Monday, 30 July 2012

Waitangi, Bay of islands - part 1

It's a week since I visited the bay of islands as a winter interlude in my trip to otherwise warm (or even hot) places in the Pacific.


I stayed at Paihia and managed to bird watch straight out of the hotel on foot. There is a varied habitat - mangroves, estuary, sea, parkland, golf course and forest all within 3 or 4 kilometres of the town. Most of the walking was done north of the town towards Waitangi.


This blog is one of two and for want of a better way of splitting it into two, the them of this one is water birds. Though in some cases (eg kingfishers) I could have put them in either blog.

pied cormorant

I notched up 8 lifers among with water birds without trying that hard. There was a canoe up the mangroves or  boat trips into the sea. As I have said before, it was still twice as expensive as any holiday I have had before! I could have added another 50% if I had done  all the extras suggested of me.

Two lifers were both cormorants or in New Zealand they are both called shags.  

The pied cormorant (or as New Zealanders say pied shag) allowed really close access, a feature of many New Zealand birds. 

Little black cormorant

Little black cormorant was nearly as easy. Both were found in the estuary and  the pied cormorant was also seen further up the Waitangi river too.

Caspian tern

The only tern I saw was Caspian tern which is well-known to me from the northern hemisphere but its name looks a misnomer here. Like the two cormorants they are obviously fairly common in the estuary area. It looked a bit odd when I saw them diving into barely 10 cms of water at times.

sacred kingfisher

Another lifer was the sacred kingfisher which was virtually everywhere: in the mangroves, on the mud flats and beach, and in parkland. The only place I didn't see it was in dense forest but it may have been there too.

white faced heron

I met white faced heron for the first time in Tonga only days before. In Waitangi it was seemingly less exotic because it wasn't new. It was a lot noisier in new Zealand though. It sounds like a crow!

red-breasted dotterel

Almost certainly the rarest bird I saw in New Zealand was red-breasted dotterel which is also endemic.

red breasted dotterel (non-breeding)

Apparently this is one of the best places to see them if you look along the beach. I suppose they move on a short distance away from the public beaches in summer.

Variable oystercatcher

Two more endemics were also present. There was both the variable oystercatcher and the slightly smaller pied oystercatcher. The two didn't seem to mix and the variable oystercatcher also seemed to tolerate harsher weather. While the wind and wet was howling one day, the variable oystercatcher were still feeding while all the pied oystercatcher had taken shelter on near-by lawns.

Pied oystercatcher 

Two types of gull were present. They were the smaller red-billed gull (not pictured) and the larger kelp gull. Both were numerous.

kelp gull

On my last day in the area, which also had the best weather, I was lucky enough to see two royal spoonbill, at distance less fortunately. They were using their bills to good effect in the mud flats at the estuary.

Royal spoonbill

Also on the last day, a pied stilt flew overhead allowing me a fleeting look. This was the last lifer among the "water birds".

My next blog looks at the local land birds at Waitangi.

Monday, 23 July 2012

South coastal cliffs, Tongatapu

Tucked away towards the back of the latest lonely planet guide to Samoa and Tonga is a small section on bird watching in Tonga.


The writer alludes to the fact that there are sea colonies of noddies, terns, great frigate birds and tropic birds on all the main islands. I begin to doubt his wisdom when in the next sentence he says "possible twitching spots include Hufangalupe on Tongatapu ..." and he continues to call birders as twitchers throughout. 


Despite the fact he doesn't know the difference between a twitcher and birder, I decided to take his advice and visit Hufangalupe on the south coast.

white faced heron on highest point of the island 

I was taken by taxi to the place that the locals think of as Hufangalupe. It's the highest point on the island and there is a crater there so you have to mind your step or else you end up in the sea through the side entrance.

rainbow over Hufangalupe

Unfortunately, the only birds I saw at the spot were wattled honeyeater, red vented bulbul and a lone white faced heron.

