus (novaezelandiae) saissetti
New Caledonian Myzomela Myzomela caledonica
New Caledonian Friarbird Philemon diemenensis
Crow Honeyeater Gymnomyza aubryana
Barred Honeyeater Phylidonyris undulata
Yellow-bellied Robin Eopsaltria flaviventris
New Caledonian Crow Corvus moneduloides
New Caledonian Cuckoo-shrike Coracina analis
Striated Starling Aplonis striata
Large Lifou White-eye Zosterops inornatus
Green-backed White-eye Zosterops xanthochrous
Small Lifou White-eye Zosterops minutus
New Caledonian Grassbird Megalurulus mariei
Farino, New Caledonia [Map]
Farino has recently become the most popular (I wouldn't say easiest!) site for finding New Caledonian Grassbird. Previously, birders looked for it at Mount Koghis, but it has become scarcer and more difficult to locate there in recent years. At Farino, we located a pair in rank grass about 300 metres down the track from the parking area at the top. The habitat at Farino contains some well-forested slopes, and many of the other endemics occur. A few hours there will be very rewarding. The grassbird is said to favour Lantana, although both our observations (Farino and Le Thy) were in grass. Farino is located about 60 km north of the international airport so, time-permitting, it's a good site to start with immediately upon arrival.
From the airport take the main highway (Route 1) northward through Boulouparis and La Foa. Shortly after La Foa take the right hand turning toward Farino and Sarraméa, turning left 1.2 km after having left the highway. From here follow the map, or signs to Refuge de Farino. Note that at the stream with the small bridge (F, near waypoint 010) the refuge is signposted on the paved road on the south side of the stream. However, this is not the road required to drive up the mountain, which is the unpaved road on the northern side. This track is easily drivable with a 4x4. Follow the track for 5.5 km where it peaks at a pass with a parking area. Species of interest can occur in any habitat here, and the grassbird must be possible in any of the Lantana and rank grass. We explored the trail downhill through the old gate for around one kilometre, but it continued farther. Amongst others we found Cloven-feathered Dove (the only site we recorded this species), Barn Owl, New Caledonian Crow, New Caledonian Flycatcher, New Caledonian Whistler, New Caledonian Grassbird, and Red-throated Parrotfinch. Others have seen White-bellied Goshawk and Metallic Pigeon.
A number of cabins and lodges can be found around La Foa and Farino. One suggestion is Refuge Farino. Email: refuge.farino [at] lagoon [dot] nc.
Mount Koghis, New Caledonia [Map]
Mount Koghis, about eight kilometres outside Nouméa, is accessed by paved road off the Nouméa to Dumbéa road. An auberge and café are situated at the summit from which good views over the surrounding forest can be had. A number of forest trails are available, and popular with weekend visitors and tourists. The best strategy is to park at the café and simply stroll the main road. Scan the forest slopes for White-bellied Goshawk and Metallic Pigeon. Around the car parking area look for New Caledonian Myzomela, Horned Parakeet and Barred Honeyeater. Mount Koghis is supposedly a good spot for New Caledonian Crow, but we only recorded two. Likewise, New Caledonian Grassbird was formerly commoner here than elsewhere but is now hard to find.
Thy Park, New Caledonia [Map]
Few birders have visited this area, which lies just off the RP1 main road between Nouméa and Rivière Bleue. The turnoff is approximately 13 km from Nouméa and 25 km before Rivière Bleue. We tried this area in passing as we had a few hours to spare, and found the birding good. Access is unrestricted, but in a later conversation with Jean-Marc Meriot at Rivière Bleue, he said that local people sometimes take objection to outsiders wandering into the area. We didn't find this an issue, and in trying to locate the track up the hill, asked several people directions without problems. The park proper is quite a distance into the mountains, but it's possible to drive the access track and walk through forest and coffee shade forest. A 4x4 is required to get a decent way up this track. Having driven about 3 kilometres from the main road we walked for a further 2-3 kilometres, finding New Caledonian Grassbird higher up.
Coming from Nouméa, turn off the main road, 0.7 km after crossing the small Thy river (which is signed). The turning is just after a local football pitch. Continue strait for 0.9 km and take the left fork which soon turns to a dirt track. We managed to drive 2.3 km from the fork, after which we parked and walked.
Inter-island ferry, New Caledonia
Many interesting seabirds occur around New Caledonia, including the endemic caledonica form of Cook's Petrel. The best way to observe many of these pelagics would be to take the inter-island ferry which runs between Nouméa, Ouvéa, Lífou and Île des Pins. It is important not to take the route to Île des Pins as this does not pass outside the coral reef surrounding the main island, so would not be expected to produce any numbers of petrels or shearwaters. The ferry schedules are announced two weeks in advance, and published in local papers. Each island is served once or twice a week. This makes making advance arrangements impossible.
Parc Provincial Rivière Bleue, New Caledonia
Ensuring a visit to Parc Provincial Rivière Bleue should be considered the priority for visiting birders. Realistically both the Kagu and Crow Honeyeater are unlikely to be seen elsewhere, and several other species are more easily seen here than elsewhere. Note that the park is closed on Mondays, but that it is no longer necessary to obtain a permit in advance from Nouméa. Entrance to the park costs FP 400 per person or FP 20,000 per day for a group with a guide. Birders wishing to maximise their chance of seeing Kagu should consider using a guide. The famous Yves Letocart (Mr. Kagu) was the guide everyone contacted in the past, but as he is now retiring, Jean-Marc Meriot has become the principle contact for birders. He can be contacted at parcrivierebleue [at] province-sud [dot] nc.
Several trip reports mention problems with a collapsed bridge across the reservoir between the park HQ and the main forest of the park, necessitating a long drive around the lake to access the park, only permissible with a guide. The situation on the ground appears to have changed somewhat, and a causeway has been built just west of the old "collapsed" bridge. Whether this causeway will last a full wet season flood though is questionable. The "collapsed" bridge did not appear to be in a derelict state either, although only park staff were allowed to use it. At the time of our visit, anyone with a vehicle (4x4 preferably) was able to cross the causeway and gain access to the park. A vehicle is necessary as the reserve is large, and it's a fair way (10+ kilometres) from the entrance to the best birding areas.
The park is situated about 38 km east of Nouméa, on the Nouméa - Yaté road. The route out of Nouméa can be found by following GPS waypoints A01, 023, 024, 025, and 026, where A01 is the starting point of the Yaté road, and 026 the entrance road to the park.
Lake District, New Caledonia
For those with time, two large freshwater lakes (Lac Grande and Lac en Huit) just east of La Capture, itself about 50 km east of Nouméa, can be interesting to visit for ducks and migrants. Species we saw here but nowhere else in New Caledonia included Australasian Grebe and Hardhead. The roads in this area are graded but dirt, so a 4x4 would be advisable in the wet season.
Pointe de Luzerne, New Caledonia
We discovered these mudflats on our last morning whilst returning to the airport, and found them more productive for waders than all other areas around Nouméa. The turnoff from the main highway is unobtrusive and not actually signed as Pointe de Luzerne. The turnoff is located 29.3 kilometers from the international airport. Turn southward off the highway and continue to the end of the road (waypoint 066) and walk on the beach. In a half hour here we found a number of Grey-tailed Tattler, Pacific Golden Plover, Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit.
