NEW CALEDONIA, FIJI, VANUATU & SAMOA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 1 Our tour begins this evening at Nouméa in New Caledonia where we will stay for three nights in this far-flung overseas territory of France.
(The simplest way to reach Noumea is to fly in from Auckland in New Zealand. However, there are a few other routings possible.)
New Caledonia & Fiji: Days 2-3 Some of our time on New Caledonia will be spent birding in the magnificent forest of the attractive Rivière Bleue reserve. The reserve preserves the finest remaining forests in New Caledonia and is home to the incomparable Kagu.
The Kagu is an extraordinary bird: like much of the flora and fauna of New Caledonia, it seems to belong to another age, having evolved in isolation during the millions of years since the island broke away from Gondwanaland and drifted eastward into the Pacific Ocean. The Kagu is a little larger than a domestic chicken. It is flightless, the only member of the family Rhynochetidae, and is thought to be most closely related to the Sunbittern of the Neotropics! The Kagu is endemic to New Caledonia and is the island’s national bird, but due to deforestation and predation by dogs, the species is now in serious danger of extinction: estimates put the remaining population around 1500 individuals. A puppy-like yelping echoes through the forest as the Kagu gives its far-carrying call. With some persistence, we should all be able to observe this intriguing and unusual bird, and with luck, we will even witness the bird’s spectacular display, in which the wings are spread wide and moved in a fanning motion.
Another high priority species is the critically endangered, crow-sized Crow Honeyeater, whose rather dull name belies the beauty of both its melodious song and its striking appearance, complete with large red facial wattles. We should also happen upon the strange and rare endemic Horned Parakeet, a beautiful parrot with a wispy crest.
Other species seen regularly within the reserve include a series of additional endemics: White-bellied (or New Caledonian) Goshawk, Goliath (or New Caledonian) Imperial Pigeon (the world’s largest arboreal pigeon), New Caledonian Parakeet, Satin Swiftlet, New Caledonian Myzomela, Barred Honeyeater, New Caledonian Friarbird, Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, New Caledonian Whistler, New Caledonian Cuckooshrike, Striated (or New Caledonian) Starling, Green-backed White-eye and the superb Red-throated Parrotfinch.
We should also see a variety of more widely distributed species such as Coconut Lorikeet, White-rumped Swiftlet, Grey-eared (or Dark-brown) Honeyeater, Fan-tailed Gerygone, Streaked and Grey Fantails, Melanesian (or New Caledonian) Flycatcher, White-breasted Woodswallow and Long-tailed Triller.
Amongst New Caledonia’s open savanna woodland or at small ponds or coastal habitats we should find such additional species as Little Pied Cormorant, Pacific Reef Heron, White-faced Heron, Nankeen (or Rufous) Night Heron, Grey Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Eastern Osprey, Whistling Kite, Swamp Harrier, Brown Goshawk, Buff-banded Rail, Australasian Swamphen, Dusky Moorhen, Pacific Golden Plover, Eurasian Whimbrel, Wandering Tattler, Ruddy Turnstone, Silver Gull, Greater Crested and Black-naped Terns, Sacred Kingfisher and Silver-eye, plus the introduced Wild Turkey, Spotted Dove, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Myna, Common Waxbill and Chestnut-breasted Munia.
On one day we will catch an early flight to Ouvéa (or Uvea) island, one of the more remote islands in the Loyalty group. The island, which is surrounded by pristine white sand beaches, is covered in low scrubby forest which is home to the beautiful Ouvea (or Uvea) Parakeet. Some seawatching here may produce Tahiti Petrel (and perhaps also Gould’s Petrel), Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Brown and Red-footed Boobies, Great and Lesser Frigatebirds, and Brown and Black Noddies.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 4 Today we will take a short flight over to the beautiful, unspoilt island of Lifou (or Lifu), the largest of the Loyalty Islands. Here we shall search for two species of white-eyes which are found nowhere else in the world, the exceedingly common Small Lifou (or Small Lifu) White-eye and the aberrant Large Lifou (or Large Lifu) White-eye, which is quite scarce. In addition, we can expect to find Red-bellied Fruit Dove and Cardinal Myzomela, the first being rare on Grande Terre and the latter completely absent.
