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The West Pacific Odyssey (WPO) part 3: New Caledonia -19th-22nd 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.

The West Pacific Odyssey part 1: Aukland, New Zealand to Norfolk Island – 14th-19th March 2019.   Leave a comment

The West Pacific Odyssey (often abbreviated to WPO) is a classic birding journey. Just like its ‘sister voyage’ the Atlantic Odyssey, this comes about every (northern) spring as Heritage Expedition vessel Professor Khromov (aka Spirit of Enderby) is relocated from the Antarctic at the end of the southern summer to the Arctic for the start of the northern summer.

This gives birders and other interested travellers a chance to see the diverse seabirds of the western Pacific as well as a number of seldom-visited islands on-route.

Due to earlier problems in visiting sites in Japanese waters this trip had been truncated to the South-west Pacific Odyssey but these issues were resolved and the full trip was offered for 2018. However there were ‘operational problems’ (timing of the annual refit etc) which prevented the trip from going ahead and it was deferred to 2019 – and fortunately those who transferred, kept the 2018 price.

This the first of a number of posts about the voyage, I don’t know at this stage how many there will be, but there will be a mix of pelagic seabirds and cetaceans along with photos taken on land. Not all of the planned landings took place, this was the only downside to an otherwise excellent trip.

Most of the photos are mine, the few that aren’t or were taken from another pelagic trip are cleared marked.

 

We travelled on the Professor Khromov, which the New Zealand company Heritage Expeditions likes to call ‘The Spirit of Enderby’. I’ve been on two other expeditions in this vessel; to the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand in 2004 and to Russia’s Kuril and Commander Islands, Kamchatka and Sakhalin in 2017. I’ve also been to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica on the sister ship Akademik  Shuleykin in 1998. There were nine ships of this class built in the 80s as Russian ‘research’ vessels (a euphemism for American submarine detection) and were ice strengthened and had the capacity to remain at sea without re-provisioning for extended periods of time. As soon as they were in service the Cold War was over and many were converted for ‘adventure tourism’ in high latitudes. They have given good service but are now looking rather dated. The electronics on the bridge and communication room looks 1940s vintage but they are tough and can withstand anything the polar seas can throw at them. The Professor Khromov is seen here moored off Norfolk Island.

 

The cruise from Tauranga in New Zealand to Yokohama in Japan took 31 days, add to that three days to get there and one to get back and I was away from home for almost five weeks. We disembarked at Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, four places in the Solomon Islands and Chuuk in Micronesia. Unfortunately due to mixture of bad weather and official intransigence we made no landfalls in Japan except at Yokohama. The cruise covered 5650 nautical miles (10500km), we collectively saw 248 bird species including 48 ‘tubenoses’ and 21 species of cetacean. We visited eleven islands in six countries.

 

I left home on the 12th March 2019 and took a flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong. With the time difference it was mid morning on the 14th before I landed at Auckland in New Zealand. After two very long flights I was glad to get off the plane. My friend Steve, who had gone to NZ a few days earlier to attempt to see a Kiwi met me at Auckland airport. I’m glad he was driving as I was far too tired to be behind the wheel.

 

We stopped at the wader spot spot of Miranda. The waders were some distance away as the tide had dropped but we were able to identify Wrybills and Double-banded Plovers among the many Bar-tailed Godwits. More approachable birds included this White-faced Heron …

 

… and the inevitable Pied Stilts …

 

… and Grey Teal.

 

We stayed overnight in Tauranga …

 

… where we saw a few more birds like Silver Gull (formerly split as Red-billed Gull but now lumped with the Australian species) …

 

… the introduced Black Swan …

 

… and the only endemic New Zealand passerine I was to see on the tour – the Tui (one of four extant bird species that have the honour of having the shortest English name of all – I’ll let you puzzle over the other three).

 

The clients met up at a hotel, there were 48 of us. At least a dozen I knew from UK birding or previous foreign trips. There was time to wander around before the bus came to take us to the docks. People in the shops kept asking if we were from the big cruise liner that was already docked. Certainly not – our ship was much, much smaller.