Lífou, New Caledonia [Map]
The island of Lífou has two single island endemics (Large Lífou White-eye and Small Lífou White-eye), plus a few regional specialities (Cardinal Myzomela, Red-bellied Fruit-Dove and Blue-faced Parrotfinch), although the later appears to be rare. Many birders visit Lífou on a half day trip, and certainly all the specialities may be found within walking distance of the airport. However, we found gaining good views of the dove and Large Lífou White-eye difficult, and would have been struggling if we'd needed to return to the airport within a few hours. With more time we were able to explore more forested areas, as well as do some productive seawatching. By driving around, we found several good forest areas, which are marked on the map. Simply stopping anywhere with suitable habitat should produce the specialities. The Large Lífou White-eye is much less obvious than its smaller relative, but is fairly common once the voice is known.
Studying a map, we concluded that seawatching would be best along the east coast where the reef approaches the shore closest, but access we found very difficult. The limestone crags with heavy forest make access to the coastline almost impossible. We did however discover one access point at Pointe Daussy on the east coast, 14 kilometres southeast of Wé. It is necessary to hop over jagged rocks, so would not be recommended for those with any infirmity. It's also imperative to bring something rather thick to sit on – these rocks are savage. In two sessions we saw New Caledonia Petrel, Tahiti Petrel, and a good migration of Sooty and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.
Access to Lífou is either via flights from Nouméa, or the weekly inter-island ferry (see above). Rental cars are available at the small airport on arrival, but it would be advisable to book in advance. Accommodation is available at several resorts, mainly around the town of Wé.
Ouvéa, New Caledonia [Map]
The primary reason to visit Ouvéa is to find Ouvea Parakeet, a recent split from Horned Parakeet. The population is evidently not large, and it is good to see conservation efforts in place in an attempt to educate local people. Additionally, nesting boxes have started to be placed. Although it might be possible to find the parakeet in searching suitable habitat, much of this is on private land. The simplest option is to arrange a visit with a local guide, which could be arranged simply by asking once on Ouvéa, but for those with limited time, could be a risky strategy. We made arrangements through Arc en Ciel, who lined-up Roland, with whom we stayed and who took us to some private land. In earlier discussions with Roland we'd tried to persuade him to search for the parakeet at first light, as we thought finding them might be tricky. Once in the right place however, seeing the parakeet was simplicity itself, as several were feeding on fruiting papaya immediately adjacent to the landowners shack, and fairly tame. The area we were taken was only a few kilometres from Roland's gite in St. Joseph. Other species in this area included Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Shining Bronze Cuckoo, Emerald Dove and Red-bellied Fruit-Dove.
Those with time to spare can check the marsh located just north and east of the church. Be warned that the edges of this marsh although looking like firm sand have the consistency of custard, and one foot wrong and you'll be standing a metre deep into gooh – very nasty stuff. We found Brown Goshawk, and Pacific Black Duck in this area. The few waterbirds on the Ouvéa list must occasionally turn up here.
With Ouvéa totally surrounded by coral reef, seawatching opportunities are limited. The nearest point at which the reef approaches the shore is at Pointe Escarpé, about eight kilometres east of St. Joseph, which offers one of the few sea-watching points from the island. In a couple of hours here we saw Tahiti Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Grey Noddy and Brown Noddy.
Cleaning up on Vanuatu is difficult and time-consuming; habitat, logistics, and weather, combined with rare and elusive species, mean that at least two weeks and probably more would be required. The rarest species is the Mountain Starling, with only one recent record in 1991. Other rarely observed species are Vanuatu Petrel, Royal Parrotfinch and Tanna Ground-Dove. Even so, with four to six days it is possible to see the majority of the endemics providing both lowland and mountain forests are visited. The later requires trekking and overnight camping.
Conveniently, all Vanuatu's land endemics are located on the island of Espirito Santo, on which three main birding areas are of interest; Loru, Vatthe and Pic Santo. For those with more time it would be interesting to also visit the Bank Islands to the north of the archipelago where the Royal Parrotfinch might be more common, or even explore parts of Efate, the main island. Both children and adults with catapults are a common site, with the principal target appearing to be birds, which appear to be hunted both for food and sport (as there is not much meat on a Yellow-fronted White-eye!). Few birders have visited Vanuatu, so logistical and birding information is lacking or outdated.
Vanuatu Endemic Species
Vanuatu [White-necked] Petrel Pterodroma (externa) occulta
Vanuatu Scrubfowl Megapodius layardi
Tanna Ground-Dove Gallicolumba ferruginea
Tanna Fruit-Dove Ptilinopus tannensis
Baker's Imperial-Pigeon Ducula bakeri
Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher Todirhamphus farquhari
New Hebrides Honeyeater Phylidonyris notabilis
Buff-bellied Monarch Neolalage banksiana
Mountain Starling Aplonis santovestris
Yellow-fronted White-eye Zosterops flavifrons
Royal Parrotfinch Erythrura regia
Loru Conservation Area, Vanuatu
Loru Conservation Area is situated just over an hour's drive, about 35 km north of Luganville. The area is not formally protected, but appears to be an area preserved by agreement with the local community, and was originally declared in an effort to protect the coconut crab. A strip of lowland forest bordering the sea grows over rocky limestone crags. The understorey is quite dense in places. Most of the forest is low, though a few areas do have taller trees, which seem to be the favoured haunt of Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher. Although vocal, this kingfisher tends to sit high in the canopy for lengthy periods making searching for them a neck-breaking activity. The Vanuatu Scrubfowl is fairly common, at least by voice, where it prefers the crags with dense vegetation, making them difficult to pursue. Being shy they take off rapidly when disturbed. Other species in the area include Buff-bellied Monarch, Yellow-fronted White-eye, and Tanna Fruit-Dove, although I failed to see the latter.
No facilities are available at Loru, so most visitors simply do a day trip from Luganville, bringing food and water. However, having made advance arrangements, I stayed at the house of my guide, War, with his family. This was convenient though note there is no running water or electricity in the village. I paid VT 1,500. Visiting Loru without a guide would be quite difficult, as even finding the forest once there is not straightforward. A small sign on the main road marks the turn-off point, but from there it's several kilometres through a maze of rough dirt tracks, navigable only by 4x4, to the better habitat. To arrange a visit, contact PositiveEarth (see above). War can be contacted directly at war.ser [at] positveearth [dot] org
Pic Santo, Vanuatu
If time permits visiting only one site in Vanuatu, then Pic Santo should be it. However, you should be in reasonable shape for the climb and be prepared to camp on the mountain. Having experienced Pic Santo in the wet I would very strongly recommend to all, to only climb the mountain in the dry season. Visits at the height of the wet season would be downright dangerous and access to Ipayato, the starting point for the trek, would likely be impossible.
Logistics for this trip should be set up in advance through PositiveEarth. For the actual trek, it is necessary to carry all food, and porters can be arranged from Ipayato. These cost VT 1,000 per day and will act as guides as well. Permission to climb the mountain will be required from the village chief, which could create an unexpected delay should you arrive when he's not at home. Ipayato, about 50 kilometres west of Luganville, can be accessed by 4x4 vehicles which, when dry, take about 1.5 hours. By starting early from Luganville it should be possible to trek up the mountain directly, otherwise it will be necessary to stay overnight at one of the local homes in Ipayato.
