Birding trip report from Malaita, Solomon Islands
Background: From October 19th, 2018 – November 2nd, 2018, the Australian Museum sent two representatives (Corey Callaghan and Richard Major) to work with the Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre to survey the bid diversity in newly established conservation regions in the highlands of Malaita. For a full account of the trip see this blog post. This post is focused on the birding aspect of the trip and those birds encountered visually or audibly throughout. The majority of the hyperlinks throughout take you to the associated eBird checklists, some of which contain photos.
Summary: Throughout the trip we totalled 73 species observed, most of which were observed on multiple occasions. Exactly forty of these were new birds for my life list, four of which (depending on which taxonomy you follow) can not be seen anywhere else in the world, aside from Malaita. Truly fortunate to be able to travel and view the birds on Malaita with Esau and the Kwaio team.
Day 1 (October 19th, 2018): Travel
Uber, plane, bus, plane, taxi, plane, boat and we made it to Gala Island. Our introduction to Malaita, the Kwaio culture, and of course, birds! We got into Atoifi pretty late, but that didn't stop us from spotting a few swiftlets flying around the grass airstrip in Atoifi which were left unidentified. The first bird which was properly identified for the trip was.... a Willie-Wagtail – an all-too familiar bird from Australia. Shortly thereafter, as we walked down the grass airstrip to meet the boat, Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeons flew over. A Striated Heron and Common Kingfisher were seen while loading the boat, and a Great Crested Tern and two Island Imperial Pigeons were seen on the boat ride to Atoifi.
We settled in and met our hosts (Rex and Lucy) on Gala and had a few meetings with Esau – who would be our main organizer and come to be a close and dear friend by the end of the two-week trip.
Day 2 (October 20th, 2018): Where is the dawn chorus?
I was filled with excitement, as one usually is while awaking in a new place for the first time. Especially when the new place is in the tropics. That excitement diminished, however, when I was pretty sure I slept through the dawn chorus somehow, despite being up well before the sun. As it turned out, there wasn't much of a dawn chorus, or much for birds on Gala Island. We still did a few walks around and added some birds, some of which were new (Yellow-bibbed Lory, Cardinal Lory) and others were familiar friends from Australia (Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper, Willie-Wagtail). We did a few other lists throughout the day to try and survey the avifauna (see here, here, and here), but with limited results.
Day 3 (October 21st, 2018): Rain, naps, and few birds
We started the day off in the mangroves and added Eclectus Parrot and Sanford’s Sea-Eagle to our list. Still overall pretty quiet, and none of our lists (see here, here, and here) produced much of note. The best bird of the day was the Long-tailed Myna, a bird which would end up being one of my favorites from the trip.
Day 4 (October 22nd, 2018): Boat-ride, small climb, and falcons
I started out the morning on a quick walk around Gala and added a few new birds, such as Chestnut-bellied Monarch and Pacific Koel. Then, we headed down the coast a few hours to visit a couple newly established conservation areas which Esau was helping to oversee and provide guidance to. It turned out to be an awesome and fun day. On the way down we saw Variable Goshawk for the first time as well as an awesome collection of swiftlets flying around a nesting cave. Beach Kingfishers (awesome birds) were also plentiful as we motored down the coast. First, we visited a growing coastal conservation area where we saw our first Little kingfisher of the trip. We then walked around for a while and added a few shorebirds (Ruddy Turnstone, Gray-tailed Tattler, and Lesser Sand-Plover) which would not be seen again for the trip. We also added a Lesser Frigatebird and a Black-naped Tern distantly offshore which were the only records for the trip. A Pacific Reef-Heron flew by while some Brahminy Kites flew overhead, and a Common Kingfisher flew low over the water. We then crossed the bay and climbed to about 250 meters to a new cultural center which Esau was helping advise on as well. There weren't a ton of birds around, but we did add the first Midget Flowerpecker of the trip. The highlight of the day, however, happened at dusk while we were boating back to Gala. As we passed the cave with all the swiftlets we saw a large raptor flying fast and hard hunting the swiftlets. Then another. Two Peregrine Falcons were furiously zipping over the ocean chasing the birds. Then, as we continued to pass, thousands of bats piled out of the cave in one fell swoop all in a big line! Only a couple minutes later we motored right under the Peregrines, they flew back to land each grasping their dinner in their talons. This was followed by our dinner, which was also fantastic and well-needed to prepare to the following day’s hike.
Day 5 (October 23rd, 2018): The trek
We got a quite late start which was made even later by some technical difficulties with the boat. This meant that by the time we started making our way to Kwainaa’isi, the heat was sweltering. Luckily, I didn’t wait around and started off with Waneagea earlier than the rest of the crew. I won't go into detail, but the hike was pretty brutal, capitalized with a few of the most anti-climactic lifers I have ever seen, which were diminished by the mild heat stroke I was suffering. (For a full account of the hike see this blog post). Those included Moustached Treeswift, Malaita White-eye, Steel-blue Flycatcher, and a dark morph Pied Goshawk. Barred Cuckooshrike and Common Cicadabird were also new birds for the trip, seen on the trek up.
Day 6 (October 24th, 2018): A dawn chorus does exist!
