Trip Report: Upolu (Samoa), March-April 1999

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

This note is really an addendum to a trip report I posted to Birdchat a couple of years ago, describing 24 hours near the town of Apia on the Western Samoan island of Upolu. In that brief time I was able to see most of the 10 endemics, and much else besides, but I missed two that were on my "most-wanted" list: the Mao (Gymnomyza samoensis), a large forest honeyeater;and the Manume'a or Tooth-billed Pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris), an almost mythical and almost extinct forest pigeon with a parrot-like (or Dodo-like) bill.

In March and April 1999 I found myself back on the island, now part of the country renamed simply "Samoa", with a few days more time, and a strong determination to see these birds. Alas, determination wasn't enough: I found the Mao fairly easily, but had no luck with The Pigeon.

I found a presumed pair of MAO (a male and the much smaller female, about 15 minutes and 200 yards apart) in what remains my favourite bird-watching spot in Samoa -- the water intake area at the top end of the Vaisigano valley. Access to this site is described in my first Trip Report (though I should correct a typo therein: the "jeep track" branches right from the "muddy jeep trail" about 200 yards from the end of Magigai Road, not the stated 20 yards [Corrected in the on-line version. UG]). One of the attractions of this site is that a US$2 taxi from "downtown" Apia can drop you at the end of Magigai Road at dawn, and great birding is only a downhill walk of 30-40 minutes away, so the forested valley can be explored in the cool of the morning -- from ~0900 to ~1600 Samoa (this time with little rain and weak Trade Winds) was exceedingly hot and humid. They were near the end of the path alongside the water pipe in the valley floor. The female(?) was clambering on vines in the sub-canopy, calling attention to herself with continuous vocalising that I noted as a repeated "caugh, caugh, caugh,...." -- published descriptions of Mao's voices are incredibly varied, but, on reflection, perhaps this was an immature. Then at the water intake itself I was sitting admiring the BLUE-CROWNED LORIES, SAMOAN TRILLERS, SAMOAN FLYCATCHERS, SAMOAN WHISTLERS, SCARLET ROBINS, etc when a beautiful male of the supposedly shy, rare Mao landed on a branch not 10 yards away and inspected me thoroughly for 5 minutes, while I admired his giant curved bill and the subtle shading of his plumage.

I had little real info on where to seek The Pigeon (whose giant image adorns several belated 'Protect our Wildlife - Don't shoot this Bird!' billboards throughout Samoa). The Samoa Visitor's Bureau was predictably uninformed; the government Division of Environment and Conservation (e-mail address: manumea@pactok......) claimed to know nothing, but suggested I go to the O le Siosiomaga Society, a conservation NGO with an office in Apia. At the Society, I met a local who said he had seen Manume'a a few weeks before, and was the Assistant Project Officer: he offered to take a friend and I to the remote Uadato site (NE Upolu) the next day for US$20 and the price of a rental car. We took him up on the offer, but he picked us up next day at 0530 rather than the promised 0300, so by the time the jeep had picked its way over awful but very scenic 'dirt' roads (actually bare volcanic rock parts of the way) to the coastal village of Uadato it was already a hot 0830. Where had he seen Manume'a before? -- he pointed straight up the steepest jungle-covered mountain, which we clambered up, bushwacking through the undergrowth with 5 to 10 yards of visibility along with chattering 'guides' from the village, til we were all exhausted, and everyone else fell asleep! Needless to say, no pigeons of any sort were sighted. Some days later I attempted to get back to Uadato alone, and sleep overnight there, by following the "cliff-top path" described in the Lonely Planet guide as reaching there along the coast from the east, but I had to give up, after wading across chest-high rivers and swinging across lava cliffs Tarzan-style on dangling vines, when the 'path' petered out (as I think the incredulous villagers had tried to warn me).

I extended my Manume'a search to the adjacent 'Big Island' of Savaii. The Lonely Planet guide (seldom a good bird-finding resource!) says the "Tafua Rain-Forest Preserve", conveniently near the airport and ferry-dock in the SE part of the island, is one of the bird's remaining strongholds. Most of this 'preserve' seemed to be secondary forest and scrub, still being sawed and burned over, but there is some beautiful safe woodland in and on a large cratered cinder-cone near the village of Tafua. A wonderful Samoan family let me share their home overnight (ask anyone in the village for Ulu and Anita), and remembered having seen Manume'a in the crater at some time in the past; I spent 5 hours on the crater rim, starting at first light, seeing feeding flocks of PACIFIC PIGEONS and MANY-COLOURED FRUIT-DOVES, as well as other good birds (RED-HEADED PARROT-FINCH, SAMOAN FANTAIL, etc), but nothing with a toothed bill. I also climbed, with a couple of friends but no local guide, to the Plantation above the northern Savaii village of A'opo, mentioned in Wheatley's "Where to find birds ..." guide (which I've found almost completely useless in the South Pacific). I had little expectation of seeing Manume'a there: the forest has recently been trashed by a hurricane and a large uncontrolled fire, but I hoped to get high enough (supposedly above about 6000 feet) for a chance at the endemic SAMOAN WHITE-EYE. No luck; we couldn't find where the trail continued up beyond the plantation (which is itself a 3 mile walk up from the newly paved circum-island road, and probably at about 4500' altitude(?)) so, in the heat of the day, we gave up. This is a place where you probably really need a local to find the trail to the volcanic peaks at the summit of the island, and to set out at dawn with plenty of water, plus the wherewithall to stay overnight on the rain-drenched mountain.

So I still have Tooth-billed Pigeon and Samoan White-eye on my "Wanted" list, and I'd really appreciate anyone telling me when and where they've seen them, so I can try again Next Time.

What was I doing in Samoa? As usual, going to and from a University of California research ship, which this time was on a month-long cruise, Apia to Apia, exploring the geology of the Tonga-Kermadec Trench, an undersea feature that extends south from near Samoa at 14°S to near New Zealand at about 35°S. The best pelagic sightings were some of the residents of the Kermadec Islands (near the trench at 30-31°S): the very attractive WHITE-NAPED PETRELs (Pterodroma cervicalis), seen almost hourly once we we were south of 22°S; the equally abundant BLACK-WINGED PETRELS; KERMADEC PETRELS; the local ssp of LITTLE SHEARWATER; and of course WEDGE-TAILED SHEARWATERS, abundant around Samoa and throughout the cruise, but being partly replaced by FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATERs (from New Zealand proper) south of ~30°S.

Return to trip reports.

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