Archive for May, 2014

Vanuatu – Tongoa and Epi islands

May 30, 2014

An early start this morning as we sat moored off Tongoa Island, part of Vanuatu’s Shepherd Islands.

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We embarked in the Zodiacs a little after 7am, with the aim of finding a “fire on the beach” of this volcanic and rather rocky island, indicating our landing spot. Unfortunately there were no apparent fires on the beach, although plenty of wisps of smoke in the jungle above. We spent a frustrating time in high seas and rain, finding the wrong landing site and then, finally, the right one, only to decide the access was just too difficult. We sat in driving, tropical rain, listening to the shouts and drums of the locals, as some of the expedition staff went to investigate. Then it was back to the ship for snacks, before a stern landing on a rocky shore in a big swell – quite exciting.

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Photo courtesy Heritage Expeditions

Tongoa Island proved to be a delight, with wild ginger and hibiscus beside the road we walked up. We progressed slowly, spotting cardinal myzomelas, Tanna and red-bellied fruit doves, glossy swiftlets and numerous Vanuatu flying foxes.

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Photo courtesy of Heritage Expeditions (Steve Howell)

Two young men greeted us on the road, inquiring if we would like them to collect some birds for us with their slingshots. Chris explained patiently that the only good bird was one free in the trees and that if they killed the birds, no one would come birding again. They seemed to be quite relieved by that and told us they normally used them to bring down flying foxes for food. I had a slingshot (or shanghai, as I used to call it), when I was a kid and used to bring down cicadas from the lamp posts for my father’s collection. I was impressed by the wooden handles of these ones, cut from a special tree, I was told.

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Finally the group was shown a huge and very majestic fig tree, which was fruiting profusely. The whole tree was alive with birds and eventually we found the prize we had come looking for: the Royal Parrot Finch, a tiny, exquisite blue and red bird that is found only on Tongoa and rarely seen.

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Photo courtesy of Steve Howell, Heritage Expeditions

Overnight the ship moved to a mooring of Epi Island, still in the Shepherd Islands group. By 7.30 am we were off in the Zodiacs, searching for dugong. The dugong is a large marine herbivore, believed to be distantly related to elephants. I had seen one briefly in Queensland, while kayaking in Moreton Bay, but they have been hunted extensively by humans and are rare and very shy. We drifted slowly along the coast, scanning for the smallest disturbance in the water, which might indicate the animal’s whereabouts. I was in the Zodiac that found a single female dugong. The sight of its large curved back, as the animal dived, sent shivers down my spine. Some of the group dived in to film the dugong under the water, but it moved very fast and left most in its wake very quickly. I was pleased we didn’t harass it further. Seeing a wild dugong was special enough for me.

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Photo courtesy of Meghan Kelly, Heritage Expeditions

The island of Epi would be a lovely place for a tropical holiday, with pleasant accommodation close to the beach and clear, clear water. While we waited to spot the dugong, we became fascinated with the presence of large numbers of Sea Striders – remarkable pelagic insects that skitter rapidly over the sea surface and congregate in clusters, clearly interacting with each other. Steve Howell spent time perfecting his photography of small and fast things…

As we steamed away north from Epi, we past the active volcano of Amblyn, sitting in the cloud and headed for Espiritu Santo. That evening the dugong paid us a visit, in the clouds.

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Fiji to Vanuatu

May 29, 2014

The Pacific ocean is that clear blue that dreams are made of; mile after mile of life-giving saline. We saw very little rubbish as we made our way from Fiji to the long archipelago of Vanuatu. The magnificent Tahitian petrel, so elegant in its wheeling black (chocolate, really) and white, passed us by without a glance.

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Tahitian petrel – photo courtesy of Heritage Expeditions

Wedge-tailed shearwaters and masked boobies made an occasional appearance and sometimes, in the distance, a finned hump of a passing cetacean was caught in the lens of binocular or camera. The flying fish provided by far the most fascinating entertainment. They ranged in size from 1-2 cm to ten times that size and their colours were many and various. Steve N G Howell is an expert on these amazing “butterflies of the sea” and Steve just happened to be with us. The mile after mile of blue ocean passed remarkably quickly, as we waited for “smurfs” or “raspberry wings” or “double harlequins” to make their appearance. Capturing them on camera was another matter… Steve’s book “The Amazing World of Flyingfish” will be out in July.

