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West Pacific Odyssey (WPO) part 4: Solomon Islands – 25th-29th March 2019   3 comments

This is the fourth post about the epic boat trip I undertook in 2019, travelling aboard the repositioning cruise of the Professor Khromov as it sailed from New Zealand to Japan.

This post is just about the Solomon Islands.

From Wikipedia: Solomon Islands is a sovereign state consisting of six major islands and over 900 smaller islands in Oceania lying to the east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu and covering a land area of 28,400 square kilometres (11,000 sq mi). The country has a population of 652,858 and its capital, Honiara, is located on the island of Guadalcanal. The country takes its name from the Solomon Islands archipelago, which is a collection of Melanesian islands that also includes the North Solomon Islands (a part of Papua New Guinea), but excludes outlying islands, such as Rennell and Bellona, and the Santa Cruz Islands.

In 1568, the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña was the first European to visit them, naming them the Islas Salomón. Britain defined its area of interest in the Solomon Islands archipelago in June 1893, when Captain Gibson R.N., of HMS Curacoa, declared the southern Solomon Islands a British protectorate. During World War II, the Solomon Islands campaign (1942–1945) saw fierce fighting between the United States, Commonwealth forces and the Empire of Japan, such as in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Back in the 80s several of us in Poole, Dorset got to know a young local birder called Guy Dutson. After Uni Guy spent a lot of time living and birding in Melanesia, especially in the Solomon Islands and went on to write the definitive bird guide to the area. Partially because it contained so many life birds for me but also because I had heard so many great stories about the islands from Guy, the Solomons became a much desired destination for me.

 

 

 

However the more I looked into it the more difficult it sounded. To do the islands justice you needed a full four week tour (plus travel time), which made it impossible to do when I was working and to see all the endemics in the upland areas you needed to be particularly fit, which I’m not. Visiting on the West Pacific Odyssey was an alternative but you end up spending a small fraction of the time birding compared to a full tour. However in the end I was able to see over 40 of the 90 or so species that are endemic or nearly endemic to the Solomons.

 

The route of the west Pacific Odyssey from New Zealand to Japan. The Solomon Islands form an oval to the SW of New Guinea. The capital is Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal.

 

We made five landing in the Solomon Islands: 1) Santa Ana Island off the SE tip of Makira (on the map just above the ‘U’ in Makira-Ulawa); 2) Anuta Island off the west coast of Makira (on the map just right of the ‘a’ in Makira); 3) Guadalcanal accessed from the capital Honiara; 4) Tetepare (on the map an island below and right of Gizo); 5) Kolombangara (on the map just above and right of Gizo). Map from Geology.com

 

We were to spend a day ashore on the island of Rennell which has six or seven endemics, or near endemics. Tragically a tanker had recently gone ashore on a reef and had spilled oil everywhere. Whether this prevented landings or whether the Solomon government just didn’t want the world to see this environmental disaster we don’t know, but all landing had been banned. As a result we detoured to Santa Ana Island just to the south-east of the much larger Makira Island. Arriving about lunchtime we we were ferried ashore for an afternoon’s birding.

 

  The Solomon’s are the classic South Pacific paradise, beautiful beaches dotted with coconut palms, sleepy villages with friendly but not intrusive inhabitants and of course wonderful birds.

 

We were able to start birding as soon as we stepped ashore (and before some clients had taken their life jackets off)  …

 

… with plenty of birds to see within the village itself …

 

… and the adjoining football pitch.

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Note that many of the bird photos taken on the island either had to be cropped to a large degree or were taken in poor light, so I have often posted smaller image sizes than usual to compensate.

 

Most of the birds we saw would be seen again on other islands. but this Silver-capped Fruit Dove was the one Rennell specialities that also occurs on Santa Ana and hence was we thought we had missed. Photo by Frédérik Pelsey from Oiseaux.net

 

Also seen was this Uig Monarch, a species only seen on a few islands to the south of Makira and unfortunately lumped in Chestnut-bellied Monarch by IOC.

 

It had been a most fulfilling afternoon with about a dozen life birds under the belt but it was time to be ferried back to the ship …

 

… and to sail north as the sun set.

 

We were heading for Anuta Island off the north-west coast of Makira.

 

The following morning we were zodiaked ashore to a small island just off Anuta in the Santa Cruz Islands (to the west of Makira).

 

We set off on a narrow trail, you can really see the problem of birding in tropical forests with such a large group. However before long we naturally split into smaller units around each of the bird guides and still most of us got to see most of the birds.

 

A lot of the forest was smothered by an introduced creeper, a common site on Pacific islands.

 

One of the species we saw was the beautiful Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeon. I first saw this species in New Ireland back in the 90s with my friend Guy Dutson. Guy is fluent in Melanesian ‘pigin english’ and when inquiring if the locals had seen this species he called it ‘im bilong strawberry on top’.

 

However Chestnut-bellied Imperial Pigeon was a new species for me …

 

… as was the little Sooty Myzomela, endemic to the islands around Makira.

 

As the day heated up we returned to the ship quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and set off for the island on Anuta. Usually only two zodiacs were used to ferry us a shore but this time all five were out into the water.

 

As we approached we could see the entire population of the island had turned out to greet us.

