Friday 25 January 2013

Xmas in the South Pacific!

Phew, I’ve hardly touched the ground and off on another adventure! Just back from Fiji a couple of days ago, where we ended a couple of excellent cruises onboard the MS Caledonian Sky. I started the two trips in Easter Island on 17 Dec, where we boarded the ship, and then spent three days touring the sights of Easter Island. Having been there before, it still gave a sense of excitement, even when I had already seen all five species of introduced landbirds! The last day on Easter Island was my birthday, and we celebrated in true style with a staff dinner on the Lido Deck in beautiful conditions as we drew away from Easter Island. Very few birds were seen over the next two days at sea, with a probable Henderson petrel as we left the shelter of Easter Island being probably the best bird.

Heading westwards we had pretty good seas, and arrived into Ducie Island early on the morning of 23 December. The clouds of birds (mainly Murphy’s petrels) that I had experienced on my previous visit in late Sept 2009, were certainly reduced. But we managed to get ashore and get good views of Murphy’s petrels flying around with the last of the chicks fledging. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the number of Christmas shearwaters seen, with good numbers of these birds leaving the island to head out to sea, and several seen on land. During my last visit I think I only saw one or two birds total.

Early the next morning we approached Henderson Island, and although there was only a light breeze there was a considerable swell rolling in from the NE and wrapping around into the northern end of the island where the main landing site is. For me this was the big landing of the entire month! Having missed the Henderson Island rail on my previous visit, this was my greatest wish (see my previous blog post about this here).

With the staff in zodiacs we managed to land on the beach at Henderson and get the staff ashore, but the swells were just too large and risky to attempt it with guests. As I was driving I stood off and watched the surf and hoped like hell it was going to work. Meanwhile some of the other staff disappeared into the shrubbery to scout in the event we did get people ashore. Within about 15-20 minutes Alex had spotted a Polynesian rat (more confirmation of the failed rat eradication), and personally more upsetting to me…a rail! We waited and watched, but the conditions weren’t easing with the tide so we decided to try the eastern side of the island which had looked a little less surfy as we approached. There was less surf, but there were not great openings onto the reef and it again was deemed too risky.

So we circumnavigated the whole island in the ship, a great experience, but certainly not what I was hoping for. The southern coast of the island is incredibly rugged and was being hammered by huge swells. Some nice photos or the coastline and blowholes, etc. and perhaps the best things was seeing good numbers of Henderson petrels coming in to the island. We had seen a few in the early morning, but now with good light it offered much better photographic opportunities and I managed to get some good images…one consolation! They are certainly very different birds to both Kermadec and Herald petrels, which I saw very few of during the course of the day.

As we got back around to the north-western side of the island we tried scouting the beaches again, but still the surf was pounding and it just wasn’t going to happen…NNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Henderson Island growing smaller in our wake was a very very sorry sight! But we did see a bunch more Henderson petrels as we headed towards Pitcairn late that afternoon.

Pitcairn on Christmas day was a real treat and we were very lucky with the weather, managing to get everyone ashore in relatively benign conditions in the morning, and then got everyone safely back onboard in some pretty, at times exciting, conditions in the late afternoon. A big squally mass of rain clouds came through, but as we rounded the island in the early evening the sun came out again making a magical picture of the island with forbidding clouds and a full rainbow. As ever the locals were fantastic, opening their homes and island to us on Christmas day, and everyone had a great time ashore.

Next day we checked out Oeno, the fourth island of the Pitcairn Group, but huge 2-3m swells battered much of the fringing reef, making the main passage completely impossible, and one other smaller passage a little too lively to attempt, so again we cruised around it in the ship and then headed for Mangareva in the Gambier Islands. Tropical and wedge-tailed shearwater were new for the trip as we approached Mangareva early the next morning, and Christmas shearwater was a bit of a surprise. As too were three noisy chasing long-tailed cuckoo’s (koels) on Mangareva! A little bit of the wrong season for birds to be there I would have thought, they should be in NZ?

