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10 – 15 DECEMBER 2018
By Andy Walker
This short and highly successful New Caledonia set departure group tour followed our Western Australia tour (see a variety of our trip reports here). The tour started in Nouméa on the 10th of December 2018 and concluded back there on the 15th of December 2018. The tour focused on (and was successful in) finding all of the endemic birds found on Grande Terre, the main and largest island of New Caledonia, as well as several regional endemic species and a number of distinct subspecies that may warrant full species status in the future.
A total of 62 bird species were seen (plus one species heard only). Full species lists are provided at the end of this report. The main highlight bird seen was undoubtedly Kagu, the endemic, Endangered (BirdLife International), and flightless bird that is the main reason most birders come to New Caledonia. We had some amazing views of a group of five birds all feeding together and then having a bit of a territorial dispute which involved a lot of posturing, crest flaring, and hissing sounds! It was a magical experience to witness at such close range.
We had several other major highlights during the tour, none as incredible as finding New Caledonian Thicketbird, a species teetering on the edge of existence and easily the most difficult of the country’s endemic species to track down and then actually see. This is a mega-skulker, and we were over the moon to get good views of one. Another huge highlight of the tour involved two sightings of the Critically Endangered (BirdLife International) Crow Honeyeater, an endemic species in fairly-rapid decline and far from easy these days, unfortunately. Additional major highlights included great views of nesting White-bellied Goshawk and multiple sightings of the tool-making New Caledonian Crow, an intriguing species to observe foraging.
Other, no-less-impressive endemics seen well on multiple occasions included Cloven-feathered Dove, Goliath Imperial Pigeon, Horned Parakeet, New Caledonian Parakeet, New Caledonian Cuckooshrike, New Caledonian Whistler, Green-backed White-eye, Barred Honeyeater, New Caledonian Myzomela, New Caledonian Friarbird, Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, Striated Starling, and Red-throated Parrotfinch.
Plenty of other regional endemics were also seen, such as South Melanesian Cuckooshrike, Melanesian Flycatcher, Southern Shrikebill, Long-tailed Triller, Grey-eared Honeyeater, Fan-tailed Gerygone, and Streaked Fantail. We also found a rarity in the form of White-browed Crake!
Day 0, 9th December 2018. Pre-tour arrival in Nouméa, New Caledonia
Andy and Tom arrived in Nouméa, New Caledonia, and transferred to their comfortable beachside hotel after having traveled to Nouméa from Perth (via Sydney), Australia, after completing our set-departure Western Australia: Southwest Specialties tour.
After checking into our hotel the afternoon was spent at leisure (maybe listening to and watching the Grey-eared Honeyeater and Coconut Lorikeets that are so common here) ahead of the tour starting the next day.
Day 1, 10th December 2018. Tour started, birding at Mount Koghi
Our first day birding in New Caledonia was spent at Mount Koghi, not far from the capital city of Nouméa. The forest here offers some great birds, and we got our trip off to a great start with Barred Honeyeater, Grey-eared Honeyeater, and Striated Startling in the parking lot. As we entered the forest we found Rufous Whistler and South Melanesian Cuckooshrike and could hear the distinctive sound of the huge Goliath Imperial Pigeon echoing around the forest. As the day progressed we had some great views of several of them (these are the largest arboreal pigeons in the world!). We also heard the distinctive sound of Cloven-feathered Dove as one flew through. Small passerines were all very vocal, and we had plenty of repeated views of New Caledonian Whistler, Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, Green-backed White-eye, Fan-tailed Gerygone, Streaked and Grey Fantails, New Caledonian Myzomela, Melanesian Flycatcher, and Southern Shrikebill giving amazing views.
One of the reasons that these birds were all very vocal and wary was because there was a pair of the rare, endemic White-bellied Goshawk breeding in the forest. This is a really beautiful accipiter, and it was great to get some prolonged and repeated views of them. We were able to watch some very interesting behavior, as it appeared as though the pair were doing a food-swap with the male bringing prey to the female, who would then take it to the nest.
Other birds seen during the course of the day included Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Shining Bronze Cuckoo, Sacred Kingfisher, Satin Swiftlet, White-rumped Swiftlet, and (brief views of) New Caledonian Parakeet. Both cuckoos are potential future splits, so it was good to find both of them.
While driving back to our hotel late in the afternoon we saw the introduced Common Waxbill, to go along with the introduced House Sparrow, Spotted Dove, Common Myna, and Red-vented Bulbul we had seen during the day.
Day 2, 11th December 2018. Parc de la Rivière Bleue
As we ate breakfast on the beach we were surrounded by a range of introduced species and also more local ones in the form of Coconut Lorikeets and Silver Gulls. After breakfast we hit the road and headed southeast to the Parc de la Rivière Bleue, seeing Whistling Kite and Swamp Harrier along the way.