 

As we approached the reason for the simultaneous arrival of all the passengers became clear …

 

… some islanders had dressed up with masks and spears in a re-enactment of their historic attempts to defend their island from European intruders. As they ran into the water and brandished their spears you could see how conflict easily arose between European explorers and local tribes.

 

In fact our welcome was anything but hostile …

 

…we were greeted by lines of children and draped with garlands of flowers.

 

The ladies of the village sang a ‘we welcome you to Anuta’ song and the village chief gave a speech.

 

Expedition leader Helen replied on behalf of the staff and crew and Chris Collins expressed the thanks of all the birders and other clients. Helen had arranged for educational material surplus to requirement in New Zealand to be donated to the children (the contents of the boxes in the above photo) and this was gratefully received.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a happy smiling group of people …

 

… or had such a warm welcome.

 

‘Canadian’ John (as he was known) was a big hit, showing the children pictures of the birds on their island.

 

Of course this wasn’t a birding excursion but we did see a fantail known as Willie Wagtail around the village. This is a well known Australian bird that also occurs in part of Melanesia, Papua New Guinea and the Moluccas.

 

It was a lovely excursion but in due course we had to be ferried back to the Professor Khromov.

 

As we set sail and headed north along the west coast of Marika …

 

… we saw a couple of raptors, Eastern Osprey, a localised and smaller species closely related to our Western Osprey …

 

.. and the enormous and highly impressive Solomon’s Fish Eagle.

 

As always the evening brought wonderful skies and cloud formations …

 

… as we headed northwards to wards the capital Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal.

 

We arrived at Honiara overnight and left the ship whilst it was still dark (this photo was taken on the return). Guadalcanal was the location of some of the most ferocious fighting in WWII see Wikipedia

 

 

We were up in the hills above the capital city by 0600 and soon seeing lots of birds lie the widespread Welcome Swallow …

 

… and Moustached Treeswift …

 

… to more localised specialities like Song Parrot …

 

… and Island Imperial Pigeon.

 

The following day we landed on the uninhabited island of Tetepare which has been declared a nature reserve. We split into a number of groups and I ended up with one that explored the coastal wetlands. To be honest apart from a couple of Beach Thicknees we didn’t see much

 

 

So it was playing catch up for the rest of the day, but among widespread birds like this Coconut Lorikeet I saw half a dozen life birds, but few posed for the camera.

 

Large monitor lizards could be seen along the shore …

 

… and from the wharf we had our best ever views of the Solomon Islands Sea Eagle

 

But the star of the show was a group of Melanesian Megapodes, one of a group of species that lay their eggs either in rotting mounds of vegetation or volcanically heated soil to incubate them. Photo by Frédérik Pelsey from Oiseaux.net

 

Our final landing on our final day was on the island of Kolombangara. Again we departed before first light in order to get to our destination soon after dawn.

 

Much of our birding took place in the foothills along this forest track.

 

Quite a few endemic birds were seen ranging from the elusive Roviana Rail to this pretty Steel-blue Flycatcher (which is actually a monarch not a true flycatcher).

 

We also spent some time scanning from this lookout for various parrots and pigeons  …

 

… the view was dominated by the island’s volcanic cone. Two species Kolombangara Leaf Warbler and Kolombangara White-eye are only found at the top. To see all the endemics of the Solomons several treks to the tops of mountains followed by rough camping are required. As I said in the introduction the West Pacific Odyssey allowed me to see about 45% of the endemics without excessive effort, although I really wish I could have done a full tour.

 

In due course we returned to the Prof Khromov and set sail. I was sad to leave these enchanted islands with their lovely welcoming people and wonderful bird life. It and remains the highlight of the WPO for me.

 

As the evening drew on we saw a number of the very rare and little known Heinroth’s Shearwaters passing the ship and heading towards Kolombangara which was still visible astern. The breeding grounds of this enigmatic species remain unknown although the crater of Kolombangara must be high on the list of candidate locations.

 

So as dusk fell we saw the islands retreating into the distance. A true South Pacific paradise.

 

I’ll conclude with a shot of the Professor Khromov (aka Spirit of Enderby) again a threatening sky.

 

The next post will cover our journey north over the Equator to the Micronesian island of Chuuk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The West Pacific Odyssey (WPO) part 3: New Caledonia -19th-24th March 2019   Leave a comment

This is the third post about the West Pacific Odyssey, the cruise on the Professor Khromov from New Zealand to Japan in March-April 2020. It covers our time in New Caledonia and the sea journey as far north as the Solomon Islands.

 

We arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia early on the 21st March and spent the rest of the day and part of the morning of the 22nd there. In the late morning of the 22nd we sailed north to the Solomon Islands. We had received some bad news; due to a serious oil spillage. all planned landings on the island of Rennell had been cancelled. This meant that we would loose out on six endemic species. Instead we would head for the island of Santa Ana which is situated on the extreme bottom left tip of the S in San Cristobal. We arrived at Santa Ana on the afternoon of 25th March. The Solomon Islands will be the subject of the next post.

 

We arrived at Noumea early in the morning. For the only time on the trip we were able to dock, so we were soon disembarked and took a coach to Riviere Bleu, the prime national park in Southern New Caledonia. New Caledonia is a ‘Special Collectivity’ of France see here for more details. There are 22 endemic bird species, three of which occur on offshore islands. I have visited New Caledonia before, in 2013 on a trip which also took in Fiji and Vanuatu. That time we were there for a week not a day and a half and saw all but two of the endemics (one of which, the NC Owlet-nightjar once occurred in the north of the island and is now presumed extinct).

