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New Caledonia - Loyalty Islands - Vanuatu - Australia (West Pacific Islands) Cruise - 18th - 28th December 2008

Published by Gail Mackiernan (katahdinss AT comcast.net)

Participants: Barry Cooper, Gail Mackiernan

Barry Cooper and Gail Mackiernan
216 Mowbray Road, Silver Spring, MD 20904 USA
katahdinss@comcast.net

This cruise was a follow-on from a 16-day highly successful birding trip to southeastern Australia [see separate trip report]. It was our fifth seabird-orientated voyage on a commercial cruise ship. We have learned that these large vessels offer many opportunities for the serious sea-birder. Not the least of which is a completely stable platform from which one can comfortably use one’s scopes, covered decks in wet weather, and a vast array of possible routes. Downsides are of course that one cannot choose the exact course, there is no chasing or chumming, nor Zodiac rides. Rather, these represent what oceanographers call "ships of opportunity" – vessels which provide a platform for one’s work whilst their actual purpose differs. The various shipboard amenities are mere icing on the cake for the committed sea-birder! Another big advantage for the budget-minded birder is the very competitive pricing compared with typical "expedition" eco-tour cruises.

The ship for this cruise was the ms Dawn Princess of the Princess Cruise Line, with a carrying capacity of about 2,000 passengers. This ship was probably the least birder-friendly in terms of viewing conditions. The only viewing from the bow [typically the best place to view seabirds] was on deck 10 about 50-60 feet above the sea, which is somewhat higher than ideal. Also at this location there was only limited shelter which was exacerbated by having a head wind for much of the cruise. The walk-around promenade deck provided plenty of shelter and room and was at a lower level. Most of our viewing was done from this deck.

This cruise was not as productive as a cruise earlier this year from Auckland to New Caledonia [and on to Japan], but nevertheless many good pelagic species were seen.

Reference Material:

Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World, 2007, Derek Onley and Paul Scofield, published by Helm Publishers, London.

Birds of the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, Doughty, Day and Plant, published by Helm Publishers, London.

Contacts:

New Caledonia:
For Parc Rivere-Bleue,
guide Jean-Marc Meriot;
email: parcrivierebleue@province-sud.nc

Arc en ciel Voyages
Flore MARCHISIO Groups Coordinator
59, av Foch - BP 1244
98845 Nouméa, New Caledonia
(687) 27 19 80
www.arcenciel.nc, flore@arcenciel.nc

Ouvea Parakeet
Ludovic Verfaille, ludovic.verfaille@loyalty.nc
Guides: Maurice and Aïzik
Also: Vivien Chartendrault, Coordinateur SCO
69, av. Koenig - Rivière Salée, BP3135
98846 Nouméa Cedex
Tel/Fax : +687 35-48-33
Mob : +687 92-66-02
Web Site: www.sco.asso.nc

Itinerary:

The cruise included day stops at a number of Pacific islands. This gave us a great opportunity to look for island endemics and other species.

December 18th Arrived at Sydney Airport [from Melbourne] at about 10.30 a.m. Caught shuttle bus to dock arriving at about 1.30 p.m. Delayed in getting on the cruise ship until about 3.30 p.m. so spent a enjoyable couple of hours sightseeing around Sydney Harbor. Eventually boarded the Dawn Princess and we departed Sydney at about 6.30 p.m. [three hours late] and unfortunately too late for any pelagic birding, as the ship passed after dark through waters often productive for albatrosses etc.

December 19th Our first full day at sea heading northeast towards New Caledonia. At noon the ship’s position was Lat: 30 degrees 41.8’S & Long: 155 degrees 36.0’E. At about 6.00 a.m. we were about 200 miles northeast of Sydney in the Tasman Sea. Large numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen during the morning. These were largely replaced by good numbers of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters during the afternoon. Other pelagic birds seen included Grey-faced and Gould’s Petrels, Flesh-footed Shearwaters, White-tailed Tropicbirds, Sooty and White Terns. Total seabird-viewing time about six hours.

December 20th At noon the ship’s position was Lat: 25 degrees 59.4’ south & Long: 161 degrees 42.7’ E. Continued a northeasterly course & now crossing the Coral Sea. Viewing was slow (as we had experienced last spring in the Coral Sea) and there were long intervals between sightings. Pelagic species seen, all in low numbers, included Tahiti, Gould’s and Black-winged Petrels, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a Pomarine Skua. Estimated seabird-viewing time about three hours.

