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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.