 

Along the shore at Tauranga there were good numbers of Variable Oystercatchers …

 

… and a bird that is very widespread in the Southern Hemisphere – Kelp Gull. This is an adult …

 

… and this is a first year bird.

 

In the late afternoon with the cabins all allocated, luggage stowed, customs cleared etc we cast off and the voyage began. Our starting location was 37 39’S 176 01’E.

 

We made our way out of Tauranga bay and into the open ocean …

 

… we passes a number of islands to port as we headed north.  The rest of the day was taken up with introductions, orientation lectures and the inevitable lifeboat drill.

 

We woke the next day at the northern end of the Hauraki Gulf. We approached the Mokohinau Islands …

 

… the site of a Australasian Gannet colony.

 

Australasian Gannet breeds, as the name suggests, in New Zealand and Australia and is very similar to our Northern Gannet except for having black in the secondaries and a long black gular stripe. We saw several hundred today, a single one the next day, then none.

 

We came across this dense flock of Silver Gulls feeding on what was presumably a huge bait ball. A few Buller’s Shearwaters (Top right) joined the flock …

 

… also seen were a number of the small Fluttering Shearwaters and a couple of the tiny Grey Ternlets (or Grey Noddy).

 

Grey Ternlet was the first life bird of the trip for me!

 

In 2009 I did a comprehensive birding tour of New Zealand which included a pelagic trip into the Haukaki Gulf. We did well, but missed one species, the Black (or Parkinson’s) Petrel. There were no such problems here as we were to see around 30 today and similar numbers the next day.

 

The northern most tip of New Zealand is a group of islands known as the Three Kings. We were 13 miles off there at dawn at 33 57’S 172 24’E and approached closer during the morning, sea birding was superb but our number one target was storm-petrels.

 

In this one photo there are three species of storm-petrel, White-faced on the left, Wilson’s lower centre and above it the enigmatic New Zealand Storm-petrel.

 

This photo wasn’t taken on the trip but from a small boat off the coast of North Carolina but it shows a number of birds we saw on the WPO. The large bird is an Arctic Skua (or Parasitic Jaeger) a bird that breeds in the arctic and subarctic (as far south as northern Scotland) and winters as far south as NZ. The two storm-petrels close to it are, as far as I can tell, Band-rumped. This complex probably consists of multiple species. We were only to see a few on the WPO and all were to the north of here and included one of a larger form that could be as yet undescribed. The lower left bird and the three on the right are Wilson’s Storm-petrels, the most numerous seabird and one of the most numerous of all birds in the world. Breeding in the Antarctic they are found in most oceans of the world at some time of the year. I saw a number off the Three Kings and others saw the odd one further north. Bizarrely it has been shown that the so called ‘northern storm-petrels’ are not closely related to ‘southern storm-petrels and they are found before and after the albatrosses in world bird lists. So the top two stormies on the left are not even in the same family as the top two on the right!

 

But the stormy we all wanted to see was the New Zealand Storm-petrel. This bird has a most interesting history. First collected in 1827, it was later claimed, without any justification, that Wilson’s Storm-petrels have paler streakier bellies the nearer they bred to the equator. So after this it was forgotten about and lost to history until it was rediscovered by a group of British and New Zealand birders in 2003 and given back its rightful specific status. It is likely that it persisted in tiny numbers all those years, breeding on a rat-infested island in the Hauraki Gulf. When the rats were removed, as they have been from many of these islands, the population started to bounce back. On my pelagic in 2009 I saw just one, here we saw 25 …

 

… including three together along with a White-faced Storm-petrel.

 

White-faced Storm-petrel breeds in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, off South Australia, around Kermadec Islands and New Zealand and according to the book ‘Oceanic Birds of the World’ by Steve Howell et al they could comprise between 4 and 6 different species!

 

Here L-R is a Wilson’s Stormie, a New Zealand Stormie and a Black Petrel.

 

Black Petrels were seen regularly in these waters, like NZ Stormie they only breed around the Hauraki Gulf and have been heavily impacted by introduced rats and cats. With these aliens being slowly removed their numbers are increasing from being close to extinction to perhaps 10,000 birds today. On upper mandible, close to the base, you can see the salt excreting tubes that give tubenoses (members of the Order Procelliformes) their name.