The next day was at sea, then into the Tuamotus on 29 Dec, with the first island being Puka Rua, and the next day at Puka Puka. Both these islands have reputations with big surf and difficult landsing through narrow entrances dynamited through the fringing coral. But we managed both in relatively lively conditions, with timing of entrance and exit through the surf being critical. Interesting to see Christmas shearwater flying low over the coconut palms and shoreline on the edge of the lagoon inside the atoll, seemingly prospecting! The local dogs seemed to be just as interested in them, chasing one bird that was flying quite low down the shoreline.

On the 31 Dec we visited Raroia, and manged a quick stop on a small motu where we found breeding white terns and black noddies and a few Tuamotu reed warblers. Perhaps the highlight however was a large feeding flock of black noddies with a few common noddies and grey ternlets amongst them. Spectacular feeding going on in the channel as fish brought smaller stuff to the surface and some great photo opportunities with lovely light. Of course there was a bit of a party that evening!

The new year dawned with a visit to the uninhabited Motu Tunga and where snorkeling was the main activity, before then relocating to Tahanea at lunchtime. Tahanea is one of the atolls on which Tuamotu sandpiper are present (on some of the motus). So some research had discovered the locality of several motus with sandpipers present, but a PhD student from Canada was interested in confirming the presence of them on another motu which happened to be slightly nearer to the main passage and where we would be anchoring the ship. She was very confident the birds were present there, based on reports from locals, and so with a rather strong easterly wind blowing (up to 25-30 knots) we decided that was the best bet. This was also based on the fact the other motus on which the species was confirmed would be much more difficult (if not impossible) to reach in the weather conditions. She was also interested in getting information on habitat and numbers of birds there if we encountered them, as she had not visited this site.

Three zodiacs of about 27 people plus three drivers headed out from the ship, with following winds and a reasonable swell of 1m (within the lagoon!). We reached the motu in about 45 minutes, and decided we really only had an hour to search for the birds with the ride home going to be straight into the wind and seas. We quickly spread out and checked as much of the island as we could…but failed to find any sign of Tuamotu sandpipers. Perhaps we missed the best habitat on the seaward side of the motu, but enough people were spread out around the edge of the island, and with these birds being incredibly tame and curious I am surprised we didn’t bump into at least one. Although not conclusive, our search suggests numbers of birds may be rather low if they are present.

And so then it was back into the zodiacs…launching was one thing, but the ride back with several rain squalls coming through was a true adventure. Seven nautical miles into a 25+ knot wind was an experience with some pretty big chop and swells, some up to almost 2m making the trip a slow one. If we weren’t wet from the rain we were wet from the waves and spray, but it was warm, and most were in good spirits when we got back to the ship. The return journey took 1.5 hrs and we got back to the ship with about 30 minutes of light left, just exiting the pass in the ship as it got dark. What a mission. Still it was worth a try, and the other motus just would not have been reachable in the conditions… But major dip number two! I was loosing my mojo!

Next day was Fakarava, with our first grey-backed terns of the trip (and MS Octopus anchored beside us), and then Rangiroa the next day. Quite a few grey-backed terns provided some photographic subjects, as did bottle-nosed dolphins in the pass as we entered.

Then it was turn around day in Papeete, Tahiti on 4 January, with about 50% of the passengers staying for the next trip through to Fiji, bt a new bunch coming on as well. A relaxing day in Papeete, which hadn’t changed much since my last visit, and certainly hadn’t gotten any cheaper!

Next two days were at Raiatea and Bora Bora. Not a lot in the bird stakes, but a fun morning motorbiking around Raiatea. The next day was at sea, with very few birds, and then the 8 Jan was on Atiu, Cook Islands. The birders did a tour with ‘Birdman’ George and we got good views of all the endemics, with numbers of both the monarch and the Rimatara lorikeet up since my last visit, so all very encouraging. The hard work out there is paying off! We attempted a landing at Takatea in the afternoon, but the swells were way too big and we although the landing onto the reef may have been possible with the help of the local boys, getting into the zodiacs at the ship just wasn’t going to be possible. There were literally hundreds of red-tailed tropicbirds wheeling over the island, as wells as frigates, boobies and noddies, so a real bummer we couldn’t land. I also managed to confirm that my large yellow SealLine drybag floats with my full camera backpack inside it! We were launching zodiacs and preparing to scout from the marina on the stern of the ship, when a large wave washed up and over the stern platform to a depth of almost knee deep. My backpack that was on the deck was washed off and with heart in mouth screamed into the radio for Louis who was in a zodiac (“Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis!!!!!!) and managed to pick up the bag still floating proudly about a minute later… All of my camera gear just about was in that bag, so would have been a major major problem had it not floated! Guess that bag paid for itself right there!