 

The weather was lovely at Noumea but by the time we reached the reservoir formed by the damming of Rivierre Bleu the clouds had gathered and rain was on it’s way.

 

This bridge is no longer considered suitable for vehicles. On my last visit we had difficulty with ongoing transport once we had crossed the bridge and had to hitch a lift in a pick up truck, but all worked well this time. My friend and cabin-mate Steve leads the rather damp march to the awaiting vehicles. For more details of my 2013 trip see here

 

Once deep in the forest we hurried on to a site where we could see our main target, a very special bird indeed. New Caledonia is the smallest and most remote fragment of the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland and is the only site for a very ancient bird, one that is the only species in its family – the Kagu.

 

About the size of a chicken and remarkably tame, as there were no ground predators before Man arrived, the Kagu is flightless in spite of having fully formed wings, As you can see in the photos, in spite of there being about 50 of us, we all eventually got close up views and photographs.

 

The drizzle we experienced earlier soon turned to heavy rain. We saw a good collection of the endemics but not all.

 

At least the huge Goliath Imperial Pigeon posed nicely.

 

As conditions for photography (see above) were so bad I’ve included a few bird pics that I took in 2013.

 

Six years earlier the sun was shining on the reservoir …

 

… we got great views of Yellow-bellied Flyrobin …

 

… and the gorgeous Cloven-feathered Dove …

 

… which is just as impressive in a rear view.

 

Also seen was Dark-eared Honeyeater …

 

… and New Caledonian Friarbird (another species of honeyeater).

 

The local guy Patrice, who has done much to protect these wonderful birds from predatory feral dogs, is seen here in 2013 with a group of tourists demonstrating just how tame the Kagus can be.

 

When he approached too closely they spread their wings in this impressive threat display.

 

But coming back to 2019, the weather had turned from bad to awful so there was little option but to return to the bus and head back to Noumea … (photo Suzanne Gucciardo)

 

… of course once away from the mountains the weather improved and we could see Noumea below us basking in sunshine. A problem arose when the clutch on the bus failed halfway round a major intersection in the middle of the rush hour. Pretty soon the gendarmes arrived and they cleared some of the traffic jam whilst we pushed the 50 seater bus off the road. It took surprisingly little time for a replacement to arrive, a reminder that New Caledonia is effectively a part of the EU and not some impoverished island state.

 

The nice thing about being docked at Noumea is that we could leave Prof Khromov in the evening and get a decent signal to phone home. The following morning we set off before dawn to Mount Khogi where we hoped to get a few more endemics under-the-belt before our departure.

 

The views from the mountain were pretty impressive and fortunately yesterday’s rain had cleared.

 

Birds seen on the mountain included the widespread White-breasted Woodswallow (taken in 2013) …

 

… Metallic Pigeon …

 

… the endemic Barred Honeyeater (taken in 2013)

 

… also photographed in 2013 but seen well on this trip was the New Caledonian Crow, said to be the most intelligent bird in the world. Captive individuals have solved puzzles that involve shaping tools and going through seven different stages to get a food reward.

 

But the highlight for me was brief views of the mega-skulking New Caledonian Thicketbird. I heard about four singing in dense roadside vegetation and even got a brief view as it moved though the bushes. This was the only endemic species (other than the probably extinct owlet-nightjar) that I didn’t see in 2013. My views were nowhere near as good as those previously enjoyed by photographer Lars Petersson (see his website here)

 

Unfortunately the trip schedule is already 31 days long, any longer and they probably wouldn’t be able to sell any berths, so most of our disembarkations seemed far too short. But although we’d missed a few of the endemics, I had seen them before and so I was quite content when we started back to Noumea at about 0900.

 

We were told that we must be back early as we had to sail about 1000 or else we wouldn’t get to the Solomon Islands in time. As we approached the dock we got caught in a huge traffic jam. We decided to get out and walk. The issue was a big rally, I think in favour of independence for New Caledonia, right outside the dock. That’s some of our group on the right pushing our way through the crowds.

 

Once boarded and tags turned (a necessary precaution to prevent anyone being left behind) we could watch the demo from the deck. Years ago I visited the Comoros, a group of four former French islands in the Indian Ocean. Three islands, Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan voted for independence from France in 1974, the fourth Mayotte voted against. The three independent islands are impoverished to say the least, whilst Mayotte looks like the Cote d’Azur transplanted into the Indian Ocean. I can understand the desire for self-government but hope the inhabitants have considered the economic implications.

 

As we left an Eastern Osprey flew over the dock with a rather large fish. This species has been split from (Western Osprey) on account of being 25% smaller and having a different head pattern.

 

So farewell to New Caledonia, after two visits I doubt if I’ll be back even if the owlet-nightjar is pinned down. There’s just too many beautiful places in the world to see.

 

We headed out of the lagoon, so we were no longer ‘atol protected’!

 

… and waved farewell to the local pilot.

