Fiji, Vanuatu and Temotu Islands Expedition:
Before I start I want to thank Adam Walleyn who conceptualized this expedition and then through meticulous planning and leadership made it a great success. Thanks Adam.
Adam Walleyn at Kava Festivities (thats Adam with the glasses), Ogea Levu, Fiji
April 17/14 - It’s a clear day as the “Spirit of Enderby" departs the Fijian port of Suva. I quickly unpack my gear and head up to the deck. I had long awaited this opportunity to search for a couple of the world’s rarest seabirds.
The hills of Viti Levu as we depart for the island of Gau, Fiji
Today’s quarry was the Fiji Petrel, Pseudobulweria macgillivrayi an apparition of a seabird until recently only known from a few specimens from the island of Gau, Fiji.
Rediscovered in 2009 by the team of Hadoram Shirihai ,Tony Pym, Dick Watling and Joerg Kretzscmar -they became the first to record this species at sea in May of that year with several sightings and photographs south of Gau. This accomplishment was well documented in the paper- First observations of Fiji Petrel Pseudobulweria macgillivrayi at sea: off Gau Island, Fiji, in May 2009. Subsequently the species was seen again offshore Gau by Dick Watling but to our knowledge these are the only at sea sightings.
Tahiti Petrel, the only Pseudobulweria that isn't excruciatingly rare, showing typical structure of this genus, off Gau, Fiji
Pseudobulweria is a genus that includes 4 extant species and quite probably at least one undescribed taxon- an all dark species seen on several occasions by Sirihai, Howell and others off the Bismark Archipelago.
Three of the Pseudobulweria species- macgillivaryi, altterima and becki are exquisitely rare and share the distinction of having been “rediscovered “and photographed in the last few years by Hadoram Shirihai for his eagerly anticipated book - Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of The World: A Handbook to their Taxonomy, Identification, Ecology and Conservation.
Shortly after departing Suva we started seeing a few seabirds including both Brown and Red-footed Boobies. A stunning "gold" morph young Red-footed Booby made several passes by the bow. I have only seen Red-foots with this unique gold colour in Fiji and Melanesia. Very different from the dark morphs I have seen in other venues.
"Golden Morph" young Red-footed Booby, off Suva, Fiji
Brown Booby of the subspecies Sula leucogaster plotus, off Gau, Fiji
It wasn't long before we had some reasonable looks at some light morph Collared Petrels. This was a bird I had seen only marginally the year before on the WPO. I was counting on a better study of the species on this expedition.
Light morph Collared Petrel, off Gau, Fiji
The strategy for the late afternoon chumming session was to go out in the zodiacs a lay a fish oil slick and wait.. We hoped that this would solve some of the issues of trying to chum from a 100m vessel. We departed the Spirit of Enderby at 1600 about 5 miles to the south of Gau. The sea was calm with a 10 knot breeze from the southeast. Three zodiacs drifted away from the ship and at a suitable distance the slick was set. Anticipation was high but for the first 30 plus minutes not a bird was seen. At about 45 minutes a Tahiti Petrel came in to investigate but didn’t stick around long. A couple Red-footed Boobies checked us out. At an hour plus with only one bird spotted I started to feel “creeping doubt” as the sun started setting to the west.
Tahiti Petrel investigating the slick, off Gau, Fiji
Then Adam Walleyn who was piloting the next zodiac over called out “get on this bird”, “this looks good” and then “Fiji Petrel!!!”. The smallish all brown petrel was coming on to the slick from the north-west. Considerably smaller than Tahiti Petrel the bird soared down the slick showing its very long wings and tapered rear section so typical of Pseudobulweria. Photos were snapped off in the swaying zodiacs as the bird investigated the slick coming as close as 5o yards.
Fiji Petrel, off Gau, Fiji
Good views were had by all, identifiable photos were obtained by many. Mine were disappointing but given the challenges of photographing a petrel flying low over the water from a rocking zodiac through other peoples heads etc....... some times you are in the right spot some times you are not.
Tahiti Petrel flying through rainbow, off Gau, Fiji
As it got darker another Tahiti Petrel came by and then subsequently a more distant Fiji Petrel that disappeared as we tried to close the gap in the zodiacs.
All said and done we were all very happy realizing that this may well be the hardest of all the worlds Petrels to see and that we were now among the very, very few people that had ever seen this bird at sea.
The next morning we repeated this strategy drifting to the north from about 20 miles South of Gau. We started in the early morning and with a small group persisting until 1500hrs. Excellent looks at multiple Tahiti Petrels some within feet of us was great.