Next day was on Aitutaki, with some snorkeling and lagoon cruising, but not much in the way of birds, and then Palmerston Atoll the next day. Luckily the conditions had abated a little and we were able to get in through the very narrow little pass at Palmerston Atoll for a full morning ashore. The highlight was an immature laughing gull seen from the ship and then briefly ashore.

The next day (11 Jan) was supposed to be a day at sea, but we adjusted course slightly and passed Beveridge Reef, an atoll that just touches the surface, and part of the Niue group (of which only Niue is exposed). But as we cruised past the reef it was evident a small coral cay had formed and with the conditions the way they were we were able to land! Probably the first humans to actually ‘land’ on Beveridge Reef so all very exciting. The coral cay had not been there a couple of years ago when Louis was last there, so will be interesting to see if it keeps forming or gets washed away in the next hurricane.

The following day we arrived at Niue, but a massive swell was washing in onto the only pier on the island. Although they were managing to unload containers from a container ship via a barge, there was no way we could get zodiacs safely alongside the concrete pier and get people safely ashore. Even the local officials refused to get into the zodiacs and come out to the ship for clearance! So it was on to Tonga.

We lost the next day due to the dateline and then arrived into Tonga where we hoped to land at Niuatoputapu the morning of 14 Jan. But again massive swells meant that we couldn’t get people safely off the ship into the zodiacs. At one stage as we tried to get the zodiac we had in the water back alongside, we ended up half filling it with water from a massive wave. So we then decided that the next island we hoped to visit in Tonga was even less likely to be do-able with a deteriorating weather forecast and decided to run for Wallis and Futuna early.

We spent the morning of 15 Jan on Wallis, which had been absolutely hammered by the hurricane on 15-16 Dec. Amazing to see the destruction with breadfruit and coconut trees just smashed to pieces everywhere. Roofs were missing and the whole place really looked like it had been hit hard. We saw few birds, but did see Pacific Imperial pigeons and purple-capped fruit doves, plus a good few buff-banded rails, and Insular (Pacific) flying foxes…nice to see a land mammal for a change!

The next day was on Futuna, which we had been told had also been badly affected by the hurricane, but we found the island very much intact with no damage to trees or houses, except on one part of the coast where large swells had damaged to the road. And it was nice to be somewhere where landbirds were singing and easily seen! Wattled honeyeaters were very noisy and obvious, but we also picked up on white-rumped swiftlet, Fiji shrike-bill, Polynesian starling, collared kingfisher and nice views of purple-capped fruit-dove. Buff-banded rail and Polynesian triller were also seen, and distant flying views of blue-crowned lorikeet.

Next day was 17 Jan, and a big day for birding! We arrived into Taveuni, Fiji, with the top of the mountain cloaked in cloud and thick forest covering much of the upper part of the island. Ashore we had Pacific swallows and a passing Fiji goshawk at the pier, and then the birders headed up the mountain, gaining height and getting into some really nice primary forest. We made a stop and quickly had things like Fiji white-eye, barking pigeon, Vanikoro flycatcher, Polynesian starling, and then shortly after the stunning giant honeyeater – a really spectacular bird. We walked up the hill further seeing streaked fantail and a black-faced shrikebill and then caught the vehicles higher right into the heart of the primary forest. There were a lot of flying foxes overhead, mostly the Insular (Pacific) flying fox I think, and managed to get some ok photos. We then headed off the road and into the ‘jungle’ which was just soaking wet lush primary forest, and startled an orange dove which I glimpsed, managed to get pretty good views of the Fiji bush warbler (and heard a lot singing), and then the stars of the show a pair of silktails. We managed to follow them around as they fed close to the ground and up in the sub-canopy – what a stonking bird! They are pretty nice looking when flying through the dark forest with the pale silvery rump patch, but man, catch them in a shaft of light and they just glow bright iridescent blue! Amazing! Managed a few reasonable photos given the conditions, before heading back out to the road and carrying on walking down the hill. Eventually we loaded back up into the vehicles and it was time to head back down to the pier and back to the ship. The afternoon was spent snorkeling just off Taveuni.

