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BIRDING IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
By Jon Hornbuckle
In June 1999, after four weeks in the Bismarck Archipelago off Papua New Guinea, during which we had been relieved of most of our possessions by some of the friendly islanders of Mussau (see Phil Gregory's article in Australian Birding vol.5 no.4 pp. 11-15), Neil Bostock, Barry Wright, Keith Turner and I were ready to move east to the Solomon Islands. This group of mountainous islands, stretching some 1000km east to west, is one of the least visited regions in the Pacific, and holds a high number of restricted range and threatened species. We flew from Port Moresby, PNG, to Honiara on the main Solomon island of Guadalcanal. We were soon observing endemic parrots and flycatchers on nearby Mount Austen but were alarmed to hear there was trouble in the hills, with Guadalcanalese killing Malaitan settlers who were of course retaliating. This meant it would be unsafe to go into the mountains to look for the five montane endemics, including gems such as Moustached Kingfisher and Guadalcanal Thrush, unless things improved, which they did not.
Everywhere else was peaceful and so over the next four weeks we were able to visit five of the major islands and four smaller islands in the western New Georgia group. We saw all 66 possible endemics and near-endemics on those islands except Fearful Owl, Malaita Fantail and Woodford's Rail (excluding the probably extinct San Cristobal Moorhen and Thick-billed Ground-Dove). Everything went to plan except on Isabel where the boat we hired to take us to the Woodford's Rail site capsized, thereby destroying my new camera and causing some other loss and damage. Nevertheless, I can still strongly recommend birding in the Solomons as highly rewarding, with many attractive and little-known birds to be found in a mostly safe and friendly environment.
The following is a summary of our experience on the major island groups. A list of specialities in relation to specific islands is also given.
Guadalcanal (10 restricted range species including those shared with Bougainville)
Mount Austen above Honiara holds all the lowland specialities, although White-eyed Starling has not been seen for several years. Taxis will take you up to the top, although not down the steep other side, but do not rely on a pre-arranged pick-up before dawn – “Solomons time” operates! The forest starts just beyond the highest point and goes down most of the way to the river valley, with two decent logging trails on the left. Notable birds here were Yellow-bibbed Lory, Ducorp's Cockatoo, Buff-headed Coucal, Ultramarine Kingfisher, Chestnut-bellied and Black-and-white Monarchs, White-billed Crow, Solomon Cuckoo-shrike, Black-headed Myzomela and Midget Flowerpecker. It is also worth checking the grassland edge between the plantation and the top in late afternoon or early morning for rails, as there is an undescribed species here.
To see the five montane endemics is much more difficult. The only quick way of getting in range of most is to drive to Gold Mine Ridge and walk the trail to 1000+m. Permission for birders to do this can be arranged in Honiara through Ken Ferris of Ross Mining in normal times but the whole area was off-limits during our stay due to the ethnic violence. The Honeyeater has been seen here but the only known site for the Kingfisher and Thrush is a very tough trek from Ando to Mt Mbutohaina (1565m), requiring at least a week. We did intend to do this of course but were foiled by the ethnic unrest.
Rennell (6 restricted range species)
This is the easiest of the main islands as all the endemics can be seen in a few hours near the airport. Unfortunately there are only two flights a week, so you have to stay at least three days. We followed Gerry Richards in heading along the island to Lake Te'Nggano, two hours drive in a chartered truck, and staying at the relaxing Kia Koe Lodge, a sensible strategy with time to kill. We saw all the endemics and Island Thrush – an unusual form here being at sea level - around the lodge, particularly by taking the short trail at the back. On returning to Tinggoa airport, we also saw all the endemics in the hour or so before the flight, by taking the track from the end of the airstrip, away from the Lake. There is a sea-bird breeding colony on an island at the far end of Lake Te'Nggano, a couple of hours' boat journey, the star attraction being Red-footed Booby.