My porters told me the trek to the top takes about 13 hours in good weather for those in good physical condition. The trail was rather overgrown when I climbed, but should become easier in the dry season. The best birding strategy is to walk long and hard the first day with an aim of establishing a base camp from where day trips to the higher parts can be taken. The first few hours of the walk are through cow pastures, coconut plantations and cut-over forest. Thereafter it enters forested slopes with large clearings, before entering closed-canopy forest after about five hours of walking. Once at the forest, species such as Tanna Fruit-Dove, Baker's Imperial Pigeon, and Vanuatu Scrubfowl are possible, and Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher can be heard. At mid elevations from 500-900 metres, Vanuatu Honeyeater and Palm Parakeet can be found, and higher up are the areas to search for Guadalcanal Thicketbird and Rufous-winged Starling. For those wishing to try for Mountain Starling it would be necessary to try for the summit. To my knowledge the last sighting was of a pair in 1991. All attempts since to relocate them have failed. However, the terrain is still wild, forested, and few birders attempt the trek.
A tent is required, and temperatures drop quickly at altitude, so bring at least a light pullover and a good sleeping bag. I wanted to save on weight so didn't bring a sleeping bag – borrowing a blanked instead - and was too cold. If the weather is dry it will be possible to cook in the forest, so ask the porters to bring a cooking pot. This can be used to boil water for tea as well as cook rice, of which the porters seem to consume copious quantities. As it was so wet on my trip we didn't plan on being able to cook, so didn't bring rice, but were saved by a supply of rice in the hunter's shack where we stayed. My two porters plus War consumed more than a kilo of rice between them each day, so take plenty.
Vatthe Conservation Area, Vanuatu
Vatthe Conservation is situated in the northeast of Espirito Santo at Manatas (also known as Big Bay). Birds are similar to Loru, but as it is possible to reach higher altitude (around 500 m.) so a few others should be possible including Baker's Imperial Pigeon, although other mountain species such as Palm Parakeet are not recorded. Tanna Ground-Dove is a rare resident. I did not visit this site, as for those visiting Pic Santo combined with Loru a visit here would probably not provide any additional species. Vatthe has both accommodation and guides available. Accommodation costs VT 2,150 per night, including meals. Alternatively it is possible to camp for VT 1,000. Guides are VT 1,000 per day. A once-off conservation fee of VT 600 is payable. Transportation from Luganville is VT 7,000 each way. To arrange a visit contact PositiveEarth. In theory it is possible, with a guide, to walk from Vatthe, up to Mt. Tabwemasana and Pic Santo. However, it is a long and arduous trek (2-3 days each way); the trek up Pic Santo is easier from Ipayato.
Samoa has 9 extant endemics, most of which are relatively easy to see by visiting only two sites – both near Apia, the capital. However, two species, Tooth-billed Pigeon and Samoan White-eye, require a lot more effort, and a longer stay. The Tooth-billed Pigeon has most recently been reported from Lalomanu in the southeast. The Samoan White-eye occurs in the highlands of Savai'i Island and can be searched for by trekking up from A'opo village on the northern side of island – a guide will be required from the village, and possibly camping on the mountain. Of the other endemics, the most difficult to find is the Mao. Inexplicably I missed the Samoan Triller, though others have always been successful.
Samoa Endemic Species
Tooth-billed Pigeon Didunculus strigirostris
Flat-billed Kingfisher Todirhamphus recurvirostris
Mao Gymnomyza samoensis
Samoan Whistler Pachycephala flavifrons
Samoan Fantail Rhipidura nebulosa
Samoan Flycatcher Myiagra albiventris
Samoan Triller Lalage sharpei
Samoan Starling Aplonis atrifusca
Samoan White-eye Zosterops samoensis
Vailima, Samoa [Map]
Vailima is the small forested mountain four kilometres south of Apia at the summit of which lies the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson (author of the children's book Treasure Island). A loop trail runs from the botanical garden at the base, around and over the mountain, that can be walked in less than an hour – more so if birding. The trail is popular with locals who use it as an exercise route and for general recreation at the weekends.
The forest holds all the commoner endemics, including Mao, although this species is probably easier to find at the Vaisigano watershed. Access is open at any time, but a small park HQ has a visitor book which you are asked to sign, and leave a small donation if entering the park during "normal" working hours. The trail is steeper on one side and quite slippery when wet. During my several visits here I climbed the mountain at least seven times, thereby seeing Stevenson's tomb six times more than the average tourist! From town it is easy to take a taxi to Vailima, and should cost about WST 8.
Vaisigano Watershed, Samoa [Map]
The Vaisigano watershed is the forested valley to the west of the Magigai road, slightly east of Vailima, and further south from town. Getting a taxi drop-off presents no problem, but might require several kilometres walk back to town, as the area has few houses or people using the road. Other birding reports for this site correctly refer to a tank/reservoir at the end of the road as a starting point. In reality there are however two tanks, and in error, on my first visit, I was directed to the first, lower tank, from where it is not possible to walk up the valley very far.
Ensure that the taxi drives the full six kilometres out along Magigai Road to drop you at the upper water tank. From here, continue 500 metres and take the rough track to the right (west), and follow it for another half kilometre or so, down into the valley. From the valley floor it is possible to follow the pipeline both up and down the river for a kilometre or so, searching forest edge. Trails into forest of the steep-sided slopes seem not to exist, and would be hard-going if they did. The Mao was found in the cleared area at the southern end of pipeline. Red-headed Parrotfinch was also here. Others have seen all the commoner endemics in this valley, and it must surely be the best habitat close to Apia.
Cook Islands [Map]
A relatively easy, if expensive, set of endemics, coupled with an excellent location, weather and infrastructure make the Cook Islands a good choice for a family trip as well as a providing some excellent birding. It is probably not possible to clean-up the endemics and specialities in less than a week as they are scattered across several islands, served with domestic flights that do not operate daily.
Cook Islands Endemic Species
Cook Islands Fruit-Dove Ptilinopus rarotongensis
Atiu Swiftlet Collocalia sawtelli
Mangaia Kingfisher Todirhamphus ruficollaris
Rarotonga Monarch Pomarea dimidiata
Rarotonga Starling Aplonis cinerascens
Cook Islands Reed-Warbler Acrocephalus kerearako
Takitumu Conservation Area, Rarotonga [Map]
The Takitumu Conservation Area was set up as a project to help the critically endangered Rarotonga Monarch (Kakerori being the local name for this species). The project, very successful to date, now holds more than 200 birds in the wild. The threat is the introduced Black Rat Rattus rattus which has to be constantly controlled by poisoning. Access is only permitted on guided visits, which are run Tuesday and Thursday afternoons given sufficient demand. No official fee is charged, so a donation for any visit is very important. The area also holds Rarotonga Starling and Cook Islands Fruit-Dove. Previously the project had an office in Avarua town, but this has been moved to the south coast adjacent to the conservation area. For information on visiting contact kakerori [at] tca.co.ck. Finding the conservation area is not straightforward, and it is deliberately not signposted off the highway (to discourage casual visitors). The project office is located on the south coast, up a short dirt track found 100 metres east of the Queen's Representative's residence (an obvious fancy mansion). See map for access.
The main species of interest is Herald Petrel that is thought to breed in the higher mountains of Rarotonga. Wheatley mentions watching the mountains from the beach at Muri in the late afternoon, but this was unsuccessful for me. I spent considerable time seawatching from Ngatangiia just north of here, but saw very little. A good possibility to see this species might be to watch from The Needle (photo of view from The Needle) on the cross-island trekking trail (see below). A single bird was seen flying inland, mid afternoon, on the northwest coast, by other birders I met when there. This species cannot however be that common, as staff at Takitumu mentioned they'd never seen it.