We had one target in mind and so went straight for that first. As we entered the forest full of anticipation we didn’t need to worry, as in no time at all we were watching our first Kagu. This is always a special moment. Kagu is probably one of the most highly-sought species in New Caledonia (if not in the whole world!), and so it is always great when the first one walks into view. We spent a good hour or so in the company of not just one, but five Kagus. It was fascinating watching them as they foraged in the leaf litter for a range of insects (and larger prey like lizards). While we were watching them all of a sudden three of the birds ran toward each other and had a bit of a face-off. They stood up tall with crests erected and wings out, showing their incredible wing patterns. They proceeded to hiss at each other and maintained that position for a while. An amazing sight!
It’s always tough to pull yourself away from watching a Kagu, more so a group of them! But we needed to move on as the temperature was soaring and we could hear the constant noise generated by several New Caledonian Friarbirds, so we took some time to watch them, as this was our first proper view of them of the tour. As we started to move away from the friarbirds we heard the distinctive call of a Crow Honeyeater. This species is Critically Endangered and in a state of rapid decline. However, luck was on our side as one flew in and across the road, allowing an all-to-brief glimpse. It was frustrating yet thrilling to see that the species is persisting here. It moved on and unfortunately wasn’t relocated.
We moved to another section of the forest and found Goliath Imperial Pigeon, New Caledonian Whistler, a very brief New Caledonian Cuckooshrike, Satin and White-rumped Swiftlets, Melanesian Flycatcher, and several other species. We also had further looks at a few more Kagus! Eventually it was time to return to the car and head back into Nouméa after a really enjoyable day.
Day 3, 12th December 2018. Parc de la Rivière Bleue
The lure of what we had seen the previous day was too hard to resist, so we headed to Parc de la Rivière Bleue once more. Again, in no time at all we were watching Kagus, at least five of them, to be precise. We again spent some time watching them go about their morning activities and after a while decided to move on ourselves and see what else we could find. This proved to be a good plan, and straight away we were rewarded by finding a pair of New Caledonian Cuckooshrikes (much better views than on the previous day), quickly followed by discovering a nesting pair of Yellow-bellied Flyrobins. A bit further along the road we found one of those highly-sought endemics – New Caledonian Crow. This bird was out foraging and had its tool (a small twig) in its bill as it was digging into small crevices for insect prey. Fascinating to watch this behavior! A short while later we were watching New Caledonian Myzomela, New Caledonian Friarbird, and Melanesian Flycatcher, all very nice birds.
In the midmorning a young couple came walking past us. They had binoculars and a Kagu primary feather, a rare find! I asked if I could photograph it, which I did, and as I was taking a photo a sharp call behind me caused me to swing around, where I found two Crow Honeyeaters suddenly sitting not 12 feet away from us! Panic stations as these two Critically Endangered honeyeaters moved through the bushes before flying over our heads and away. With a bit of juggling of the kagu feather, camera, tripod, and a few other things it was possible to grab a quick record shot. Amazed, we were extremely happy to have got some great views of these rare birds before they vanished as quickly as they had materialized.
Over the course of the rest of the morning and early afternoon we added several species to our day lists, such as Goliath Imperial Pigeon, Metallic Pigeon, Barred Honeyeater, Grey-eared Honeyeater, New Caledonian Whistler, Streaked Fantail, and New Caledonian Parakeet, as well as getting plenty of further views of species such as Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, Melanesian Flycatcher, and New Caledonian Myzomela, which appeared super-abundant today. Not that we were complaining at having to repeatedly look at such a stunning bird! As we sat down to have our picnic lunch we noticed a Kagu suddenly appear out of nowhere from right next to us. Further great views were had.
Calling in at the lake area on our return to the car we found Swamp Harrier, Whistling Kite, and Little Pied Cormorant.
Satisfied with our haul for the day, and with the temperatures rising and the activity dwindling, we headed back to our comfortable hotel for a couple of hours’ relaxation before yet another wonderful dinner.
Day 4, 13th December 2018. Mount Koghi to Farino
We had a great morning birding at Mount Koghi once again, and we found several new birds with relative ease, including a few big targets. A bit of activity caught our eye on the entrance road, and suddenly we were face-to-face with the gorgeous and tiny endemic, Red-throated Parrotfinch, which was great to see so well, along with several other species such as South Melanesian Cuckooshrike and Fan-tailed Gerygone. Nearby we also had our first proper looks at Metallic Pigeon. As we entered the forest we found another Red-throated Parrotfinch, and, even better, our first Horned Parakeet, a rather odd-looking endemic parrot, which was busy feeding. It did, however, show fairly well and even vocalized occasionally. We walked around in the forest for a couple of hours and found lots to keep us occupied, such as White-bellied Goshawk (the nesting pair from a few days earlier seen again), Goliath Imperial Pigeon, New Caledonian Whistler, Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, Striated Starling, and Barred Honeyeater, along with plenty more! Just as we were ready to leave a bit of activity drew our attention first to a male Long-tailed Triller and second to a feeding New Caledonian Parakeet, which showed well as it fed and in doing so gave us our best looks so far after a couple of very brief views earlier in the tour.
