The publication of two scientific papers by Kwaio and AM scientists brings the 2018 ornithological expedition to completion. Their research showcases Malaita’s unique bird fauna, including the island’s first record of the elusive Solomons Nightjar!
The densely forested and mountainous Solomon Islands are an ornithologist’s delight, home to a cornucopia of stunning and endemic bird species. AM researchers Richard Major and Corey Callaghan were two such thrilled ornithologists when they embarked on an expedition, in collaboration with the local Kwaio community, to document the bird fauna on the island of Malaita.
Up until recently the highlands of Malaita had barely been explored by foreign researchers. This was partly due to lasting historic tension in the region following a 1927 massacre, when the region was under colonialist rule. This changed in July 2018 when a key reconciliation ceremony took place between AM members and the local Kwaio community. The ceremony paved the way for both peaceful and collaborative scientific investigation.
Malaita is one of the six major islands that, along with hundreds of smaller islands, comprise the Solomon archipelago. Biodiversity on the islands is increasingly threatened by deforestation due to logging. Native species depend on the preservation of primary forest but logging on the Solomon Islands is exceeding 19 times what is considered sustainable. An additional threat is climate change, especially to those birds that live in the highlands. As temperatures increase avian mountain specialists, such as the Malatia fantail, experience a growing reduction in suitable habitat.
The AM’s October 2018 ornithological trip was the first expedition to take place following the reconciliation. Along with Richard and Corey the team was headed by Maasafi Alabai, Tommy Esau, Esau Kekeubata and Jackson Waneagea of the Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre. The centre was founded by members of the local Kwaio community on primary forest on their customary lands. The survey focused on two areas in East Kwaio, the lowlands surrounding Gala Island and the highlands (up to 950 m) surrounding the Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre.
In these two regions 73 species were recorded, including 4 endemic species - notably the Malaita dwarf-kingfisher and the Malaita fantail – and 14 endemic subspecies. Along with collecting specimens and blood samples for future research the team aimed to clarify the conservation status of several species of interest, as well as to determine if the conservation area surrounding the cultural centre was proving beneficial to the diversity and abundance of bird populations. Survey results suggest the primary forested conservation area surrounding the Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre is proving successful at protecting habitat and bird populations. Furthermore, three of the four endemic species of Malatia were found to be abundant in the survey region.
Discussions with local communities regarding species location and conservation status is evidently vital, with the Kwaio being heavily engaged in conservation activities and making significant findings. In September 2018, while scouting for survey locations for the upcoming AM survey, Maasafi deployed a camera trap close to an unidentified egg which rested on a riverbed. The resulting photographic footage revealed the owner of the egg to be the secretive Solomon Islands nightjar. This discovery added to only a handful of observations of the nightjar in scientific literature and was the first ever documentation of this elusive bird in Malaita.
The well camouflaged and nocturnal Solomon Islands nightjar is known by the Kwaio to be secretive and is rarely sighted. The nightjar is also tabu in Kwaio culture, meaning any adults or their eggs are unable to be hunted. Interestingly, baba means to hide in the Kwaio language, and the local name of the bird ‘baababa’ relates to the crouching posture it uses to stay hidden.
The Solomon Islands nightjar is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There are no recordings of its call and barely any descriptions in the scientific literature. Previously known to nest exclusively in a beach environment, the nightjar spotted by the camera laid by Maasafi was found nesting on a riverbed at 270 m elevation. This suggests the nightjar’s range is more extensive than previously thought.
One clear message garnered from the trip is the importance of local knowledge in survey and conservation efforts. The AM team attribute the survey’s success to the extensive knowledge of biodiversity of the Kwaio. An important outcome of this expedition is the documentation of the local Kwaio names for all 73 species observed and two jointly published scientific articles. This information will allow for continuing conservation and research efforts by the local Kwaio community.
Emma Flannery- Communications Administrator- Solomon Islands Conservation Alliance
Alabai, M., Esau, T., Kekeubata, E., Waneagea, J., MacLaren, D., Major, R.E. & Callaghan, C.T. (2019) First record of Solomons Nightjar Eurostopodus nigripennis for Malaita, with a description of its nest site. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, 139: 325-327.
Callaghan CT, Kekeubata E, Waneagea J, Alabai M, Esau T, MacLaren D, Major RE (2019) A collaborative bird survey of East Kwaio, Malaita, Solomon Islands. Check List, 15 (6): 1119-1136. https://doi.org/10.15560/15.6.1119