I had a choice to make, give up or a move down the coast to find the right spot. I chose the latter course and then had to decide whether to walk west or east. I chose west mostly because it looked possible to walk that way whereas the other route looked blocked.

the headland in the distance is where I started out

As it happens the walk westward was far from easy. I kept having to go to the surfaced road and take tracks to the sea, repetitively 4 or 5 times.  Each time I tried to get a view of the cliffs ahead looking for sea birds. On the fifth try (and as the cliffs were getting a little lower by the way), I spotted some brown noddy in the distance.

brown noddy over-head

Eventually I came to a grassy headland which gave me clear views of the area the brown noddy were operating in. This was some 3 kilometres west of  Hufangalupe crater.

two brown noddy skimming the sea

To be honest they gave me marvellous displays. I just couldn't photograph them easily as their flight was never direct. It appeared that some birds were being taught how to fish. And on more than one occasion they tried to mob me. I don't think they liked me there even though I was 100 metres and a cliff face away from where they would land (I hesitate to call this a breeding place). 

white tailed tropicbird

Ironically I managed to get better photos of a white-tailed tropicbird even though I saw many less of them and less frequently. This was simply because they flew in a straight line.

a second view of the white-tailed tropicbird

I found no sign of any other type of noddy or tropicbird although I did spot a couple of greater crested tern. I suspect the near-by island (and "eco-tourism destination") of Eua might have more variation and larger numbers because it has more cliffs in its coastline and is more isolated. 

You may ask why I didn't visit there or the northern islands with the two endemics. The simple answer is cost. This 28 day holiday in the south pacific has cost limits! The slightly more complicated answer in the case of Eua is that I found that the internal flights were all booked up anyway and the ferry requires an over-night stay returning at 5a.m.

female white collared kingfisher

I had to leave the coast early to guarantee my return to the north as there is no transport in that area. Two highlights of the return journey was the sighting of another white collared kingfisher. This time it was inland on a plantation which proves they can be found pretty much anywhere on the island. 

bat roost

There was also a very large roost of flying foxes near the golf course. I wonder what they find so attractive about the venue?

This is the last blog from Tonga. The next one will be from north island New Zealand where I have spent a few days an the Bay of Islands. The birding was more varied than the birding in Auckland's park earlier in my trip. I am happy with 11 lifers from the bay. 


Sunday, 22 July 2012

The mud flats near Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Either side of the coast next to Tonga's capital, Nuku' alofa are mud flats and mangroves yet I suspect many tourists don't notice! because they are off the main tourist track.


As is my want on holidays, I prefer to walk where possible because it does my fitness a lot of good and because there are birds to be seen. 


I actually walked from the hotel towards the north coast, forsaking a cab ride into the town and consequently starting out from there. Driving isn't an option this holiday because I am waiting to receive my 10 yearly renewal of my driving license when I get back. This has proved a nuisance in some ways but forced me to walk more which is a real positive.


So as I walked from the hotel towards the north coast, the first sign I was nearing some wetlands were five purple swamphen grazing in a field. 

purple swamphen

They looked out of place until you realised that the mangroves and wetland start the far side of the fields. And the mud flats at the coast are barely 100 metres north of that.

typical mud flat

These mud flats are a great place for pigs to root around in and that's what they do. They also look like treacherous to navigate around. indeed there are at least four large ships rusting away.

On the eastern flats in an area known as Sopu there are many people who seem to be making a living catching oysters.

There are plenty of birds too.

my first white faced heron

It was here I saw my first white faced heron. This is a lifer for me and it isn't found in Samoa so Tonga was my first real chance to see one. 

long distant greater crested tern

There is a real irony in my next lifer from the mud flats. It was great crested tern (aka swift tern). It's ironic because it is a fairly common sight along the Arabian coast and yet I missed it on trips to both Jeddah and Jizan.

a slightly closer greater crested tern

It's actually quite common on Tongatapu's coastline. I later saw it on the south coast too (see a later blog). Indeed it was the only tern I observed. 