Cross-island Trail, Rarotonga [Map]
The well-known cross-island trail starts just north of Avarua, where it climbs up to The Needle (a pinnacle of rock) then drops to the southern coast. The forested slopes hold Rarotonga Starling and Cook Islands Fruit-Dove. The view from The Needle is excellent, so it's possible to scan forested slopes and if very lucky catch a glimpse of Herald Petrel which is assumed to breed high in the mountains. The trail is fairly steep but easy to follow. The climb to The Needle takes about 45 minutes to an hour. Much of the trail is comprised of a maze of tree roots which are extremely slippery when wet. The start of the trail can be found by following Avatin Road out from the centre of town for 2.8 kilometres to a parking area by the river. From here follow the graded track along the river for 1.1 kilometres at which point the trail starts at the forest edge. On the climb up, where possible, scan for Rarotonga Starling. I had several very close to the trail. Tropicbirds are sometimes found around The Needle itself.
Atiu, pronounced atchoo (as in the sneeze), island is 230 km northeast of Rarotonga and holds the endemic Cook Islands Fruit-Dove and the single island endemic Atiu Swiftlet. The regional endemic, Chattering Kingfisher, also occurs. Being served by less than one flight per day, an overnight stay is required, but the birding is interesting enough to warrant this. The Atiu Swiftlet is fairly common over the hills on the interior of the island, and local guides can take you to the nesting caves. The Rarotonga Monarch has been introduced on Atiu, which is rat-free, and numbers are small but increasing. "Birdman" George is a colourful local character who conducts natural history tours, and works on the monarch introduction. He can be contacted by asking any of the locals; everyone knows everyone else on this island! The species of interest appear to be widespread, so taking any track through forest is likely to be productive. I had the kingfisher near Teenui. The pond at Te Roto in the south is worth a quick look and holds Pacific Black Duck with regularity, as well as Spotless Crake which of course is almost impossible to see. Accommodation is available at a few lodges situated around the main village in the centre of the island.
Pronounced Ay-two-taki, this island is 270 km north of Rarotonga. It is a popular day trip destination for tourists, so is served by up to three flights a day. The island has no endemic species, but two specialities make a day trip worthwhile. Open areas of the airfield and the adjacent golf course are regular haunts of wintering Bristle-thighed Curlew which generally arrive from late September. During my visit the golf course was packed with players so it was not seen there. However, a group of eight were found at the southern end of the airstrip in one of the low dips which made them impossible to see while scanning from the terminal building. The other speciality of Aitutaki is the Blue Lorikeet, which was introduced to the island at the end of the 1800s, but is now fairly common, and can be looked for in fruit plantations. I found a couple of groups along the road to town opposite the Vaikoa Resort.
Pronounced Mang-eye-er, this island is 220 km east of Rarotonga. The island has two endemic species -- Mangaia Kingfisher and Cook Islands Reed-Warbler. The warbler is very common and widespread, and can even be found in scrub right next to the airfield terminal building. The kingfisher can, however, be a little tricky to find as it is restricted to forest. Mangaia has plenty of forest, but access into it is the problem, as the understorey is comprised of limestone crags with dense vegetation -- virtually impenetrable.
Having no specific information on where to search for the kingfisher, I tried many forested areas, and eventually found a good track through closed canopy forest just south of Ivirua. Take the track along the beach after the Aramona Bungalows; a walk in the late afternoon produced at least four kingfishers. The kingfisher also occurs along the road from the airport to town which passes through abundant forest, and I heard one bird en route. Predation of nesting birds by the introduced Common Myna poses a threat, and staff at Takitumu mentioned that in future some control of mynas might be attempted. As flights to Mangaia are less than daily, an overnight stay is necessary. Mopeds and bicycles are available for rent.
Thursday 5th October
Having departed Muscat with Emirates airlines, at 00h45, I had an unavoidable seven and a half hour wait in Dubai airport. Unfortunately Emirates will only provide a hotel for those in transit for eight hours or more. The 09h00 flight to Sydney departed on time.
Friday 6th October
Although having departed on time, arrival in Sydney was an hour late due to the stopover at Bangkok's newly opened airport – Suvarnabhumi; new airports invariably having teething problems. It took a fair while to clear immigration and customs, after which I took a mini-bus to Newcastle. This two hour journey took over four hours, as other passenger drop-offs meant a torturous route, but I was eventually dumped at Phil's place, dropped bags and took off to explore Burwood Beach Sewage Plant to hopefully get to grips with my Aussie nemesis bird – Lewin's Rail. As suspected it was a spectacular failure with not even a single bird calling! Evening bar-b-que and crashed out early.
Saturday 7th October
With a full day available before our departure for New Caledonia, Phil and I would have another try for Lewin's Rail. However, we started the day at Walka Water Works where we successfully found Spotless Crake. Then followed visits to several sites before finally obtaining close views of Lewin's Rail, almost at our feet. What a relief – finally seeing this bird after so many trips to Australia. The rest of the day was good birding but unsuccessful for my target species of Glossy Black Cockatoo (my new nemesis bird), Cicadabird and Masked Owl. Overnight at Phil's again.
Sunday 8th October
An early departure from Newcastle at 03h15 to Sydney for our 07h40 Qantas flight direct to Nouméa on New Caledonia. At Nouméa immigration and customs seemed to take forever, due mainly to only two immigration counters and two large planes arriving concurrently. Changed money and collected our pre-arranged rental vehicle from the Hertz counter. The vehicle was a small Suzuki Jimny, barely large enough for our baggage; it would suffice though.
As the airport is well north of Nouméa, we headed straight for Farino, being a good part of the way already. We had problems interpreting two differing sets of instructions for finding this site, but eventually decided anywhere with good habitat was likely to produce the target species. From the parking area we took the track downhill, spending the whole afternoon here, picking up many of the endemics such as Cloven-feathered Dove, New Caledonian Crow, and New Caledonian Flycatcher. Toward the end of the day in thick grass near the car parking area we eventually got a response to playback, with two New Caledonian Grassbird giving short views as they worked their way across the track several times. Not great views, but a good start for what is probably the most difficult of the extant endemics. We left at dusk, seeing Barn Owl fly over the track just as we left. Finding our way around Nouméa in the dark proved very confusing, and it took us quite some time to wend our way through the maze of confusing, un-signposted roads to Le Lagon hotel, our base for the following week. It definitely didn't help that the map we used had no indication of north. The following day we discovered that the map had been made rotated by 90 degrees with north off the left edge of the page. So much for free tourist maps from the airport!
Monday 9th October
We left the hotel at 05h20, while still dark, and continued to struggle in navigating our way out of Nouméa. Eventually we located the road up Mount Koghis, where we arrived in the expectation of an early coffee from the café at the top. Some hope. In typical French fashion it doesn't open till 09h30. We spent the majority of the morning around the car park as well as walking down the road a little and some exploration of the forest trails.
The few hours were quite successful, adding Horned Parakeet, Barred Honeycreeper, White-bellied Goshawk, Metallic Pigeon and New Caledonian Myzomela to our list. Having now successfully found the majority of New Caledonian endemics within 24 hours, we thought it prudent to investigate the best route from Nouméa toward Rivière Bleue, as we didn't wish to end up lost the following morning having arranged to meet Yves there early on. Once again we got completely lost in Nouméa. Once we'd found Rivière Bleue, we figured on a spot of birding, but had forgotten the reserve is closed on Mondays, so had to back-track toward Nouméa, where en route we decided to try Thy Park, a relatively unvisited area.
Having asked several locals for directions we found the rough track into the hills, and took the vehicle as far as it would comfortably go. From here we continued on foot for a couple of kilometres through some good forest. This site was fairly productive with new species including Fan-tailed Cuckoo and Crow Honeyeater (seen by Phil). We also got excellent views of New Caledonian Grassbird. Arrived back at the hotel around 20h00 after stopping at the supermarket for some basic provisions (beans on toast).
