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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
New Caledonia, March 28 - April 4, 2004,
Clinton, Tennessee USA
This was a trip that my wife, Dollyann Myers, and I decided to try because we were going to be in the area anyway. We were staying with some friends in Caboolture, which is just north of Brisbane, Australia. Our friends, Linda and Phil Cross, decided to go with us. Our main target, of course, was the Kagu, but we also wanted to try and find as many endemics as we could. The first thing I want to say is that this was NOT the best time of the year to go, as it was at the end of the wet season. It was definitely wet! It was raining when we landed at the airport and we had at least some rain every day we were there. A cyclone had moved through the area only a week before we arrived, so everything was saturated. In spite of this, we somehow managed to have a good trip, only dipping on the New Caledonia Grassbird and the Crow Honeyeater. All our birding was done in the southern third of the main island. My wife and I also went over to Lifou for one night, coming back the next day.
We found New Caledonia to be very modern, very clean, and expensive. We did not encounter the poverty that plagues many out-of-the-way places. The local people all treated us fine and were very helpful when we needed something. French is the main language, and despite our limited French, we managed to get by pretty well. Most people spoke better English than we did French, so it worked out OK. We rented a 4 door Renault Megane, with a covered hatchback. It gave us no problems and seemed to be fairly economical on gas (which was pricey).
When I first thought about doing this trip, I checked into airfare from either Brisbane or Sydney. I was shocked by how much they wanted. The cheapest fare I could find on the internet was about $1,200 (US) and that was from Sydney. Linda searched for some deals and eventually she got a package deal from Air Caledonie (New Caledonia's domestic airline - Air Calin is their international name; I assume it's the same company, probably both owned by the government). Our package included round-trip airfare, 7 nights at the Le Pacifique Hotel (3.5 stars), AND our rental car, for only about $1,000. I thought that was a very good price. We also had a chance to book all meals with our package for only about $150 more, but declined because we thought we would not get breakfast that early and figured we would be eating lunch in the field. As it turned out, the evening meals alone (for 2 ) cost about $30 (US), and that was in the "snack bar", not in a proper restaurant. If we had included the food on our package, the hotel probably would have fixed us a take away lunch and maybe even some breakfast that we could eat in the room. It would have worked out better if we had included the meals into our package.
What we did then was to bring some Muesli with us from Australia for breakfast, and then bought some bread, peanut butter, meat and cheese to keep in our refrigerator in the room. That way we could make sandwiches to take with us for lunch, along with some fruit. Our hotel, Le Pacifique, was more than adequate. The rooms were nice, clean, large, and we were on the top floor with a nice view of the beach. All the hotel personel that we dealt with spoke good English, so they helped us with any glitches that cropped up.
The field guide we used was "Birds of the Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia", by Doughty, Day, and Plant. It was very useful and has very good plates of the birds. I'll go through the day by day itinerary, then list the species we saw or heard, and then give some thoughts at the end of the report.
Day by Day Itinerary
March 28 - Travel day. We left Brisbane in the early evening and arrived at the international airport about 9 p.m. The airport, which is called Tontouta, is about 45 minutes north of the capital city of Noumea. We sorted out our rental car and then drove into Noumea in a steady rain. We didn't know exactly how to get to our hotel, and as we were sitting in our car looking at a map in downtown Noumea, a police car came alongside. I pointed to the map, said "hotel Le Pacifique". They got the idea and lead us to the hotel. Not bad, a police escort! All nights were at Hotel Le Pacifique.
March 29 - Our thoughts were that we would need most of this day to figure out where the roads were to get us to the birding spots, so we didn't have high expectations for a big bird list for the day. That, plus it was raining hard to start out with. We decided to try Mount Khogi first, a well known birding spot and formerly a location for the grassbird. We had a rough map of the city from the car rental place, and we just started driving north. BDL (blind, dumb, luck) kicked in and we somehow managed to find just the right road. We were driving along and saw a sign for Mt. Khogi. We drove up to the top, but the rain was coming down in buckets, so we turned around and started back down the hill. About 2/3rds of the way back down, I saw a large bird fly over. We were at a wide spot in the road, so I pulled over and got out to try to get a look at it. It had stopped raining for the most part so we birded the area for about 45 minutes. In that time we spotted Glossy Swiftlet, Metallic Pigeon (the large bird that had flown over), a pair of soaring White-bellied Goshawks, Dark-brown and Barred Honeyeaters, Long-tailed Triller, Melanesian Cuckoo-Shrike, Striated Starling, and Silver-eye. A bit earlier on the way down, I got a glimpse of a New Caledonia Crow.
