FRENCH POLYNESIA & COOK ISLANDS BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
French Polynesia: Day 1 Our tour begins in the evening Papeete on the island of Tahiti in the Society Islands, where we will spend three nights.
French Polynesia: Days 2-3 With the help of a local guide, we will explore one of Tahiti’s deep forested valleys. Here we will find the endemic Tahiti Monarch, now critically endangered with perhaps only about 40 individuals surviving, and we will also be able to visit a colony of endemic Tahiti Swiftlets, watching the adults whizzing along a narrow, rocky defile as they return to, or leave, their nests. Two other endemics we should find today are the attractive Grey-green Fruit-Dove and the noisy Tahiti Kingfisher.
During another excursion we will explore the mountainous interior of Tahiti in search of the endemic Tahiti Reed Warbler, which favours tall bamboo thickets. We are also likely to encounter Pacific Black Duck, Pacific Swallow (the nominate race here is dark and very different to most other populations) and the introduced Swamp Harrier and Red-browed Firetail.
Many introduced birds are present on Tahiti, including Zebra Dove, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Myna, Silvereye, Common Waxbill, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin and Crimson-backed Tanager.
French Polynesia: Day 4 Today we will take a flight far to the north, to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. Nuku Hiva is the largest of the distant Marquesas (being nearly 1500 kilometres from Tahiti, a greater distance than that between London and Rome!). En route we should enjoy some fine aerial views of the Tuamotus. The airport, for want of suitable flat land elsewhere, was constructed in the far northwest of the island, at the opposite end of the island from the two main villages, so we will cross this rugged and spectacular island before we reach Taiohae, where we will be staying overnight.
French Polynesia: Day 5 This very scenic island has many high rocky peaks, rising to 1224m at the summit of Mount Tekao, and sheer coastal cliffs that rise to over 500m in places. We will visit the best part of the island for finding the endemic Nukuhiva Imperial Pigeon. This huge dark and rather lethargic pigeon has a broad, flat, white-feathered protuberance projecting above its bill, giving it a decidedly strange appearance, and its weird, rather unpigeon-like calls simply add to the mystique of this very rare bird that now numbers only about 300 individuals (shared between Nuku Hiva and Ua Huka, where the species has been reintroduced). We should be able to find some sitting in some large fig trees and obtain splendid views of this unusual species.
We will also have our first encounters with three more endemics: White-capped Fruit-Dove, Marquesan Swiftlet and Northern Marquesan Reed Warbler, all of which are common. Our first Little White Terns (or Little Fairy Terns), a near-endemic species, will be seen flying high overhead or perching in roadside trees, sometimes alongside Black Noddies. Along the rugged volcanic coastline we will keep a lookout for the pretty Blue Noddy (formerly lumped with Grey Noddy under the name Blue-grey Noddy).
This evening we will board the Braveheart at Nuku Hiva and the most exciting part of our French Polynesian adventure will begin. We will stay for 12 nights on board.
French Polynesia: Days 6-16 During these days we will travel through the Marquesas and Tuamotu islands before ending up on the island of Moorea in the Society Islands, the neighbour of Tahiti.
The first place we will be exploring will be a remote, uninhabited and very rarely visited islet to the north of Nukuhiva, one of the last two strongholds of the beautiful Marquesan Ground Dove.
Next we will visit the island of Ua Huka, which still holds the beautiful endemic Ultramarine Lorikeet. This endangered species is now extinct on the other inhabited islands in the Marquesas, but remains fairly common here. We will also want to see the endemic Iphis Monarch (now also restricted to Ua Huka).
Next we will travel to the sparsely inhabited island of Tahuata, which lies to the south of the western end of the much more populous Hiva Oa. This is very likely the last surviving haunt of the smart Marquesan Kingfisher, which has probably now died out on Hiva Oa. With some persistence we should get great views of this very rare bird. Southern Marquesan Reed Warbler is common here.
On our way southwards to the remote island of Fatu Hiva we will make a landing on uninhabited Mohotani, last haunt of the Marquesan Monarch. The journey is good for pelagic seabirds and we should encounter Tahiti and Bulwer’s Petrels, Wedge-tailed Shearwater and the impressively large and well-marked Polynesian Storm-Petrel.
Fatu Hiva is a rugged and very beautiful island with much remaining forest on the steep mountainsides. It is known for its dramatic Baie des Vierges (Bay of Virgins), famous for the phallic rock formations that led the early whalers to name the place Baie des Verges (Bay of Penises) before some outraged missionaries re-christened it! Here we will walk up a partly cultivated valley and check out some forest patches for the rare and now, following the introduction of Black Rats, critically endangered Fatuhiva Monarch (numbering only about 50 individuals).
We have a fair haul southwards to the Tuamotu Islands, with good pelagic seabirding opportunities along the way, including chances for Phoenix Petrel.
Here our first port of call will be the huge Rangiroa Atoll, where we will be looking for the lovely, near-endemic Blue Lorikeet in particular, as well as the beautiful endemic Atoll Fruit Dove and endemic Tuamotu Reed Warbler. We may also have time to seek out the endemic Polynesian Ground-Dove.
The island of Niau is unusual in the Tuamotus in that its rather small lagoon is cut off from the sea (although there are underground connections). Here we will track down the rare Tuamotu Kingfisher, which nowadays is thought to only occur here (it is now thought to be extinct on Mangareva, in the far eastern Tuamotus). Even here the bird is uncommon (the most recent survey found 51 individuals!), so it may take us some time to locate a pair, perhaps at their nest hole in one of the coconut palms. As with so many birds in the Tuamotus, they can be incredibly tame, posing for their photographs just a metre or two away.