Makira (15 extant restricted range species)
This, the most important island in the country for birds, was formerly known as San Cristobal. It is vital to get above 500m, which can be done by trekking to the village of Hauta. This is in a conservation area, requiring permission to visit – do not go without permission as you will be turned away. We tried to get permission through the Solomon Islands Development Corporation in Honiara, without success – they are only interested in expensive ecotours. We flew to Kirakira and took the truck west to Tagore Community Resthouse where fortunately Roger James, working for Conservation International, was in residence. He contacted John, the village headman, for us, who did give us permission but said that we should have gone through Peter Handleby of Solomons Sight and Sounds in Honiara, or Isaiah Taro in Kirakira. He does not want individuals to come. Roger said there was another way into the hill forest, via a village east of Kirakira, which he could have helped us with, although this was not so straightforward. If all else fails, you can bird up to 300m above Tagore, as we did on the day awaiting permission, and see some of the specialities.
We were able to get a truck to take us for the first 5-6km towards Hauta, after a considerable delay, to where our porters were waiting, and arrange for it to pick us up four days later. There are two routes up: the shortest involves 11 or so river crossings, some of which are quite deep, while the longer route involves trekking up and down several 100m but only four or five river crossings. It is essentially a half day's walk up 500m, with some of the river crossings the only real trial. We stayed at John's house and had a young guide to show us the trail from 475m to 780m. Birding was good, with more species seen here than anywhere else in the Solomons. Three species were difficult – Yellow-legged Pigeon, Dusky Fantail and the Zoothera, San Cristobal Thrush. The best way of seeing the Pigeon appears to be by watching for post-roosting flights from a viewpoint during the first hour of daylight. The other two can be seen by luck and quiet, careful observation. Allow at least three days to catch up with these species.
The other side-trip to make is to offshore Ugi Island, where the Chestnut-bellied Monarch may be splittable. We did not go on the first Sunday, our only spare day, as Roger said it would be difficult to find a boat then, and we wanted to get to grips with some of the endemics, but in retrospect we should have done.
Santa Isabel (7 restricted range species including those shared with Choiseul)
Apart from the mountains of Guadalcanal, this was the only location in the Solomons where we missed key birds, namely Fearful Owl and Woodford's Rail. It was also the only place where we found a local knowledgeable bird enthusiast, Mark Hafe. Flights to offshore Fera run three times a week from Guadalcanal; then a small boat takes you across the bay to Buala. We soon engaged porters to carry our bags up to Tirotongna (470m), an hour's continuous walk. Here we located Mark Hafe and stayed at his house. He had found a Black-faced Pitta's nest with a pullus but it was empty when he took us to see it, and we had only a brief view of the adult. We had better views later but it was not an easy bird to see. Mark also knew roost sites for the two owls and succeeded in showing us the Hawk-Owl but not the large Fearful Owl. We spent hours raptor-watching, for the Solomon Sea Eagle and Imitator Sparrowhawk, but only Keith had a flight view of the former, although we later learnt that what Mark said was a Pied Goshawk sitting on a nest must have been Imitator because recent American work has established that Pied does not regularly occur on Isabel, in this region at least. We also failed to locate Marbled Frogmouth, worth trying for as it calls with a whistle, unlike the Australian form, and is probably a different species. [The Solomon Islands Frogmouth was described as a new genus and species, Rigidipenna inexpectata, in the April 2007 issue of Ibis by Cleere et al. (Abstract).]
The last afternoon was allocated to seeing Woodford's Rail at the Garana River, where Mark had seen it before. Firstly we had to obtain permission to visit the site, which entailed seeing the First Secretary at the provincial Government offices in Buala – he was none too enthusiastic, as the pitch had been queered by three American specimen-collectors, who apparently had permission to shoot birds from the national authorities but not the locals. However, our assurance of being simple bird-watchers and not “researchers” was eventually accepted. We had almost reached the site when the boat capsized due to the incompetence of the helmsman and so we had to abandon birding and return to Buala, initially on foot.
The nearby large island of Choiseul has a similar avifauna to Isabel. It has the distinction of White-eyed Starling apparently being relatively common but localities for the scarcer species are not well known.
