Trip Report: American Samoa and Western (Independent) Samoa, November 17 - 20, 2000

Craig Faanes, 505 Roosevelt Blvd, B106, Falls Church, VA 22044, USA;

November 17

Checked in for Hawaiian Airlines' twice-weekly flight from Honolulu to Pago Pago, American Samoa, and the gate agent said "We'll be boarding some time, sir." A friendly reminder that I was back in the islands. The flight was only partly full, so Hawaiian upgraded me to Business Class for the 5 hour dash south of the equator. Arrived late in Pago at 11:00 pm (5 am the next day in DC) after 22 hours of travel time from "home." Although the island is called "American" Samoa, and it receives $130 million a year in "aid" from the US, and the island is more or less administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, American Samoa has its own customs and its own immigration that you have to clear in Pago.

Caught a cab ($15) to the Rainmaker Hotel, probably the most maligned and bitched about hotel in the Pacific. Despite all those horror stories this wasn't a bad hotel. Of course, a "bad" hotel in my book is that dump that Chris Haney and I stayed at in Azua, Dominican Republic a long time ago. After that place, anything almost looks like a Hilton. Checked out the bar and had my first of many Vailima beers, the national beer of Samoa. It tastes damned good when you are brain dead, and the 8% alcohol content packs a wallop.

November 18

I was awakened at 6:15 local time by the raucous calls of Common Myna and Red-vented Bulbul out my window. Dressed quickly and went out to explore. The small beach and its attendant grassy lawn at the hotel held hordes of Pacific Golden-Plovers, and I was surprised (but didn't bitch) when a pair of Bristle-thighed Curlew sailed in for breakfast. I'd last seen that bird just 5 miles south of the Arctic Circle on Alaska's Seward Peninsula. I preferred today's setting much more.

I walked to the entrance of the National Park of Samoa where I found Cardinal Myzomela (endemic) for my first life bird of the trip. Listening to its voice I was reminded of the "rusty hinge" calls of the I'iwi on Hawaii. I guess cousins sound similar even when they've been separated by thousands of years of evolution. The forest here was surprisingly dead for bird voices. An occasional White-tailed Tropicbird sailed overhead making it a little more exciting.

From the park I walked back to the Visitor Center and got my National Park Service passport stamp for this unit of the system. After visiting the USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu in a couple days, I'll have only eight National Park Service sites to go to have visited them all.

I'd made arrangements with a charter company at the Pago airport for a flight out and over Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. We did just that... 100 km out and back. I saw the two small islands that make up the "land" on this refuge but little for birds other than more Tropicbirds.

Back at the airport I caught Polynesian Airlines flight 225 to Apia, Western Samoa (now called simply, "Samoa"). It's a 40 minute hop in a DeHavilland Twin Otter to Upolu island where, I'm convinced now, heaven on earth must exist. The north coast of the island is ringed by a wide and awesome-looking reef. The uplands are heavily forested. There's little deforestation. Its just plain beautiful. No other word describes it. A friend from Wisconsin did his Peace Corps time in Western Samoa. Terry used to wax poetic about the place in each of his letters. I know now that he wasn't kidding me.

Changed money at the airport ($1 US = $3.19 Samoan Tala) then took a taxi to Aggie Grey's Hotel. Unlike the much-maligned Rainmaker at Pago, Aggie's is probably the most celebrated hotel in the South Pacific and a damned nice place to crash for a couple days. The fact that the pool here was surrounded with busty New Zealand babes only added to the value of this hotel.

After dumping my stuff I took a taxi to Vailima and the Mt. Vea Scenic Reserve about 3.5 km inland from Apia. Vailima is the final home of Scottish writer Robert Lewis Stevenson. The driver dumped me along side the road and I walked to the Botanic Reserve. Mynas and Bulbuls were all over the place, but the real highlight was a pair of Flat-billed Kingfisher (endemic) on the telephone wire. This was my second Samoan endemic of the day (the Myzomela at Pago being first). Walking on the trail to the forest I was able to confirm what Peter Lonsdale said in his trip report of a few years ago regarding the abundance of Buff-banded Rail (or simply Banded Rail depending on the source used). I'd forgotten that so many of the Pacific rails are upland critters.

From the interpretive center I crossed the small stream and entered the forest. Almost immediately I found a male Mao (endemic) the giant honeycreeper of Samoa. Not far away was a Wattled Honeyeater, a bird I'd found easily in Fiji a couple years ago. I chose the "easy trail" for the walk up to Stevenson's grave, and then took the "hard" trail back down. Walking along I picked up Samoan Triller (endemic), Polynesian Triller, Polynesian Starling, Red-headed Parrotfinch, and Samoan Starling (endemic). Many-colored Fruit-Dove and Purple-capped Fruit-Dove were calling conspicuously from the forest all along the trail.