Tahiti Petrels, off Gau, Fiji
The highlight was excellent studies and close passes of mostly light morph Collared Petrels with some great photographic opportunities.
Collared Petrels, off Gau, Fiji
Red-footed Boobies checked us out and a couple of Wilson’s Storm-petrels drifted by as well. Six or seven hours on a zodiac in the hot sun off Fiji was challenging but we remained focused the entire time and not a whiff of a Fiji Petrel was to be had.
Adult Red-footed Boobies, White and Brown Morphs, off Gau, Fiji
As we headed south towards Ogea Levu in the late afternoon we remained hopeful for a further sighting. Tahiti and Collared Petrels, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, White-tailed Tropicbird, Brown & Black Noddies, Sooty and Great-crested Terns and Lesser Frigatebird were seen but no further Fiji Petrels.
Lesser Frigatebird, off Gau, Fiji
Dawn to dusk observation by multiple keen observers without a single sighting- in the species prime habitat theoretically during the optimal season- illustrates the rarity of this critically endangered species. Presumed to breed at high elevation on Gau no actual breeding site has ever been found. Disturbingly recent study of a Collared Petrel colony on Gau suggests that predation by feral cats may be a serious threat. Hopefully the breeding location can be found and protected before it is to late.
Fiji map and our route past Gau to Ogea Levu
The next day we spent exploring the island of Ogea Levu. This is one of the remotest of the islands in the region. The prime target was the Ogea Monarch. According to the local chief no “birders” had been on the island to see this species since Dick Watling visited in 1985.
Islets off Ogea Levu
After an initial formal introduction we left the village with guides along a narrow trail through the dense jungle. Wattled Honeyeaters, White-throated Whistlers, Fiji Shrikebills, Vanikoro Flycatchers were all seen well and before long we had found multiple Ogea Monarchs.
Ogea Monarch, Ogea Levu, Fiji
Vanikoro Flycatcher, Ogea Levu, Fiji
Local birders, Ogea Levu, Fiji
The day finished with some traditional dancing from the children of the village followed by traditional Kava drinking festivities including some great spontaneous dancing by both the locals and the shore party. A great time was had by all.
Mixing up another batch of Kava, Ogea Levu, Fiji
Rodney Russ and Meagan Kelly doing the Hokey Pokey with the locals, Ogea Levu, Fiji
We passed through the Kadavu Passage and headed for the open seas of the Fiji Basin on way to Vanuatu. I prepare myself for some serious tropical seabirding.
Looking for seabirds in the tropics is hot and tedious work. Hours spent in the direct sun searching the horizons for specks that might be heading your way. Most of them aren't and the majority seem to have an aversion to coming any closer than half a mile away. Flying fish and the occasional cetacean often help pass the time. Then comes the occasional "feeding flock".
Dave Hanna(right) and myself, scanning for seabirds across the Fiji Basin
These flocks are inevitably about a mile and a half away and can involve hundreds of birds of many species. Boobies, Noddies and terns, Wedge-tailed and Tropical Shearwaters, Petrels and many imagined rarities especially prevalent in the more distant flocks.
If fortune smiles upon you one of the feeding flocks will cross your path or a Polynesian Storm-petrel will pogo by when you are actually on deck and not taking your first break in four hours to rehydrate.
This was what I expected and what we got in the Fiji Basin. Collared Petrels and the occasional Tahiti Petrels passed by mostly fairly distantly. The occasional White Tern and White-tailed Tropicbird grabbed our attention. Feeding flocks of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns, Red-footed Boobies and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were seen regularly usually at a distance but we had a close encounter with a large flock at the end of the second day at sea.
Short-tailed Shearwaters in flocks up to 50 birds passed by regularly enroute to there nonbreeding feeding grounds in the Bering and Chuckchi Seas of the high Arctic.
Short-tailed Shearwaters in typical formation migrating to the Arctic Seas, Fiji Basin
A couple of Polynesian Storm-petrels were seen distantly. Three potential Vanuatu Petrels were seen but two were quick fly-bys and the third came by at dusk thus evading being photographed. The occasional Tropical Shearwater came by including a very close fly-by when I was inside getting water.
We spent several days exploring several of the islands of Vanuatu. The highlights was Royal Parrotfinch on Tongoa in the Shepherd Islands, swimming with Dugongs on the way to Epiritu Santo and getting great looks at Vanuatu Megapode, Kingfisher and Monarch at the Vathe Conservation Area.
Vanuatu Megapode, Vathe Conservation Area, Espiritu Santo
The pelagic highlight was encountered as we crossed the large body of water surrounded by islands north of Ambryn on are way to Espiritu Santo.
