Faces of Polynesia: Fiji to Tahiti Oct 15—31, 2015

Posted by Brian Gibbons


Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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Six countries, one thousand shades of blue, nesting tropicbirds and boobies, rare island endemics like Niuafo’ou Scrubfowl and Tongan Whistler, and the clearest seas for snorkeling were just some of the highlights of this exceptional voyage across the South Pacific. All of this aboard the superior expedition cruise ship, the Caledonian Sky, staffed by excellent folks who took care of our every need, particularly our dining needs!

Orange Dove

Orange Dove— Photo: Brian Gibbons

From a sunny day with clear tropical waters on the coast of Somosomo Village on Taveuni, Fiji, we drove up into the clouds—rain clouds. Most of our time in the forest on the slopes of Des Voux Peak in Bouma National Park was in the rain. Our first target, the Silktail, a Fijian endemic, had us wading around in ankle-deep muck trying not to stumble over roots, ferns, and each other. Finally the bird came out and many of us got a glimpse of this small, glossy-black bird with a pearly-white rump and iridescent spangles about the head. We drove further into the park once we were back to the road, and the rain continued. We stood around, waited around, ate lunch, and loitered a little longer, all in the rain. Finally, we were given an hour respite, and we made hay with many endemic birds we hoped to find. Pacific Robin, Chattering Giant-Honeyeater, Red Shining-Parrot, Peale’s Imperial-Pigeon, Orange-breasted Myzomela, Blue-crested Flycatcher, Streaked Fantail, and Slaty Monarch all showed themselves. The prize of the day—a tangerine-colored male Orange Dove—materialized out of the gloom and brightened our spirits and the list!

Alofi, Wallis and Futuna

Alofi, Wallis and Futuna— Photo: Brian Gibbons

The next day found us on Alofi, a small island of Wallis and Futuna. Under gray skies we feared another downpour, but after a sprinkle, that would be the end of the rain until we bookended the trip with another rainy forest outing on Tahiti. Here Eastern Wattled-Honeyeater proved to be common in the flowering trees that were also frequented by the beautiful Blue-crowned Lorikeets. Pacific Imperial-Pigeons and Crimson-crowned Fruit-Doves ate fruit from some of the larger trees. We also had nice scope views of Pacific Kingfisher (a recent split from Collared). Hermit Crabs scampered about our feet as we walked along the sandy trail through the coconut palms. We passed a few locals who came across from Futuna to harvest manioc and coconut from their farm plots; they wove simple baskets out of coconut palm leaves that can hold twenty to thirty pounds of fruit for the trip home. While we enjoyed the endemic birds, perhaps our favorite sighting was of a cooperative Barn Owl that flew right overhead a couple of times (with the urging of our squeaks). Wallis on the following day was well-developed, but we added a couple of new birds: Australasian Swamphen (a recent split from Purple) and the Buff-banded Rails, which were commonly seen trotting across lawns and the road. Our final destination was an old caldera lake; the alcoves of the cliffs surrounding it housed nesting White-tailed Tropicbirds and Brown Noddies. In the afternoon we enjoyed a fantastic beach snorkel in clear waters.

Beveridge Reef

Beveridge Reef— Photo: Brian Gibbons












The next day, another new country—Tonga! Niuafo’ou is one of two islands in the world that still host Niuafo’ou Scrubfowl, a formerly more widespread South Pacific Megapode. Here we would go to an island on a lake in the middle of the island to search for the bird. From the ship we took a Zodiac to two pickup trucks, one of which was the local police car! We then drove nearly an hour through several villages and past many churches, finally making it to the end of the road for a short hike to the boat landing on the lakeshore, where the locals were snacking on raw Tilapia they’d just caught. We had to split the group, so we would be making two trips out to the island, ferried by this old boat with a shop-worn fifteen-horse outboard to get us there. Everyone finally made it, the engine stalling in between trips and finally restarting after one thousand pulls on the starter cord! The birds were skittish at first, but eventually one stood on a mossy log checking us out, and a second bird sat way up in a tree allowing everyone to get good looks at this world rarity. The next day we toured the village of Niuatoputapu and enjoyed singing and dancing by the locals before the kava ceremony. That afternoon we walked along the beach of Tafahi, where Wandering Tattlers were also patrolling the beach. The steep forested slopes above were teeming with nesting birds. Boobies, tropicbirds, frigatebirds, White Terns, and noddies all careened overhead. Our final day in the Kingdom of Tonga found us on Vava’u. We visited the Ene’io Botanical Garden and followed the bow-legged and limping owner who started the garden more than 40 years ago. Before long we heard the Tongan Whistler singing, and we all had great looks at this endemic with its bright yellow breast and belly. In the afternoon we enjoyed some beach snorkeling off another white sand beach and a Zodiac cruise into a cave where hundreds of White-rumped Swiftlets were nesting. In the darkness you could hear the clicks of their echolocation, which allows them to navigate into the darkness of nesting caverns. Around Tonga we saw the last of the wintering Humpback Whales as they were leaving for their summer feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean. One female had a very small calf with her, just a month old, but already tipping the scales at well over one ton.