The following day we visited Savusavu on Vanua Levu and did a cultural visit to a village where I imbibed a little cava and bought a cava bowl, seeing a few introduced birds around the place and several mongoose as well. The afternoon we spent around town and then the following day was our last at Levuka on the island of Ovalau. This was the old capital of Fiji and now is a very small village, so again a mainly cultural and snorkeling stop.

We arrived into Nadi the following morning with an incredible sunrise, and I left with most of the staff for a midday flight back to Auckland. Love the short hops at the end of trips, as usually for me it is a 24-30+ hour ordeal getting home! Finishing in Fiji is very nice! Hard to believe I was on the ship a little over a month, the time flew by and we had some magic stops, with some good birds and photo opportunities along the way. Of course I missed some birds too…and I’m sure I will hear incessantly from at least one person (you know who you are!) “Have you seen the Henderson Island rail yet?”!

And so now I am in Fairlie, having picked up Josep and Jordi yesterday afternoon, and our NZ tour begins with black stilt this morning...more to come!

Christmas shearwater just off Ducie Island.

Murphy's petrel flying past showing its underparts.

Christmas shearwater on the ground with wings raised, Ducie Island.

White tern coming in to its nest with a fish in its bill, Ducie Island.

White tern coming in for a look, Ducie Island.

White tern looking quizzical, Ducie Island.

The ship just off Ducie Island.

The habitat on Ducie Island.

Henderson Island seen from the zodiac just offshore.

The south coast of Henderson Island is very rugged with blowholes and arches.

Pitcairn Island from the ship - Xmas morning!

Pitcairn reed warbler, now split from the Henderson Island reed warbler.

The ship just off Pitcairn Island.

Tree hibiscus in flower on Pitcairn.

The main street in Adamstown, Pitcairn.

Pitcairn Island as we left with a stunning rainbow.

Tropical shearwater taking off as we approached Mangaraeva.

Full moon during the trip.

The cemetary on Pukarua.

Cute kid on Pukarua.

Kids playing in the water.

Kids swimming and playing on Pukarua.

Reef egret hunting in the shallows on Puka Puka.

Reef egrets chasing, with the grey seemingly dominant chasing the white morph, Puk Puka.

White tern egg at the 'nest'.

White tern chick at the 'nest'.

Zodiac behind part of the feeding flock at the pass at Raroia.

Grey ternlet amongst the feeding flock at Raroia.

Feeding flock of primarily black noddies at the pass at Raroia.

Black noddy flying past.

In the pass at Motu Tunga.

Snorkellers drift snorkelling in the pass at Motu Tunga.

Bottle-nose dolphin leaping beside the bow as we entered Rangiroa through the pass.

Grey-backed tern in flight at Rangiroa.

Grey-backed tern with the aqua water reflected underneath it, Rangiroa.

Moorea on sunset as we departed Tahiti.

Cook Islands fruit dove on Atiu.

Juvenile chattering kingfisher on Atiu.

Juvenile female frigatebird off Takatea, Cook Islands.

Snorkelling in Aitutaki.


Laughing gull seen off Palmerston Atoll.

The cay at Beveridge Reef.

The cay at Beveridge Reef.

Fiji shrikebill on Futuna.

Wattled honeyeater singing away on Futuna.

Pacific swallows on the pier at Taveuni, Fiji.


Insular (Pacific) flying fox flying against the light.

A rata like Metrosideros sp. found on Taveuni.

Taveuni as the sun was setting, looking towards the highest point.

Local lady at Savusavu making tapa cloth.

Uncovering the earth oven!

Pulling out the goodies from the earth oven.

Local girl at Savusavu.

Beautiful shield bug found at Savusavu.


  1. Beautiful pictures from an adventure that I would not mind taking myself..I'm glad there are a few wild remote places still out there with very little encroachment by humans..Thanks..

    1. Take a look at these itineraries if you are interested!