Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Birding New Caledonia - July-August 2009

(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, text and scenic photos by Chuck Bell)
Wednesday, July 29
We caught the 8:10 am Holiday Inn shuttle to Sydney International Airport and met Stuart White at the Air Calin check-in just as it opened around 9 am.  The flight to Nouméa, New Caledonia was really nice -- on a new Airbus 300.  The lunch was quite good, and Nancy got her gluten-free meal.  After the relaxing flight, the rigors of Nouméa airport were something else.  I think even at the best of times, they are not very efficient, and now they seem to be paranoid about H1N1 flu.  We first had to stand in a long line as each of the 200 to 300 passengers were photographed by just one heat-sensing camera to see if any of us had a fever.  Then we passed through the passport control, and then we had to wait for our luggage, which were nearly the last bags off the airplane (probably because we were the first to check in back in Sydney).  Then we had to clear customs, but we got through that line fairly quickly and went outside to cross over to the rental car area.  We had a short wait at Avis, and the lady there did indeed have a car for us, though she told us it was a blue one (it was white) and it was in Bay 16 (it was in Bay 3),  By then, we piled into this little motorized rollerskate and headed off to Nouméa.  It took us a total of 2 hours to clear the airport, and it was dark by the time we hit the motorway to town.  We then had to negotiate our way all through the back end of Nouméa, with its lack of any semblance of a grid, and many, many traffic circles -- a very typical French city, though it can't pin it's lack of any city plan on the ox cart trails of medieval days, as one can blame in France.  Stuart navigated and Chuck drove.  Somehow we found our way to the Motel Anse Vata, and the proprietor, M. Bigaud, was waiting for us.  He had telephoned the airport and learned that things were going very slowly for the passengers, so he waited to make sure we arrived ok.  He's a very nice, helpful person.  We went out for dinner to a neighborhood pizza place, stopped at a Vietnamese-run neighborhood grocery for breakfast and lunch food, and came back and fell into bed after packing our gear to go birding early the next morning.
Rainbow Lorikeet

Thursday, July 30
We were up early and had a good breakfast out on our porch in the dark.  We ate cereal, yogurt, brie and bread.  After being distracted by Rainbow Lorikeets in the trees over our hotel, as well as a small horde of noisy Common Mynas, we got on the road a little after dawn.  Stuart navigated us through the myriad of traffic circles to the road that wound around through the mountains south of Nouméa all the way to Rivière Bleu Provincial Park.  We got to the entrance just after 7:30 am, found out the system for visiting the park, and then started slowly down the road, birding as we went.  On a sparsely vegetated slope, we picked up Dark-brown Honeyeater, Gray Fantail, Fan-tailed Gerygone and Glossy Swiftlet.  After 9 km, we arrived at the end of the bridge, which is now blocked off to cars.  It washed out in 2003, but when it was rebuilt, a decision was made to close the rest of the park to traffic to limit the adverse impact of weekend revelers.  One now has to walk across the rebuilt bridge and catch a bus on the other side.  

New Bridge at Riviere Bleu
The morning was just beautiful, with warm sun and wonderful vistas.  We saw a Little Pied Cormorant fly up the river, which at this point is quite wide.  Our bus left at 9:30 am.  There were just the 3 of us, and two French men and their guide.  The young lady driver was a gem.  She stopped at the Kagu spot, which was only a few km into this side of the park.  We all got out, and she started calling "Kah-goo, kah-goo, kah-goo", and pretty soon we heard a hiss and out popped a curious Kagu.  It is light gray and the males have heavy feathering that drapes down the back of their necks.  They raise these feathers in challenging one another.  But for them, we were just a curiosity.  Before long, we had 5 Kagus around us, and Nancy was in heaven taking pictures of them.  

The guide on our bus (he was actually English but absolutely fluent in French and lived here in Nouméa) explained that a few years ago, the BBC planned to come to do a film on the Kagu, and to make sure they could get good video, the park service staff trained the Kagu to come to calls by giving them food.  They no longer give them food (at least while visitors are present), but the Kagus still come to the calls.  We had our nice driver leave us at the Kagu stop, and made arrangements for her to pick us up a few kilometers further on at 4 pm.  We took some more photos and then began birding our way slowly up the road.  We found that at this time of year, the birds were travelling largely in parties.  We would walk quite a ways through a completely silent forest, then when we came across a bird party, the forest became alive with sound.  

