The quest for the Dwarf-Kingfisher
Kingfishers are a spectacular family of birds, with more than 100 species worldwide. Among them include the familiar Laughing Kookaburra, of which most Australians would be familiar.
Within this family, there is a group called Dwarf-Kingfishers – cute, petite, and beautifully coloured kingfishers resident through the pacific region and southeast Asia. The Variable Dwarf-Kingfisher has traditionally been a species which is poorly known but has recently been split into 12 different species. Clements/eBird taxonomy follows this recommendation and recognizes this split. The endemic Malaita race was elevated to full species status, called the Malaita Dwarf-Kingfisher. Being a dedicated eBirder myself, I was pretty keen to see one for my life list! Richard, of course, was keen to get one in the hand.
During one of our first meetings, we mentioned to Esau – the chief of the village we were visiting – that this bird was of special interest to us. And the next night we were there, Waneagea (another local chief) collected an individual using traditional methods, of which we were made aware the following morning. My heart sank when the realization hit that I was standing within hundreds of meters of a potential lifer, without seeing it before it was collected. The next afternoon, within two hours of the mist-nets being erected, the first bird caught was none other than a Malaita Dwarf-Kingfisher. In fact, I got some really awesome photos in the hand in fading light (see image below). However, every time my camera shutter clicked, I also 'shuttered' with a concoction of disappointment and subtle anger!
Disturbingly (to me only it seemed), two more Malaita Dwarf-Kingfishers were caught in nets over the next couple of days and although they were released after collection of a blood sample, ticking these birds would be like cheating on a golf scorecard. That was four birds I had seen in hand and I could not count on my life list. A moral dilemma indeed!
Despite focused searching in the understory of the forest (their preferred habitat), I was unable to locate one. I quickly let the local team know that I was interested in seeing this bird – alive. Two mornings later, Esau informed us that the Kwaio boys had found one roosting the night before, attempted to wake me, but I didn’t respond. Oops!
Alas, the next night saw a gnarly storm kick up at about 5 PM or so. Esau called the search off for the “small I'ii” (as it was called locally) quite quickly due to the inclement weather. However, some of the younger boys were keen to please and still went out to find one – which they did! I had just dozed off when I got a knock on my hut from Susufi’a. The common sense in me told me to go back to sleep, but I had glimpses of the expressions on my friends’ faces when I showed them my photo of this endemic wonder but had to fess up that it was not on my life list! So I walked out into the storm. I asked "how far" multiple times, and the boys explained it was “near the creek”, implying the creek was nearby. So, I followed. Four of us. Two younger boys (aged 10 or so), and two young teenagers (aged 15 or so), one of whom was fully naked and simultaneously showering as we searched for small I'ii.
The trek began down a small hill, through a small ravine, and up the other side. As the rain bucketed down on us, we crossed an open area, and I couldn't help but think how far outside our risk assessment we were venturing. Finally, after an episode of slip'n'slide down a muddy hill, we got to a small puddle. Winded, wet, and weary, I was relieved I had made it – with only one bad fall. Then, the boys handed me a walking stick, as if to say "you ain't seen nothing yet". My cries of "how much further" were only met with a crack of thunder and four boys scurrying ahead of me using their machetes to make a trail for me to follow. Finally, about 15 minutes, and two slips, later we made it to the spot. "Wait here" they said as they all rushed out to look for the bird they had previously seen with their torches. They quickly returned to tell me the bird had "run away". In this terrain, I had learnt that what goes down must go back up to get to camp... So, I quickly made my way back up the hill (and the next three smaller hills) and back to camp, as the rain strengthened. I sat by the fire to dry off as the Kwaio boys laughed, remarking that I had turned their colour, given all the mud caked on me!
Esau was surprised (and I hope slightly impressed) with my failed attempt the night before. So, the next night, he brought out the big guns. He said, "they are just boys, we will find one". So, Esau, Jimson, Richard, and myself headed out at about 8 PM in search of the small I'ii. Along the way, there were more slips, along with the embarrassment that I may have been melodramatic whilst recounting the story to Richard that morning with a fair bit of embellishment regarding the size of the hill. Although when you add a thunder storm, I think the hill is larger…?
More cries of "easy easy" were met with more yelps as I slid down the slippery slope. I still think the extra 70 kilos I have on the skinny boys makes a big difference in amount of slippage that takes place! Eventually we made it to where I had gone the night before. Then came the tricky navigation over slippery stones and logs and small waterfalls as we searched with our torches for a miniscule bird perched in a tree. An hour went by, before Esau came back to me and Richard – lagging a couple hundred meters behind of course – informing us that Jimson had spotted one. We quickly caught up and headed to the spot and sure enough there was a tiny orange speck up the tree about 20 meters! Can you spot it? (see image below). I was relieved to have seen the Malaita Dwarf-Kingfisher! Then we saw another one, of which we got some better photos (see image below). I uploaded this to eBird and the Macauley Library as the first record for the growing database. This time the walk back was calming, up the various hills and mud slides and we were back to camp a few hours after we had left. On the way back, I even heard Richard tell Esau that this was the "best moment in the 28 years he had worked at the Australian Museum". This was definitely the most memorable, out of the 73 species we had seen for our trip to Malaita!
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)
Susufi’a (Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre)
Jimson (Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre)