From Stewart Island, one ferry crossing and three flights later we arrived at Noumea International Airport in New Caledonia. My first lifer and endemic was found in the airport car park - the common Grey-eared Honeyeater - with a call resembling a cross between a Nightingale and Cetti's Warbler.
Remembering to drive on the right hand side of the road we made the 90 minute journey south to our accommodation. New Caledonia is a French dependent territory in the Pacific, about two hours east of Brisbane, and comes under the birding region of Melanesia. By Pacific standards New Caledonia is a wealthy country with a high standard of living. On the roads it wasn't uncommon to have a Porsche, Audi or Range Rover overtake our Citroen rental car.
There's something very exciting about birding in a new country. For weeks prior to the trip I had ploughed through the "Birds of Melanesia" field guide by Guy Dutson, absorbing details of calls, colours, plumage and sizes of life birds I hoped to see.
My first day bird watching was at Mount Koghis where I spent about five hours. The drive up twisting, winding roads was impressive and the view from the summit down to the lush forest below didn't disappoint. As I got out of the car, the first new sound to hit me was a "boom boom boom" like a tennis ball being dropped on a kettle drum. The Goliath Imperial Pigeon was as impressive as its name suggests.
I wandered the forest trails, noting a yapping call almost like an annoying little dog and soon saw my first New Caledonian Crow. This endemic corvid, known for using tools, uses sticks to prise bugs and grubs out of the cracks in trees. I found a clearing in the forest and the birds seemed to arrive on cue. First was the beautiful New Caledonia Whistler with its white bib followed by a Long-tailed Triller, Streaked Fantail, and an eye-catching Red-throated Parrotfinch. While watching my first Metallic Pigeon high up in the canopy I heard a ripping sound. If I was on Ulva Island I would think of Kaka or Saddleback picking bugs out of a Punga. I followed the sound to reveal one of my favourite birds of the trip - the secretive Southern Shrikebill - chocolatey brown plumage and an ivory-coloured bill.
Our next wildlife experience involved a sailing catamaran from the southern port of Prony in the hope of viewing humpback whales. As we left the wharf the root of New Caledonia's wealth became apparent as we saw a nickel mine. The scarred red landscape was soon replaced by beautiful azure blue sea and it wasn't long before we saw our first female humpback of the day, with a calf. We shared their company for around 45 minutes and without much warning the female breached. I was very fortunate to fire a couple of camera shots off and was quite happy with the resulting images. The lack of seabirds was quite disappointing - Black-naped Tern, Great-crested Tern and Black Noddy were the only seabirds during the whole two week trip.
We explored further north and spent the day at the new Parc des Grande Fougeres, near Farino, a beautiful reserve with easy trails. Great views of South Melanesian Cuckooshrike, White-breasted Woodswallow and Cloven-feathered Dove which has to be one of the smartest New Caledonia endemics - and a stunning White-bellied Goshawk.
Ask any birder and the main reason for going to New Caledonia is to see Kagu. The best place to see this enigmatic bird is Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue. I was at the gates at 7.15am and drove along the dusty red road to a bridge and car park. From here you can walk or take a minibus to various points in the park itself. I don't speak much French and the bus driver didn't speak much English, but he was a good guy and dropped me off at a walking trail where Kagu had recently been seen.
I waited for the minibus to disappear and stood for a few minutes just listening to the sounds of the forest. I walked slowly down the track and reached a bend in the path where I heard rustling. I raised my bins and could see something black and worked out the shape was a back side of a feral pig! A bit ironic because feral pigs and dogs are one of the main threats to Kagu.
Back in the late 1970s early 1980s these birds were down to 100 individuals. Now there is thought to be around 1000 thanks to pest control. It was a bit disturbing to see one of the main threats of the bird I had come so far to see.
I lowered my bins, slightly disappointed but became aware of a hissing sound behind me, like a deflating tyre. The field guide homework had come into play and I knew I was listening to a Kagu. I turned round slowly and heard the sound again but still couldn't see the bird. It appeared three or four metres in front of me - a Kagu - I almost had to pinch myself, one of my most sought after birds! For a moment we just stopped and looked at each other. By this time it was about a metre away and I still had my bins on it, soaking in the views. It dawned on me that I should get pictures of this bird.
Ghostly grey in colour, a bill that resembled a carrot, long orange legs, flightless, and has a crest. It is in its own genus and only found in New Caledonia.
The bird was very relaxed, feeding in the undergrowth, very similar to Weka in New Zealand. It stayed within a few feet of me for the next hour or so and needless to say I soon filled up a 2GB camera card. Eventually the bird got bored of being in the limelight and slipped away into the forest.
The Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue was also a good spot for Goliath Imperial Pigeon and the beautiful Yellow-bellied Fly Robin. The trails in the park often had Glossy Swiftlets hawking above the path. Towards the end of the day when I had put my camera away I caught a flash of black and raised my bins onto a bird that is really on the edge of extinction - the Crow Honeyeater. There are only 200 of these birds left and only in this park. To see Kagu and Crow Honeyeater - it has to go down as a good day.
My next visit to the park a couple of days later was with Jules the non-birder, who found even better views of Crow Honeyeater. It sat for a while and allowed me to get a couple of dodgy record shots. Further into the forest we had nice views of Barred Honeyeater, New Caledonia Myzomela, Fan-tailed Gerygone, Green-backed White-eye, New Caledonia Friarbird.
By the toilet, where most rare birds are found a Kagu was interested in us enough to spend an hour in our company and Jules got some movie footage of it feeding. Needless to say I took another 300-400 photographs as you can never have enough pictures of Kagu!
For all the fantastic Kagu experiences, one bird was still bugging me. I'd heard it at Parc des Grande Fougeres and an earlier visit to Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue. While watching Kagu I heard the explosive sneeze-like call right above our heads, and there was a New Caledonia Cuckooshrike! Slaty grey with a rusty-coloured vent.
At the end of two weeks in New Caledonia I had seen 64 species. Not a massive total but 27 of them were lifers and 20 of the 22 endemics. You've always got to have a reason to go back. I'd recommend New Caledonia to anyone even if it's just to see Kagu but if you want to see Crow Honeyeater, hurry up!
Back in New Zealand we arrived to a rainy Auckland and picked up a rental car to head out to Miranda for a couple of nights. The temperature was a good 15 degrees lower than New Caledonia so the electric blankets were switched on and fish and chips topped off the end of a day's travels.
Skies were blue the next day and I spent the afternoon at Miranda Shorebird Centre and had a quick catch up with Keith Woodley. Big numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits along with Wrybills. I picked out a lone Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in amongst the Red Knots checking the pools behind the hides had view of Great White Egret and a couple of NZ ticks for me. One was Black-tailed Godwit and the other was a Buff-banded Rail - a bird that I had seen a couple of days earlier in New Caledonia.
The following day we headed north to try and see the newly arrived Australasian Pelicans. There was access to Kaipara north of Ruawai but locals said the birds hadn't been seen that morning. The telescope came into its own at Ruawai Boating Wharf as I picked up a distant pelican on the other side of the river. With the bird on the list we headed to the airport for the afternoon flight to Christchurch and then Invercargill via Dunedin to watch the All Blacks play South Africa.
After a couple of days back on Stewart Island I had the pleasure of meeting The Governor-General, Lt Gen Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae who is the personal representative of New Zealand's Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand. As Chairman of the Ulva Island Trust I was asked to show him around Ulva Island as part of his visit to Southland. See some
I'm looking forward to the upcoming season with dates for pelagics and Ulva Island already in the diary and hopefully I can shake off this crappy flu thing that I've had for the past week.