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My best attempt, compared to Steve Howell’s…

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Most amazing were the flying squid, captured beautifully on this picture of Steve’s, but really hard to distinguish, as they moved so quickly.

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After a spectacular sunset and a visit by hundreds of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, feeding nearby, we retired for a last night at sea before Vanuatu.  Once again, my observational powers were found wanting at Bird Club that night, when I realised the number of bird and cetacean species I just hadn’t seen…

Our arrival in Port Vila was marked by a trip to the market and the spotting of a few birds in the port area, like an Emerald Dove, foraging in the rubbish.

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Photo courtesy of Heritage Expeditions.

We spent a delicious afternoon on Lelepa Island, snorkelling over wonderful coral.

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Photos courtesy of Heritage Expeditions.

A group of wood swallows ignored our reluctant departure, back to the Spirit of Enderby for another magnificent dinner.

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Fiji birding

May 16, 2014

We left from Suva and were soon steaming out past the reef towards Gau/Ngau Island. Our aim was to spot the rare and elusive Fiji petrel. As I was still getting my sealegs, I didn’t venture out on the Zodiacs. Instead, I experienced a swim in the deep ocean, off the side of the Spirit of Enderby. It did not pay to think much about what was down there, as you dived into the vast blueness of the Pacific – water temperature a balmy 28 deg C apparently. 

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Lenses up – spot the bird! (This time an elegant Tahiti petrel)

After 3 hours bobbing around on a slick made of strong smelling fish oil, the Zodiacs returned, full of elated birders – the Fiji petrel had flown conveniently past them and many had captured great photos. The first rare bird had been seen and dinner was joyful that evening.

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The next morning we were escorted into a wonderful hidden harbour, by the people of Ongea Levu.

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As soon as we stepped ashore into the village, the birdsong was obvious. A quiet walk down paths in the bush revealed many birds, including the Ogea/Ongea buff-bellied monarch, which we had come to find.

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(Photo courtesy of Heritage Expeditions)

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(Photo courtesy of Heritage Expeditions)

Serious bird business.

Other creatures were spotted too.

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And then it was time for kava and dancing with the villagers.

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What a precious day – thank you Ongea!

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Birding the Pacific

May 15, 2014

I am wiser now and definitely in need of a better pair of binoculars. The men with long lenses called them “bins”.  I was immensely impressed by the real birders on this trip, who were totally dedicated and on the job day and night it seemed. I was also very impressed by the young couple who were experts on cetaceans. I was reminded constantly that my background was in a lab full of small, disposable test tubes and automatic pipettes. My observational skills need considerable improvement, but luckily people remained patient with this bumbling reproductive cell biologist with the small bins…

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The Expedition turned out to be remarkably successful biologically, with recordings of 96 species of bird, including the Fijian petrel and the Vanuatu petrel, plus three types of Monarch (birds not butterflies…), 10 species of marine mammal and 30 species of flying fish. Yes – I learned a huge amount about flying fish and spent hours trying, largely unsuccessfully, to photograph them as they took off out of the way of the Spirit of Enderby’s prow.

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By far the best thing I gained over the 16 days on the blue blue blue Pacific Ocean, was a renewed sense of wonder and awe at our world and an optimism that there are still wild, unknown parts of this planet where life just goes on evolving and developing.  I met wonderful people on tiny islands, saw young children totally at home in deep water in a dugout canoe, swam off the ship in the deep Pacific, walked the jungle and waded through mangrove swamps, in search of small, shy birds that apparently hadn’t been seen for years. And when we found them (and we found all of them on the list it seemed), I experienced a sense of total satisfaction that I’ve never felt before.  It was the perfect way to start retirement and will take me a while to describe, bit by bit. Bear with me then, over the next few weeks.

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