December 21st At 6.00 a.m. the Dawn Princess was approaching Noumea [New Caledonia] and docked at approximately 8.30 a.m. A 5.00 a.m. walk around the deck revealed that no petrels had come aboard during the night. [Unlike our previous cruise in March when a number of Gould’s Petrels were found on the deck].

We had visited Parc Rivere Blue in March, and had seen virtually all of specialty species including the Kagu. Therefore, we planned to spend our time today between Farino [which is now the most reliable site for the NC Grassbird] and Mt. Khoghi . As with all our island calls we had arranged for a rental car to be delivered to the dock, and Flore from ArcEnCiel was there on time with our 2WD car. Unfortunately extremely heavy rain before and during our day trip ashore precluded the drive on the very rough unpaved road up to the Grassbird site. Also, in all likelihood we would not have seen this extremely difficult skulker in the bad weather conditions. We did get in about 2 1/2 hours birding at the top of Mt. Khoghi before heavy rain and fog forced a retreat to the car. After waiting over an hour with no let-up in the rain we reluctantly drove down and off the mountain. We did manage another 1 1/2 hours birding at the base of the mountain juggling umbrellas and bins! Despite the bad weather we managed to see quite a few endemics and other birds. These included surprisingly high numbers of both Metallic Pigeon and the stunning Cloven-feathered Dove. Other endemic and specialty birds seen included New Caledonian Friarbird, Myzomela, Flycatcher and Whistler, Barred Honeyeater, Streaked Fantail, Fan-tailed Gerygone, Green-backed White-eye, Striated Starling, Melanesian Cuckoo-Shrike and Red-throated Parrotfinch. Southern Shrikebill was heard but could not be located in the dark and wet forest on Mt. Khoghi. However, we ended up with three new birds, which was only slightly less than expected.

The inshore waters of New Caledonia were alive with sea birds and we had a great time both on the approach to the island and leaving. We estimated at least 500 Gould’s Petrels plus smaller numbers of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a single Black-winged Petrel. Also a party of Black-naped Terns, our only new seabird seen on the cruise itself.

December 22nd We arrived at Ouvea at about 7.30 a.m. Apart from the ever present Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, the only sea birds seen as we entered and departed the island were a Lesser Frigatebird and a Red-footed Booby.

While the main attraction of Ouvea is the endangered and endemic Ouvea Parakeet, we actually saw quite a few New Caledonian/Solomon Island species. We saw two groups of the very charismatic parakeets, totaling about fourteen birds. Other interesting birds seen included two species of Triller [Polynesian and Long-tailed], Shining Bronze Cuckoo, NC Flycatcher, and the first of many Red-bellied Fruit Doves. We were also blown away by how abundant both the Emerald Dove and Sacred Kingfishers were on this small island.

December 23rd The Dawn Princess docked at Port Vila, Efate at about 7.30 a.m. This was the one time during the whole trip [including the eighteen days in Australia] where we experienced a major snafu in logistics. The company (Discount Car Rentals) that was suppose to deliver a 4WD vehicle to the dock did not show up, despite several detailed emails from them describing the appearance of the car, wording of the sign they would be holding up, etc. After much frustration trying to reach them by phone, we ended up taking a taxi into town to Avis and renting a regular car. Because the roads on Efate are so poor, this pretty much eliminated any chance of getting into the decent forest on the northern side of the island, and we had to concentrate on degraded habitat closer to town. We did manage to pick-up a few new birds including Tanna Fruit Dove and Yellow-fronted White-eye. We walked the grounds of the Mele Golf Course with no sign of Blue-faced Parrotfinch, often reported from this site.

December 24th We arrived at the island of Lifou at about 7.00 a.m.. The most interesting pelagic species seen while approaching the island were six pale phased Herald Petrels.

Lifou itself is a splendid island with extensive forested areas. We docked at the northern end of the island near Xepenehe. We drove south along the main road finding an excellent trail into the forest [several km’s out of the town but before the first roundabout]. We saw almost all the endemic and specialty birds along this trail. We continued south to the capital We and the adjacent airport. Most birders who visited Lifou usually do so by air and spend their day birding around the capital. While there is forest outside of We it is more degraded and lacks the large trees seen in the north of the island. We returned north and later in the day found a large area of extremely good forest containing many large trees along the road between Jokin and Mucaweng. The brilliant road from Jokin that runs through the forest was free of traffic and easy to bird from, and we saw almost all of the island specialties despite the lateness of the day.

Birds seen included large numbers of Red-bellied Fruit Doves, Pacific Imperial Pigeon, the stunning Cardinal Myzomela, Long-tailed Triller and good numbers of both the Large and Small Lifou White-eyes.