We saw New Caledonian Friarbird, New Caledonian Myzomela, with its brilliant red head, the Barred Honeyeater, lots of Green-backed White-eyes, the beautiful New Caledonian Whistler, with its white throat separated from its yellow breast by a spiffy black band, Metallic Pigeon and New Caledonian Flycatcher.  Luckily for us, Nancy spotted a completely silent Southern Shrikebill mixed up with a bird party, and we all had very good looks at it.    We stopped for lunch at a picnic table by the Giant Kauri tree.  We were much amused by the Yellow-bellied Robins, who turned out to be the Caledonian equivalent of Colorado's Gray Jays when it comes to mooching around picnic tables.  

We continued down the road to the Honeyeater Track (Sentier des Meliphages), and took it on the advice of the attendant at the entrance gate, and our bus driver, as the best place to look for the scarce Crow Honeyeater.  We climbed up the steep hill, playing the bird's call from time to time, but all to no avail.  It never answered back, though we were fooled for a time by a very vocal Barred Honeyeater calling from up the hill.  Disappointed, we continued on up the road over the Germain Bridge to look for the Red-throated Parrotfinch at an area where it has been seen in the past.  It seems this area has grown up considerably, and the grasses where the finch was found have been replaced by shrubs and small trees.  We were still very satisfied with our day, though, as we saw 21 species, most of them lifers for us.  The driver picked us up in the bus on her last run of the day and took us back down to the bridge.  We drove home, stopping at a Casino Super Marché along the way for more groceries.  After a quick stop at the hotel, we walked down the way to a nice restaurant (Le Jazz), where Nancy and Chuck each had a baked Sole, and Stuart had a steak with pepper sauce.  We had had a very good day and were exhausted and still suffering a bit from jet lag.

Friday, July 31
We were up early and left for the downtown airport (Magenta) at 4:45 am.  We had to pick up our 4-flight pass tickets at 5 am for our 6 am flight.  We were surprised that the aircraft, though with big propeller engines, was quite large, holding perhaps 60 passengers.  It was an ATR-72.  It left right on time and arrived over at the island of Lifou at 6:40 am.  Our guide, Olivier Hebert, was there to meet us.  He was a nice fellow in his mid-30s.  He and his wife moved to Lifou from France 9 years ago.  He had been a musician with an interest in traditional music (he spent a year in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Fasso 1993-4 learning and playing the balafon).  In Lifou, he splits his time between birding and photography, and deep-sea fishing with lines that go to the bottom, 300 meters deep.  He is part of a Lifou fisherman's cooperative, run by local New Caledonians (there are about 10,000 people on Lifou but only about 200 of them are ethnically French, and only natives can own land on the island -- Olivier and his wife must rent their home).  We quickly found that he really knows his birds and where to find them.  He birds largely by ear (not surprising given his musician background) and has no need of tapes.  He took us first to a friend's farm in the forest.  We walked down a long forest track picking up the Small Lifou White-eye, the gorgeous little Cardinal Myzomela, a Brown Goshawk, and the Lifou subspecies of the Silvereye.  

We heard Red-bellied Fruit-dove calling all over the place, and we tried repeatedly to spot one high in the trees.  Finally, we all got looks at an immature bird (no red on it), and eventually had fleeting looks at an adult in full color.  Olivier then took us on another forest path, and we came to a blind that he had built to use for his photography.  He had us sit quietly in the blind and peer out at two papayas he had placed on sticks.  Before long, birds started to appear.  First several Small Lifou White-eyes, and then finally the Large Lifou White-eye, which does not have a white eye, came in and started feeding on the fruit.  Nancy got excellent pictures of both species.  After spending a little more time in the forest, we were hungry (after our 4:30 am breakfast), and we went to Olivier's house for lunch.  It was a delightful meal of local fruits and vegetables, and rice and deer sausage, prepared by his wife Angelique and a friend of hers who had just arrived from France for a 3-week stay.  We ate on the veranda, and no sooner had we finished eating, than Olivier called out for us to see a Long-tailed Triller.
Long-tailed Triller

Then a Striated Starling appeared in the trees by the yard, followed soon after by a pair of Melanesian Cuckoo-shrikes.  There were lots of Glossy Swiftlets over the garden and a couple of White-rumped Swiftlets.  It was not only a great lunch, but it was a wonderful birding stop too.  Having seen most of our targets, including the Lifou sub-species of some birds we had seen on the main island, we headed down the coast to look for seabirds.  We went all the way to the end of the road, to a lookout point.  Showers seemed to be forming off the island of Maré and coming our way, and we got a bit wet, but we persevered with the scope looking out at the sea, and Chuck finally spotted a petrel.  Olivier said the only possible black & white petrel here was the Tahiti Petrel, which was a lifer.  It disappeared and neither Nancy nor Stuart saw it.  