By now it was midmorning and time to start our drive north to Farino for the final two nights of the tour. During the journey we noted Eastern Osprey, Swamp Harrier, and Whistling Kite, and a stop at some pools that had turned up some good birds on our previous tours again delivered a cracker in the form of White-browed Crake, a New Caledonian rarity no less! Lots of other new trip birds were found and included Grey Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Australasian Grebe, Little Black Cormorant, Australasian Swamphen, Zebra Dove, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, Silvereye, and Welcome Swallow. A rather satisfactory haul, especially the crake!
After checking into our accommodation we headed for a final walk of the day along a river. Here we saw several New Caledonian Crows foraging with and without tools, always fun to watch and listen to. We were tantalizingly close to seeing Cloven-feathered Dove as one flew off while several others could be heard calling from places we just couldn’t see despite our best efforts. Several other birds were noted, such as a juvenile White-breasted Goshawk, South Melanesian Cuckooshrike, White-breasted Woodswallow, Striated Starling, and a plethora of very vocal (as usual) New Caledonian Friarbirds.
Day 5, 14th December 2018. The Farino area
Our final full day’s birding of the tour was incredibly successful and very exciting too! Buff-banded Rails were active in the hotel gardens as we left our rooms. First we took a pre-breakfast drive toward the place where we had heard the calling Cloven-feathered Doves the previous night. However, along the way our journey was interrupted when we spotted one sitting in a roadside tree! It was (only) a juvenile, so not the prettiest of things, but nevertheless it was a Cloven-feathered Dove!
After finding this main target of the day so early we decided to switch plans and try and improve on our views of the regional endemic Long-tailed Triller that had been seen briefly on the previous day. This proved an excellent decision. We continued driving along the road, looking for trillers, and in doing so actually found another, much more stunning, adult Cloven-feathered Dove! We had some fantastic views of it, and a short while later we managed to find the Long-tailed Triller we were searching for and got good views of that too. Not bad before breakfast!
We were starting to run out of birds to look for… There was one bird still remaining, though, the toughest of all of the country’s endemics, the Thicketbird, a mega-skulker and known from only a very few locations in the last 10 years, one of those mythical birds. But who doesn’t love a challenge?
After breakfast we drove into the mountains for an hour or so above our accommodation. Along the way we saw a Spotless Crake and several Buff-banded Rails in damp areas. Then we found some suitably dense-looking thickets of grassy vegetation and started to hike through them. We had an old recording of the thicketbird’s song and played it when we arrived at a level section of the track in some shade (it was almost noon and over 30oC by this time). Incredibly as soon as the first note rang out from the speaker there was an identical call! Did this have something to do with the recording? Surely it couldn’t be the bird… We played it again, and again the same call came immediately back at us. It was suddenly clear that we were on to something here. By placing the speaker directly ahead of us we gave another burst of song, and suddenly there it was… Unbelievable! A New Caledonian Thicketbird right before our very eyes! We had found the most unlikely and difficult of birds in the country, and in doing so we had seen all of the island’s endemic species over the past few days. During the next 15 minutes we saw it a couple of times in flight, but it was amazing how it could move through the vegetation without giving its location away.
Very happy with our day we decided to head back to our accommodation, where we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. Over the course of the day we also had seen plenty of other endemic birds, such as numerous New Caledonian Friarbirds, plenty of New Caledonian Crows, Red-throated Parrotfinches, New Caledonian Whistlers, as well as lots more, such as Melanesian Flycatcher, our best views yet of Pacific Emerald Dove (two sat together), and Metallic Pigeon, but really the day will be long remembered for the stunning adult Cloven-feathered Dove and the New Caledonian Thicketbird.
Day 6, 15th December 2018. Farino to Nouméa, tour concludes
We had an incredibly productive pre-breakfast one-hour walk near our accommodation before we had to head to the airport. A short trail along a river was very busy with birds. We finally saw Shining Bronze Cuckoo after hearing it every day of the tour, and straight after we’d left the cuckoo behind us we were watching a very close feeding Horned Parakeet that was totally unconcerned by our presence. Here too we saw New Caledonian Crow, Melanesian Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, Green-backed White-eye, and New Caledonian Myzomela.
A little further along the trail we spotted Red-throated Parrotfinch, Striated Starling, Goliath Imperial Pigeon, New Caledonian Friarbird, and Barred Honeyeater – we were collecting endemics for fun here! There were several Cloven-feathered Doves calling along the trail, and after a while we had views of a young bird and a short while later of a really stunning adult that showed remarkably well for ages. We actually had to leave it sitting there, as it was time for us to head back to our accommodation. What a great way to end the tour, though!
After breakfast we drove back to Nouméa, where the tour concluded in the midmorning with international flights home. We reflected on what had been an incredible trip with Kagu (bird of the trip, as always), New Caledonian Thicketbird, Crow Honeyeater, New Caledonian Crow, Horned Parakeet, Cloven-feathered Dove, New Caledonian Parakeet, and White-browed Crake topping the long list of highlights.