Tuesday 10th October
Another early start at 05h30, but now had the route in the GPS so didn't get lost. We arrived at Rivière Bleue by 06h45 met Jean-Marc Meriot, and having paid our FP 20,000 guide fee drove into the reserve to meet Yves ("Mr. Kagu"). We gave Yves our wish list of only four species on which he would concentrate. First off of course was the search for Kagu. This proved to be a lot easier than we'd expected. Yves blasted a tape from his Landrover, and within five minutes a family party arrived and put on an amazing vocal display, all standing together on a log at no more than ten metres distance, seemingly oblivious to our presence. One of the most amazing birding sights I've witnessed, and decidedly the bird of the trip.
Yves then concentrated on the riverine forest areas of the park and within 2-3 hours had successfully located the other three species on our list -- New Caledonian Cuckoo-Shrike, New Caledonian Parakeet and Crow Honeyeater. Having cleaned up by midday we returned to the park headquarters to negotiate, without success, a refund on half a day's guiding. Headed back to Nouméa and the Arc en Ciel office, where we tried to rearrange the remainder of our trip in order to utilise our spare day to take the ferry across to Lífou. This proved impossible due to domestic flights being fully-booked, preventing us moving our key days on Ouvéa. Did a quick trip to town to buy some manou for Ouvéa, then headed out to what we thought, from the map, might be mudflats around Nouméa, but the state of the tide ensured we saw little. More beans back at the hotel, supplemented with a few beers to celebrate the Kagu and general success of the trip so far.
Wednesday 11th October
A bleary-eyed start as we took the 06h00 flight to Lífou. Having collected our car we initially birded the forest to the east of the airport where others have located the specialities of Lífou. The Small Lífou White-eye and Cardinal Myzomela were readily found, but the Red-bellied Fruit-Dove and Large Lífou White-eye were heard only. During the rest of the morning, we randomly tried various tracks in forest and scrub, but it took over six hours to get good views of both. If we'd been taking the early afternoon flight back to the main island, as many seem to do, we would have been struggling. The Large Lífou White-eye is actually quite common once the song is known, but difficult to obtain good views of. We also looked for the uncommon Blue-faced Parrotfinch, Island Thrush and Golden Whistler, but only managed a single sighting of the later. At 16h00 we drove the eastern coast road in an attempt to find a suitable sea-watching point. Due of the rugged terrain this proved difficult and only one suitable access point, at Pointe Daussy, was found. The seawatching was very good with large numbers of Sooty Shearwater as well as a few Tahiti Petrel and New Caledonian Petrel. We took dinner at the kiosk (FP 1,800 for two salad, chicken and chips) near the Shell station in Wé and then checked in to the, rather better than expected, Drehu Village Hotel on the beach.
Thursday 12th October
Borrowing towels and blankets from the room to sit on, we returned to our seawatching point of yesterday by 05h30 for a couple of hours. Not a lot new other than a couple of skuas, and shearwater numbers were certainly down. Not wishing to miss the opportunity of the included hotel breakfast buffet we returned to take full advantage of it. Our most leisurely breakfast, after which we checked out and explored further roads to the west of town, ending back at the airport in time for our 14h15 flight to Nouméa and connection to Ouvéa. In Ouvéa we were met by Roland who gave us a lift to his gite. With only an hour of light remaining we took a brief walk along the beach and a quick scan across a nearby marshy area. This produced the only Brown Goshawk of the trip. Our dinner was an improvement on the beans on toast to date, with a fish curry cooked by Roland's wife.
Friday 13th October
Hmm, Friday the 13th. What was in store for us today? With Roland having assured us that starting at first light was both unnecessary and impractical we took a leisurely breakfast at 06h30. A White-rumped Swiftlet over the gite was new for the trip. We left for a local landowner's farm at 08h00, and no sooner had we arrived than we encountered several Ouvéa Parakeet feeding in papaya trees in the garden. Indeed Roland was right. Having spent an hour or so photographing the birds as well as seeing our second Fan-tailed Cuckoo of the trip, we asked Roland to drop us at Pointe Escarpé for a seawatching session till lunch. Species of note included Blue-grey Noddy and Tahiti Petrel. After lunch we visited the marsh again, seeing several Pacific Black Duck, before heading to the airport for our flight to Nouméa, which was only 30 minutes late.
Saturday 14th October
Having now effectively cleaned up on the extant New Caledonian endemics we had a late lie-in till 06h00. The low early morning tide enabled us first to investigate tidal mudflats around Nouméa, where we picked up a number of new trip birds, including Grey-tailed Tattler, Sooty Tern, and Chestnut-breasted Munia. For the remainder of the morning we explored the route to the "lake district" where we found Australian Grebe and Hardhead. We finished the day at the Nouméa horse-racing track (hippodrome) where we found the only Dusky Moorhen of the trip. We celebrated our successful conclusion at a beachfront café near the hotel. On receiving the bill, we wished we hadn't – FP 28,000 for four small cans of Fosters beer!
Sunday 15th October
We left for the airport at 08h00 stopping en route at Pointe a la Luzerne, which we discovered to be the best wader observation area so far, with Bar-tailed Godwit and Pacific Golden Plover in reasonable numbers; definitely a site worth checking for future visitors. Check-in was straightforward and the Qantas flight departed on time. Once in Sydney, Phil returned home, and I connected to the Air Vanuatu flight to Porta Vila. Checking email at Sydney I discovered that Air Rarotonga had changed its internal flight schedules to Mangaia island, which meant rearranging my flights and accommodation bookings on the Cook Islands. Customs and immigration on Vanuatu were fast and hassle-free, and after changing money I was met at the airport by the owner of the Coral Motel, just a five minute drive away. He told me with a smile that the unseasonably wet weather has resulted in rain every day for the past three months. Not a good omen for climbing Pic Santo! Eventually made it to bed by 00h30.
Monday 16th October
An easy check-in for the 07h00 flight to Luganville. Arriving one hour ahead of departure at this sleepy airport seemed unnecessary, but with Air Vanuatu's reputation for unreliability of domestic flights, I thought better not to take any chances. As it was, the flight left only 30 minutes late, arriving in Luganville 90 minutes later where I was met by Marie from PositiveEarth. As usual in these parts of the world the driver decided he needed fuel after collecting me at the airport, so we took a short detour into town as well as to visit the PositiveEarth office to collect War (pronounced Whoah), my guide for the week. Now that we were ready, the driver decided he hadn't put enough fuel into the vehicle first time so we returned to town for more!
The drive to Loru Conservation was about 70 minutes on mainly dirt roads and we arrived at War's small house, just before lunch. From here we walked the three kilometres into the conservation area, spending the afternoon birding and sheltering from frequent downpours. Endemics readily found included Buff-breasted Monarch and Yellow-fronted White-eye, but both Vanuatu Scrubfowl and Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher were only heard. The scrubfowl seemed particularly difficult to approach and we didn't even come close when trying to approach them. A simple dinner and overnight at War's house. Heavy overnight rain.