Striated Starling
Olivier got some gas for the car from the head of the fisherman's cooperative who lived there at the end of the road.  Our tank was almost empty, and there was no gas at the island's gas station, as the tanker that was supposed to have come last Monday never arrived.  We began the drive back north and stopped at another spot along the shore, which had a beautiful, long pristine beach with no one else in sight.  We set up the scope again, and this time both Nancy and Stuart got on a Tahiti Petrel and an Australasian Gannet.

We took a side road up a hill, where we could look out over the forest on the chance that we might see the Pacific Imperial Pigeon.  We didn't see the pigeon, but the tree in front of us was full of Red-bellied Fruit-doves, which we had worked so hard to see earlier in the day.  We had stellar looks at them.  We also had very good looks at an obliging Striated Starling adult feeding berries to a young bird.  It was then time to head for the airport to catch our flight back to Nouméa.  As we got near the airport, Olivier hit the brakes and there on a phone wire ahead of us was a beautiful light-colored Barn Owl, our final bird of the day.  We bid goodbye to Olivier and thanked him very much for such a wonderful birding day.  Our list for the day came to 25 species, which included nearly everything we wanted to see on the island.  Back in Nouméa, it was just a 10 minute drive to our hotel, even with one wrong turn, which we discovered rather quickly.  We went down the road to find another restaurant.  Tonight, we had Vietnamese food.  It was quite good, and we fell into bed, exhausted after such a long day. 

Saturday, August 1
We got up a little later this morning and only left at 6:30 am for Mont Khogis.  Stuart navigated us there following directions Olivier had given us the day before.  We found our way up the narrow road to where it came to an end at an auberge.  We hiked up into a very wet, dark primary forest.  The forest was completely silent.  The birds clearly had not yet become active.  We hiked up some very steep trails, and gave up trying to go any higher when we came to a place where a swing bridge had washed out and scrambling down and back up through a gorge was clearly going to be very difficult.  We began working our way down the trail.  Once again, as at Rivière Bleu, we heard New Caledonian Imperial Pigeon, but we were never able to spot one high in the treetops.  Much to our surprise, though, we did see a small group of Red-throated Parrot-finches deep in the forest.  The books all say to look for them in tall grasses or along forest edges, or at best, in dry forest.  But here we were in deep, wet, primary forest.  We wondered if they had been pushed here by the pressure on them from people who capture them for the caged bird trade.  This made our foray into the forest worthwhile, and we decided to work our way back down the mountain, and head north on the back road to Paita and toward Tontouta Airport.  We stopped to look at some swifts (Nancy had missed the White-rumped Swiftlet the day before), and she had good looks at it.  She then called to Chuck to bring her camera.  She had a Shining-bronze Cuckoo calling right in front of her. 

It was a much better view of this bird than we had had the day before on Lifou.   We took a loop road that went down to the coast north of Paita, and ate lunch at the base of a cell phone tower overlooking a brilliant blue sea (picnic tables seem to be almost non-existent outside of a park in New Caledonia).  Driving slowly along this back road looking in vain for New Caledonian Crow, we did pick up New Caledonia Goshawk, the Purple Swamphen, and Swamp Harrier.  We got back on the motorway and drove into town, stopping for fresh bread, yogurt and ice cream.  We got back to our motel in mid-afternoon and worked on arrangements for the rest of our stay.  We returned to Le Jazz for dinner.  We sat outside where the floor show was a little mouse that scurried about for crumbs under the tables and then ducked down through small crevices in the floor boards and popped up elsewhere!

