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A Report from

Vanuatu: 23 January to 1 February 2010,

Duan Biggs

Introduction & Overview

My visit was a sight-seeing trip to my first Pacific island and live volcano (Mt Yassur on Tanna) as well as to find as many of the endemics as possible. Efate, particularly the area around Villa is well developed. Tanna is much more primitive in terms of infrastructure, and is scenically spectacular. Mount Yassur is a must see. Santo is listed as the island for the endemics. Certainly, birding was best there and other than Dark Brown Honey-eater (Efate) I saw all the species of the trip on Santo. Access to the higher altitudes on Santo is very tricky and I was hoping a 4x4 would get me closer to it to start picking up some of the highland birds. I did not manage to.

Transport and Logistics

Air Vanuatu flights seem the only time-feasible way to get between the islands. On Tanna I had nothing pre-arranged, but met the owner (Werri) of the exquisitely-situated Port Resolution Yacht Club on the Volcano (south-east) side of the island. He put me onto a 4x4 truck on which I got transport to the Port Resolution. 2500 Vatu one way. On Santo and Efate I used shared minibus taxis as we call them in South Africa as far as possible. These ‘service busses’ as they call them in Vanuatu take in and around towns for 150 Vatu to any destination. I used them to bird some of interior Efate. They are friendly and no seeming risk of being mugged on them like in South Africa. Generally, Vanutuans are very friendly and personal security concerns seem virtually non-existent. This makes moving around remote locations at strange hours a pleasure. Obviously, if you leave things unattended they may well be taken. Santo has a largely relict colonial road network. An upgrade is underway on the road to Port Olry which will make it accessible with a sedan. I got there on a shared taxi for 1000 Vatu from Luganville. Driver’s name is Edward and number 5425031. Getting dropped off in the interior is very expensive (eg 24 000 Vatu for Butmas). I therefore hired a 4x4 from Apex rental. There seem to only be 2 rental agencies in Santo and they seem to make full use of their virtual monopoly. Renting a 4x4 is 14 000 Vatu a day (about US$140). Various features of the vehicle were not really working. I could get into 4H only and at least it did not break down. Apex’s 1000 Vatu refund when your return the vehicle filled with filled fuel and clean (I picked it up rather dirty) was not refunded despite my cleaning and full tank. But for now, if you want to get around into the interior, you do not really have another choice. Strangely though, neither of the rental agencies could give me any meaningful information on road condition.


Vatu is the currency in Vanuatu and at the time of my visit exchanged for about 90 to the Australian Dollar (A$) and 100 to the US$. Some places in Vila accept A$, elsewhere only Vatu. There are atms in Vila and Luganville. 

Information and Acknowledgements:

Stephen, who set up the very useful Vanbirds (info on Vanuatu birds and birding) website and also the - website with travel tips and info on the local traditional ‘bungalows’ was very helpful in providing information before my trip. The websites are also great. The 2004 trip report from Peter Ewin was also useful.

Itinerary, Sites and Birds

23 January – Port Vila, Iririki Island

My first bird as I walked down the Vila waterfront was Dark Brown Honeyeater – a common species around Vila. The most numerous bird is unfortunately the Indian Mynha. By far. I caught the free ferry across to Iririki Island. I walked up the hill and in the lavish gardens I found my first group of endemic Yellow-fronted White Eyes with a group of Silvereyes. The Yellow-fronted White Eyes are common throughout Vanuatu . I also had my first Glossy Swiftlet. These lovely diminutive aerial feeders, often fly below eye level (and very close by). On the west coast of the island I had a single Whimbrel just as the sun started setting over the Pacific. This Whimbrel together with a couple of Pacific Reef Egrets at Tanna and on Santo were the only shore feeding birds of the entire trip. Moreover, Gulls, Terns, or more pelagic tropical species are entirely absent. I do not think I have been in a place so devoid of gulls, terns etc. It would be interesting to know why. Overnight Hotel Hibuscus for 2500 Vatu, shared ablutions, single room.

24 January – Around Vila

Made a morning visit to Hideaway island. Nice island with some good snorkelling and good food. In the afternoon I made a visit to the impressive Mele Maat Cascades (Grey Fantail, Emerald Dove, Rainbow Lorikeet) before picking up a minibus taxi and headed up the west coast in the direction of Tovu Tovu. I asked them to drop me just as we started descending again towards the west coast. Here I found a group of Metallic Pigeons. Striking.

