Trip Report: French Polynesia and Cook Islands, June 26 - July 14, 2000

Sandra Eadie, Toronto, Ont., Canada;

Tahiti airport and Bora Bora in French Polynesia

This summer, I travelled to the Cook Islands for a family holiday. On the way, I had a three-day stop in French Polynesia. It is south of the equator and east of Hawaii. I didn't manage to do much birding as such, but I did keep my eyes open.

We arrived in Tahiti (Papeete Airport) from Los Angeles early in the morning and had to wait for our delayed flight to Bora Bora.

The airport was relatively rewarding and gave me a few lifers. The first few birds I saw were introduced. Right in the airport building itself, the COMMON MYNA begged for food in the restaurant. This starling species takes the place of starlings and sparrows and maybe even Rock Doves in many places. Next bird was the introduced ZEBRA DOVE* (* = lifer), feeding outside in the parking lot. Overhead, the introduced RED-VENTED BULBUL* sat on the wire. A couple of days later, there was a large group of them gathered at dusk at the hotel we stayed at in Papeete.

Finally, a native species - the WHITE TERN* - flew by. Soon a BROWN NODDY* followed. As we taxied down the runway on our way to Bora Bora, I saw a SWAMP HARRIER flying low over a field - another import, this one from New Zealand or Australia. Harriers were also in Bora Bora.

Bora Bora's airport is on a small island off-shore. GREAT CRESTED-TERNs* are common here and on the main island.

At our hotel, the Sofitel Marara Coralia, we found ourselves in the middle of a BROWN NODDY colony of a few hundred birds. They made noise all night which I read indicates they are in mating and courting mode.

The PACIFIC REEF HERON*, dark morph, was common here, feeding on the rocks by the shore. They are fairly tolerant of road traffic and human activity. This bird has three morphs, dark, white and pied. Not surprisingly, I saw the white morph on white beaches later when I was on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. I also saw the pied phase in Aitutaki on the rocky shore.

Bora Bora also had ROCK DOVEs plus many ZEBRA DOVEs which I believe are spreading rapidly. They were in mating season.

Finally, on day three in the morning, a male LESSER FRIGATEBIRD* flew by the hotel with its white side patches under the wing. I saw a few more later as we took the boat to the airport. WHITE TERNs flew by occasionally as well.

The feral chicken was everywhere on Bora Bora as it was later in the Cook Islands. However, I don't think I can claim a Red Junglefowl, unfortunately.

Ron Orenstein recommended The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific by Pratt, Bruner and Berrett to me. I thought it was great with its good maps and checklists for the different areas

Cook Islands

The Cook Islands of Polynesia lie directly south of Hawaii on the southern side of the equator. The main island, Rarotonga, is about as much north of the Tropic of Capricorn as Hawaii is south of the Tropic of Cancer. The Cook Islands are scattered north to just beyond 10° latitude except for Mangaia which lies slightly south of Rarotonga.

I visited Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu, which are all near each other. Flying around the southern islands is fairly cheap. You pay one larger fare to get to one from Rarotonga, but each extra island costs only about $50NZ or so to visit. The Cook Islands are closely associated with New Zealand, whose currency they use. English is spoken everywhere. Air New Zealand has regular flights from Los Angeles and Aukland, and Canada 2000 has them from Canada during the Canadian winter months. It was winter when I was there: temperatures didn't get much above 25°C. It was cloudy quite often and rained quite a bit. Not quite as warm and sunny as we were hoping, but coolness does make it more comfortable sometimes.

I was with family (21 of us) but did get some opportunities to bird.

A poster of the birds of Cook Islands tells the story of birding there. It comfortably holds large pictures of the 30 birds that you could expect to see if you traveled to all the islands. However, the low numbers are compensated for by the fact that six (of which I saw four) are Cook Islands endemics, and two more are Polynesian endemics (both of which I saw).

I arrived on Rarotonga on June 29 where I stayed until July 8. The COMMAN MYNA is everywhere on the island as is the feral chicken. Contrary to the thesis of the movie Chicken Run, these chickens can fly to the top of trees.

I stayed at the Pacific Resort at Muri Beach in the south. PACIFIC REEF-HERONs (dark phase) came and fed in the stream by the restaurant and sometimes, especially early in the day and at dusk (about 5:30 PM in the tropics), several would fly back and forth across the bay between the reef islands in front of the resort. These islands also hosted WANDERING TATTLERs which should have been up north. They were identifiable with the help of a telescope from the main island beach. First-year birds often overwinter on the islands. I also saw these birds on Aitutaki.

RED-TAILED* and WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDs flew overhead occasionally during my stay. It was breeding season.

On July 4, 13 of us hired two guides to go on the Cross-Island Walk. I found it quite difficult, though my tri-athlete 16-year-old nephew didn't. A book I have by Gerald McCormack and Judith Kuenzle says "one recipe for a perfect day... is to amble with a friend along the Cross-island Walk... there are a few slippery scrambles." Well, scramble down south means rock-climbing without a rope, and I found myself climbing down cliff faces holding onto vines.