Pacific golden plover

Unlike in Samoa I had failed to see any pacific golden plover inland on grass. nevertheless they were common on the muds flats. I can't speculate why they seem to chose different habitat.

ruddy turnstone

Two other birds seen in Samoa were present in the same type of habitat on Tongatapu. These were ruddy turnstone and wandering tattler.

non-breeding wandering tattler

I had more opportunity to look closely at wandering tattler. In particular there is a distinct difference in plumage between breeding and non-breeding birds.
breeding wandering tattler

Writing about differences, there were two morphs of the pacific reef heron on the mud flats. The dark morph seems to be the more common. 

dark morph pacific reef heron

However, I was pleased to see a so called intermediate morph bird too.

intermediate morph pacific reef heron

Continuing the theme of differences, I came across three pairs of kingfisher. All were the same sub species of white collared kingfisher (or full species as some sources say  - chattering kingfisher). Each pair had a bird with a very broad rufous supercilium and a bird with a white one. This looks like clear sexual diamorphism again. 

male white collared kingfisher

My guidebook pictures the bird without the rufous which I suspect means they have shown the female. 

female white collared kingfisher

I must mention two birds in the areas that I failed to photograph. One was the white rumped swiftlet also seen in Samoa. The other was the pacific swallow. This is yet another lifer. It looks like a barn swallow but the white areas have been replaced with dark grey.

A final comment on the north coast, its not just pigs that can be seen in the area. There are chickens too, although not actually  in the mud. Many of these are feral red junglefowl. This bird is on many polynesian island lists.

red jungle fowl

By the way, all the way along the mud flats are signs telling you to retreat to higher ground  if you think a tsunami is coming. This would be a bit difficult as the island very gently rises to a maximum of 67 metres on the other (south coast) where there are cliffs. I think you would need a formula one racing car to make it. Actually this would be very serious for the locals if it happened.

dangerous birding?

As luck would have it, it was to those cliffs on the south coast that I went the next day. The lonely planet guide recommends it for birding. Who was I to refuse. My next blog tells what I saw.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Around the hotel on Tongatapu

After a midday arrival on Tongatapu, the largest island in Tonga, and with unpacking and other formalities I only had a couple of hours birding on my first day.


This meant birding straight out of the hotel. Incidentally my hotel, Lagoon Lodge had some of the friendliest and most helpful staff I have come across while travelling the world. I was very happy with my accommodation too.


The Lagoon Lodge is situated just south east of the capital Nuku'alofa.


The first impressions of common land birds I saw was that they were similar to Upolu, Samoa but there are major differences.

polynesian triller

Although such birds as polynesian triller (seen above on the hotel lawn) and wattled honeyeater (on a hotel sign!) are common to both nations, some obvious birds were missing here.


wattled honeyeater

There are no common myna or jungle myna which are the two most troublesome invasive species in Samoa.

red-vented bulbul

The bad news is that the third of Samoa's invasive species, the red-vented bulbul is present and if anything is more numerous!

European starling

Perhaps a strange find is the abundance of European starling. This is a consequence of their introduction to New Zealand by British settlers. The originals here probably came from migrating birds trying to escape the south island, New Zealand winter. Tonga is much closer to New Zealand than Samoa and more directly north hence  its a more obvious place for them to fly too. Once on Tonga I doubt any go back! The green wet grass patches suit them all year round.


Polynesian starling

The polynesian starling is more common than in Samoa presumably because it isn't crowded out by mynas and Samoan starling

Here it has brown rather than yellow eyes. This makes it in common with eastern Fijian birds which is a fact missing from my guide book. The book reads as if yellow eyed birds should be found on Tonga.

buff banded rail

As in Samoa, buff banded rail are everywhere and quite tame. I didn't see any chicks here though. Samoa is nearer the equator than Tongatapu and the seasons hardly vary in terms of temperature. On Tongatapu there is the vaguest hint of a winter (20C only on some days). I wonder if that effects the rail's breeding habits.

white collared kingfisher

On that afternoon I got a glimpse of the local kingfisher. It supposed to be the same sub species of white collared kingfisher as found on American Samoa. its even elevated to full species status  as chattering kingfisher in my guide though I understand not every one is in agreement with full status.

second view of white collared kingfisher

I'll blog about the comparison with between this bird and the apparent vagrant seen on Upolu in a later blog.

However the next blog looks at the extensive mud flats both west and east of Nuku'alofa where I saw two lifers (and so by definition not seen in Samoa) among plenty of other birds. 