December 25th We spent Christmas day birding the Isle of Pines. The only trail we could find was the Pic Meunier Trail, a steep rocky trail that climbs up to an overlook. This trail can be reached by driving north for a couple of km’s from Kuto. The best birds seen on this trail were three NC Robins and four NC Whistlers. Red-bellied Fruit Dove, Dark Brown Honeyeaters and Green-backed White-eyes were all common. The road heading east towards Baie d’Oro had some interesting seedeaters feeding along the grassy edges including Red-throated Parrotfinch as well as the introduced Chestnut-breasted Munia and Common Waxbill.

Good numbers of terns including about fifty Black Noddies, twenty White Terns and smaller numbers of Brown Noddies, Black-napped and Great-crested Terns, enlivened the evening departure.

December 26th A full day at sea on our return leg to Sydney with the Dawn Princess at dawn about 170 miles southwest of New Caledonia. The ship’s position, at noon, was Lat: 26 degrees 39.3 south & Long: 162 degrees 02.5 east.

A nice selection of pelagic species including [at last] the first White-necked Petrels. Also, Cook’s, Gould's and Black-winged Petrels as well as the ever present Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

December 27th Our final day at sea was the most productive. For part of the day the ship continued to head a southwesterly course across the Coral Sea. At noon our position was Lat: 31 degrees 04.2 south & Long: 155 degrees 34.2 east. By about 5.00 p.m. we were about 370 miles east of the Australian mainland, in the Tasman Sea and close to the edge of the Continental Shelf.

We had good numbers of Grey-faced Petrels throughout the day, also our first Kermadec and Providence Petrels plus White-necked Cook’s and Gould’s Petrels. The latter were probably of the nominate race as opposed to the caledonica subspecies. Other pelagic species seen included three species of shearwaters with impressive numbers of Short-tailed and Pink-footed, and two beautiful adult Red-tailed Tropicbirds.

Species Lists

A total of seventy-one species were seen on this segment of our trip including twenty-three island endemics.

Tahiti Petrel: Recorded on two dates with daily maximum of four birds on December 20 when the ship was in the Coral Sea.

Grey-faced Petrel: Recorded on two dates with daily maximum of forty-five birds. Many birds were in active wing molt. More common in Tasmania Sea and close to the Continental Shelf.

Providence Petrel: Three birds seen on December 27th close to the Continental Shelf.

Kermadec Petrel: Six birds with three each of light and dark phases were seen on December 27th in the Tasman Sea.

Herald Petrel: Six light phase birds seen in the early morning of December 24th as the Dawn Princess approached Lifou.

White-necked Petrel: Six individuals of this impressive large pterodroma were seen on December 26th followed by two more on the 27th.

Cook’s Petrel: A total of four birds seen over December 26th & 27th.

Gould’s Petrel: Easily the most numerous petrel species seen on the cruise. In all recorded on six days with the maximum being an impressive five hundred birds seen on December 21st in the inshore waters of New Caledonia. – A very impressive spectacle. (The latter would be the New Caledonian ssp, considered a potential split from nominate Gould’s which breeds in NSW)

Black-winged Petrel: Recorded in very small numbers on four dates with the daily maximum of only two birds on December 27th.

Flesh-footed Shearwater: Recorded on two dates in the Tasman Sea with a maximum of 225 birds on December 27th with many of these birds at the edge of the Continental Shelf.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater: The most frequently recorded pelagic species being seen daily. More numerous in the warm waters of the Coral Sea [where it replaced the Short-tailed Shearwater]. The daily maximum was three hundred birds.

Short-tailed Shearwater: A very common species in the Tasman Sea, particularly around the Continental Shelf. Recorded on two dates with the daily maximum of 850 birds on December 27th.

Red-tailed Tropicbird: Two brilliant adult birds flew close over the ship on December 27th.

White-tailed Tropicbird: Two immature birds came to the bow of the ship on December 19th.

Red-footed Booby: Just two individuals seen on December 4th & 7th.

Lesser Frigatebird: A single bird seen on December 22nd.

Pomarine Skua: Single birds recorded on December 20th and 27th.

Silver Gull: Surprisingly uncommon recorded only on December 25th at the Isle of Pines.

Great Crested Tern: Fairly common species in the inshore waters of the various islands. In all recorded on three days with the maximum of fifteen birds at the Isle of Pines.

Black-naped Tern: This very attractive tern was a major blocker, and it was our only new species to be seen from the ship. Recorded from the inshore waters of Efate [three birds] and Isle of Pines [five birds].

Sooty Tern: Seen irregularly in small numbers at sea with the exception of 150 birds on December 27th.