The way up from the east was quite hard aerobically. I rested near the top, while most of the others made their way up to the Needle, a rocky outcrop. The first part of the route to the Needle is difficult and dangerous, while the rest is steep but safe, according to the amble book. While I was sitting there below waiting, two beautiful COOK ISLANDS FRUIT-DOVEs* landed over my head and stayed for a few moments. These endemics are very rare on the island, and I was lucky to see them. My buddies who went up to the Needle, non-birders, got to see RED-TAILED (with very visible red tails) and WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRDs very close because they nested up by the Needle. I saw them but didn't get such good views.

A birder might consider going just to the Needle and back during the breeding season. I didn't see or hear anything except mynas on the difficult set of scrambles going down the other side.

On July 6, I visited the Takitumu Conservation Area. Several local landowners have put their property together into a nature conservation trust area. One of the main impetuses for this was to save the endemic RAROTONGAN MONARCH, which was down to under 30 birds. The most important jobs were to eliminate Norway Rats and feral cats from the area, and to save the habitat. There are now over 200 RMs. It was nesting season, and during this time you must have a guide. Our (there were two of us, but I was the only birder) guide (and park naturalist) took us to a nest where we could see the male RAROTONGA MONARCH* in attendance. Later we saw two more males. They would stay in one tree flitting and chipping away. They are all banded. A few nesters have spread out of the TCA.

We continued up to the top of a hill which had a magnificent view over the very large tree-covered green valley. A birdwatching shelter for hot tropical summer days sheltered us from on a rainy winter one. A male RM came and joined us in a nearby tree. The male has a slate blue back and a bright white breast. As we arrived, a bright orange female RM flew by, over the valley. As we waited at the top, three extremely rare and endemic RAROTONGA STARLINGs* twittered as they flew by. Although there may be as few as 50 in existence, I know of no special project for them. Of course, they should be helped enormously by the TCA's existence.

A PACIFIC IMPERIAL-PIGEON* flew by as well as a couple of WHITE TERNS and TROPICBIRDS of both kinds. Birders are often allowed to stay behind and watch alone, but since I was injured and limping from the Cross-Island Walk I couldn't stay up there by myself and make my way down alone. We heard the LONG-TAILED CUCKOO call, but I didn't see it. It migrates from New Zealand for the winter.

On July 8, my two sisters and I flew to Aitutaki where once again COMMON MYNA were ubiquitous and PACIFIC REEF-HERONS (dark phase) were easy to see. Aitutaki has a no-dogs policy. Generally, in Polynesia semi-feral dogs are everywhere.

On July 9, we went searching for the BLUE LORIKEET, a Polynesian endemic. A few inquiries told me that I had a good chance to find the "Nun-bird" near the Vaipae jetty on the east side of the island. It is called that because its white breast and dark-navy cap and back look like a nun's costume.

We proceeded there in a ramshackle old rented car. On the shore was my first pied PACIFIC REEF-HERON. On a rock out from the jetty stood a BROWN NODDY for the whole time we were there. WANDERING TATTLERs fed on the shore (and MYNAS shouted a lot). All at once, I saw a flock of BLUE LORIKEETs* explode out of the trees and disappear again, not a great view but identifiable. It was a beautiful place. Suddenly, three GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS* soared overhead.

After enjoying the lovely place, we walked up the road (path?) to a great little handicraft shop. Obligingly, about five BLUE LORIKEETs landed across the lane and put on a show, their bright orange beaks very obvious. A couple of WHITE TERNs flew by. After buying some flowers made from plant materials, we drove on down another road where a flock of about 25 BLUE LORIKEETs stopped right by the lane and climbed all over the trees beside our car. BL are supposed to have been introduced to Aitutaki from French Polynesia where they are now rare except perhaps on uninhabited islands. They appear to be successful on Aitutaki.

The next day, July 9, we took a snorkeling and lagoon trip out to the islands of the reef. Some more BROWN NODDIES loafed about and several pure white PACIFIC REEF-HERONs fished from the blazing white sand beaches (my first of this phase or morph).

On July 10, I flew on alone to Atiu. The motel owner picked up his guests and drove us around the island a bit. I saw a PACIFIC BLACK DUCK swimming in a pond. Atiu is home of the endemic ATIU SWIFTLET*. It nests in deep caves and switches to echo-location in the caves to get around. I joined a group to go to the caves that afternoon. In my semi-injured state, it was very hard going to clamber over the fossilized coral (razor sharp, uneven, jagged) to get to the caves. Once there, I saw and heard the birds arrive and switch from one sound to another. They weren't nesting but we could see old nests. They roost in the caves at night.

Next morning, I rented a motor bike and drove halfway around the island looking for the Polynesia endemic CHATTERING KINGFISHER*. It obliged very soon, and I ended up seeing about 10. They have very white heads on this island. On the beaches, I saw a few PACIFIC REEF-HERONs (dark). Towards the end of my half-circle as I made my way back to the motel, I came across a flock of ATIU SWIFTLETs chasing after insects in a good spot. A juvenile GREATER FRIGATEBIRD flew by, and further down the road, a WHITE TERN.

I flew back to Rarotonga for a couple of days and then it was on to Cairns, in Queensland, Australia.

I name the birds according to Clements since it is what my listing program Avisys uses. It is a matter of convenience for me though I don't necessary 'approve' of his names. For example, I like Common Fairy-Tern much better than White Tern; it is prettier.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; October 4, 2000