25, 26 January – Tanna and Mount Yassur

Transport on Tanna detailed above. At the Shark Bay parking lot I found my first Cardinal Myzomela. This bird turned out to be fairly common on both Tanna and Santo. Mt Yassur is awe and fear-inspiring and is a must see. The erupting lava bombs shoot hundreds of metres in all directions and sizzle as and hiss as they roll down back into the crater cooling. The whole mountain shakes during the larger eruptions which are frequent but not unpredictable. The Port Resolution Yacht Club (traditional Melanesian lodge) where I stayed has an exquisite location.

27 January – Tanna West Coast

I transferred to the Sunset Bungalows on the west coast of Tanna near the airport. An afternoon walk here delivered my first New Caledonian Flycatcher which I found to be quite common on Santo. Also here was Cardinal Myzomela.

28 January Santo: Luganville and Port Olry

From Santo airport I got a minibus taxi into town for 150 Vatu. This minibus taxi driver put me onto Edward (tel 542 031) who runs the minibus taxi to Port Olry. I got onto Edward’s minibus taxi at 2pm and hit the road to Port Olry. Edward delivered me at his brother’s traditional Melanesian lodge called Little Paradise of Port Olry.  Tarusius Alquet runs the Little Paradise of Port Olry and is friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. His number is 542 4893. He took me on an afternoon walk up the hills behind Port Olry where his farm lies. The views from the top are something special. Here we had Golden (New Caledonian) Whistler  which was common throughout Santo. Tanna Fruit Dove was heard calling but not seen and the same with Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher. The Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher is quite common in many forested areas on Santo. Despite hearing 15+ individuals calling in various places and trying every trick in the book to see one, I failed. I think playback may have really helped but I did not have its call nor recording equipment. Here I saw my first Red-bellied Fruit Dove also common throughout Santo and my first Melanesian Cuckooshrike (also fairly common throughout Santo). On this walk, I had a chance to have a better look at some of the White Eyes. Clearly, there were groups of birds, sometimes mixed in with Yellow-fronted that had a creamy white belly and a greyish nape like the Silvereye. Yet, Silvereye’s do not have a creamy white belly. The closest species in the Doughty et al field guide is the Green-backed White Eye from New Caledonia. The handbook to the birds of the world or another reference may have more information on this. The taxonomy of the Zosterops is pretty much a nightmare everywhere they occur, and it would not surprise me if this grey nape creamy white belly White Eye is one day classified as a separate species. Also seen here was Blackheaded Mannikin (common on Santo) and more New Caledonian Flycatchers.

29 January Loru Conservation Area, Kole village

I got the morning minibus taxi out of Port Olry (0530) and got dropped off at the Kole junction. I got a lift for the 3 or 4 km on the back of a pickup to Kole village. Here I met Warakar, a local guide, suggested by Stephen. Warakar’s number is 547 2535. Warakar suggested that we spend time in the patches of forest around the village as it was closer, and had the same birds as Loru. With Warakar’s help I had my best day’s birding in Vanuatu. Buffbellied Monarch (common here and also seen at Palikulo Point), Pacific Imperial Pigeon (common and widespread on Santo), Southern Shrikebill, Streaked Fantail (fairly common and widespread on Santo), Mackinlay’s Cuckoo Dove (not uncommon but hard to see), Uniform Swiftlet (common on Santo, larger and flies higher than Glossy) and Red Junglefowl. Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher and Vanuatu Scrubfowl were heard calling but not seen. Collared Kingfisher’s are commonly seen throughout Santo. I returned to Port Olry in the late afternoon and had a great snorkel around a nearby island.