The rain started again, so we decided to try to find the way to the prime birding spot on the island, Parc National Riviere Bleu, home of the Kagu. We knew the park was closed on Mondays, but wanted to make sure we knew how to get there and how long it would take. Linda thought she had arranged to meet Yves Letocart, the main bird expert in the park, for Tuesday and Wednesday. This was supposedly arranged through a travel agency called Arc en Ciel and a lady there named Magali. Unknown to us at the time, this information was apparently NOT passed on to Yves or the park people. We found that out later, and never found out why the arrangements were not passed on to the park people.
We were driving the road that goes to Yate, when we saw a sign pointing left to Parc Riviere Bleu. We turned left and went only about 1 km when we noticed a lot of bird activity. We pulled over and birded by the side of the road for the next 40 minutes or so and eventually we spotted Fan-tailed Gerygone, both Rufous and New Caledonian Whistlers, Streaked Fantail, New Caledonian Flycatcher, Green-backed White-eye, and Common Waxbill. After the activity died down, we drove on and found the entrance road to the park. We drove in to the gate (2 km) and there was a picnic table, so we had our late (2 p.m.) lunch.
We watched for birds during lunch, but there wasn't much activity and we didn't add anything else. We decided to go back to the hotel, so we got in the car and started to drive out. Just then, a small truck passed us. We decided to go back and see if it was someone who worked at the park and see if we could get any information we might need. As it turned out, it was a young man named Jean Marc, who happens to be Yves Letocart's assistant. Linda and Phil talked to him while Dollyann and I sat in the car. When they came back to the car, they said "do you want the bad news or the really bad news!". Oh - Oh! They said that Jean Marc told them the park was going to be closed all week because of all the rain they had gotten recently. Linda pleaded with him, saying we had come a long way to try for the Kagu, and asked him if there was any way we could get special permission to go in. Jean Marc said he would try to call Yves that night and see if he could meet us on Wednesday to take us birding. He said Tuesday and the rest of the week was for sure not possible, but that we MIGHT have a chance Wednesday. If we did, we would have to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle, as you had to drive through 2 streams to get to the main bridge, where Yves would meet us, IF he could take us. Jean Marc said to call him at 8 a.m. Tuesday and he should know something by then. Needless to say we were all in a funk. We had ticked 7 endemics and 6 near-endemics already for the day, but this news was potentially devastating. Kagu would be a new family for all of us, and we dearly wanted a chance to try to see it. It was a long, silent drive back to the Noumea.
March 30 - I don't think any of us slept well last night, not knowing what today would bring. We called Jean Marc at 8 a.m. Luck was with us! Jean Marc said that Yves had agreed to meet us at the main bridge Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. We thanked him profusely and then arranged to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle delivered to our hotel today at 5 p.m. for a 24 hour rental ($89). Having arranged that, we then decided to go back to Mt. Khogi. We got there about 9 a.m. and spent the next 4+ hours hiking some of the trails. We actually didn't see many birds, but we did get a good look at the New Caledonian Crow. We saw two different individuals with small sticks in their beaks. Apparently they use them to pry insects out of holes or crevices. We also added a Whistling Kite and Grey Fantail.
March 31 - This was to be THE day for the Kagu. The 4 - wheel drive vehicle was delivered to our hotel last night, so after an early breakfast we left for Parc Riviere Bleu, planning to arrive about 7 a.m. We birded a little bit on the road before we got to the park entrance road, but didn't see much. We got to the entrance gate a little after 7 and spotted a Sacred Kingfisher. We met with Jean Marc and he said to go ahead into the park and drive to the main bridge. About half way to the bridge, we ran into some activity, so we stopped and immediately picked up Swamp Harrier, Red-fronted Parakeet, and New Caledonian Myzomela. We had to cross a couple of small creeks to get to the main bridge and our vehicle did this easily. At the main birdge, we picked up a Little Pied Cormorant before Yves showed up. This is the bridge whose foundation was apparently weakened by a cyclone last year. It appeared to be fine to walk across, but the Parc would not allow vehicles to cross over it. In the picture below, the main bridge is in the background. It looked fine to us walking on it, but the park insists that no vehicles cross it until it has been worked on. Yves thinks it will be several years before the park gets around to having the money to fix the bridge properly for vehicle traffic. This means that if you want to bird the forest here and have NOT made arrangements for the park or someone to drive you to the forest, you would park your car by the bridge and then hike in to the forest. I'm guessing the walk would be about 4-5 km to the forest from the bridge.