I slept through sunrise, exhausted from the day before. But, as I awoke I quickly noticed that the birds were immensely more plentiful up here than on the coast. The first bird I heard calling and laid eyes on was none other than the endemic Red-bellied Myzomela! I snapped a few photos of Midget Flowerpeckers, Steel-blue Flycatchers, Malaita White-eyes, and a Common Cicadabird. Despite the excitement, no hikes were in order, as today was reserved for meeting with all the locals – discussing conservation, the goals of our time there, and making valuable connections for the coming week. We assured them that we were quite happy to be there and nothing could really disappoint us! People were so keen that a team of about 15 went out for an afternoon bird walk where the highlight was Singing Parrot.
Day 7 (October 25th, 2018): The serious birding begins
Woke up to a beautiful sunrise and a dawn chorus full of white-eyes and flowerpeckers. A handful of us took a nice walk uphill into some slightly higher elevation. First surprise of the morning was a Black-and-white Monarch that darted in front of us down the trail. Later on, we stumbled upon a nice mixed flock containing Malaita White-eyes, Chestnut-bellied Monarchs, Steel-blue Flycatcher, and a Fufous Fantail, and a few Fruit-Doves in the tops of the trees. We carried on a bit further till I heard a Crested Cuckoo-Dove calling way off in the distance. Tried to tape it in to no avail. Esau went off chasing it and whistling at it while I headed back down the trail a hundred meters. The mixed flock was still present, loosely, and I noticed a small bird dart down from a bit higher up and flit around at high level. Initially, I thought it was a Rufous Fantail, but when I put my binoculars on it all I saw was an all brown and rufous bird with a noticeable black eye. I had three more similarly brief views, and called Richard's name who was busy looking at a Superb Fruit-Dove. I got my camera ready as I watched it dart around the foliage at about eye level but never got onto it again. With the diversity so relatively low in Malaita, an all dark/rufous bird with a black eye darting around can really only be one thing... I initially considered female Oriole Whistler as the mystery bird, but after seeing a couple of those birds in the hand, as well as in the field, I realized it just didn't make sense. Eventually a Malaita Fantail – a rare and elusive endemic on the island was collected for us, and I was then confident that had been the bird I had seen! The afternoon saw another survey which was filled with the majority of the same avian community.
Days 8 (October 26th, 2018) – 12 (October 30th, 2018): Settling into the birding ritual
On most of my birding trips, I usually don't stay more than a couple days in any one place, so this was a bit different. The advantage was fully getting the feel for the bird community in a given location, and getting an understanding of how common and uncommon certain species were. Throughout the following days, I generally woke up and did about an hour-two hour long walk with a local Kwaio guide and we slowly added a species here and a species there as we reached the plateau on our accumulation curve. For instance, we added Cockerell's Fantail one morning, and Mackinlay's Cuckoo Dove and Ecelctus Parrot the next. The morning walks were generally accompanied with afternoon walks. The following day I saw Blyth's Hornbills flying across the valley. The next day, while visiting Waneagea's village, a large group of swiftlets flew over which contained at least a handful of White-rumped Swiftlets. Much easier to pick out after becoming intimately familiar with the flight patterns and behavior of Glossy and Uniform Swiftlets – an advantage of staying in a single place. One night even included the epic search for the Malaita Dwarf-Kingfisher. Photos were tough, and we lost some time due to rain, but it was all and all very successful – including on the capacity-building front when I wore nothing but a leaf for an entire day, partaking in the weekly cultural day (see photo below).
Day 13 (October 31st, 2018): What goes up must come down
We had arranged the night prior for me to leave earlier than the rest of the group so I could 1) take my time and go "easy easy easy" while the rest of the group would go "easy easy", and 2) so I could do some random 5 minute bird surveys at random points, dropping in elevation. The bird activity dropped off relatively quickly, but I still ended up doing 21 surveys on the way down the mountain, picking up a total of 31 species. One of which was a new bird for the trip and for my life list: a Finsch's Pygmy-Parrot flew over calling as we passed through Peter's village. Some surveys were slow with only a few species while others were quite diverse for 5 minutes. At the very least, the surveys were 5 minute breaks from hiking down steep, slippery, slopes. Eventually we made it to the bottom where we spent a few hours at a local swimming hole until the rest of the crew caught up. We then made it to Atoifi where we waited for a boat transport back to Gala Island for the final 2 nights. I managed to pick up some Common Terns foraging in the bay, which were new for the trip.
Day 14 (November 1st, 2018): The final day
Today was our final day in Malaita, and we had returned to the lowlands. We decided to head out to visit some nearby untouched lowland rainforest – something we hadn’t done when we were previously down here. We didn’t end up adding any new species for the trip, but still had 20 species on a pleasant walk, highlighted by excellent looks at a Little Kingfisher. The night saw a celebratory whiskey drink shared among Rex, Richard, Esau, and Dorothy.
Day 15 (November 2nd, 2018): One final bird for the trip
I was fully not expecting to add any new birds for the trip on the final day, thinking we had truly reached our accumulation curve. However, much to my surprise, while travelling to Atoifi from Gala in motorboat, we came across a handful of Little Terns. An Excellent ending to the trip. I also snapped a few photos of some of the common birds in Atoifi while we waited for our delayed plane.
Corey T. Callaghan (PhD Candidate, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Sydney; and Research Assistant, AMRI, Australian Museum), and
Richard Major (Principal Research Scientist, AMRI, Australian Museum)
Esau Kekeubata (Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre)