11 Mar 2016

A tale with a message - search for lost Tahiti Monarch chicks after a vicious storm

Young Tahiti Monarch © Caroline Blanvillain
Young Tahiti Monarch © Caroline Blanvillain
By Caroline Blanvillain

During all February, it was impossible for the staff of BirdLife French Polynesia Partner, SOP Manu, to work in the field because of heavy rains beating down on Tahiti, ending with the tail of Cyclone Winston giving the island an extra flick. Papehue Valley, is one of three valleys that home the Critically Endangered Tahiti Monarch. Caroline Blanvillain, SOP Manu Conservation Projects Manager, feared the worst for the three little Tahiti Monarch chicks she had seen fly for the first time just before it struck. So with her heart beating, she went to see how they had fared. In the valley there are three Monarch territories where the little birds were fledged - Faifai, Camps and Post Banian. 

As she went up the valley, Caroline found over 100 fallen trees, far worse than in 1999, the last real cyclone. She did not see the Faifai baby. The area was decimated with none of the neighboring trees still standing. After a struggle of over an hour, Caroline reached the Camps area (usually just 20 minutes from the valley entrance). But to her joy, there was a little bird squawking. It was the youngest chick which first flew just before the storm hit. But there he was, with his little black head, his small black tail and orange body, perched at 9 meters in a stump of a lonely Tulip Gabon.

On to the territory of the post Banian pair. One side is intact but on the other side many trees have come down. But again, a little song of hope arises above the destruction. The young post Banian fledgling is still alive.

Hope rises as Caroline goes back to Faifai. The little Monarch here was the largest. Maybe it too survived? Perhaps he had guessed that Caroline was feeling sad, because at that moment the little bird came right out and started to follow her. Since there is almost no undergrowth, he was hunting on the ground. Beware of cats! But Caroline did not have the courage to frighten him or to teach him distrust. He was so cute and she was too relieved to see them all.

Almost a third of the fledglings survived for the 2015/2016 breeding year (11 young fledged in late 2015 / early 2016 up until the present time). So what does this little tale teach us, besides admiration for the stamina of these little and very precious birds? With climate change upon us, any small isolated populations of critically endangered species are in real danger of extinction. One major weather event like this storm, or worse, another Cyclone Winston hitting Tahiti - and the Tahiti Monarch may be no more. To help secure the future of this special bird, SOP Manu has plans to establish a second population on an island free of black rats. A golden angel looked after our little birds in the storm. We need another generous golden angel to help us save these unique and wonderful little birds.