Yves happened to have his vehicle on the other side when the cyclone came through last year, so he now has the only transportation available on the other side.
Yves arrived on time, around 8 a.m. After introducing ourselves, we got into his vehicle and drove about 4-5 km to where the forest starts. About this time it started to rain fairly steadily. We figured we were doomed, but what could we do? I was sitting in the back, looking out the back window, while we were driving into the forest. As we crossed a small bridge, I saw something pale and largish. I asked Yves to stop and check it out. When we walked back towards the bridge, Linda and I got a brief glimpse of our first Kagu, but the others missed it. Despite Yves' efforts with a CD, we couldn't get the bird to come back out. We got back in the vehicle and not far up the road we stopped to try for another Kagu. This time it worked and all of us got great looks at a bird that was slowly walking around in the trees hunting for worms, their preferred food. Later we found yet a third Kagu for even better looks.
Although we never saw the Kagu displaying with it's crest and wing patterns, it was still fascinating to see a bird who is the sole member of it's family. At this point our day was a success!
The rest of the morning was spent birding along the forest road. At times the rain was heavy and we just had to wait in the car or under a picnic shelter. One time while doing this, Dollyann spotted the only New Caledonian Cuckoo-Shrike we were to find on the trip. The only other new species for this rain-soaked morning were the Notu (New Caledonian Imperial-Pigeon) and Yellow-bellied Robin. I think Yves said the Notu was the largest arboreal pigeon in the world. Whether it is or not, it was huge and had a lovely red eye. It was getting to be near lunchtime, so we asked Yves if we could take a break for a quick lunch. We weren't quite sure how long Yves was going to stay with us, or if we were preventing him from important work, or what. We asked him about that, and as it turned out, he was thrilled to be out of the office and not sitting in front of a computer or doing paperwork. He would have stayed with us as long as we liked!
After lunch, Yves took us to what I would call a "honey-hole". It was a place he has seen a lot of bird activity before and was near a low depression in the ground that had standing water in it. The rain had stopped for a few minutes and we were treated with great looks at Horned Parakeet, Cloven-feathered Dove,
Southern Shrikebill, and Red-throated Parrot-Finch. Try as we might during the whole day in the forest, Yves could not get a Crow Honeyeater to come in or respond to the CD. They have a large territory and Yves thinks they couldn't hear the CD because of the noise from the rain. That and the fact that they are declining in numbers. He has been concerned about their survival for some time now, as this park is their only remaining stronghold.
We finished birding about 2:30 p.m. Yves took us back to the main bridge, where we thanked him profusely and gave him 2 bottles of wine for his efforts. We had a great time with him. He is a very nice fellow and spoke pretty good English. He was supposed to be retiring this year, but he told us that he wants to stay on and work on another project, but it most likely will be in another park in another part of the island. He told us if anyone wanted to contact him or arrange to go into the forest, they would need to go through the park manager's office and NOT contact him directly. We never did get a contact number for the park office, but assume it can be found either through the internet or by contacting any travel agency in Noumea.
April 1 - Today we were going to try to find the New Caledonian Grassbird. The old standby location for this species was up on Mt. Khogi, but apparently the birds are not there any more. The new site is not far from the town of Farino. Farino is about 2 hours drive north of Noumea. Rough directions are: Go north on the highway past the Tontoua airport, through Boulouparis, and then La Foa. On the other side of La Foa, about 1 km, take the road to the right signed to Sarramea. Go about 1.2 km to a road on the left. Go left about 0.5 km and you come to a 3 way junction. We went right here for about 2.7 km and came to Farino. We came to a 3 way junction, with a town hall on the right (called Mairie). Go straight at this junction for almost 1 km, down a hill, to a small bridge on the left. There's a telephone box here. Go left across the bridge and then immediately right, paralleling a small stream. This is the road you want. Go about 5.7 km, mostly uphill (although fairly gently) until you come to a junction on top of the hill. There's a grassy area here. Yves said to take the left fork and the grassbirds are on the left for the first 1 km or so. Another person said that they could be almost anywhere along the 5.7 km road on the way up. Both people said they seem to favor the plant Lantana. In any event, we never found any grassbirds, despite playing a tape for them near lots of Lantana patches. For sure we were here at the wrong time of the year, but this species is a mega-skulker and most people miss it. We did have a lot of bird activity all along the road and we got great looks at several birds, but we didn't add any new species. On the way back down, I stopped to play the tape near a patch of Lantana and we thought we got a response. We stayed there for about 15 minutes playing the tape and listening, but we never laid eyes on anything. If it was a grassbird (we thought it was), it was true to it's reputation and remained hidden. Drive back to Noumea.
