New Caledonia's most wanted
A number of the world's birds have seemingly vanished from existence, with no reliable sightings for a number of years. This article focuses on two such enigmatic inhabitants of New Caledonia in the Pacific, one of which will be the subject of renewed search efforts following funding from the 2006 British Birdwatching Fair (Saving the Endangered Parrots of the Pacific).
New Caledonia is located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,200 km east of Australia and 1,500 km northwest of New Zealand. It is made up of a main island, Grande Terre, and several smaller islands. Grande Terre is by far the largest at 350 km in length and between 50 to 70 km wide. A mountain range runs the length of the island, with five peaks over 1,500 meters.
Among New Caledonia’s birds, the most distinctive and emblematic is the unique Kagu Rhynochetos jubatus, a strange-looking pale grey denizen of the forest floor, the only member of its heron-like family. The species is classified by BirdLife as Endangered, with a population no greater than 1,000 individuals. It is under threat from habitat loss and – the scourge of native Pacific bird life – introduced invasive mammalian predators. In the case of the Kagu these are mainly cats and rats which prey on chicks, as well as dogs which have been responsible for the deaths of many adult birds.
But rather more mysterious is the first of our focus species, the New Caledonian Lorikeet Charmosyna diadema. This small bright green lorikeet, with a yellow face and blue crown is by far the smallest of Grande Terre’s four parrot species, at just 19cm in length. The species is known to ornithologists from just two female specimens collected in 1859 – one of which is still preserved in the Paris Museum of Natural History. It is not known whether the male’s plumage is alike (sexually dimorphic), although in some other Charmonsyna parrots, such as the Red-flanked Lorikeet of New Guinea, the sexes are quite different.
A further specimen was collected (but subsequently lost) in 1913 from “the forests behind Oubatche” (this corresponds to the area around Mt Ignambi) in the north-east of the island. Further unconfirmed reports also followed between the 1880s and 1920s, but then nothing…
So it seemed that yet another Pacific parrot had followed in the ghostly wingbeats of the Norfolk Island Kaka Nestor productus, last recorded in 1851, or the Raiatea Cyanoramphus ulietanus and Black-fronted Parakeets C. zealandicus, both first recorded on Captain Cook’s journey of 1773 and extinct soon after.
However, in 1978 details emerged of two possible sightings of the lorikeet by a senior forestry officer, some twenty years apart. In 1953 or 1954, the officer observed two small parrots flying out of rainforest in the central mountains. He recalled that the birds were predominantly greenish with some yellow on the abdomen. Then, on the 3 June 1976 to the west of Mt Panie, the same observer heard a call different to that of the common Rainbow Lorikeet and on looking up saw two small green parrots dart quickly from a tree and fly overhead.
However, a 1998 expedition, which visited the area around Mt Ignambi where the type specimen was collected, failed to find any signs of the species, during six months of dedicated searching. BirdLife’s Dr Jonathan Ekstrom was a member of the expedition and recalls, “Local inhabitants we spoke to did have a few reports of small forest parrots, but nothing that really set alarm bells ringing.”
In fact, this lack of local awareness of the species was backed up by the search team’s efforts. In six months of surveying at nine different humid forest sites on Grande Terre, no possible sightings were made of the lorikeet, and perhaps more tellingly, no possible calls were heard. “Although small lorikeets are notoriously difficult to see, similar species do tend to be quite vocal. Unfortunately we heard nothing that could have passed for the bird,” Dr Ekstrom added.
Given how hard it can be to observe small forest-dwelling parrots, and the fact that much good quality humid montane forest still exists on the New Caledonia, there is hope that the species still persists. However, the lack of knowledge of the species may point to a factor that could be very significant.
"The virtual disappearance of these lowland forests could be the reason for the species’ demise." —Dr Jonathan Ekstrom, BirdLife
“Although rainforest in the upland areas of New Caledonia remains pretty well intact, lowland semi-deciduous forests have nearly vanished from the island. It’s possible that the species required this habitat at certain times of the year, for instance when the trees there were in flower. The virtual disappearance of these lowland forests could be the reason for the species’ demise.”
Rats are another likely major threat to the species, and it is possible that the species was particularly susceptible to predation by the Pacific rats Rattus exulans brought by the Melanesians, and the later brown R. norvegicus and black rats R. rattus brought by European settlers.
What seems certain however is that the lorikeet was never a common species. The lack of historical specimens (just two females), coupled with a paucity of local knowledge of the species, is testament to this. Some hope remains however that small isolated populations persist; new expeditions are planned to the little-known interior forests, with funding from the Birdfair, to locate the lorikeet and identify any key remaining sites.
Whilst surveying Grand Terre, the 1998 expedition did however have rather more luck with another of New Caledonia’s ornithological enigmas...
The New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles savesi is known with certainty from just the type specimen, a bird collected from a bedroom in the village of Tonghoué, to which it had flown into on 1 April 1880. This skin now resides in the Liverpool Museum, UK. A number of other unconfirmed records were also reported from various locations on Grand Terre in the early part of the twentieth century. Recently a second specimen dated from 1915 has also apparently been discovered in an Italian museum.
Over a century later whilst surveying at dusk in the Rivière Ni Valley on 5 November 1998, there were about to be unexpected fireworks for BirdLife’s Jonathan Ekstrom and Joe Tobias.
“Unbelievably a large owlet-nightjar flew in front of us across a dirt road, foraging for insects on the wing, in and out of the forest canopy. In total we watched the bird for about 30 seconds before it silently disappeared,” commented Dr Ekstrom.
Unfortunately intensive subsequent searches of the site during the following week provided no further sign of the bird, but Dr Ekstrom remains in little doubt as to his first sighting of the species for 118 years.
“Back in England we visited Liverpool to look at the skin of the type specimen, which although rather bedraggled as you’d expect, is still a very distinct bird, almost a third as large again as its much-paler Australian cousin. I’m convinced we saw a New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar, and although it would have clearly been better to have seen the bird for longer or obtained a photo, the very nature of this nocturnal, canopy-flying species means that it’s going to be very difficult for any ornithologists to pin the species down. We were just incredibly fortunate …”
Hopefully after this year’s Birdfair, other visiting birders who get the chance to survey New Caledonia’s remoter parts will be equally rewarded.* And if the thought of six months surveying in the middle of the forest seems like too much hard work, it might just be worth them leaving on the hotel bedroom light, opening up the window, and praying for a repeat of 1880!
(*They might even be lucky enough to find the New Caledonian Rail, not seen definitely since 1890, or the New Caledonian White-throated Nightjar, a possible subspecies seen only once in 1939. But they’re another story…)