A bird we really wanted to see was the so-called ‘New Caledonian Storm Petrel. There is no evidence that it breeds at NC, or if it does, no evidence that it only breeds at NC, so it can’t be considered an endemic. In fact it’s not clear that its an actual separate species. The bird was discovered on the West Pacific Odyssey in 2008 and has been seen several times since. It is clearly similar to the recently (re)discovered New Zealand Storm Petrel but is larger with broader wings and less white in the underwing. Birds fitting this description have been found off Queensland on pelagics led by Paul Walbridge (brother of Portland birding stalwarts, Grahame and Duncan Walbridge). He suggests the name Coral Sea Storm Petrel as they are not restricted to NC waters. It seems likely that they are the bird described as Pealea lineata and considered by Murphy et al as aberrant Wilson’s Storm Petrels in 1952 ( a fate that also befell New Zealand Storm Petrel). This taxa is still being evaluated and as far as I know efforts to catch one at sea have proved unsuccessful.

 

New Caledonian Storm Petrel (undescribed taxon?), New Caledonia, south-west Pacific Ocean, 20 March 2013 (photo © Kirk Zufelt)  see figure 9 in this paper for more details.

 

 

Seawatching from the upper deck was now becoming unbearably hot. Several expedition staff helped erect this awning and somehow got expedition leader Helen to climb the mast to secure it.

 

Manager Heidi Dohn also was co-opted to do the climbing.

 

Now in tropical waters you would expect never-ending sunshine but instead we got a whole succession of showers. The cloud formations were incredibly dramatic and made a great back drop to our seabirding.

 

Tropical species like Great Frigatebird …

 

… Brown Booby …

 

… and Red-footed Booby became common.

 

At night boobies would come and roost on the superstructure and cover the foredeck with booby poo.

 

By now we had all got to know each other, I have known Neil Bostock for many years having been on a pelagic trip with him in the central Pacific in the 90s and seen him a number of times when birding in the UK.

 

Japanese birders Hiro and Shoko Tanoi were some of the finest seawatchers I’ve ever met and Hiro probably found more quality birds than anyone else on the trip. They could always be found at the same spot on the fore-deck, from dawn to dusk, continuously scanning the ocean.

 

Jeff and Mike were also always on deck and found many good birds. I met them on the Atlantic Odyssey in 2016.

 

However when things got quiet I sometimes would get bored and go down for a coffee or sometimes go to a talk in the lecture room. Some 250 nautical miles off Santa Ana I did just that and missed a real cracker. There were three sightings (once of two together) of a bird that no-one could initially identify. Fortunately later on there was a 4th. They had striking, white flashes in the upperwing and underwing and at least the one I saw had a bright white dot on the flanks below the wing. Photos and videos were later compared and two of the earlier birds showed a most bizarre flight, possibly a display. Lisle Gwyne said they were identical to a bird he saw off one of the Lava Islands off Vanuatu a few years before and called them ‘Lava Petrel’. I thought as they were so ‘obscure’ they should be called just that, but in deference to their skua like wing flashes it should be spelt ‘Obskua Petrel’! In size and shape they looked most like a Pseudobulweria species, like Tahiti Petrel. I thought they resembled an extreme dark variant of Kermadec Petrel in plumage if not in shape and others have suggested Providence Petrel.

As the ship had always gone to Rennell in previous years and this year was heading to the east to reach Santa Ana then we may have sailed through a previously unbirded part of the ocean. Did we discover a new species for science? I really don’t know and wonder if those who said we had at the time are having second thoughts, but it was one of the most exciting moments of the trip.

Whilst the last of these four birds was flying past a rather large Band-rumped Storm Petrel flew in the opposite direction. Given how confused the taxonomy of this group is, its perfectly possible that this was also an undescribed taxon. Chris Collins later commented that ‘it isn’t very often that birders largely ignore an undescribed bird because something more interesting is flying in the opposite direction’!

The following low res photos were taken from the Wild Wings web site.  Photos © Chris Collins. See here.  I know better quality photos were taken but I don’t have access to them.

 

I’ll conclude with one of the dramatic cloudscapes that were such a feature of this part of the trip.

World Albatross Day: The most magnificent seabirds in the world.   Leave a comment

Today I planned to complete the third instalment of the account of my West Pacific Odyssey. However looking through emails this morning I realised that it was ‘World Albatross Day’, a day to bring attention to the conservation of these magnificent birds. check this link for details

Now I don’t have many pictures that depict efforts to conserve these species but I do know that they face many threats from – for example:

  1. long-line fishing see here
  2. alien predators like mice and rats see this link
  3. mistaking plastic in the ocean for food another link to check out

However this post is on a happier note and celebrates the wonderful times I had watching these, the most magnificent of all seabirds.

When I started birding 43 years ago there were 13 species of albatross. Taxonomic change means that there are now 21. In fact there are a total of 24 forms/subspecies (there are three additional subspecies which haven’t been awarded species status, although this may change in the future).

I have seen all but one of these 24 forms and I have seen an individual that looked so much like the 24th as to be indistinguishable in the hand.

Many of the photos shown below were taken in 2004 before I got into digital bird photography. Pete Morris and Dick Newell offered a CD to the clients on the Sub-antarctic Islands of New Zealand trip in exchange for a donation to the ‘Save the Albatross’ fund. Hence many of the best photos in this collection are their’s. I also have used some photos that Dave Fisher gave me after the Atlantic Odyssey.