April 2 - My wife and I decided to go to the satellite island of Lifou to try to find 2 more of the New Caledonia endemics and a couple of near endemics. We had to purchase an air ticket to fly over today, spend the night, and then fly back tomorrow. We went to Arc en Ciel travel agency in Noumea a few days before (Mar. 30th) to help arrange this and they took care of it nicely. The flight cost $200 roundtrip each and the hotel for the night was $95. We were to arrive in the early afternoon and fly back to Noumea a little after noon tomorrow.
Since we didn't have to leave until 11 a.m., we decided to bird around some of the marshy areas near Noumea for some trip birds. This worked fairly well. The bays were full of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and we picked up a Greater Frigatebird along with them. Some of the other species we added for the trip were Grey Teal, Osprey, Dusky Moorhen, tattler sp. (most likely Grey-tailed), Pacific Golden Plover, Great Crested and Black-naped Terns, and Pacific Swallow.
My wife and I flew to Lifou and got to our hotel a little before 3 p.m. The hotel was the Drehu Village Resort. It was very nice and the staff were very helpful. We left the hotel to try for our birds at 3 p.m. A friend had told us to walk straight out from the hotel to a round-a-bout, go straight through it up the road for about 200m. Then take the first road on the left, go about 100m, and then go right into the woods. We found the place easy enough and noticed a small trail into the woods. We went in about 50m and started listening for sounds. I also spished a bit to get the bird's interest up. The first bird to show up was the Large Lifou White-eye. This was supposed to be the hardest one, but we got a superb look at it. Next to show up was a Red-bellied Fruit-Dove. We got a brief look at it before it flew a bit into the next tree. In a few moments we saw it again sitting quietly on a branch. It sat there for us for a long time. Wow!
What a gorgeous bird! We had just finished looking at the dove, when we spotted a Cardinal Myzomela. Another beauty! Now all we were missing was the easiest endemic, the Small Lifou White-eye. The book said they were along edges, so we went back out onto the unpaved road and in a short while found several of them in the roadside growth. Not bad; all 4 target birds in about an hour. All that was left was to enjoy the hotel room (it was right on a lovely beach) and a good evening meal. The meal was pretty good, but it was also about $70. Night at Drehu Village Resort.
April 3 - We had noticed in our field guide that Blue-grey Noddy and Pacific Imperial Pigeon might be possible on Lifou, at least according to the ranges cited. I thought that in order to try for these two species, we would have to cover a large part of the island, so last night I had the hotel arrange for us to rent a scooter for the morning today. The scooter lady came to the hotel last night and took me to her house, where I signed the rental papers for the scooter ($50 for a half day). Then I drove the scooter back to the hotel so we would have the use of it at first light today. It was the first time I had driven a scooter in over 30 years. I shouldn't have worried. It was dead simple to operate and it allowed us to cover about 150 km. There's not much traffic on the island so we encountered no problems riding around. At first light, we drove south along the coast and then back for breakfast. After that we went west across the middle of the island to the west coast. We didn't see either species, but during our riding, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon cruising overhead. That was it for Lifou. We flew out around noon back to Noumea, where our friends picked us up at the airport. We had seen all we could see outside of Parc Riviere Bleu, so we spent the rest of the day doing some shopping.
April 4 - Our flight left New Caledonia around 3 p.m. and we had no more birding we wanted to do, so we just spent the morning relaxing around the hotel and a bit of shopping. We got the rental car returned to the airport and the flight back to Brisbane was fine.
