It was twilight as the deck crew dropped the lines onto the wharf at Tauranga, New Zealand. We had stowed our bags in our cabins, cleared customs and had a lifeboat drill. The 46 bird-watching passengers were chomping at the bit, anxious to get out on deck to see what birds were about. The only species we saw with the fading light were pied shag (cormorant) and white-fronted terns. On the other hand, we were delighted to watch a full moon rise out of the sea and beam a path over the waters.
This was the start of a monthlong odyssey into the Western Pacific to scan the oceans for pelagic birds and visit islands to see their endemic species. We were to transit the Hauraki Gulf, the Coral Sea, the Solomon Sea and visit Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, four of the Solomon Islands, Rennell, Makira (St. Christopher), Guadalcanal and Kolombangara, Caroline Islands including Chuuk (Truk), Tol and Tonoas, and then on to the Japanese islands of Bonin and Torishima. Each of the islands has endemic birds, so visiting them was similar to going into new candy store goodies to see and enjoy.
Every morning birders split up and stationed themselves on different areas of the vessel. We kept in touch by handheld radios and the PA. The photographers and a few birders on the bow, a number of people on the bridge, two couples on the afterdeck and the rest on the top deck, unceremoniously known as the monkey deck. Flip and I migrated between the monkey deck and the bow with a few hours in the bridge when the weather turned. We watched for albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, storm petrels, gannets and boobies. We were not disappointed, spotting species with names like fluttering shearwaters, white-naped petrel, streaked shearwater and Tahiti petrel, to name a few!
Our first landfall was Norfolk Island and although it poured the whole time we were on-island we were able to find and see their two endemics, the Norfolk Island parakeet and the Norfolk gerygone (Australian warbler). It was the next landfall, New Caledonia, which will stay in our minds for a good long time. We traveled in the dark by bus to Rivière Bleue, a provincial park. There were several species that were unique to the area, including the Caledonian crow, which has been observed using “tools” to procure food, and the Goliath or New Caledonia imperial pigeon, touted to be the biggest pigeon in the world, but the one we all wanted to see was the kagu (cagou) which is a flightless bird that lives in the forest and feeds on insects and worms. It is a ground nester and only lays one egg per year, thus being popular prey for wild dogs, cats and goats. Needless to say, the bird is endangered. Our local guide took us to the area where he had seen the birds the day before — nothing there. We moved farther into the forest, we stopped and the guide played a tape of the bird’s call. Out came not one, not two, but four kagus. We watched as one raised its crest to challenge another and were able to take photos. Unfortunately I missed the shot when the crest was raised. We saw the crow and the pigeon as well as many other species including a yellow-bellied robin and an elegant crested parakeet. What a day!
It was a fabulous trip and we added many birds to our life list and met birders from around the world. We jumped ship in Truk, but that is a story for another time.
I want to thank Rob Culbert, Allan Keith, Lanny McDowell and Matt Pelikan for providing Bird News to you while I on was on the Western Pacific odyssey.
Kim Manter e-mailed that she didn’t have Baltimore orioles around her Chilmark home this year and were there fewer on Island? I checked with other Vineyard birders and they agree there is a dearth of Baltimore orioles. Actually Massachusetts Audubon has sent a message to “citizen scientists” to report oriole sightings as MAS is trying to track “an apparent decline in this spectacular species.” For more information and to make a report go to massaudubon.org/oriole/report.
Patsy Donovan called to say she had a male blackpoll warbler flitting around the hydrangea bush in her Vineyard Haven yard on May 22.
Gail Carter called to say she spotted a snowy egret in the company of a great egret by the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick on May 15, and 17. On May 16 the snowy was alone.
Tim Johnson sent an excellent shot of a common tern perched on a Menemsha piling that he took May 23.
On May 23 a nest full of common grackle young added their squeaky voices to Matt Pelikan’s Oak Bluffs yard.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to email@example.com.
Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her Web site is vineyardbirds2.com.