Tuesday 17th October
Fortunately the rain had ceased, so we made our 05h30 start to the conservation area with the target of getting to grips with the scrubfowl. Again this proved problematic, and twice only War glimpsed them scampering away, by virtue of being ahead on the trail. When reaching the taller forest we had excellent views of a calling Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher in the lower canopy. With time running out, on our return, a pair of Vanuatu Scrubfowl was flushed into low trees atop one of the rocky crags giving excellent views -- a relief. Looking back, I was certainly glad to have seen them here, as trying to see this species on Pic Santo would be much harder due to the terrain. On our return to War's house we investigated several areas where Tanna Fruit-Dove had been seen recently, but without success. The driver was, surprisingly, on time and we left Loru at 11h00, bound for town, where we bought basic foods for our excursion up Pic Santo. We also stocked-up heavily on large plastic bags in preparation for the seemingly inevitable downpours that we would be experiencing on the mountain.
At 14h00 we left for Ipayato, the village at the base of Pic Santo. Considering the amount of recent rain, the state of the road wasn't too bad, although a 4x4 was essential. En route I was surprised to learn that the driver had never driven to Ipayato, and his handling of some of the more difficult sections of the road showed this. The last river crossing before Ipayato looked particularly daunting, and certainly myself, a reasonably experienced 4x4 driver, had some qualms about crossing the torrent. However, undaunted and spurred on his co-driver he made it two thirds of the way across to where the vehicle became stuck in the river. After a couple of minutes of madly revving the engine things were starting to get hairy, with rising water levels inside the car, our food store starting to float and the car threatening to be swept away by the river. This was enough for me, and grabbing my rucksack jumped into the river and waded across to the far back, almost being swept off my feet in the process – quite a scary experience, and not one I would want to repeat. As luck would have it another 4x4 arrived, and having a long tow rope, was able to pull our stranded vehicle out of the river. I was amazed the car never ended up down-river, and even more amazed when the engine stared first time, still with water flooding from inside the vehicle; so much for diesel engines. It was almost dark when we arrived at Ipayato village – a drive that normally would have taken a couple of hours. Unfortunately the village chief was not at home, so we had to hang around until one of the villagers let us into a friend's house. Food seemed scarce in the area we so settled for crackers and tinned fish from the only store.
After dark the village teacher came to visit us with one of our potential porters. As he spoke French, War's translations from Bislama to English were not necessary, so I able to speak with him first hand. His prognosis of the trek was not hopeful and he tried to make sure I was aware that the weather was likely to be extremely wet, and that trials would be slippery and dangerous. Was I confident I could actually do this trek? Having reassured him I'd done similarly crazy expeditions in the past we agreed a rate of 1,000 VT per day for each of our two porters/guides. Later in the evening the village chief visited us. Contrary to that written in other reports, money wasn't mentioned and he was very pleased to have us trekking up the mountain. A bottle of whisky was duly presented which I'm sure went down well -- both metaphorically and physically. Overnight rain didn't disappoint.
Wednesday 18th October
An early breakfast of tea and tooth-breaking crackers. Fortunately it was not actually raining, though ominous skies looked as though that would be only a matter of time. One of the porters arrived armed with catapult, ammunition and a pack of hunting dogs, so I had to politely explain this was a birding trip and the dogs would not be required! Thankfully they were sent home. We left at 06h00 trekking uphill through plantations, a sea of mud and a multitude of cow splats. Some sections were steep, slippery and quite unpleasant. After a couple of hours, at the top of the first ridge, a fruiting tree held a good number of Red-bellied Fruit-Dove, Tanna Fruit-Dove and Pacific Imperial Pigeon. Shortly after, the rain started and five and a half hours later, at only 550 metres altitude, we arrived at a pig hunter's shelter. From the rain, awful trails, mud and poor distances covered by now it was obvious that we would not be able to camp at higher altitude on the mountain (not that we could see it lost in heavy rain clouds), so we decided to use the hunter's shack as a base camp and walk as far up the mountain as possible this day, and hopefully even farther the next. The hut was a godsend, as it was large and dry - enabling us to eat, sleep and shelter comfortably, as well as cook. Putting up a tent in the forest under the current conditions would have been extremely unpleasant due to being unable to find any open, flat area not a few inches deep in mud.
After lunch of crackers and tinned fish, a lull in the rain persuaded me to try the trail above the hut. A pair of Palm Parakeet was feeding in a tree immediately adjacent to our hut. War, unused to steep trails, was a little worse for wear from the morning's climb, so decided to remain in camp, rest his feet and probably avoid the downpours. Setting off with the two guides we hiked a couple of hours uphill to an altitude of around 700 metres, although few birds were seen and the damp forest was very quiet. The later afternoon was spent scanning the forest slopes, nicely visible from the small clearing, in the hope of a fly-over Baker's Imperial Pigeon. This didn't happen, so had to make do with Vanuatu Honeyeater, a few more Palm Parakeet and the rather smart, endemic White-collared Fruit-Bat. Fortuitously the shack had a supply of rice – something we had not bought with us as we'd not been expecting to be able to cook, so it was rice with tinned fish for dinner, after which we crashed out early at 20h00 to the gentle sound of torrential rain outside. Everyone was awake again at 22h00 due to a not insignificant earth tremor.
Thursday 19th October
Tea and crackers for breakfast and started to walk uphill at 06h30. The weather was mixed, with scattered light showers, but very windy, making birding along most of the trail, which follows a ridge, difficult. We walked past the point of yesterday, but due to the undulating terrain, had not achieved any higher elevation than 700 metres by 11h00, with the trail also becoming more and more indistinct and overgrown, eventually disappearing completely. Rather than having to cut a new trail we headed slowly back finding Pacific Robin and Guadalcanal Thicketbird near the trail -- a nice bonus. Although the trail follows a ridge some sections are extremely steep and in the wet and slippery conditions positively suicidal. We arrived back at the clearing again around 15h00 and in the improving sunny spells(!) spent a couple of hours again scanning for pigeons with no luck.
Friday 20th October
Left at 06h30 for the walk down in constant drizzle, although inside the forest was OK. The track down was very slippery, with even the locals using sticks to negotiate the harder sections. Everyone fell more than once. The porters decided to take a different, shorter route back which in retrospect was a bad idea, being steeper, muddier and it also involved crossing several large streams and rivers. Some cleared areas at lower altitude were seas of mud. The trek back took six hours -- even longer than the trek up. Few birds other than a couple of calling Baker's Imperial Pigeon at 400 metres, which could not be located, and a Vanuatu Scrubfowl calling off-trail at 300 metres. The driver was once again reliable and by 13h30 we set off to town. This time we crossed the treacherous river at a point farther upstream and had no problems.
The conditions at lower altitude had improved since our arrival and we made it back, along the drying road, to the airport by 15h00, well in time for my flight to Porta Vila. It was good to be able to use the airport washroom to cleanup three days of mud before getting on the plane. The flight was only 30 minutes late at Porta Vila, from where I took a taxi (VT 1,000) back the Coral Motel for a much needed shower.
Saturday 21st October
The day started with me waiting outside for the taxi driver who had promised the previous evening to collect me at 05h00. I'd thought this prudent, given the time, but it proved to be unnecessary as there were plenty of taxis around, at even this early pre-dawn hour. In the event the driver didn't turn up either, so I simply grabbed another taxi. The Air Vanuatu 07h00 flight left on time, arriving 12h00 in Auckland. With several hours to kill I took a minibus (NZ$ 20) to town and browsed the larger outdoor adventure stores hoping to replace the trekking trousers which had fallen apart on Pic Santo. However, I was not impressed with the selection, so took a bus back (NZ$ 15). The Air New Zealand flight left at 20h45 to Apia on Samoa. Boarding on the plane in Auckland it was noticeable that most Samoans don't lack a few extra kilos. With an average passenger weight seemingly over 120 kg, I wondered if the packed plane would actually lift off at the end of the runway!