Black Noddy: Fifty birds seen in the evening of December 25th. They were heading into the inshore waters of the Isle of Pines presumably to roost after a days feeding at sea.

Brown Noddy: Six birds seen on December 35th involved in the same movement as the previous species. Also six birds seen on December 27th.

White Tern : This very impressive tern was recorded on just two dates with a single bird on December 19th and twenty birds involved in the same late afternoon movement as the two previous species.

Pacific Reef Heron: Two dark phase birds seen flying across the harbor at Efate.

Swamp Harrier: Just single bird seen on Efate.

Brown Goshawk: A single bird seen at Ouvea.

Buff-banded Rail: Seen on all five islands visited, usually walking across the road. Daily maximum was three birds [Efate]. Giving its skulking behavior, this must be a common & widespread species throughout these islands.

Pacific Golden Plover : Two flocks totaling about forty birds on Efate. Otherwise, just three birds seen [Lifou].

Metallic Pigeon : This large pigeon was surprisingly common & tame around the gardens at the top of Mt. Khoghi with an estimated twenty birds seen. Also three birds seen on Ouvea.

Cloven-feathered Dove: This brilliant dove was fairly common around the gardens at the summit of Mt. Khoghi with about six birds seen, four perched in one tree. It is a strangely proportioned bird in flight, being very short-tailed and heavy in front.

Spotted Dove: Restricted to New Caledonia where we saw about six birds.

Emerald Dove: None seen on New Caledonia but recorded on the Loyalty Islands and Efate. We were amazed how common & tame this species was on Ouvea where we saw at least fifteen birds. The numbers on this island are likely high due to the lack of hunting pressure. This in turn is likely the result of the good conservation work being done by Société Calédonienne d'Ornithologie in connection with protecting the Ouvea Parakeet. In contrast much smaller numbers on Lifou [[2 birds] Isle of Pines [one bird] and Efate [five birds]. A number of used shotgun cases were found along the forest trails on Lifou but none were seen on Ouvea.

Tanna Fruit Dove: Three birds of this large fruit dove (Bislama name: "bigfela green pidgin") well seen and others heard on Efate. They were very confiding on the grounds of the Catholic school at Montmarte, NE of Vila.

Red-bellied Fruit Dove: Very common throughout the Loyalty Islands but extremely difficult to obtain good views. They will respond to recordings but often peer out from thick cover at the observer. Estimates for each island are five seen and twelve heard calling [Ouvea], twenty seen and many more heard [Lifou], eight seen and others heard [Isle of Pines]. Many of the birds were seen in flight as we drove along the island roads.

Pacific Imperial Pigeon: A single bird heard calling and briefly seen perched and in flight along the excellent forest trail a few Km’s south of Xepenehe. We made two trips several hours apart to this trail and the pigeon was found in the same location each time – perhaps nesting?

Ouvea Parakeet: One of the top target birds of the trip. We had arranged before hand to have Maurice, an employee from the conservation group, meet us at the dock and take us to a farm that protected this species. Everything went as planned and we had excellent views of about eight birds at the small farm, owned by M. Benoit. It is quite a large parakeet and more colourful than illustrated in Dougherty et al. We naturally made a contribution to the organization and to the farmer whose land the parrots were on. We had also rented a car and later in the day we drove towards the north end of the island and found a party of six parrots feeding along a side road east of St. Joseph. While this shows that it is possible to see this species without help (if you are lucky!), we strongly advise birders to make use of the local resources. In this way the indigenous people will benefit from preserving this endangered parrot.

Rainbow Lorikeet : Common on Efate and seen in smaller numbers on New Caledonia.

Fan-tailed Cuckoo : A single bird heard making its distinctive call on Lifou.

Shining Bronze Cuckoo: Very nice views of a single bird on Ouvea.

Glossy Swiftlet: The most widespread swiftlet being seen on all five islands. The maximum estimate was about 150 birds seen on Ouvea.

Uniform Swiftlet: Our only sighting was of three birds seen on Efate.

Collared Kingfisher: Six birds of this attractive kingfisher were seen on Efate.

Sacred Kingfisher: Recorded on New Caledonia and all three Loyalty Islands. We were amazed how common this bird was especially on Ouvea where we must have seen almost fifty birds ! Every few hundred yards 1-2 birds would be seen perched on the roadside power lines. Also numerous on Lifou with about twenty-five birds seen.

Dark-brown Honeyeater: A very common island endemic being widespread and abundant on all five islands. The form on Vanuatu ["Silver-eared Honeyeater"] has a distinctly different call to those on the other islands and may be a possible future split.

