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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Palau, Micronesia, December 30, 2005 – January 2, 2006,
This is a report on a short birding trip to Palau that had been intended as the first leg of a multi-island Micronesian trip that was cut short by injury. However, new information not contained in previous trip reports shows how all Palau endemics can be seen using Koror as a convenient base.
Anyone reading Micronesian trip reports has read about the logistical nightmares trying to coordinate the Continental Micronesia flights with the need to visit multiple islands in limited days. We found, as had others, that travel agents cannot locate information about these flights and that information on Internet travel sites is incomplete. So the biggest challenge to this endeavor is to set up the itinerary. Part of that is determining the number of days to stay on each island. Palau has the largest number of Micronesian endemics, and the best infrastructure, but the information we had read in previous reports was unclear as to the locations necessary to see all the endemics, in particular the Giant White-eye. Based on our experience, it is possible to see all Palau endemics plus some Micronesian specialties in only two days with good planning and good weather, plus good fortune finding the owl, although Palau’s natural beauty merits extra time to enjoy.
We found that all endemics can be found by taking half- or full-day boat trips from Koror to two nearby islands as part of diving or snorkeling tours plus some walking around Koror. This eliminated the need to relocate to Peleliu, as others had done. This turned out to be important because the only air service to Peleliu, Belau Air, had limited its service to twice-weekly service on days that would not match our plans. We could not find this out because their web site was down, as was their phone, and no one we spoke to on Palau before we arrived had the slightest idea about their schedule. So relying on Belau Air is a very risky proposition.
Most endemics were found, as reported in previous reports, on Koror. Key exceptions were Giant White-eye which was common at the German Lighthouse site on Urukthapel (also known as Ngeruktabel) Island. Morningbird and Melanesian Megapode were also seen here but not on Koror. Palau Ground-Dove was seen on Ulong (also known as Aulong) Island, as was Melanesian Megapode, and apparently both are reliable and sometimes the Ground-Dove is quite approachable. Both of these islands are routine stops on the diving / snorkeling circuit, and birders can be arranged to be dropped off and picked up a few hours later. The staff at Sam’s Tours was very helpful in getting us on these tours, which is the most cost-effective way to reach the islands. Making advance arrangements would certainly be desirable.
Based on what we learned, we would certainly change this itinerary and do the island trips first.
Day 1. Arrived mid-day from Manila, checked into the hotel, tried in vain to locate Belau Air. Took a taxi to the Mobil gas station on the southwest causeway leading to Malakal Island from Koror. It is technically on Long Island and is on the left side when leaving Koror. The forest path mentioned in early trip reports in now inaccessible so we walked around the sides of the station before deciding to wait on the concrete landing at the jetty. The only birds around were common Island Swiftlets. The light here is perfect in the evening and an hour before dusk we started to see a wide variety of endemics. There were at least a dozen Palau Fruit-Doves, including two within ten feet of us; one Micronesian Pigeon high on the hill dwarfing the surrounding fruit-doves; one Palau (Mangrove) Flycatcher; Micronesian Starlings, a noisy Palau Fantail; several Micronesian Honeyeaters; but no white-eyes. We played a tape of Palau Bush-Warbler but no reply. Even so, this was quite a good start.
After dusk we walked to nearby Sam’s Tours where we met up with Ron Leidich, with whom we had exchanged some e-mails. Ron was not only very knowledgeable about birds but also very helpful in trying to get us onto tours where we would see the endemics. This was very heartening as we were realizing that Belau Air was not going to be taking us to Peleliu and we had limited time left before our scheduled flight to Pohnpei. We were unable to get onto any tours for the next day, but he said he would work on it and felt confident he would be able to do so the following day.
Day 2. In the morning we went out to Palau Pacific Resort, the nicest hotel on Palau. If you are courteous they welcome you. We walked on their nature trail and had lunch afterwards. The nature trail is to the right of the beach and up some wooden steps. Within 50 feet of entering the forest we heard Palau Bush-Warblers around us. A brief clip of tape had them buzzing around us, 10-15 feet up in trees and not where I expected bush warblers to be. But a tape would not be necessary to see the bird here. They were common and not shy and were bouncing in and out of view. We continued behind the hotel onto some construction paths where we saw Palau (Mangrove) Flycatcher, Palau Fantail, Caroline Island and Dusky White-eyes, and Micronesian Starlings.