After returning to Nouméa airport we will head for La Foa in central New Caledonia, where we will stay for two nights.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 5 Today we explore the forested Farino area, which is better than Rivière Bleue for such endemic species as the exquisite Cloven-feathered Dove, the famous tool-using New Caledonian Crow and the rather elusive New Caledonian Thicketbird (or New Caledonian Grassbird), as well as the more widely distributed Metallic Pigeon, Pacific Emerald Dove, Rufous Whistler, Southern Shrikebill and South Melanesian Cuckooshrike.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 6 After some final birding in New Caledonia we will catch an afternoon flight to Nadi (or Nandi) in Fiji for an overnight stay.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 7 This morning we will take a short flight across to the island of Kadavu (or Kandavu) for a two nights stay. Once we have settled into our comfortable resort we will begin our exploration of the island.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 8 The relatively undisturbed island of Kadavu has four species of birds that are found nowhere else in the world: Whistling (or Velvet) Fruit Dove, Crimson Shining Parrot, Kadavu Fantail and Kadavu Honeyeater. These four birds will be the main focus of our attention as we bird the island’s rainforests. The local form of the Fiji Whistler is occasionally split as White-throated Whistler.
There is also a chance of finding Tongan (Shy (or Friendly, or Shy) Ground Dove while on the island. (Interestingly this species was renamed Shy Ground Dove in one well-known field guide because the author was blissfully unaware that it was named, not for its retiring habits, but because it was found in the Friendly Islands, the other name for Tonga!) We will also spend some time checking the birdlife along the coast, searching the mudflats and some excellent rocky areas where we may find a few migrant waders such as Wandering Tattler.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 9 After some early morning birding on Kandavu we will take a flight back to Nadi and an onward flight to Taveuni. From the air, this spectacular South Pacific island, ringed by green and azure reefs, is the essence of a tropical paradise. Following our arrival on Taveuni, the least spoiled of the larger Fijian islands, we will drive the short distance to a small resort where we will stay for two nights. Our resort has a quiet and relaxed atmosphere and is built right on the beach, surrounded by tropical native gardens, volcanic hills and splendid reefs with multitudes of colourful tropical fish. The hosts are gracious, and the food is excellent. It is an ideal place to enjoy some exciting Fijian birding and even have some quiet moments for snorkelling and relaxation.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 10 Early morning will find us birding on the slopes below Des Veoux Peak, at 1320m (4331ft) the second-highest point on Taveuni, the mountainous backbone of which is almost entirely covered in dense forest. Subsequently, we will slowly descend the mountain, birding in a variety of habitat types ranging from dense cloud forest and bamboo thickets at higher altitudes down through tall rainforest into open drier woodland with patches of cultivation on the lower slopes.
The specialities here are the outrageously-coloured Orange Fruit Dove (endemic to Taveuni and Vanua Levu), Azure-crested Flycatcher (endemic to Taveuni) and the puzzling but exquisite Taveuni Silktail (endemic to Taveuni). There is a great deal of uncertainty as to which family the two silktail species belong to, but they are now generally regarded as most closely related to the fantails, although some consider they may be diminutive birds-of-paradise while others think they should be placed in their own bird family along with the Pygmy Drongo of New Guinea!
Many other Fijian endemics occur on Taveuni, including Maroon (or Red) Shining Parrot, Fiji Wattled Honeyeater and Yellow-billed Honeyeater. There is also another chance for Tongan Ground Dove in the forest.
The warm, shallow reef that surrounds the island supports a great variety of corals and a high diversity of fish species and other marine life, making a midday break for snorkelling here an exciting experience. A small islet, situated only a few hundred metres off the west coast, is home to a number of Lesser Frigatebirds, Brown and Red-footed Boobies, and elegant Black-naped Terns, while at dusk we will see Tahiti Petrels passing offshore and also Collared Petrel if we are fortunate.
[Note: We have tried a pelagic from Taveuni to Gau Island, sailing into waters where the ultra-rare Fiji Petrel has been seen, but a single pelagic out of Taveuni or Suva offers little time in the area and we were not successful. Spending several days in the Gau area offers the best chance.]
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 11 After some final birding on Taveuni we will take an afternoon flight to Suva (often this involves going via Nadi) for a three nights stay at Fiji’s capital city.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Days 12-13 Viti Levu is the largest of the Fijian islands and the most densely populated; sadly, most of the island’s natural forest was cleared for farming many generations ago. During our visit to Viti Levu, we will explore the mid-montane forests of the central massif, which has the best birding on the island. Lush tropical rainforest cloaks jagged volcanic mountains, but most species can be seen from the roads.