New Caledonian Friarbird: A single confiding individual very well seen in the gardens at Mt. Khoghi, and a couple of others seen along the Pic Meunier trail on Iles des Pins.

New Caledonia Myzomela: Seen only on New Caledonia with four birds at Mt. Khoghi.

Cardinal Myzomela : This brilliantly colored Myzomela was fairly common on Lifou with about ten birds seen. The males were quite different from the illustration in Doughty et al. They had all red heads with this color extending onto the back and rump, contrasting sharply with the black underparts. – Superb birds.

Barred Honeyeater: A single individual well seen in the gardens at Mt. Khoghi.

Fan-tailed Gerygone: Common and widespread in New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands.

New Caledonian [Yellow-bellied} Robin: Three birds of this attractive species were seen on the Pic Meunier trail on the Isle of Pines.

New Caledonia Whistler: Two birds seen at Mt. Khoghi, NC and four more along the Pic Meunier trail on the Isle of Pines.

Grey Fantail: Common in New Caledonia and Efate.

Streaked Fantail: Recorded in small numbers on three islands with the maximum being six birds on Lifou.

New Caledonia Flycatcher : Two birds of this attractive forest species were seen at Mt. Khoghi . Others were seen in the forests on Ouvea [two birds] and Lifou [one bird].

Southern Shrikebill: A single bird heard calling in the forest on Mt. Koghi and another on Lifou.

Polynesian Triller: We were surprised to see a pair of these birds on Ouvea [northern portion of the island] as Doughty, et al indicate the species is restricted to Vanuatu and the Santa Cruz Islands in the Solomons. We had excellent views of a pair of these birds and were able to compare them with the Long-tailed Triller later the same day. When first seen in flight the black &white plumage and noticeable short tail were reminiscent of a small N.Am. woodpecker. When perched the broad white eye-strip was clearly seen.

Long-tailed Triller : Two birds seen on the north end of Ouvea and a single bird on Lifou.

White-breasted Woodswallow : Common in the Loyalty Islands and on Efate.

Melanesian Cuckoo-Shrike: This large and striking species was fairly common on the Isle of Pines with at least four birds seen. Also singles seen on Lifou and at Mt. Khoghi.

Striated Starling: We surprisingly missed this bird on NC last spring. It is a forest edge species with six birds being seen well in the gardens at the top of Mt. Khoghi. Most common in Ouvea with an estimated thirty-five birds seen and smaller numbers on both Lifou and the Isles of Pines.

Common Myna: This introduced bird is at plague proportions on Efate and must be having a serious detrimental effect on the indigenous species. We were relieved not to see any on the Loyalty Islands and only moderate numbers on NC.

Pacific Swallow: Fairly common on both NC and Efate but none seen on the Loyalty Islands.

Red-vented Bulbul: About six birds seen on NC.

Large Lifou White-eye: We made a point of estimating numbers of this rather unwhite-eye-like species at the various sites visited. It was apparent the species is quite common and widespread and probably more numerous in the northern end of the island than around We. Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the areas south of We. Every forest trail we visited for 20-30 minutes produced on average 6-8 birds seen &/or heard. The greatest concentrations were along the trail several km’s out of Xepenehe and along the large area of undisturbed forest between Jokin & Mucaweng. In all, we estimated we saw at least a dozen birds and heard at least that many more. Not an easy bird to get excellent views as they moved very quickly around in response to the tape and kept 2-3 layers of trees away from us. They were singing repeatedly with the song a loud, melodic warble.

Small Lifou White-eye: We did a similar survey for this species. It tended to move around in larger [mixed] parties which is more typical of white-eyes seen elsewhere. Again a common & widespread species with a minimum estimate of twenty birds seen and probably a similar number heard.

Silver-eye: Fairly common on, NC, Loyalty Islands and Efate.

Green-backed White-eye: Common & widespread on both NC & the Isle of Pines. We estimated at least twenty-five birds seen [and others heard] on both islands.

Yellow-fronted White-eye: This Vanuatu endemic was very common on Efate even in degraded forest areas. In all we estimated at least thirty-five birds seen and others heard.

Red-throated Parrotfinch: A party of three birds seen at the top of Mt. Khoghi and four birds seen feeding with other birds on roadside grasses on the Isle of Pines, along the road to Bay of Gold.

Common Waxbill: Four birds seen feeding on roadside grasses on the Isle of Pines.

House Sparrow: Common in suburban areas of NC and Efate. Not recorded in the Loyalty Islands.

Chestnut-breasted Munia: A single handsome male feeding on roadside grasses on the Isle of Pines