Climbing higher up the side of Mt. Vea, I found more Samoan Starlings, and a noisy group of Blue-crowned Lorikeet. Just below Stevenson's gravesite I found Samoan Whistler (endemic), Samoan Fantail (endemic), and Samoan Flycatcher (endemic). The flycatcher was the last of the 10 Samoan endemics I had a reasonable chance of finding. Tooth-billed Pigeon occurs somewhere on Upolu, but not anywhere I was planning to visit, and Samoan White-eye is only on Savi'i island, and I wasn't planning to go there.

After making a clean sweep on all possible endemics by the time I got to the gravesite, I walked back down the mountain through more beautiful forest, then caught a cab back to Aggie's. There I showered and put band-aids on the numerous blisters on my left foot, then walked to the Samoan Port Authority and did a seawatch until dark. Here I found Great Frigatebird, Lesser Frigatebird, Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, White Tern, White-tailed Tropicbird, Pacific Reef-Heron, and Wandering Tattler. Sat here and watched the sun set into the South Pacific then walked to the Harborside Restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is on the second floor of the National Bank of Samoa building, about 2 blocks from Aggie's. The menu claims that their fish of the day is "the Best Fish in the Pacific", and after eating it, I have to agree with their assertion.

November 19

Up at dawn and did another seawatch picking up Wedge-tailed Shearwater at the reef line along with more Pacific Reef-Heron and a constant procession of Brown Noddy. Grabbed a rental jeep ($50 US per day including kilometers and insurance) from Funway Rentals and then took off west to explore the coast road.

There were tons of Banded Rail wherever there was a grassy spot along this road. I found Flat-billed Kingfisher fairly commonly near the International Airport about 35 km west of Apia. Pulled up at the wharf where the ferry to Savi'i leaves but found nothing at all on the ocean.

From the wharf I returned toward the airport then took the short Cross-Island road to the south coast. At the intersection of this and the West Beach Road there is a huge sign with a picture of a Tooth-billed Pigeon on it. The sign proclaims this to be "Our National Bird" and admonishes people to not shoot the bird. The sign also contains the saying "Love and Protect our Birds." I took a picture of the sign and I'll send it to George Dubya. The sign contains sound advice for that environmental pig, although I doubt he has the intelligence to understand what it means.

From the intersection I drove to "Return to Paradise Beach" but was kicked out because the beach is closed on Sunday. "This is the Lord's Day" I was told. Apparently the Lord doesn't want you birdwatching on His day. At least not in Samoa.

I slowly moved along the south shore of Samoa. It was appropriate to move slow because everything in Samoa moves slow. I found a huge mangrove lagoon but there was not a duck to be found on it. I turned north on the Cross Island Road and followed it back to Apia. At about the crest of the mountain I found a Purple Swamphen in a wet grassy area along the road. I'd seen that species in Morocco before, but this was the first time in the Pacific.

Returning to Apia at mid-afternoon I sought out the Vaisigano Watershed. This area is written up in Wheatley's book on bird finding in Oceania, and Peter Lonsdale spoke very highly of the area in his trip report. To get there from Aggies, take the Cross Island Road south through the second stop light (the first light is at the intersection in "downtown" Apia at the beach). Go through this stoplight until you see a sign for the Fagili Airport. Turn left. Follow this road over the river until you come to a funky 3-way intersection. Bear hard right (the middle fork goes to the airport). Follow this road through the village of Magiai-tai. Keep on keeping on as you climb through Myna-infested banana plantations. The road eventually narrows and becomes an asphalt-gravel mix. It ends at the water intake reservoir. A sign on the side of the reservoir says "Let us not cultivate the Vaisigano Forest". Yet another picture to send to Dubya.

I walked up the trail to the left of the reservoir (actually a large tank) and found Polynesian Triller, Samoan Triller, Samoan Starling, Samoan Fantail, Samoan Flycatcher, Wattled Honeyeater, Cardinal Myzomela, both Fruit-Doves and finally a Pacific Imperial-Pigeon.

A deluge broke out so I scurried back to my car then down to a lower altitude. Spent the rest of the daylight doing a seawatch at the west end of Apia Harbour. From Aggies, take the beach road and keep on bearing right as you follow this peninsula out past the Samoa Yacht Club to the Samoan National Weather Service office. Near here I staked out a patch of ocean and watched. Highlights were a pair of Bristle-thighed Curlew on an offshore sandspit and a small shearwater that I'll bet was an Audubon's, but there was no way to tell for sure.

I waited here until dark then returned to the hotel. All of the restaurants in town were closed because it was Sunday so I opted for the buffet dinner at Aggie's ($US 11). Dinner tonight included taro root (a first for me) and a terribly busty Aussie babe at the next table who made it difficult to remember that I was there to eat food.