Kuhl's Lorikeet

Kuhl’s Lorikeet— Photo: Brian Gibbons

It was on the miniscule island-nation of Niue that we got to enjoy our second 23rd of October after crossing the International Date Line. Here tidy houses and much undeveloped land greeted us. We spied a Polynesian Triller on its nest, ready to feed the young with a green caterpillar in its bill. Crimson-crowned Fruit-Doves and Pacific Imperial-Pigeons winged overhead searching for fruit-laden trees to gorge upon. A trip highlight was watching our guide handle his pet Fruit Bat that he had been keeping for five years after it was orphaned as a tiny baby! Cruising the tropical waters of the South Pacific didn’t produce many seabird sightings, but those that spent much time on deck were rewarded with a few sightings: Tahiti, Cook’s, and Mottled petrels; and Sooty and Wedge-tailed shearwaters, as well as three species of boobies and both tropicbirds. For our arrival, Beveridge Reef exposed a tiny beach for us to enjoy. White sands surrounded by a thousand shades of blue, this is a tropical paradise few have ever witnessed. Approaching the beach we saw a Manta Ray, and others found a shark in the crystal waters. Interestingly, there was a fair bit of pumice trapped in the lagoon and washing up on shore. The snorkeling that morning was outstanding with exceptional visibility; many brightly-colored fish graced the corals and, in the depths, huge parrotfish cruised around, avoiding the sharks down below. As we cruised away from the beach, it was consumed by the tide.

Red-tailed Tropicbird

Red-tailed Tropicbird— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Our first landing in the Cook Islands was at Aitutaki. Very few landbirds were here, but there was a stunner—the Blue Lorikeet! This gorgeous bird is violet-blue everywhere except for its snow-white throat. These colors were further accentuated by the bright orange feet and bill, an improbable beast we were lucky to see. Our guide, Nakiti, squeaked and squeaked until an inquisitive bird landed on a banana leaf just feet over our heads. On Atiu the following day there were a handful of endemic birds we would need help nailing down. George, the Birdman of Atiu, was at our service. I questioned his tactics almost immediately; as we marched into the forest, he was clapping and shouting, but soon enough a pair of Rarotonga Monarchs was flittering over our heads, and the doubters were quickly silenced! Driving island roads produced our next new bird, Chattering Kingfisher. Kuhl’s Lorikeets were reintroduced to this island in 2007; today they number more than 250 birds after starting with just 27. We enjoyed these rainbow-colored beauties as they foraged and allopreened in the trees overhead. Nearby, a mulberry tree hosted a Cook Islands Fruit-Dove that was reluctant to leave, even as eighteen birders crowded around to get another lifer. Finally we got to the end of the road, and there were Atiu Swiftlets zipping around at knee-level and well into the sky. We got a quick drive-by sighting of Cook’s landing site in 1777, but hurried back to our landing to see a cultural show of dancing and singing. In the afternoon we made a challenging landing on Takutea, an uninhabited island twelve miles from Atiu. George and a crew of six strapping men came along to help with the landing on a coral flat with surf. We were barely halfway across the flat and there, caught in a tide pool, was a white Moray Eel peppered with black spots. Also in the pools were urchins, small giant clams, and other marine critters. Onshore we had great looks at Bristle-thighed Curlews along the beach, and many boobies of all three species were wheeling overhead. The curlews are on holiday after nesting on the tundra of western Alaska. Most exciting were the dozens of Red-tailed Tropicbirds zipping to and fro as they came and went from their nests. In the wooded area of the island, one of the local Atiu landing crew excavated an enormous Coconut Crab, the largest terrestrial invertebrate in the world!

White Tern

White Tern— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Our sixth and final country was French Polynesia. Our landing at Bora Bora allowed us to find our first Gray-Green Fruit-Dove, another wonderful fruit-dove, this one with a light lavender crown, a greenish back blending to teal, and blue flight feathers. The shallows of the lagoon around Bora Bora made for stunning scenery with that South Pacific blue gleaming in the sun. Papeete, Tahiti was our final port. Here we climbed aboard pickup trucks and headed for the Tahiti Monarch Reserve. One of the rarest birds in the world with just 52 individuals, the Tahiti Monarch is critically endangered. We hiked for nearly an hour up a narrow canyon that was blanketed with huge green trees and cut by the clear stream running along the trail. We were lucky to see a couple of birds incubating, hopefully ushering in the next generation of this rare bird. Once again we were birding in the rain, but with a rarity like the monarch in our sights, we didn’t seem to mind. Overhead the Polynesian Swiftlet didn’t seem to mind the rain either. In the dark green depths of the forest we saw Tahiti Kingfishers in the realm of the monarch as we headed down canyon.

A relaxing evening at the Intercontinental Tahiti with a great show after dinner was a fine end to this amazing transect across the South Pacific.

Thank you for traveling with VENT and Zegrahm Expeditions.