Archive for the ‘West pacific Odyssey’ Tag

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 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.