Trip Report: Pohnpei (Micronesia), January 24-26, 1999

Peter Lonsdale, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA, USA;

I spent 3 days (Jan. 24-26) seeking endemics on Pohnpei (7°N, 158°E), one of the three reef-enclosed high volcanic islands or island groups (Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae) in the Caroline Islands, western equatorial Pacific.

These islands, as well as Majuro and Kwajalein Atolls in the Marshall Islands, are all connected by Continental Airlines' twice-weekly Honolulu-to-Guam "Island Hopper" service. My birding guides were Pratt et al.'s (1987) Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific, and the few lines in Wheatley's (1998) Where to find birds in Australasia and Oceania. They explain that Pohnpei has 4 endemic species, plus the maybe extinct Pohnpei Mountain Starling (identified twice in the past 40 years), 3 others restricted to the Caroline archipelago, and several others with only slightly more extensive ranges.

The good news is that all the island endemics and most of the archipelagic ones are still common and easy to see in a day or two. This is in striking contrast to many other Pacific islands, as anyone who's spent days looking for e.g. Tahiti's endemic flycatcher, reed-warbler and swiftlet, or Kauai's honeycreepers, can attest. Pohnpei also has a good birding infrastructure: I stayed in the "capital city" of Kolonia at the (highly recommended) $40/night Hotel South Park, perched atop a cliff above a birdy patch of mangrove forest, and looking across an arm of the lagoon to a high forested ridge with spectacular rock outcrops (Sokeh's Mountain). Even better, right next to the hotel to the S is a nameless (?) bar with the same view from a huge open deck, and Foster's beer at $1/can. My "barroom" list includes BLACK NODDY, BROWN NODDY, WHITE TERN, WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD, PACIFIC REEF HERON, PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER, TATTLER sp. (in/over the lagoon); GREY [CAROLINE ISLANDS] SWIFTLET (sweeping along the cliff, especially during the sunset 'happy hour'); POHNPEI LORIKEET, POHNPEI FANTAIL, GREY-BROWN WHITE-EYE, CAROLINE ISLANDS REED-WARBLER, MICRONESIAN KINGFISHER, MICRONESIAN STARLING, MICRONESIAN MYZOMELA,........ I did, perhaps unnecessarily, tear myself away from the cold beers for daily hikes, up and around Sokeh's Mountain, and into the thick fern forest of the island interior at Nan Kawad and Sahwartik -- with a side-trip to the Pwudoi mangrove forest "sanctuary". These walks, and several others that are probably as good, are charmingly described at a wonderful web site. Roads to the trailheads are generally paved and excellent, and hitching rides was very easy (many passing vehicles stop and offer a lift with no thumb required), though plenty of rental cars are available if you prefer.

Of course, all birding paradises have flaws. Pohnpei's is its rain. The mountain core is one of those places that claims Earth's highest rainfall ('1000 inches/yr') and though Jan./Feb. is the (relatively) dry season, torrential downpours did thwart my search for Micronesian Imperial Pigeon, now apparently restricted by continuing hunting pressure to the most remote and sodden parts of the interior. My other big dip was Caroline Islands Ground Dove, said to be a retiring resident of the hard-to-access mangrove forest that rings most of the island's shore.

Here are the landbirds I did see:

1. Pohnpei endemics

2. Endemic to the Caroline archipelago

3. Others (several being endemic subspecies; the swiflet sometimes split as the archipelagic endemic species, Caroline Islands Swiftlet)

What was I doing in Pohnpei anyway? I'd disembarked from a research ship at almost (land)bird-free Majuro Atoll -- lots of BLACK-NAPED TERNs though -- and Pohnpei was sort of on my way home. So was Kwajalein, where Continental Airlines' 10-minute stop yielded a BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW (along with dozens of PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVERs) on the grass strips between the airport's taxiways. I had intended to spend a few days at Chuuk also, but plans changed, so I'll have to look for its 3 endemics some other time. On the "pelagic" part of my journey, a 16-day geologic mapping cruise across the North Pacific between San Diego and Majuro, I didn't have much time for birding, but was pleased to see (among others) HAWAIIAN PETREL 700 km N of Haleakala, TRISTRAM'S STORM-PETREL and BLUE-GREY NODDY as we passed close by Necker Island (NW Hawaiian chain), NEWELL'S SHEAR- WATER 900 km W of Kauai, and COLLARED, BLACK-WINGED and BULWER'S PETRELs as we approached the Marshall Islands. The only ship riders were the usual BROWN and RED-LEGGED BOOBIES and RED-TAILED TROPIC-BIRD; the only persistent ship-followers BLACK-FOOTED and LAYSAN ALBATROSSes.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; February 3, 1999