Here amidst the dense vegetation, where hanging creepers and twisted branches provide concealment for some of Fiji’s most sought-after birds, we will stand spellbound at the virtuosity of the endemic Giant (or Giant Forest) Honeyeater whose call is reminiscent of the siren on an emergency vehicle.
We will concentrate on searching for such other Fiji endemics as Fiji Goshawk, the dazzling Golden Fruit Dove (with its characteristic ‘wing whistling’), Barking (or Peale’s) Imperial Pigeon, Masked Shining Parrot, Collared Lory, Kikau, Sulphur-breasted (or Orange-breasted) Myzomela, Fiji Wattled Honeyeater, Slaty Monarch, Chestnut-throated Flycatcher, Fiji Whistler, Fiji Bush Warbler, Fiji (or Layard’s) White-eye, Fiji Woodswallow and Fiji Parrotfinch (which is sometimes lumped in Red-headed Parrotfinch).
More widespread birds of interest include Many-coloured Fruit Dove, White-rumped Swiftlet, Pacific Robin, Fiji Shrikebill, Vanikoro Flycatcher, Polynesian Triller, Island Thrush and Polynesian Starling.
We should also come across the strange and increasingly rare Black-throated (or Black-faced) Shrikebill, which is endemic to Fiji and the Santa Cruz Islands. A short scramble will bring us to the area where the very rare and elusive endemic Long-legged Thicketbird (or Long-legged Warbler) was rediscovered in 2003. We have a good chance of success with this shy bird, but we may have to be patient. In recent years the endangered and endemic Pink-billed Parrotfinch has been rediscovered in several places on Viti Levu, and we will try to see the species, but we would have to be very lucky to find this extremely rare bird.
Other species found within the forest or close by along the coast include Pacific Reef Heron, Pacific Swallow and the introduced Red-vented Bulbul and Jungle Myna.
New Caledonia & Fiji: Day 14 After some final birding on Viti Levu an afternoon flight will take us back to Nadi airport where our tour ends.
(There are regular flights out of Nadi to Auckland, New Zealand.)
Vanuatu: Day 1 The tour begins this morning at Luganville airport on the large island of Espiritu Santo, where we will stay for three nights. This afternoon we will begin our exploration of the island.
(To get to Luganville the simplest routing is via Auckland, New Zealand and Port Vila the capital of Vanuatu. You may need to overnight at Port Vila and we can arrange this for you on request.)
Vanuatu: Days 2-3 The Loru and Vatthe conservation areas protect some of the largest tracts of lowland forest on the island. We will explore both areas of forest, concentrating on two of the more difficult Vanuatu specialities, Vanuatu (or New Hebrides) Megapode and Vanuatu (or Chestnut-bellied) Kingfisher. These two lowland endemics are easily heard, but we may need patience before we get to see them. The forest resounds to the loud songs of Melanesian Whistlers and we should soon chance upon the very attractive endemic Buff-bellied Monarch (which belongs to a genus endemic to Vanuatu) as well as the endemic Tanna Fruit Dove and the endemic Vanuatu (or Yellow-fronted) White-eye. More widespread species include Pacific Imperial Pigeon, Mackinlay’s Cuckoo-Dove, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Uniform Swiftlet and Pacific Kingfisher.
Vanuatu: Day 4 This morning we will take a short flight from Espiritu Santo to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu and then an onward flight to Noumea in New Caledonia, where we join up with those arriving for the main tour.
Samoa: Day 1 This evening we will take a flight from Nadi in Fiji to Apia in Western Samoa. We will stay at Apia for three nights.
Samoa: Days 2-3 The Western Samoa group consists of nine islands, four of them inhabited, and is Polynesia at its purest. Apia, the capital, is located on Upolu, one of the two major islands and the most densely populated. Our hotel is situated outside the centre of Apia, but only a short drive from the Mount Vaea Scenic Reserve, the hill where the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson is buried, and other interesting birding areas.