So here’s the story of how I got to see all (or almost all) of the most magnificent seabirds in the world.

 

 

In 1978 I went to a talk by RSPB warden Bobby Tulloch on the beautiful Shetland Islands. I was very taken by his slides of his homeland but what really got me was the fact that he showed photos of a Black-browed Albatross flying up and down the cliffs of Hermaness in the most northerly island of Unst. It looked stunning and impossible to miss, I knew Janet and I had to go and see it. So in 1979 we drove all the way up to Aberdeen took the car over to Lerwick and two more ferries to get to Unst. Needless to say we were unsuccessful. This photo is not Bobby Tulloch’s but © Richard Fairbank who has given me permission to use his scanned slide.

 

Well the albatross kept coming back year after year and after getting some great gen off my friend Paul Harvey (who was about to move to Shetland where he remains to this day) I found out that the bird spent most of its time on a nest waiting in vain for a mate. In 1982 once more we drove up to Shetland and on to Hermaness. The nest was only visible from a few angles and one of those involved getting perilously close to the edge. Photo from a scanned slide © Richard Fairbank

 

We have to fast forward to 1991 before I get another encounter with a Black-browed and that was on pelagic trip off Cape Town, SA on a trip led by Ian Sinclair and Iain Robertson. We saw three albatrosses on that trip, Black-browed, Shy and Yellow-nosed. Since then I’ve seen this species again off Cape Town, from two one-day pelagics out of NSW, Australia and from land in Western Australia, in the Cook’s Straight Argentina and on three major cruises, to Antarctica, Sub-antarctic Islands of New Zealand and the Atlantic Odyssey. In total I’ve seen about 8000 individuals. This photo was taken on the Subantarctic cruise with Heritage Expeditions and is © Pete Morris.

 

Whilst we are on the subject of Black-browed Albatross I’d better mention number 2, Campbell Albatross which breeds only on Campbell Island in New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. It is fractionally smaller than Black-browed but with a startling pale eye when seen close and thicker black margins to the underwing. Photo © Dick Newell

 

Being at sea where the albatrosses follow the ship and pass by at eye level is undoubtedly the way to get great views. Photo © Pete Morris

 

I’ll come back to Yellow-nosed and Shy Albatrosses later, so number 3 is the mightiest of them all – Snowy Albatross. In 1998 I went on a fantastic trip to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. During the first night we sailed out of the shelter of Drake’s Passage and into the South Atlantic and I started sliding around in my bunk. When it got light I managed to haul myself onto the deck and virtually the first bird I saw was a ‘Wanderer’ with a 3.5m wingspan. Just fantastic and seen just in time before I had to rush below and be sick!. The taxonomy of the ‘wandering albatross’ group is a bit complex and I’ll return to it later. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

The plumage succession in albatrosses is complex especially in the ‘wandering group’. Generally the older a bird gets the whiter it becomes – but only up to a point. Females don’t become as white as males and exulans, the true ‘wanderer’, better called Snowy Albatross to distinguish it from other members of the ‘wandering albatross complex’ is whiter than the other species. So this bird photographed at South Georgia is about as white as they come. Snowy only breeds south of the Antarctic convergence at South Georgia, four islands in the southern Indian Ocean and on Macquarie.

 

South Georgia is a fantastic place to see Snowy Albatrosses on the nest. I have seen about 230 of this avian giant on the the three southern ocean cruises that I’ve been on (Falklands-South Georgia-Antarctica, the Atlantic Odyssey and the sub-antarctic Islands of New Zealand) plus one off New South Wales, Australia. For more pictures of the Atlantic Odyssey including South Georgia see here

 

Albatross number 4 is Grey-headed. Breeding a little to the north of Snowy, off southern Chile and at Campbell Island to the south of New Zealand as well as the islands of the southern Indian Ocean. I have seen a little over 100 of this species on my three southern ocean cruises, but 40 or so were chicks on the nest in South Georgia. Only eight were seen in the NZ Sub-antarctic Islands where this photo was taken by © Pete Morris

 

9-11 species (depending on your taxonomy) of medium sized southern ocean albatross are known as ‘mollymawks’ Here are two, Black-browed on the right and number 5, Shy Albatross on the left (along with a White-chinned Petrel).

 

The ‘shy albatross’ group contains three or four species. ‘Tasmanian Shy’ or ‘nominate race Shy’ depending on your taxonomy breeds only around Tasmania but travels as far west as Cape Town which is the only place I’ve seen it, with about 250 seen on my two Cape Town pelagics . Note the back mark in the ‘armpit’ which is a characteristic of all the ‘shy albatross’ group. This bird has not got a yellow base to the upper mandible which means it might be a ‘White-capped’ from New Zealand and the bird in the first photo (with the Black-browed) is an immature so can’t be identified beyond Shy/White-capped. However I have seen undoubted nominate Shy in these waters.

 

The other race/species is White-capped Albatross which breeds in Aukland Island and Antipodies Island south of New Zealand. IOC lumps it in Shy; Howell and Zufelt’s ‘Oceanic Birds of the World’ and HBW’s Illustrated Checklist split it. Photo from NZ’s Subantarctic Islands © Pete Morris

 

The other two species in the ‘shy albatross group’ are number 6 Salvin’s Albatross which we saw breeding in great numbers, 10,000 or more, on and around Snares Islands south of New Zealand. I also saw one on a pelagic off Lima, Peru. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

…and number 7 Chatham Albatross which breeds only a single pyramid shaped rock south of the Chatham Islands where I saw a minimum of 5000. Photo © Dick Newell.