The checklist follows Clement's Checklist of the Birds of the World. The numbers following the species are the dates that species was seen.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater-Puffinus pacificus. 29, 2
Little Pied Cormorant-Phalacrocorax melanoleucos. 31, 2
Great Frigatebird-Fregata minor. 2, 3
White-faced Heron-Egretta novaehollandiae. 29, 31, 2, 3
Pacific Reef-Heron-Egretta sacra. 29, 2
Gray Teal-Anas gracilis. 2
Osprey-Pandion haliaetus. 2
Whistling Kite-Haliastur sphenurus. 30 - 2
Swamp Harrier-Circus approximans.31 - 3
New Caledonia (White-bellied) Goshawk-Accipiter haplochrous. 29, 30, 1
Peregrine Falcon-Falco peregrinus. 3
Buff-banded Rail-Gallirallus philippensis. 1
Dusky Moorhen-Gallinula tenebrosa. 2
Kagu-Rhynochetos jubatus. 31
Pacific Golden-Plover-Pluvialis fulva. 2, 3
Silver Gull-Larus novaehollandiae. 29, 30, 1 - 3
Great Crested Tern-Sterna bergii.2, 3
Black-naped Tern-Sterna sumatrana. 2
Metallic Pigeon-Columba vitiensis. 29, 30
Spotted Dove-Streptopelia chinensis. 29 - 1
Emerald Dove-Chalcophaps indica. 1
Red-bellied Fruit-Dove-Ptilinopus greyii. 2, 3
Cloven-feathered Dove-Drepanoptila holosericea. 31, 1
New Caledonian Imperial-Pigeon-Ducula goliath. 31, 1
Rainbow Lorikeet-Trichoglossus haematodus. 29, 31 - 3
Horned Parakeet-Eunymphicus cornutus. 31
Red-fronted Parakeet-Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae. 31, 1
Shining Bronze-Cuckoo-Chrysococcyx lucidus. 1
Glossy Swiftlet-Collocalia esculenta. 29 - 3
Sacred Kingfisher-Todirhamphus sanctus. 31 - 3
Pacific Swallow-Hirundo tahitica.2, 3
Melanesian Cuckoo-shrike-Coracina caledonica. 29, 31 - 3
New Caledonian Cuckoo-shrike-Coracina analis.31
Long-tailed Triller-Lalage leucopyga. 29 - 2
Red-vented Bulbul-Pycnonotus cafer. 29, 31
Gray Fantail-Rhipidura fuliginosa. 30 - 1
Streaked Fantail-Rhipidura spilodera. 29, 31, 1
Southern Shrikebill-Clytorhynchus pachycephaloides. 31
Melanesian Flycatcher-Myiagra caledonica. 29, 31, 1
Yellow-bellied Robin-Eopsaltria flaviventris. 31, 1
New Caledonian Whistler-Pachycephala caledonica. 29 - 31
Rufous Whistler-Pachycephala rufiventris. 29 - 1
Fan-tailed Gerygone-Gerygone flavolateralis. 29 - 3
Large Lifou White-eye-Zosterops inornatus. 2
Green-backed White-eye-Zosterops xanthochrous. 29 - 1
Small Lifou White-eye-Zosterops minutus. 2
Silver-eye-Zosterops lateralis. 29, 31 - 2
Dark-brown Honeyeater-Lichmera incana. 29, 1 - 3
New Caledonian Myzomela-Myzomela caledonica. 31, 1
Cardinal Myzomela-Myzomela cardinalis. 2
New Caledonian Friarbird-Philemon diemenensis. 29 - 1, 3
Barred Honeyeater-Phylidonyris undulata. 29 - 1
White-breasted Woodswallow-Artamus leucorynchus. 29 - 3
New Caledonian Crow-Corvus moneduloides. 29 - 1
Striated Starling-Aplonis striata. 29, 30
Common Myna-Acridotheres tristis. 29 - 3
Common Waxbill-Estrilda astrild. 29, 1, 2
Red-throated Parrotfinch-Erythrura psittacea. 31, 1
House Sparrow-Passer domesticus. 29
Thoughts and Comments
1 - Getting access to Parc Riviere Bleu is paramount for any birding trip to New Caledonia. It's basically the only place to find Kagu and Crow Honeyeater. Yves told us there were some Kagus at the forest around Farino, but I have no idea how hard it would be to find them there. Even though the big bridge at Riviere Bleu is not passable by vehicle, you could still cross it by foot and then walk about 4 - 5 km (this is an estimate) to the forest. You would need to take food and drink with you so you could spend the day. There are picnic shelters in the forest. Yves said the park may provide a vehicle to shuttle people back and forth between the bridge and the forest, but you would need to check to see if in fact that is happening. After Yves retires, I don't know who will be the "bird expert" there or even if they will have one, but I would recommend using one if available. They would know the best spots to look for the different species, especially Crow Honeyeater and Kagu. Spend 2 days here if you can, and you will vastly increase your chances of seeing the harder species. This was the only place we saw the N. C. Cuckoo-shrike, even though the field guide said it was fairly common.
2 - This was a poor time of the year to bird New Caledonia. In spite of it supposedly being at the end of the dry season, there was still lots of wet weather and it impacted our birding. No doubt about it, we got lucky. In fact, we saw all the main island species in 2 days birding, but if we had not gotten access to Riviere Bleu, we would have dipped on several species.
3 - I have tried to be accurate in this report. If there are any errors, they are mine alone and I would like to know about them. I hope this report can help anybody planning their own trip to this interesting island.
Clinton, Tennessee USA