New Georgia (12 restricted range species)
Flights go at least daily to Gizo, which, with nearby Munda, is the diving centre of the Solomons and the only place other than Honiara where we saw tourists. It proved straightforward to clean up here, with our timing and itinerary working out well. The first port of call was Gizo Electricity Generating Station, on the road to Pailong Ge, where roadside birding gave the endemic White-eye and White-capped Monarch. Then we hired Dirk's boat (Solomon Charters) to Iriri on Kulambangra, where we were allocated the village school for accommodation. A late afternoon visit to Kukudu, across the small bay by dugout canoe, gave Solomon Sea Eagle at last, at the fruit bat roost near the quay, and an undescribed form of Roviana Rail on the airstrip.
The next morning we trekked to Camp Professor at 960m, finding the endemic Myzomela, Kulambangra Monarch and Solomon Islands White-eye on the way. After sleeping in the porters' shelter, we quickly climbed to the summit, at 1640m, seeing Kulambangra White-eye and Leaf-Warbler, Island Thrush and Scarlet Robin in the beautiful moss forest. We spent most of the last day trekking back to Iriri from Camp Prof., finally spotting Pale Mountain-Pigeon below the view-point at 400m, before paying another late afternoon visit to Kukudu for good views of the Rail, but with no Eagle this time.
This was the only place in the Solomons where we paid an access fee, but only $A17 in total.
We took the morning catamaran public speedboat from Iriri to Gizo. An afternoon taxi trip along the coast to look for the Eagle was unsuccessful – displaying Beach Kingfishers and a marked frigatebird passage were some consolation. There was a nasty incident on the way back when a drunken youth knifed the bonnet of the taxi, causing considerable damage. The final day here was spent on a full day trip to Ranongga and Vella Lavella in Dirk's well-equipped boat, in the charge of an excellent local. Two rare Heinroth's Shearwaters provided the first excitement but were eclipsed by close studies of Solomon Sea Eagle, perched and in flight, by the track just beyond Koriovuku village on Ranongga. The smart endemic White-eye was also located here. Travelling on to Sanboro, Vella Lavella, we spent hours in the forest, soon finding Banded White-eye and later White-winged Fantail and Solomons Cuckoo-shrike, but failing to see the all black-winged form of Kulambangra Monarch. A further stop on the island for this was unsuccessful but another Eagle was soaring over the boat when we returned to the shore.
Malaita (4 restricted range species)
There are daily flights to Auki, the main town on highly populated Malaita, and overnight ferries. The endemics are in the hills, so we hired a truck for the hour's journey to 550m up Mt Alsa'an. Here we easily saw the White-eye and “Malaita” Starling, a form of Brown-winged Starling (see Finch, 1990), and then walked back along the road from the highest point. After walking a maximum of some 2km, we took a track on the right down through cultivated land and up into a patch of forest about a kilometre from the road. Here at 500m in thick bamboo we saw the scarce Red-bellied Myzomela and the endemic form of Black-and-white Monarch, possibly splittable, but not the endemic taxon of White-winged Fantail. We returned to Auki in the afternoon, knowing that it would be a much more time-consuming, and probably expensive, task to find the Malaita Fantail which occurs in forest above 900m - difficult to reach.
Others (6 endemics including those shared with Bougainville)
The two other island groups holding endemics in the Solomons are the Shortlands, for Bougainville Crow and Monarch, and Santa Cruz with 3 white-eyes and a monarch. There are 2 flights a week from Gizo to the Shortlands, and from Kirakira to Nendo, Santa Cruz. Two of the white-eyes can be seen at Lata on Nendo, along with Red-bellied Fruit-Dove, Rusty-winged Starling and Polynesian Triller, all birds found on Vanuatu. The monarch and other white-eye occur on Vanikoro, which is almost impossible to reach, along with Vanikoro Flycatcher, which is also found on Fiji. A day trip by boat to Tinakula, weather permitting, could be worthwhile as it holds Polynesian Starling, and Santa Cruz Ground-Dove was last seen here.
A full report of this trip is available from Subbuteo Books – contact: firstname.lastname@example.org