 

Another species pair that can be seen off South Africa is number 8 Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross which breeds in the Indian Ocean to the north of the Antarctic Convergence. It has a light-grey wash to the neck. I have seen 2 off Cape Town in 2011 and 2 from shore in Western Australia. In addition some 30 Yellow-nosed Albatross sp were seen on my 1991 Cape Town pelagic.

 

However this individual photographed on the same pelagic looks intermediate between the Indian pictured above and the Atlantic pictures below. It is possible to to separate them based on the exact shape of the yellow on the bill but I think you would need a photo of it coming straight for you to do that.

 

Number 9 is Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross which has a darker grey hood making the white crown stand out more clearly. When I did my first pelagic off Cape Town in 1991 I was unaware of the pending split, so I was pleased to catch up with undoubted Indian Yellow-nosed when I did another pelagic out of there in 2011. In 2016 we went on the Atlantic Odyssey and passed Gough and stopped at Tristan da Cunha where Atlantic Yellow-nosed breeds in good numbers with a minimum of 250 seen.

 

We landed on Nightingale Island and climbed to the top to see the endemic Wilkin’s Bunting on route we passed some Yellow-nosed Albatross chicks almost ready to fledge. At this age they lack the yellow on the bill and the grey wash to the neck. A lot were sitting on the path and we had to carefully pick our way around them.

 

We certainly got close up views. Photo © Dave Fisher

 

Moving back to the Pacific we come across a couple of albatrosses with yellow on the upper and lower mandibles as well as the gape, that are usually treated as races of the same species (even by the very splitty ‘Oceanic Birds of the World’) number 10 is Buller’s Albatross of the southern form that breeds on the Snares and Solander Islands where we saw about 15. Photo © Dick Newell

 

… and the Northern or Pacific Buller’s which breeds mainly on the Chatham Islands east of New Zealand, about 75 were seen. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

Another group of albatrosses is the ‘sooty albatross’ group. Variously called Light-mantled and Sooty or alternatively Light-mantled Sooty and Dark-mantled Sooty. Photo © Pete Morris

 

Light-mantled Albatross number 11 breeds across the islands of the sub-antarctic and ranges further south into Antarctic waters. I have seen around 200 spread over the three southern ocean cruises that I have taken. Photo © Pete Morris

 

It (along with Sooty) is the smallest and most graceful of the albatrosses. The synchronised display flight of a pair along the cliff edges is a beauty to behold. Photo © Dave Fisher.

 

Younger birds have a paler neck and mantle with the wing feathers lightly edged. Photo © Dave Fisher.

 

The discovery of number 12 was a real surprise. We were at the Antipodes Islands on the Sub-antarctic Island cruise (exactly the opposite side of the world to London, hence the name). Leader Pete Morris was off on zodiac cruise with some clients and I was waiting my turn. I found this all dark ‘mantled’ albatross gliding around the cliffs, I was so chuffed to have found a vagrant and couldn’t wait to tell Pete, but when he got back I found that he’d seen it and photographed it from the zodiac. A somewhat enlarged version of © Pete Morris’s photo.

 

The reason I was so excited about it is that Sooty Albatross breeds on Gough Island in the south Atlantic and so was thousands of miles off course. On the Atlantic Odyssey we saw around 50 at sea from a bit north of South Georgia to the Tristan group. Photo taken near Gough Island by © Dave Fisher

 

We now turn our attention to the four species of ‘north’ Pacific Albatrosses. Number 13 is Black-footed Albatross which breeds in the Hawaiian Island chain. I first came across the species on a couple of pelagics out of Monterrey California where 13 were seen. I have since seen one off the Kuril Islands, Far-eastern Russia and 150 to the south of Japan.

 

Seen close up the feathering around the bill and under the eye is quite distinct.

 

I first saw number 14 Laysan Albatross breeding on Oahu, Hawaii where some 10 adults were displaying, but as the name suggests it also breeds all along the Hawaiian Chain. I’ve also seen it off the Russian Far East where it was common with c400 seen but …

 

… the most bizarre sighting, indeed the most bizarre sighting of any albatross was on Nusa Island, Papua New Guinea. We had caught a small boat from New Ireland to New Hanover to see the New Hanover Manikin, on the return the boatman asked if we wanted to see the albatross. After a bit of questioning from his incredulous clients he detoured to Nusa Island where we treated to the sight of a Laysan albatross wandering around the village and feeding out of a plastic bowl.

 

Apparently it was picked up becalmed at sea and brought to the village to be fed. It was shepherded into a hut at night to keep it safe from dogs. The villagers hoped to release it once the winds increased. It was later discovered to be ringed 12 years previously as a pullus on French Frigate Shoals in the Hawaiian chain.