Here we can expect to see our first Samoan endemics, including Flat-billed Kingfisher, Samoan Whistler, Samoan Flycatcher, Samoan Fantail and Samoan Starling. Other birds in this attractive area include Crimson-crowned Fruit Dove, Many-coloured Fruit-Dove, Metallic (or White-throated) Pigeon, Pacific Imperial-Pigeon, Blue-crowned Lorikeet, Polynesian Triller, Pacific Robin, Island Thrush, Polynesian Starling, Cardinal Myzomela and Polynesian Wattled Honeyeater, and also the introduced Red Junglefowl, Red-vented Bulbul and Jungle Myna. We will also visit the nearby Vaisigano watershed which has some remnant forest patches that are good for the remaining two endemics on Upolu, the rare and extraordinary Mao, a large and noisy honeyeater, and Samoan Triller, and we should also encounter Red-headed Parrotfinch. We can also expect some waterbirds, including Grey Teal and Australasian Swamphen. Buff-banded Rails are numerous and if we are lucky we will also find White-browed Crake. At dusk, we can observe Pacific Flying Foxes flapping above the treetops.
O Le Pupu-Pu’e National Park, a large 2850-hectare park created in 1978, protects a strip of land extending from the summits of Mounts Fito (1100m) and Lepu’e (840m) to the southern coast. The name of the park means ‘from the coast to the mountaintop’. This was one of the last haunts of the Tooth-billed Pigeon, a species now feared extinct on Upolu.
Seawatching off the spectacular coastline may well produce White-tailed Tropicbird, Red-footed Booby, Great Frigatebird, Spectacled (or Grey-backed) Tern, Brown Noddy and Common White Tern.
Samoa: Day 4 There will be time for a final day of birding and a farewell dinner before the tour ends this evening at Apia airport.
(There are regular flights out of Apia to Auckland, New Zealand.)
COOK ISLANDS EXTENSION
See also the entry in the tour Overview.
Cook Islands: Day 1 The extension begins this evening at 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 and 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.
SAMOAN WHITE-EYE EXTENSION
See also the entry in the tour Overview.
Day 1: We will cross by ferry to the island of Savai’i, which lies about 20 kilometres northwest of Upolu, for a two nights stay.
During the short crossing, it is possible to see Red-tailed Tropicbird, Red-footed and Brown Boobies, and occasionally Lesser Frigatebird.
Day 2: Savai’i is less lush and higher and more rugged than Upolu with its highest point, Mount Silisili, reaching 1858m. Peapea cave is one of the most accessible lava caves on Savai’i, as it passes under the road, and is home to numerous White-rumped Swiftlets.
From the isolated village of A’opo, which is built on a lava field on the slopes of Mount Silisili that dates back to the eruption of 1760, we will hike uphill into the mountains, taking a very long day to get up to high altitudes and return (the hike is quite strenuous, so is only for the fit). Once we are above 900m we will look out for the single-island endemic Samoan White-eye which prefers low bushes in the upper levels.
Interestingly a juvenile Tooth-billed Pigeon was seen on Savai’i in early 2014, the only recent record of this species on the edge of extinction.
Day 3: Return to Upolu by ferry and head for the Apia airport.
SANTO MOUNTAINS EXPEDITION
See also the entry in the tour Overview.
Day 1 The expedition begins this morning at Luganville on the large island of Espiritu Santo where we will stay overnight. This afternoon we will be organizing our trek into the interior.
Day 2 Trekking into the Santo mountains for most of the day until we reach our camp. Camping in the fresh air of these rarely-visited mountains, together with our happy porters, is a memorable experience.
Days 3-5 Early in the morning, our campsite will echo to the calls of Vanuatu (or Baker’s) Imperial Pigeons and White-bellied (or Vanuatu or New Hebrides) Honeyeaters, and we should obtain good views of both these montane endemics. Palm Lorikeets fly past, sometimes pausing long enough to give good looks, and Santa Cruz Ground Doves call from the valleys – both species occur only in Vanuatu and the Santa Cruz Islands.
Further uphill, the endemic Santo Thicketbird can be seen along the track and we should also encounter Rusty-winged Starling (restricted to Vanuatu and the Santa Cruz Islands). We are also likely to come across Polynesian Triller.
The endemic Royal Parrotfinch is fairly rare and unpredictable, so we will consider ourselves fortunate if we encounter this species.
The very rare Mountain (or Santo Mountain) Starling, occurs only on the highest peaks, has only been recorded on rare occasions in recent decades (and in very small numbers) and would be a huge bonus.
Day 6 Today we trek back down to the roadhead and return to Luganville for a welcome night in a hotel.
Day 7 Rendezvous this morning with those arriving for the Vanuatu pre-tour extension.