 

Black Petrels are in the genus Procellaria (along with White-chinned, which has recently occurred in the UK and two other species). They have a very different jizz and flight action to the Pterodroma petrels and certainly are an impressive sight, especially when seen head on.

 

Another species that we only saw in the southern leg of the trip was this Fairy Prion. Prions are a group of six fast moving and hard to separate tubenoses that occur mainly in subantarctic/antarctic water. This Fairy Prion was photographed by Pete Morris on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise in 2004.

 

The waters around New Zealand are probably the best in the world for albatrosses, however we saw few on this trip. Most move to the south to feed and this year the water was particularly warm so wouldn’t have been suitable for these subantarctic birds. This is a Antipodean Albatross, a split from Wandering Albatross, of the race gibsoni which breeds on islands to the south of NZ.

 

Another albatross seen was this Northern Royal Albatross, which breeds in the Chatham Islands and at Dunedin in South Island of NZ. The solid black wings (with some specking as in here on older males), lack of black tip to the tail and a fine black cutting edge to the bill distinguishes it from the ‘wandering’ group. Photo taken by Pete Morris on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise in 2004.

 

Of the several species of shearwater, Bullwer’s was the most numerous …

 

… easily identified by its striking upperwing pattern, these birds wander as far as California in the non-breeding season.

 

Two petrels in the genus Pterodroma – Cook’s Petrel …

 

… and White-necked Petrel. With their fast, high arcing flight and elegant appearance Pterodroma petrels are among the most sought after of all seabirds.

 

There were a number of other excellent sightings none of which I got photos of; the first was ‘Magnificent Petrel’ currently described as a race of Cook’s Petrel but probably deserving species status in it’s own right, see here for an account of its recent discovery, Grey-faced Petrel (the first time I’ve seen it since the split from Great-winged), the local form of Little Shearwater (which like most of the Little Shearwater complex is probably a species in its own right), the rarely observed Pycroft’s Petrel, Kermadec Petrel which we’ll see in the next post …

 

 

… and what appeared to be the incredibly rare Fiji Petrel. I was slow getting on to this bird when it was first found and struggled to pick it up. The situation was made worse as ace Japanese seawatcher Hero Tanoi called ‘it’s got a black body’ unfortunately in the commotion all I heard was ‘it’s a Black Noddy’ which isn’t rare at all! Fortunately the ship was turned round, a chum slick was laid and the bird was encountered again. The known breeding population near Fiji is only about 50 pairs but as there have been other sightings in the Western Pacific it may be that there is an undiscovered population there, alternatively these birds may be a different species. This photo of an undoubted Fiji Petrel is by Dr. Jorg Kretzschmar/NatureFiji-Mareqeti Viti Fiji.

 

I haven’t mentioned cetaceans yet, we certainly saw a good variety throughout the trip. Here a number of Long-finned Pilot Whales are seen with Bottle-nosed Dolphins. The photo looks a little confusing. On the left a Pilot Whale is spy-hopping showing the characteristic mark on the throat, a smaller individual has risen out of the water beside it, whilst a dolphin swims in front and another dolphin is seen just left of centre.. Further back two more Pilot Whales swim towards the camera

 

The characteristic dorsal fin of an adult Pilot whale can be seen, the other fin belong to dolphins. The birds are Black Petrels.

 

The bulbous head of a Pilot Whale and the white patch on the back of an adult male can be seen in this photo, with a Black Petrel for company of course.

 

One further seabird is worth mentioning in these southern waters the ‘Tasman Booby’ a race of Masked Booby that breeds on Lord Howe, Norfolk Island and the Kermadecs. Unlike the other races of Masked Booby it has a dark eye.

 

This must have been the most seabird rich section of the entire trip, certainly so for the Southern Hemisphere. On the morning of the third day we anchored off the Australian administered Norfolk Island (at 29 04’N 167 57’E) which will be the subject of the next post.