 

Returning to the West Pacific Odyssey, during the latter part of the cruise we sailed close to Torishima Island south of Japan (more photos of this albatross and of Torishima will appear when I post the last episode of my West Pacific Odyssey) …

 

… here we had the most wonderful views of number 15 Short-tailed Albatross. This species was believed extinct as by 1930 every single one of them on their only breeding island had been killed for their feathers. Fortunately a few immatures must have survived at sea and 25 or so years later a tiny number were found to be breeding back on Torishima. Now they are carefully protected and numbers are increasing. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen this species, we encountered around a dozen off the Kurils three years earlier but this time we saw at least 700. It is such a wonderful story how this bird came back from the dead.

 

Of all the vernacular names given to albatrosses ‘Short-tailed’ must be the worst. It would be far better to name it after Georg Stellar (of jay, eider and sea-cow fame) who first collected it or perhaps call it Golden-headed Albatross for obvious reasons. On appearance alone it has to be one of the best of them all.

 

Last of the Pacific albatrosses and the last albatross that I got to see (and the last new one that I will ever see) is number 16 – Waved Albatross.

 

This magnificent bird nests almost entirely on the Galapagos, a place I have yet to visit, so my only experience is of this one bird that made a close pass of our boat whilst on a pelagic out of Lima, Peru.

 

Now we return to the ‘great albatrosses’, the ‘royal’ and ‘wandering’ groups. the ‘royal group’ consists of two species. This is an adult Northern Royal (number 17) and with its all dark wings with a dark leading edge and black cutting edge to the bill is possibly the easiest of all the ‘great albatrosses to identify. Photo © Pete Morris.

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Some older Northern Royals get a bit of white speckling in the wing. This species breeds mainly on the Chatham Islands with a few on the NZ mainland near Dunedin but wanders all over the southern oceans. I’ve seen about 10 in South Georgia area, 250 in New Zealand/Chatham Island waters and one just to the north of NZ on the WPO. Photo© Pete Morris

 

Southern Royal (number 18) which breeds primarily on Campbell Island, whitens with age from the mantle outwards … Photo © Pete Morris.

 

… and along the wing, especially on the already white leading edge. This is a fully adult bird. ‘Great albatrosses’can take over 10 years to become fully mature. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

Southern Royal Albatross on the nest Campbell Island. Photo © Pete Morris

 

Southern Royal Albatrosses OTJ on Campbell Island Photo © Pete Morris.

 

A Royal Albatrosses’ view of Campbell Island. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

There are a couple of other species to add in the ‘wandering’ group: number 19 Tristan Albatross, a slightly smaller and darker version of Snowy that breeds in  Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island  that we saw well on the Atlantic Odyssey. This species is endangered as the young are being eaten by mice! We had about 100 sightings on the Atlantic Odyssey between South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha but a) it’s hard to know how many when the same bird can follow the ship for hours and b) it was hard to tell when the last Snowy Albatross that breeds in South Georgia was seen and when the first Tristan’s was encountered.

 

And another in the ‘wandering group’  number 20 Antipodean Albatross which breed mainly in the Antipodes Islands south of New Zealand. I have seen about 80 on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise, 40 on pelagics out Kaikora, NZ and a very small number off New South Wales. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

.. and Gibson’s Albatross which is usually treated as a subspecies of Antipodean. It usually retains some gingery tones into adulthood and keeps a dark tip to the tail. It breeds mainly on Aukland Island. About 85 were seen on the Subantarctic cruise, 8 off NSW and one north of New Zealand on the West Pacific Odyssey. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

I said there were 21 species of albatross and I had only seen 20. Well here’s the 21st! Amsterdam Albatross, seen only by the lucky few who get to visit Amsterdam Island in southern Indian Ocean, the most remote of islands. With a population of less than 130 birds and 25 breeding pairs (just 5 pairs when first discovered) the chances of encountering it at sea are low to say the least. And visiting the island isn’t easy either unless you’re a researcher and French. Photo © Vincent Legrendre via Wikipedia.

 

However on a pelagic out of Sydney in 1999 we encountered a most unusual bird. It’s presences was already known and it was obvious the pelagic organisers were targeting it. The bird on the left is a typical juvenile Antipodean but the bird on the right has the dark cutting edge to the bill, green gonys and paler face of an Amsterdam. Photo taken from a scanned slide

 

With a bit of manoeuvring and careful placement of chum the bird was caught and brought on board. It looked like an Amsterdam but French researchers later said the entire population of Amsterdams are ringed and it wasn’t. I don’t recall if a blood specimen was taken but apparently it was logged as an unusual juvenile Antipodean. So I might not have seen the rarest of world’s albatrosses but I’ve seen a bird that looks just like one! Photo taken from a scanned slide.

 

If you go searching for albatrosses in the southern ocean you’ll be bound to encounter some rough seas …

 

.. but you’ll also get views of albatrosses on a daily basis and see wonderful places like Campbell Island. Photo © Pete Morris.

 

Celebrated in literature, poetry and Monty Python sketches, few birds inspire like the albatross does. Photo © Pete Morris

 

This post has taken far longer and has involved many more photos then I originally imaged (the initial idea was to post just 24 images) but it has allowed to go back and look at how much joy these, the most majestic of all birds have given me and this is my contribution to ‘World Albatross Day.

West Pacific Odyssey part 2: Norfolk Island and the journey towards New Caledonia: 19th – 21st March 2019   Leave a comment

This post covers the second part of the West Pacific Odyssey (WPO), an epic boat trip from New Zealand to Japan and deals specifically with the the short visit to Norfolk Island and the sail north to New Caledonia.