Savaii, the "other" island in Samoa

On my last day in Samoa, I made a trip which in retrospect I should have made earlier. I took the ferry to Savaii. It the slightly larger but much less populated neighbour of Upolu.


meeting the opposite ferry en route to Savaii

It was a miserable morning with poor visibility but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm. On the crossing I had good views of several brown booby. This was a lifer for me even though it breeds off the south west coast of Saudi Arabia where much of my birding is done.

At the terminal I took a taxi to the nearest rain forest reserve near Tofua. I have no regrets about my choice. Time was limited to making the last ferry back at four p.m so a trip into the highlands wasn't feasible. This meant Samoan white-eye and tooth-billed pigeon wouldn't be seen.

a flat billed kingfisher

Nevertheless I soon bumped into one of the other endemics. Actually I saw two flat-billed kingfisher together.

a pair of flat billed kingfisher

This clearly looked a different kingfisher to me than the (assumed vagrant) white collared kingfisher seen on Upolu. Its bill is bigger and its colours varied  considerably.

My guidebook on this region says that most kingfishers don't show sexual diamorphism. However, there appear to be differences within this pair (and later and even more obviously with a pair of a different species on Tonga - see later blog).

The differences appear to be subtle just like on the white throated kingfisher I see in Riyadh (the male has a much deeper red bill). Here one of the two flat billed kingfisher appears to have deeper rufous tones covering a wider breast and collar area. 

the reserve near Tofua

I'll write more on this in future blogs. 

The rainforest I visited on Savaii only had primary growth in its middle core. Round the sides there is secondary growth and subsistence crops such as banana and bread fruit. Indeed many locals survive on these crops.

Despite not being pristine forest, I was surprised to see birds at almost sea level which I had had only seen at elevation on Upolu. For example I could hear doves all around even though I couldn't get a clear view of most of them. 

metallic pigeon (Aka white throated pigeon)

One I did identify (and it was another lifer) was metallic pigeon. The subspecies found in Samoa has got another name, white throated pigeon.

purple swamphen

In one wet area, I walked into two purple swamphen. I don't know who was more shocked, me or the birds. This was my first sighting in Samoa although a man I spoke to at my hotel had seen them on the south side of Upolu while visiting a beach!

Samoan whistler

One of the best examples of a bird not seen at sea level on Upolu but present here, even in the plantations, is Samoan whistler. This more amenable environment for seeing the bird allowed me to finally take some half decent photographs.

another view of the same Samoan whistler

Likewise wattled honeyeater was seen easily and was very common.

wattled honeyeater

And again the Samoan flycatcher (aka broadbill) was present in a more open and lower habitat. Unlike the picture taken on Upolu you can see why the second name for this flycatcher is broadbill.

Samoan flycatcher (aka broadbill)

Polynesian starling and Samoan starling were very much in evidence but strangely I can't remember seeing any Samoan fantail. Sadly I didn't go high enough to spot Samoan white-eye which is apparently only found in the highland of this one island.

the rear of a white rumped swiftlet

The miserable, wet mornings weather (it brightened up later) had one very useful side-effect. I found that the white-rumped swiftlet were more likely to come down to ground level to catch insects. Furthermore, they have in these circumstances this habit of flying directly down the roads and paths.

white rumped swiftlet flying towards me

This made photography of this fast moving species possible for me. I got photos of them flying directly away and head on towards me! 

three white rumped swiftlet

And you can see from above they like to fly in mini squadrons!


flying fox

I can't leave Savaii without mentioning the bats. I hadn't seen any on the other island but they were plenty in the Tofua reserve on Savaii.

coming back into harbour on Upolu

The journey back on the ferry was uneventful until we were just about landing in the harbour on Upolu.

dark morph pacific reef heron

I finally got a chance to have a good look at pacific reef heron which I had glimpsed several times before on my stay.

a couple of pacific reef heron

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Samoa. There were plenty of lifers but in retrospect I really should have spent a two days on Savaii. Sadly, there probably won't be a next time. I have many more places in the world to see first before I can think about returning to Samoa.