After lunch we stopped back near the Mobil station, walking back towards the back of the island near a recreation area where we saw several Cicadabirds along with Island Swiftlets but little else at mid-day. In the afternoon we rented a kayak near Long Island and saw one fly-by Micronesian Kingfisher along with several Rufous Night-Herons. We were also near the dump and it was also near low tide so there were many other waders flying around.
Day 3. We joined a diving expedition to Urukthapel Island. This is often referred to as the German Lighthouse area and it was the site of fierce WW2 fighting. It was also a location for the TV show Survivor-Palau. We were dropped off, along with our guide Butler, and the dive boat went off to bring the divers to dive sites. They were supposed to come back for us several hours later. There is a wide road that leads gradually up a hill and almost immediately we saw several Palau Bush-Warblers (low, where they should be!), Micronesian Honeyeaters, and a Palau (Mangrove) Flycatcher. A short distance up the road we encountered the first of several flocks of Giant White-eyes, a mixed flock of Dusky and Caroline Island White-eyes, Micronesian Starlings, and several Morningbirds. So within 30 minutes we had seen the target birds for this island. But we understood that both Micronesian Megapode and Palau Ground-Dove are also found here, normally higher up the trail, and we had all day left. After walking a bit more, and hearing Micronesian Pigeon and Micronesian Kingfisher, Butler saw a megapode run across the path. In a rush to see it, one of us tumbled and suffered a badly broken arm. Butler was able to kayak into the sea and locate a fishing boat which brought us to the Palau hospital but this was a premature ending to the birding trip. However, from a birding perspective, the point is that all the endemics appear to be on this one island. The megapode and ground-dove are long shots, but refer to Day 4.
Day 4. One of us had an arm in a cast and nothing to do. The next flight home was the following day. So, why not go birding - slowly? Ron arranged for us to join a group going out to Ulong Island. It was a rainy day. Ulong has a large covered picnic area, and we mostly stayed there when the divers left. But, in between breaks in the rain, we walked behind and to the right of the picnic area and found a Palau Ground-Dove foraging around. A bit farther down this path we came upon the nest area of Micronesian Megapodes and saw two birds, one walking around an open area. Despite the rain we also saw Palau (Mangrove) Flycatcher, Palau Fantail, Dusky and Caroline Island White-eyes, and Micronesian Starlings. The group picked us up, we had lunch, and then the group continued on to Jellyfish Lake and some other snorkeling spots. So either of these island trips could also include some snorkeling, as well as sightseeing among the beautiful Rock Islands of which these are two.
We also tried unsuccessfully for Palau Owl one evening, at the site of the former Nikko Hotel which was being torn down. We heard several within 30 minutes after sunset but then they were quiet. The owls are heard widely around the island at dusk. Their call is similar to the Palau Fruit-Dove which, according to Ron Leidich, does not call after dusk. But their territories are apparently small and they did not come to playbacks of calls. It clearly takes some luck to see one. Local knowledge at the time of a visit would seem to be the most important factor.
Using Koror as a base, and Sam’s Tour as a tour operator, it would appear to be possible to see all endemics on a trip to German Lighthouse and another to Ulong Island, and even these days would include sightseeing and snorkeling. It would be prudent to include some provisional days in case boat trips were cancelled due to weather. Advance planning and booking is useful because not all trips run each day, especially in off-season. Days not spent on a boat tour could be spent looking along fields on the big island of Babelthuap which is where Blue-faced Parrot-Finch has been reported.
Sam’s Tours, tel: 680-488-1062, fax: 680-488-5003; Ron Leidich, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I cannot thank Ron enough for his assistance setting up the birding and for Butler’s extraordinary help during our accident.
West Plaza Hotels: a series of mid-range hotels on Palau – the key to any hotel on Palau is location. Some are in the commercial area, some near the diving shops, other are far from anything. Tel: 680-488-2133; fax: 680-488-2136; e-mail: email@example.com. There are many hotels in Palau, and some provide free airport transfers. Taxis are available around Koror. US currency is used. We did not use any ATMs because we brought adequate cash but we saw several.
Watson and Watson, 2001: www.birdinghawaii.co.uk/MicronesiaTrip20001.htm (note the extra 0 in 20001);
Smith, 2002: www.camacdonald.com/birding/pamicronesiaTripReport.htm
Talbot and Campion, 2003: http://www.surfbirds.com/mb/trips/micronesia-gt-0203.html
Many thanks to the following who offered very helpful comments, many of which we could not follow because of our shortened trip:
Doug Pratt, firstname.lastname@example.org;
Graham Talbot, email@example.com;
Bill Raynor, braynor@TNC.ORG;
Steve Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Smith also sells a tape of Micronesian bird songs.