 

Here is the Professor Khromov anchored at Norfolk Island.

 

There to greet us was a ‘Tasman Booby’ the dark-eyed race of Masked Booby that breeds on the island. The cloudy conditions early on soon cleared and we had a nice sunny morning.

 

We headed ashore by zodiac, a White Tern flew in front of us as we neared the shore.

 

Landing at the pier …

 

… we had good views along the shore where a number of waders fed on the tideline …

 

.. put first we had to go through a customs check. Norfolk Island belongs to Australia and the official and dog were checking that we weren’t bringing foodstuffs ashore.

 

A Welcome Swallow did just that …

 

… although perhaps the sight of an introduced Crimson Rosella was less welcome. Actually Norfolk Island has a lot of introduced birds like California Quail and if we had of had time I’d have liked to have sought them out so I could add them to my Aussie list.

 

Along the shore were a number of Pacific Golden Plovers beginning their moult into summer plumage. Soon they will set off on a epic flight to the Siberian tundra to breed. We also saw a number of Wandering Tattlers which breed in Alaska but they were distant and my photos are poor.

 

Perhaps Norfolk Island’s most famous endemic is the Norfolk Pine. Planted everywhere around the world as an ornamental tree, it was originally endemic to the island.

 

A small proportion of the clients went on a guided tour of the island but the majority of us headed for the hills where we were to look for the endemic birds.

 

One of the most obvious of the endemics was the Norfolk Parakeet …

 

… a few of which showed well around the clearing.

 

Inevitably Norfolk Island has it’s own white-eye know surprisingly as the Slender-billed White-eye rather than name with ‘Norfolk’ in it. Birds in the genus Zosterops are known as ‘great speciators’ ie birds that colonise islands and then rapidly evolve into a new species to match the opportunities offered in their new environment.

 

Another ‘great speciator’ are the Petroica robins, a group in a completely different family from the Eurasian robins. This is not surprisingly known as Norfolk Robin. Photo by fellow traveller Suzanne Gucciardo.

 

The final endemic species was the Norfolk Geregone, one of a group of non distinct Australian Warblers found in the Australo/Papuan/Melanesian area. Photo by Alex Ferguson from https://birdsoftheworld.org

 

There really should be a fifth endemic. The taxonomic status of the Golden Whistler complex has been debated for decades. There are/were between 59 and 73 or so subspecies (depending on which authority you follow) making Golden Whistler the species with the highest number of subspecies in the world. Following a review some have been split but not xanthoprocta, the one on Norfolk Island  Here both males and females have a plumage like the females seen on mainland Australia. Photo by fellow traveller Suzanne Gucciardo.

 

It took around an hour to see the five species well but we were allowed around four hours. I would have liked to board the buses and go on an island tour for part of that time, after all I’m never going to be coming back.

 

Soon we were back on the pier and being shuttled back to Prof Khromov by zodiac.

 

During that afternoon and all of the following day we sailed north towards New Caledonia. As well as some species familiar from our earlier time at sea we saw new birds like Red-tailed Tropicbird …

 

There are three species of tropicbird in the world, Red-billed is confined to the coasts of the Americas, the Atlantic island and Arabian sea but Yellow-billed and Red-tailed occur in the Pacific.

 

We were to see all three northern skuas (jaegers) off and on during the trip. This area was good for Long-tailed Skua (Jaeger) with up to 15 seen.

 

The views in general weren’t all that close. These birds would have been wintering in the area, or perhaps have been further south and now on their way to the Siberian tundra to breed.

 

A common species was Wedge-tailed Shearwater usually abbreviated to ‘Wedgie’ …

 

They exist in two morphs, the dark morph is seen in mainly in the south-west Pacific, the light morph in the north-west Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

 

Other species seen included Black-winged Petrel, a Pterodroma with a wide distribution in the SW pacific …

 

… and Gould’s Petrel which breeds on an island just off the Australia east coast and on New Caledonia.

 

Yet another Pterodroma was Kermadec Petrel which has a wide breeding range across the islands of the southern Pacific. It also has a number of morphs, appearing in light, dark and intermediate forms.

 

This bird however, photographed a bit further north, is the very similar Providence Petrel. It has shorter wings and the uppersides don’t show the skua like flash at the base of the primaries. This bird was so named because the once huge colony of Norfolk Island was harvested by settlers/convicts during a famine in 1790 and was dubbed the ‘bird of providence’. However introduced rodents and pigs soon wiped the colony out and it breeds mainly on Lord Howe Island today.

 

We also saw the impressive Tahiti Petrel, in the genus Pseudobulweria it has a less arcing, acrobatic flight than the Pterodromas

 

Although I’ve blown quite a few photos up to show detail, this was the sort of distance that most birds were seen and photographed from. This flock contains White Terns, Black Noddies and presumed Providence Petrels.

 

On the morning of 21st March we docked at Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. We arrived at about 0630 and after a tug had pushed us into place docked and were able for the only time on the cruise (away from Tauranga and Yokohama) disembark by the gangway. Our day and half on New Caledonia will be the subject of the next post.

 

During the cruise we experienced a number of superb skies and cloud formations, so rather than the dingy Nouméa docks, I’ll conclude with a lovely sunset.