Sunday, August 2
We set out at 6:15 am after a night of noisy people and cars passing our hotel, including one group of people who stopped for a loud discussion right outside our window at 4:30 am.  We drove north on the motorway past the airport and on to La Foa.  We stopped for gas at a village and did some birding -- Melanesian Cuckoo-shrike, Long-tailed Triller, Purple Swamphen.  As we neared La Foa, there were scores of Purple Swamphen along the edges of the road.  From La Foa, we followed the very precise directions provided by the Finnish birder Pettri Hottola in his report on his July 2006 trip.  On the way up the mountain beyond the town, we spotted our first New Caledonian Crow, but a farm truck came up a driveway and it flew.  We continued on up and finally came to the end of the road, which was known by birders around the world as the easiest place to see the New Caledonian Grassbird.  This bird prefers very tall grasses, and a small flat ridgetop here had a large field of this grass.  But last year, the Southern Province government developed the place, scoured the ridge top of its grasses and put in an office and a big parking lot, as well as large expanses of well manicured lawn grass.  The habitat for the Grassbird, a rare species, had been destroyed.  We were distraught, and Chuck gave the park staff and a couple of volunteers there a big earful in French.  Obviously, the provincial government had not consulted with any local ornithologists or done any environmental assessment before destroying the environment here.  We also noted from the signage that one of the acceptable uses of the park is to hunt the New Caledonian Imperial Pigeon, a species which we have heard a few times but have yet been unable to see (small wonder!).  They justify shooting this island endemic because the hunting of it is "traditional."  Later in the day, we saw 5 hunters coming out of the forest, with shotguns that indicated they were hunting pigeons and not deer, which are also hunted in the park.  Luckily, they were carrying no dead pigeons.  In sum, the whole place had gone to hell in a handbasket, in the name of "preserving natural habitat."
Where the Grassbird Once WAS!
But we persevered.  There were a few patches of the tall grass left on the hill up from the parking lot, and we played the tape there, but it was in vain.  A Birdquest group was also there, and they had tried for the grassbird as well with no luck.  So we headed down the path into the forest in the hopes of at least seeing some more species.  Stuart and Nancy went ahead to a place where the Birdquesters had seen Horned and Red-fronted Parakeet, as well as Cloven-feathered Dove earlier in the morning.  Chuck hung back, persistently playing the call of the grassbird at every grassy patch in the forest. And he was in luck.  A grassbird gave a quick, sharp response, popped out of the base of a grass clump for a split second and then disappeared.  At least Chuck had a countable sighting, and as it turned out, it was the only sighting of the day of this bird, despite heroic efforts by the Birdquest group to find the bird somewhere in the area.  Down in the forest, we did pick up Horned Parakeet way in the top of a tall pine tree, but no dove or the other parakeet.  New Caledonian Crows, however, were abundant, as were Melanesian Cuckoo-shrike.  

We then worked our way back up to the parking area and had lunch out on the grass, where Chuck and Stuart had brief glimpses of flying Cloven-feathered Dove, while Nancy was photographing some obliging Striated Starlings.  Still no dove, and before we finished lunch, it started to rain.  We took shelter under a big roof next to the office, and watched a White-bellied Goshawk for awhile.  During a lull in the rain we ran to the car.  The White-bellied Goshawk flew to a nearby tree and Chuck maneuvered the car so Nancy could take some good photos.  A car makes a wonderful bird blind.  For some reason birds rarely react to cars and when you can maneuver the car into the exact right place they are perfect for picture-taking.  When the rain let up, Stuart went back down the lower track, and Chuck and Nancy tried the ridge track, but aside from more crows, cuckoo-shrikes, lots of Gray Fantails and New Caledonian White-eyes, we did not see very much else. 

Monday, August 3
This morning we had a bit of leisure time, as our flight to the island of Ouvéa did not depart until later than originally scheduled.  We arrived in Ouvéa around 10 am but there was no one to meet us.  In my email exchanges, Maurice Saoumoe said he would do so.  We did find the rental car guy, M. Firmin, who had a bright little red car ready for us.  He also pointed out to us a woman who was a colleague of M. Saoumoe.  She said he was in Nouméa on leave, but she offered to lead us back to her office at the provincial headquarters, give us a map, and show us how to find the house of Benoît, who had parakeets in his area and was supposed to be available for us.  We set off in our car for the 20 to 25 km trip on narrow but paved roads, with almost no traffic, to Benoît's.  On our way, we stopped in front of St. Joseph's Church to observe a couple of Pacific Swallows hawking insects over a ball field.  When we neared our destination and had stopped to photograph some Emerald Doves on a lawn, a bus stopped, a fellow got off, and it was Benoît!  We had apparently passed him walking along the road.  He had come to the airport to meet the earlier flight, which apparently came, and he returned home when we were not on it (we obviously had been bumped from this earlier flight).  With Benoît aboard, we continued on down the road to his home, a humble collection of small thatched huts and shelters.  He took us out in the forest behind his place, where we saw nest boxes that had been put up for the Ouvéa Parakeet.  The parakeet was near extinction, due to the conversion of native palms to oil palm plantations, mostly for the cosmetics industry.  With a conservation effort its numbers were increasing to about 2000 and there were not enough natural nesting cavities, so a network of nest boxes was put in place in what remains of the natural forest.  Fifteen of these are in Benoît's area.  As we walked on a path through the forest, we had good sightings of the parrots, and two were in Benôit's compound when we returned, feeding on papaya he had put out.  Nancy was thrilled to get some very good photos of this special bird.  