30 January – Santo interior by 4X4

This was my first of 2 days of a ‘comedy of dips’. I left Port Olry at 530am in the minibus taxi and got to Santo where I arranged a 4X4 for one day’s hire.  I went to the local café/bakery (where all the expats and Europeans in town seem to hang out), for some breakfast and coffee. I picked up my car (14 000 Vatu for one day) and headed north. I took the coast and turned inland towards Sara and Vatthe conservation area a couple clicks south of Hog Harbour. The map in Lonely Planet guide of Santo was more accurate than the ones available on the island. Once off the main road to Port Olry, it was pot-holed and slow going. I turned south before reaching Vatthe. The track that goes south before connecting to the main road between Luganville and Big Bay / Malao is seldom used and covered in vegetation. It climbs to an altitude of around 400m (according to my GPS) but bird parties investigated held nothing new. I then headed east to the Lappe River. At the river crossing itself I had my first and only brief view of a Tanna Fruit Dove. I saw it as it took off from the one dense green canopy and flew over my head to the next. I then ascended to about 500 to 600m towards the village of Butmas where according to Stephen, Bakers Imperial Pigeon and Guadalcanal Thicketbird can be accessed from. I pulled into the remote village that is Butmas thinking that they may have regular birding visitors and a local guide (like Wara at Kole) to point at birds and sites. This was not the case. The locals here obviously do not see foreigners often. My Bislama and French is very limited, and the English of the local villagers was similar. I hence decided to retreat from the village and bird the road into it, at the highest altitudes. I spent 3 hours along this road until dusk in the hopes of a Baker’s Imperial Pigeon, New Hebrides Honeyeater or Rusty-winged Starling. All that materialised was a group of Metallic Pigeons. Southern Shrikebill was calling. The other birds seen were the same as the previous day at Loru. I returned to Santo, on a bumpy pot-holed road (reminiscent of the Kenyan highlands) as the moon was rising over the Pacific ocean below. I finally found a bed at the River Motel on the South-western side of Luganville. 2000 Vatu for a room.

31 January, 1 February – Palikulo Point and Malo Island

Palikulo Point

A 545 start saw me heading to the forests around Palikulo point (mentioned in Peter Ewin’s 2004 report as a site for Scrubfowl). I initially started on the inland forests west of Palikulo Bay accessed from a little track that heads east near the airport. Here I had Melanesian Cuckooshrike (common on Santo), and more of the same birds as before. I worked my way towards Point Palikulo, the site of some major US World War 2 infrastructure. One can walk around the rusting, jungle-covered base freely and openly and snorkel the rusty remains in the water. I scoured the forests around the base for Scrubfowl. I eventually heard two birds calling but I was not able to see them after 45 minutes of creeping around the forest (fairly open fortunately).  Of interest was a group of Cardinal Myzomela with chicks. When I returned on February 1, with my taxi driver bringing me here for 1500 Vatu for some birding for an hour before taking me to the airport – I finally had some luck. Vanuatu Scrubfowl beautiful views of 2 birds and a later third after tracking their calling through the forest. They are quite skittish. Also of interest was a pair of Buff-bellied Monarchs.  Peter Ewin reports Fan-tailed Gerygone as ‘common and widespread on Santo’ in 2004. I saw not one, despite much searching. John, my taxi driver, was happy to take me to Palikulo Point en route to the airport and watch my bags in the car while I searched for Scrubfowl and snorkelled the rusting US base. His number is +6787786996.

Malo Island

Stephen mentioned that White-tailed Tropicbirds breed at Nanuku village on Malo Island. Using the notes from the website on Malo bungalows and the Lonely Planet I managed to make it across to Malo. As it was Sunday I had to wait 45 minutes for a boat at Malo landing. Although the boatman said he was taking me to Nanuku (where the Tropicbirds are), he took me to Little Nanuku (the main ‘harbour’ for the island). From there I chatted to the local villagers and tried to call the island taxi but with no response. I started walking the 8 or so km to Nanuku (or Big Nanuku), where Chief Wara Too-shoo-wa is based. En route I had a brief glimpse of a Long-tailed Triller.

This was between good numbers of Yellow-fronted White-Eyes and Rainbow Lorikeets. I was led the last km to the village by an ex Vanuatu sprinter called Jensen who now lives on the island. At Nanuku everyone was in church (being Sunday afternoon) but the Chief’s brother David received me warmly and took me to a communal hut to wait while he searched for the Tropicbirds.  David had seen them there that morning. They were not around so I went for a brief swim before returning to Tropicbird watch. David said I should rest in the hut while he and some other villagers looked out for the Tropicbirds. They would call me once they found them. By 5pm no Tropicbirds had arrived. I spent the last hour sitting on the soccer field looking over the trees where they breed/roost in the hope of seeing one. By 6pm I had to return to Little Nanuku to get my boat across to the mainland before dark. No Tropicbirds had arrived. I got a lift back to Little Nanuku from the Chief’s son (John Wara). John’s number is 536779 and he can come and pick up and provide transport to and from anywhere on the island. The lift back cost me 1000 Vatu. I had to wait 30 minutes for another John (my taxi driver) on the other bank, during which time, I was engaged in friendly conversation by Charlie who lives at Malo landing with his family. On may back to Luganville I had a Barn Owl.

Duan Biggs

Specialist Bird and Eco-Expeditions
Africa, Asia & Australasia
Skype: duanbiggs
Mobile: +61(0) 406047539


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