Saturday 21st October (again)
Crossing the international dateline several times gets very confusing, and having done so on this flight I got to relive the 21st again. I arrived at 00h45, passed through customs and immigration in a breeze, jumped on my pre-arranged minibus (WST 70) and was transported to Cloud 9 Eco-Lodge. On arrival at 02h00 I was greeted by the owner's noisy dogs that barked enough to wake every guest - without doubt I would be popular the next morning! Having had a series of poor nights sleep on Vanuatu, I didn't wake till 09h00, when I took a leisurely breakfast on the veranda with its stunning views across a forested valley and Apia.
Between heavy showers and the excellent fry-up I watched White Tern [photo], White-tailed Tropicbird, Brown Noddy, the first of the Samoa endemics -- Samoa Starling and Flat-billed Kingfisher -- as well as the colourful Crimson-crowned and Many-coloured Fruit-Doves. What a view – one of the best I've ever experienced from a lodge. Having offloaded my festering pile of washing from Vanuatu onto the unsuspecting staff, I noticed that cuts on my hands and legs from crashing through forest on Pic Santo were also festering and starting to look decidedly unhealthy, so spent some time cleaning and dressing them.
The lodge ordered me a taxi to town (WST 30), from where I took another to the "tank" along the Mangaia road as described in Wheatley's book. This proved to be a complete disaster as the taxi driver wasn't sure exactly where to go, and having driven part way up the Mangaia road asked a local, who volunteered to show me as he was going that way anyway. Indeed he did show me a tank, but the wrong one! No report has previously mentioned two tanks. Rather than walking back to the road and trying again, I decided to try to walk up the valley anyway to where the upper, correct tank should be, on the assumption that I would eventually get there anyway. Wrong. The track led into a factory and petered out.
I next tried a steep trail up on the eastern side of the valley on the assumption that it was going in the direction of Vailima, and passed through forest. This proved also to be a dead end, and with rain starting, the trail became very slippery, so I returned to the valley bottom and took another track, which eventually brought me out on the main road at Vailima. By now rain was falling continuously, so I headed into the botanical garden and spent the later afternoon on the summit trail, passing Robert Louis Stevenson's grave, which I have to admit is a nice location as a final resting place. Samoan Whistler, Samoan Fantail and Samoan Flycatcher were fairly easily found, but no sign of Mao or Samoan Triller. With the onset of heavy rain I took a taxi back to town (8 WST), had a couple of beers in a café and unimaginatively hit McDonald's for dinner before taking another taxi back to Cloud 9 (WST 25). Crashed out early feeling unwell – probably as a result of the continuing festering cuts which didn't seem to be getting any better.
Sunday 22nd October
Despite a terrible night's sleep with a raging fever, up at 06h00 for an hour's viewing from the veranda; this morning seeing Red-headed Parrotfinch and a fly-over Blue-crowned Lorikeet. By 07h00 the heavens opened again, so sat around till 08h00 when the owner drove me to town as no taxis would come up to the lodge due to the heavy rain. From town took a taxi, correctly this time, to the tank at the top of the Magigai road and walked down to the valley floor. The main targets this morning were the Mao and Samoan Triller, and I found a pair of Mao at the very head of the valley just before the pipe disappears underground and you can walk no farther. By this time I was feeling pretty awful with hardly the strength to put one foot in front of the other, so promised myself as soon as I'd found the triller I'd be back to the lodge and the rest of the day in bed.
However, the triller remained elusive throughout the day, so spent till 16h00 walking the valley slowly up and down feeling like death, with half the time sheltering from downpours. At 16h00 gave up and climbed back to the road, and had to slog almost the entire six kilometres back to town before a taxi came along. This taxi happened to be a minibus, and was being driven by one of the Samoan rugby team members from the last rugby world cup played in Australia. I believed him as well, as he was built like a farmhouse and all muscle. I'd certainly not want to be on the opposing team in any crunch match. It turned out that he'd actually played against England in the last world cup, and rather than beating me to a pulp, was full of praise for what a great team England had been at the time! Arrived back at Cloud 9 and collapsed into bed.
Monday 23rd October
A better night's sleep, and at least in the morning the fever had subsided, although leg wounds looked worse, so first went via a pharmacy to stock up on dressings and ointments. Took a taxi to Vailima, and spent the morning walking the loop summit trail looking for the Samoan Triller. Not a great morning with again poor weather, and walking becoming quite painful due to the leg wounds. Disappointingly I again failed to find the triller, which was becoming a real pain – supposedly not the hardest of the commoner endemics to see. I had wanted to spend the last day or so looking for Tooth-billed Pigeon or doing some sea-watching, not counting on the triller being so difficult. Having done the loop trail twice, heavy rain set in at 13h00 and continued solidly till 16h00, when I gave up waiting for it to stop and headed back to the lodge.
Tuesday 24th October
Torrential rain and strong winds all night. Very unseasonable so I was told. By 09h30 it had mostly eased, so I took a taxi back to Vailima for a last attempt for Samoan Triller. By the time I arrived the sun was shining and the wind had dropped; a perfect day for birding at last. I again walked the loop trail twice, but again no luck, so by 14h30 with the onset of further rain I caught a taxi to David's shop where I'd stashed my bags and headed to the airport. My driver to the airport was very jovial, and even bought me a Chinese meat-filled bun from a local stall en route. Eating this huge grease ball I began to understand how the Samoan diet must be the large contributory factor in the weight of the population. On checking out of the country the immigration official said it all – undone shirt with Eric Clapton playing Wonderful Tonight on the radio. What a great laid back place, and again through immigration in 20 seconds.
Wednesday 25th October
On crossing the dateline again we arrived in Auckland at 23h59, so this day was one minute long. With a long connect time I needed to pass through immigration and customs in order to book into a hotel. Immigration took almost an hour – these guys could sure learn something from the Samoans! Found a small motel, the Pacific Inn, near the airport for NZ$ 80.
Thursday 26th October
A real lay in this morning, as flight to the Cook Islands was not until 14h00, which departed late, but arrived on time.
Wednesday 25th October (again)
Having left on the afternoon of 26th, I arrived in Rarotonga on the evening of 25th. I took the Raro Tours minibus to the pre-arranged Paradise Inn for NZ$ 15, which turned out to be a bit of a rip off, as a pre-arranged taxi would have been NZ$ 10. During the flight my infected legs had taken a turn for the worse, with infection now spreading rapidly up my legs and swollen joints, so despite the late hour the Paradise Inn was thankfully able to arrange a taxi to get me to a hospital ASAP. Joining the queue of late night casualties I was eventually sorted out and came away with properly dressed wounds and liberal doses of antibiotics.
Thursday 26th October (again)
Not a great night's sleep and had to resort to earplugs – dogs, chickens and people all very noisy in this area. Up at 06h00 and took taxi to the airport. Arriving one hour before the domestic flight was way too early. Check-in didn't open until 30 minutes before the 08h00 flight, and none of the locals on the flight turned up till 20 minutes before the flight. Like so much in the Pacific everything very laid back. The flight to Aitutaki was uneventful and smooth, with most people on the flight either locals or day-trippers. On arrival, I had planned on being able to take a taxi to town in order to pick up a bike or moped, but this option was not available so I soon found myself alone at the terminal, having to resort to walking to town, when I discovered also I'd forgotten my hat. I headed up the airstrip toward town and stopped at the first accommodation offering moped rentals. Their sign however was misleading as they no longer rented, so suggested I continued walking toward town. En route I checked the airfield and golf course for Bristle-thighed Curlew, but with it being a holiday the golf course was very busy and disturbed. Walking to town I found two places renting mopeds, but the first place had no staff as they were all in church (today being a religious holiday) and the second place refused to rent to me as I was not a guest.