November 20

I was up before dawn intending to go back to the Vaisigano Watershed for the dawn chorus. However, the rain god -- more appropriately the deluge god -- had other plans. It rained like a bitch until 10:00 am thus scrubbing all plans to do any forest birding. Instead I checked out, dropped the rental car, and went back to the airport. Caught the 12:45 pm Polynesian flight back to Pago where I found that Polynesian had lost my luggage. It finally showed up about 6 hours later on the last flight of the day. For dinner that night, while waiting for the Hawaiian Airlines flight at midnight back to Honolulu, I chose the "restaurant" in the airport bar. Since this was far away from the US mainland, I assumed that the beef they served had in no way ever grazed on any Federal land, so I opted for a cheeseburger in paradise. What I got was a violent case of Montezuma's revenge. And it all started three hours into the flight at 35,000 feet.


Samoa was not what I expected. I'd read about and heard about how violent Samoans are but all I found was peaceful, lovely, helpful, wonderful people. Maybe its Samoans who have lots of contact with Americans who are the violent ones. Its certainly not the folks I ran onto anywhere on Upolu Island.

Everywhere you look on Upolu you see beauty. The forests are in one piece (for the most part). The reef isn't dead like it is on the north coast of Puerto Rico. Everyone you talk to is kind, considerate, chilled out, respectful, helpful; there aren't enough superlatives in my dictionary to describe Samoa. Without doubt there are some stunningly attractive Samoan women who epitomize the mystique of the South Pacific.

Driving back to the airport after dumping off my rental car, the driver pointed to three yachts moored in Apia Harbour. Two of them were American, the other Danish. The driver said "See those yachts out there? They don't want to leave." One of the American yachts had been in Samoa 13 months, the other American and the Dane had been there 8 months. I'll bet they headed south looking for their own paradise. They found it in Samoa. After being there, I can't blame them one bit for not wanting to leave. I hope they never do. I shouldn't have.

Finding the endemic birds of Samoa is an absolute piece of cake (despite Billy Crystal's admonishment in the movie Forget Paris to "never say it's a piece of cake."). Eight of the 10 endemics can be seen within 7 km of Aggie Grey's hotel. When Peter Lonsdale was on Upolu a couple years ago he had difficulty finding the Mao the first trip - he got it the second trip. I guess I was just damned lucky to find mine early the first day.

Unless you have plans to hunt for the Tooth-billed Pigeon there is no need to have a rental vehicle. Taxis are abundant and cheap and go everywhere. I highly recommend Aggie's hotel for a place to crash a couple days. There's an interesting history into how the hotel got its start back during the Second World War. I won't go into it here. But rest assured it's worth it to stay at this hotel in spite of there being cheaper places to crash on the island.

Savi'i island is the only place where Samoan White-eye lives. There are several flights daily from Apia over the channel to the island, and there is also the ferry that runs three times daily.

Essential reading obviously includes the Lonely Planet guide to Samoa (like American Express, don't leave home without it). Doug Pratt's book on the birds of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands is of course the only bird book you'll need. Check out for a lot of online information on Western/Independent Samoa. You can make your reservation at Aggie's through this site as well.

While I was on the island there was a news story in Samoa News about Polynesian Airlines acquiring a 737-800 series jet for their "long haul" flights. Then when I was back in Honolulu there was a story in the Honolulu Advertiser about Polynesian being set to offer two flights a week from HNL to Apia. This is great news because it now precludes having to fly 1) on Hawaiian Airlines, and 2) to Pago Pago in order to eventually get to Apia.

Bottom line question of the trip is "would I go back to Samoa?" The answer is "in a heartbeat".

Species Seen -- Western Samoa

SHEARWATERS AND PETRELSWedge-tailed Shearwater
TROPICBIRDSWhite-tailed Tropicbird
FRIGATEBIRDSGreat Frigatebird
Lesser Frigatebird
Purple Swamphen
SANDPIPERSBristle-thighed Curlew
Wandering Tattler
Ruddy Turnstone
TERNSSooty Tern
Brown Noddy
Black Noddy
White Tern
Many-colored Fruit-Dove
Crimson-crowned Fruit-Dove
Pacific Imperial-Pigeon
PARROTSBlue-crowned Lorikeet
SWIFTSWhite-rumped Swiftlet
KINGFISHERSFlat-billed Kingfisher
Polynesian Triller
FANTAILSSamoan Fantail
HONEYEATERSCardinal Myzomela
Wattled Honeyeater
STARLINGSPolynesian Starling
Samoan Starling
WAXBILLS AND ALLIESRed-headed Parrotfinch
EXOTICSRed-vented Bulbul
Common Myna

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; December 6, 2000