Magnificent Petrel sightings location, Vanuatu
We noticed a large feeding flock in the distance. A squall came up fairly suddenly in the distance driving several petrels across the bow of the ship unfortunately at a fair distance. They were mostly Magnificent Petrels some were light enough to potentially be Collared Petrels.
Apologies for the following photos but these were as good as they got.
Magnificent Petrels, Vanuatu
The taxonomic status of Magnificent Petrel was originally assigned by Shirihai & Brettagnolle, 2010 as Pterodroma brevipes magnifecens in their paper in the Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club - A new taxon of Collared Petrel Pterodroma brevipes from the Banks Islands, Vanuatu
P. brevipes taxa , Magnificent vs. Collared, Vanuatu
Unfortunately later we discovered the Magnificent Petrels had left the Banks Islands for the season and these and few birds seen earlier in the trip were the only ones we encountered.
We awoke before dawn with great anticipation. The ship was anchored 10 miles to the northeast of Vanua Lava, the largest of the Banks Islands and the sole nesting location of Vanuatu Petrel.
For those not familiar with this cryptic species the paper from B.O.C. - First Observations at Sea of Vanuatu Petrel by Shirihai and Bretagnolle is essential reading
Doug Hanna was first on deck as usual and by the time I arrived he had already seen a Vanuatu Petrel in the half light of dawn. It wasn't long before we were seeing mostly single petrels flying from Vanua Lava out to sea to the northeast.
Vanuatua Petrels, off Vanua Lava
It became quite clear that the birds were keeping a safe distance from the ship never really getting much closer than 100 meters or so. So after breakfast we headed out in the Zodiacs hoping to get some better photo opportunities.
Vanuatua Petrels showing distinct underwing pattern , off Vanua Lava
White-necked Petrel showing underwing pattern with more white invading the primaries, off New Caledonia
Although the main flight of Petrels seemed to have passed a number of birds remained in the area and occasionally came close enough for better photos. We could see the reddish dirt stains from nesting on several of the Petrels abdomens.
Vanuatua Petrel, showing dirt stained abdomen, off Vanua Lava
We noted as did Shirihai and Bretagnolle that there was significant variation in the underwing primary pattern and that there was undoubtedly overlap in this and virtually all other features between Vanuatu and White-necked Petrel.
Some of the Vanuatu Petrels certainly had distinctive diagnostic underwing patterns (as with the first individual pictured) others were not as clear cut especially given that they were moderately worn.
Vanuatua Petrels showing variation in underwing pattern , off Vanua Lava
Well in the Zodiacs we had a couple of Cuvier's Beaked Whales at very close distance
Cuvier's Beaked Whale, off Vanua Lava
Other seabirds included Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Brown Noddies, Red-footed Boobies and an occasional Collared/Magnificent Petrel.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater, off Vanua Lava
Later in the day we did another stint in the Zodiacs and had more than twenty Vanuatu Petrels some coming right over us.
Vanuatu Petrels, off Vanua Lava
We had a great experience and had excellent observations of many Vanuatu Petrels. If I return I would probably choose to go earlier in season -say Dec- to catch the Vanuatu Petrels in crisper plumage and of course to have better opportunity to observe and photograph Magnificent Petrels.
We had an amazing visit to a village on Vanua Lava then headed north to the Temotu (Santa Cruz) Islands. We were hoping to see a potentially undescribed Puffinus shearwater.
Mostly we saw a variety of "Tropical" Shearwaters. The last day in the islands Chris Collins photographed a single individual that may have been the "undescribed" species.
Simon Cooke observed these "undescribed"birds in fair numbers in January so they could be breeding locally at that time and off foraging by April.
We had some amazing shore excursions in the Temotu Islands including sightings of Vanikoro Flying Foxes. The IUCN considers this species Critically Endangered/Possibly Extinct and this is the first sighting since 1926!
We had some great seabirding in between the Temotu Islands and the Solomon Island's including over 20 Grey-backed Terns which I had previously missed on multiple occasions.
To round things off I finally managed an in-focus picture of a Flying-Squid.
As I have skipped over large parts of this amazing adventure I will end with some random pictures to give a flavour of some of the other activities.
Flying Squid, Solomon Islands
Flying Fox, Temotu Islands
Flying Fish including Yellow Bandwing, the infamous Turquoise Vibe, the newly named Snake-eyes and the intricate Leopard Wing
Vanuatu and Temotu Islands Folk
Next stop- Juan Fernandez Islands, Chile-Nov-2014
Thanks for tuning in.
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