I was getting nowhere fast, so continued along the road to town to find everywhere closed (not that on Aitutaki there's much to be open), so walked the six kilometres back to toward the airfield, eventually finding Blue Parakeet in mango trees about half way back, just opposite the Vaikoa Resort. By this time it was getting pretty hot, so tied my spare trousers around my head like a turban hoping none of the locals would notice the bizarre headgear. Once back near the golf course I tried a small seawatch but nothing other than a few White Tern visible. With still a couple of hours to spare I decided to walk the entire length of the airfield, where I successfully discovered a group of eight Bristle-thighed Curlew hiding in a low dip not visible from the airport terminal from where I had scanned earlier. The group also held a single Whimbrel, quite a rarity on the Cooks. Having successfully cleaned-up on Aitutaki I calculated I'd actually walked 17 kilometres in the five hours on the island; legs now swollen, sore and sun-burnt. I took the 15h40 flight back to Rarotonga. In the evening walked to Trader Jacks, a rather popular, though not cheap, seafood restaurant next to the harbour. I have to admit it was excellent and well worth the trip. NZ$ 50 including beers. It was actually the first decent meal I'd had in my three weeks to date in the Pacific, and tasted all the better for it.
Friday 27th October
As the flight to Atiu was not scheduled till late morning, first thing I ran a few errands such as visiting the police station to obtain my Cooks Islands driving licence, changing money and reserving a rental car for the following day. I then spent a while trying to track down the office of the Takitumu Conservation Area, which needs to be contacted to arrange visits to seek the Rarotonga Monarch. After getting the run-around and visiting their non-existent offices (now closed) in town (moved to near the project area on southern side of the island) I eventually was able to make loose arrangements for later in the week. Took the flight to Atiu, where I was met by Papa Paiere the owner of the Taparere Lodge that I had pre-arranged.
At the airfield I ran into "Birdman George", who's a real character and currently working on monitoring the introduced Rarotonga Monarch, and arranged to go out with him later that afternoon. Having settled into the Taparere Lodge (thrown bag in corner and had a cup of tea), despite the heat of the day I walked a track at random through cutover forest below the lodge. This proved fairly fruitful, with Chattering Kingfisher and plenty of Cook Islands Fruit-Dove, as well as a couple of Atiu Swiftlet. George turned up earlier than expected as he had a forgotten another pressing arrangement, but even so I had a couple of hours with him visiting a monarch site and then Te Roto lake where I annoyingly missed a fly by Long-tailed Cuckoo, having been looking the wrong way at the time. As Taparere Lodge didn't provide meals I walked to Atiu Villas for dinner, which was necessary to pre-book, and was told would be available from 18h30. In the event dinner wasn't served till 20h00, so I passed the time in the bar with three local drunks. A three course set menu cost a very reasonable NZ$ 35 including a couple of beers. Received a lift back to Taparere Lodge from Roger, the owner.
Saturday 28th October
Spent the hours from 06h00 – 10h00 walking a long loop around the south end of the island, passing the Te Roto lake, during which I found a single Long-tailed Cuckoo, a and different pair of Rarotonga Monarch. A short seawatch produced both Red-footed and Brown Boobies and a single Great Frigatebird. Papa Paiere gave me a lift to the airport around 11h15. Once back on Rarotonga I collected the pre-arranged rental car, and stocked up with food from the supermarket. After a quick lunch drove to the east side of the island to watch the mountains from the rugby pitch as mentioned in Wheatley in hope of Herald Petrel. Spent a couple of hours with no luck, so moved slightly farther up the coast to Ngatangiia to where the reef edge is close to shore and passing seabirds should have been visible. It looked as though here would be a better chance of a passing petrel than one coming inland overhead. Seawatched till dusk with no petrel, but picked out Blue-grey Noddy and Sooty Tern. Grey-tailed Tattler were feeding on the rocks here. Back to Paradise Inn for culinary delight of beans on toast.
Sunday 29th October
I started the day on the cross-island trail, walking up to the highest point at The Needle. Here one has a great view of the surrounding hills, so I figured it would be a good place to scan for petrels. I started the walk at 06h30 and it only took about 40 minutes actual walking to the top, although it's quite steep in places and if raining the exposed tree roots would make it extremely slippery and dangerous. En route I had a couple of Rarotonga Starling at close range (and two more on the way down). Spent a couple of hours at the top but no sign of any petrels, so returned back to the lodge for a late breakfast and continued round the coast to the same sea-watching point as yesterday, stopping at an Internet café en route. Several hours of seawatching produced virtually nothing, so late afternoon continued on a slow drive around island, then returned car.
Monday 30th October
An early morning seawatch from the Paradise Inn gave excellent views of close-in Humpback Whale and another Blue-grey Noddy. Took the 09h00 flight to Mangaia where on arrival the first birds seen were two Cook Island Reed-Warbler singing in bushes outside the airfield terminal. Took my pre-arranged lift to town, and stopped at the local garage to rent a moped from Russell - no licence check, no helmet provided and no money necessary to pay in advance. After all where are you going on this island? I made a complete circuit of the island with the main aim of finding a route into the forest; the limestone crags of the understorey make getting into the forest almost impossible.
Eventually I found a good track through coastal forest on the east coast just south of Ivirua. One Mangaia Kingfisher was seen here, but the heat of the day was hardly conducive to bird activity so decided to try again in the afternoon. Returned to Babe's Place to some excellent sandwiches for lunch. When the day had cooled sufficiently, around 15h15, I headed out to check the lake to the south of the island, where I found Pacific Black Duck and four Chestnut-breasted Munia (apparently this is a recent, natural coloniser of Mangaia.) Back to the same forest trail as the morning, seeing four kingfishers and hearing several others. Beer from the local shop and dinner at Babe's Place.
Tuesday 31st October
Having cleaned up Mangaia, I had a lay-in before being dropped at the airfield. The same Cook Island Reed-Warblers were singing from the same bush. Flight on time but on arrival at Rarotonga the pre-arranged taxi failed to materialise, so walked into town and picked up a rental car from Island Cars and headed over to the south of the island to meet up with Ian for the trip into Takitumu Conservation Area. A couple of birders, Otto and Renate, from Austria, also arrived -- the first birders I'd met on my Pacific tour. Despite the heat of the day birds were fairly active, and in our couple of hours in the forest we obtained good views of several Rarotonga Monarch, including the first grey adults I'd seen so far, as well as Rarotonga Starling and Cook Islands Fruit-Dove. After, I returned to the same seawatching point which was as fruitless as yesterday.
Wednesday 1st November
Another early start on the cross-island walk for a last attempt for Herald Petrel, but was disappointed again, and another hour on the top produced only the usual White Tern, Brown Noddy, Cook Island Fruit-Dove, a single Rarotonga Starling and a number of Pacific Imperial Pigeon. For the remainder of the morning I played the general tourist with a few beers and lunch in town, then in the afternoon walked to the imposing cliffs behind town where five Red-billed Tropicbird were found, which were to be the last new bird for the trip list.
Thursday 2nd November, Friday 3rd November and Saturday 4th November.
A very long flight home; two days including crossing the dateline - Rarotonga – Auckland – Sydney – Bangkok – Dubai – Muscat. A delayed flight from Sydney meant I missed the connection in Dubai which didn't help, so a late arrival in Muscat and lost baggage to boot. Thank you Emirates!