However during the walk some very small ants with a mean bite got under Nancy’s shirt and caused her much distress.  Eventually, when the men were far enough ahead she had to peel her shirt and bra off and look for the ants and remove them.  She quickly stuffed the bra in her pocket and hurried to catch up with the men.  We paid Benoît his PFX2000 franc fee for the visit and continued on out to the coast.  We had our picnic lunch on a lovely lava field beach and scanned for seabirds.  With palm trees swaying in the breeze and the beautiful blue sea in front of us we felt we were truly in paradise. We saw Wedge-tailed Shearwater on the horizon through the scope, and flushed a Pacific Reef Heron along the shore.  With our targets seen, we took a leisurely drive to the other end of the island.  We enjoyed a beautiful blue lagoon by some cliffs and saw a Great Crested-tern sitting on a mooring buoy along the coast.  Our return flight to Nouméa was right on time, and Mr. Firmin was on hand to collect his car.

Tuesday, August 4
Today we went back to Rivière Bleu.  We never were able to connect with any staff to arrange for a guide.  We arrived very early at 6:15 am in hopes of finding Red-fronted Parakeet & Cloven-feathered Dove for Nancy, but we saw only Rainbow Lorikeets & lots of Brown Honeyeaters.  We were the first car into the Park when staff unlocked the gate.  We soon found out that all the bus drivers were ill with H1N1 flu, so one of the managers agreed to drive us in a Land Rover to where we could look for the Crow Honeyeater.  We stopped at Lieu Dit des Boucherons, a known territory for the bird but no response to playback (aside from a couple of curious Kagus).  We drove on to the Giant Kauri tree.  We tried playback repeatedly but no response.  It was dark and drizzly with light rain.  Nancy spotted a pigeon sitting motionless on a high branch.  With considerable effort to see its field marks, we agreed it was a New Caledonian Imperial Pigeon, one of our targets.  It began to rain harder and the birds shut down.  We waited out the rain under a picnic shelter.  Even robins, which had been so bold during our previous stop here, were nowhere to be seen in the rain.  Eventually, the rain subsided, and we began walking down the road, playing the Crow Honeyeater call every 200 meters.  Nothing.  Nancy spotted a very beautiful Cloven-feathered Dove sitting quietly high in a tree.  She took a few pictures.  We continued playback.  About 600 meters before reaching Lieu Dit des Boucherons, a Crow Honeyeater darted in over Chuck's head and disappeared just as quickly.  Chuck and Stuart saw it, but Nancy had her back to Chuck and didn't even get a glimpse, although she was close enough to hear the sound of its wings.  We tried to get it to come back but it wouldn't.   We were all very disappointed.  A driver came for us and we headed out, stopping at the entrance for lunch.  We realized we were very lucky in getting a private drop-off and pick-up in the park as we saw many others who had to walk the many hot kilometers from the parking area by the bridge to just get to the beginning of the forested part.  We went on to Thy Forest following very explicit directions by Pettri Hottala.  We tried for both the Grassbird and the Crow Honeyeater but no sign of either.  We drove back to Nouméa to pack up, and repair Chuck's broken tripod. We dined at a Thai restaurant. 

In total for New Caledonia, we saw 65 bird species, 32 new for Chuck and 31 new for Nancy.

Wednesday, August 5
We left for the international airport at 5:15 am.  We saw two bad 2-car accidents on the hill before the airport that had happened sometime during the night.  All 4 cars were completely burned. It is doubtful that anyone survived.  During our time in New Caledonia we thought most people drove the narrow winding roads like maniacs, way too fast and way too close to each other.  As Nancy sat in the back seat of our small rental car she always had to hang on to something as she felt she was being tossed about even though Chuck drove in a safe manner.  At the airport, we made a wrong turn due to lack of signage and ended up in the pay parking lot instead of the car rental lot.  But Stuart managed to lower a chain so we could get out and into the rental car area.  We dropped the car keys into a slot at the shuttered Avis office and checked in for our flight, which left a few minutes late. 

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