The remote, hilly island of Makatea (a raised coral reef) is still inhabited, even though its phosphate mining industry has closed down, but is rarely visited as it lacks an airport and has no regular ferry service. We will be landing here to see the Makatea Fruit-Dove, restricted to this one island, and the now endangered Polynesian Imperial Pigeon, a species that has vanished from much of its original range.
Finally, we will be hoping to track down the uncommon Moorea Kingfisher on the spectacular island of Moorea in the Society Islands. This interesting form has recently been proposed as a full species, distinct from the Tahiti Kingfisher.
French Polynesia: Day 17 This morning we will take a ferry from Moorea to Papeete, where the French Polynesia section of our tour ends.
Cook Islands: Day 1 We will take an afternoon flight from Papeete to Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, where we will spend two nights.
Cook Islands: Day 2 Our primary birding on Rarotonga will be our visit to the Takitumu Conservation Area. This project was established in 1996 by local landowners, mainly to protect the endemic Kakerori, better known outside the islands as Rarotonga Monarch, as well as native plants and other animals. With a local guide we will explore part of this 155-hectare forested area. As well as the rare and endangered Rarotonga Monarch, which has recovered from near-extinction to a total population of over 200 individuals (and some have recently been introduced to the island of Atiu to try to establish a second population), we should see the uncommon endemic Rarotonga Starling, the restricted-range Pacific Imperial Pigeon and the introduced Red Junglefowl. As the afternoon wears on huge Insular Flying Foxes begin to awake and flap across the forest canopy.
We will also visit the beginning of the cross-island track where we can enjoy a panorama of the spectacular peaks of Rarotonga’s mountainous interior and where we could see both Herald Petrel and Red-tailed Tropicbird. We may see our first endemic Cook Islands Fruit-Doves here, although they are much easier on Atiu.
Cook Islands: Day 3 We will have time for some birding on Rarotonga before taking a flight across to the island of Mangaia for a two nights stay.
Cook Islands: Day 4 On the island of Mangaia we will stay at a delightful but simple guesthouse run by a Swede who washed up in the Cooks and his islander wife. Mangaia is situated just north of the tropic of Capricorn and is the southernmost of the Cook Islands. Here we will soon locate the endemic Mangaia Kingfisher, which mostly sits motionless on high perches in the tangled coastal woodland and scrub. Another endemic of this habitat is the fairly common Cook Islands Reed Warbler, while Brown Noddies and Common White Terns fly in to their nest sites in the taller trees.
Mangaia is famous for its caves and those who want to be a bit more energetic can have a great time exploring some simply huge caves, complete with giant stalactites and stalagmites, in the forest not far from where we stay. The local guides know all the grisly stories about how people fled there and died there during the island’s endless clan feuds and battles with invaders from other islands (the folk from Atiu were particularly feared, as the fiercest and most cannibalistic of all the Cook Islanders, but missionaries seem to have put a stop to the ‘good old days’)!
It will be well worth giving the grassy margins of the airstrip an inspection, for Bristle-thighed Curlews are fairly regular visitors, finding the short turf just to their liking. Pacific Golden Plovers will surely be present and Wandering Tattlers favour the nearby rocky coastline.
Close to the guesthouse is a great lookout over the Pacific where, if one is lucky, a Humpback Whale will be seen moving along the surface out beyond the reef. In any event it is a great place for a sundowner!
Cook Islands: Day 5 We will fly back to Rarotonga an onwards to the island of Atiu for a two nights stay.
Cook Islands: Day 6 On Atiu we will be staying at a lovely and very comfortable guesthouse, this time owned by an expatriate Kiwi and his Cook Islander wife. The rooms are so pleasant and the gardens so relaxing that it is hard to drag oneself away, but we have much to see.
This unspoiled little island is rich in coral limestone caves and one of these, the spectacular Anatakitaki Cave, is the main home of the endemic Atiu Swiftlet. The walk takes us through woodland where Cook Islands Fruit-Doves are quite common, as is the near-endemic Chattering Kingfisher. Wintering Long-tailed Cuckoos (or Long-tailed Koels) from New Zealand also occur here, but are often inconspicuous.
As we descend into the cave we will be able to watch the swiftlets sweeping down into the gloom and as we penetrate further we will hear the clicking sounds they use to echo-locate themselves in the pitch blackness. Eventually we will start to see the birds perched on their tiny, cup-like nests on the walls and roof of the cave, a fascinating sight. The cave has an extra dimension too, with a branch entrance leading to a flooded cavern where you can even take an underground swim if you wish (illuminated by the candles helpfully placed by our local guide).
An exciting development in recent years has been the successful reintroduction of Kuhl’s (or Rimatara) Lorikeet on Atiu, where it once thrived before being extirpated for its colourful plumes for local headdresses! This species is endemic to the Cook Islands and the Austral group in French Polynesia, where it survives only on the remote island of Rimatara.
We will also explore Lake Teroto and its swampy margins. We can expect to find a number of Pacific Black Ducks and we may well see Great Frigatebirds leaving their roost. The real prize here is the secretive Spotless Crake. We may well hear one calling, but luck is required to see one.
In the evening the island’s dance team may come over to perform for us – a very different kettle of fish, and much more authentic and enjoyable than the more formal shows put on for tourists in Rarotonga, let alone the elaborate performances staged in Papeete.
Cook Islands: Day 7 After some final birding on Atiu we will return to Rarotonga, where the tour ends, either this morning or in the afternoon, depending on flight schedules.