Saturday, 22 August 1998

NEW CALEDONIA 1998 (15-22 August)

The following is the last of four blogs covering a trip John Cooper, Gary Edwards and I made to Australia and New Caledonia in July and August 1998.  It is illustrated with prints I took with an old Pentax camera and subsequently digitised.  Another account of the trip, including John and Gary's time around Darwin after I had come home, was published in two parts by John Cooper last year (seehttp://jfcbirdingtrips.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/southern-australia-northern-territories.html).  This blog covers New Caledonia and my final visit to Barren Grounds.

Saturday 15th August (continued).  We landed at Tontouta International Airport, 45 kms N of Noumea at 23.00 where a pleasant lady was waiting for us with our hire car.  We drove to Riviere Bleu (c80 kms) and camped at the park entrance.  This was not quite as easy as it sounds as there are very few road signs on New Caledonia.  Fortunately there were not many roads either so we had few opportunities to go wrong.  I did not sleep well with the hope of seeing Kagu playing heavily on my mind. We had faxed Yves Letocart, the park superintendent and very knowledgeable about all things Kagu to inform him of our visit in the hope he would be able to help us.

Sunday 16th August.  We were up at dawn, packed away the tent and into the park at 07:00 when it opened.  It soon became clear that Yves Letocart was not expecting us, or if he was he had not left word at the entrance gate.  Second blow was that the reserve closed at 17:00 and was not open on Mondays so we would not be able to camp there. We were given directions to Yves’s house, although as we were not sure if he had received our fax to him we decided a visit early on Sunday morning might not be appropriate.  Seeing Red-throated Parrotfinch beside the road a couple of kms into the park was a very encouraging start.  We continued to drive through very degraded habitat around a large artificial lake (the result of a large dam downstream) before finally entering superb forest.  We concentrated on the excellent trail by the Grand Kaori tree (which in itself was most impressive), finding a good selection of the New Caledonian endemics including Notu Pigeon, Southern Shrikebill and Horned Parakeet, but no Kagu.  We decided to visit Yves early afternoon to find out where the best place to see Kagu was, but after negotiating a very rough and in places muddy track arrived at his house to find nobody in.  We left a note and very reluctantly drove out of the park before it closed – it felt like a very bad dip.  We arrived at Mont Koghi just as it was getting dark and camped by the car park.
inside the reserve Riviere Bleu was more like a lake although we had to cross the river to reach decent habitat
the bridge into the reserve proper, it was later damaged by floods but there were no problems driving across in 1998
improving habitat
Monday 17th August.  We were up at dawn and once the tent was packed away spent most of the morning on the main trail up towards the summit of Mont Koghi.  Few birds were evident, not helped by a quite strong wind.  Nothing was seen or heard in the ‘ferny’ sections where we’d hoped we might encounter the New Caledonian Grass Warbler.  Returning to the car park we spent the afternoon scanning the adjacent forested slopes eventually finding two distant Cloven-feathered Doves.  A short walk part way along the trail towards the waterfall gave much better views of the Doves (a very smart bird) and an amazing view of a parrotfinch feeding on berries growing directly out of the trunk of a tree.  We left Mont Koghi just before dusk to return to Riviere Bleu, stopping on the way at a supermarket to buy bread and fruit to last us three days.  We again camped at entrance to Riviere Bleu and if possible I was even more tense.
Mont Koghi
looking down towards Noumea
Tuesday 18th August.  We entered the park when it opened at 07:00 and obtained a permit to camp for 2 nights.  We were told that Yves would be waiting for us on the road to the Grand Kaori tree and with a growing sense of anticipation we set off to meet him.  Our desire to see Kagu must have been evident to Yves right from the outset and without further ado he took us to an area nearby where he had heard Kagu earlier that morning.  Within a couple of minutes of him playing a tape recording, two Kagus ran in, circled us curiously for some time before eventually wandering off.  A dream realised!  Yves took us to another patch of roadside forest where a strange Crow Honeyeater immediately flew in to investigate the tape recording of its song.  We were very fortunate to see one so easily, and it turned out this was our only definite sighting of the species.  After an hour or so Yves left us to continue with his work (as the Park superintendent), having first imparted much helpful information.  We spent the rest of the day on the Grand Kaori trail and walking along the road between there and Pont Germain where we set up camp at the picnic area.  There was a good supply of drinking water and a basic toilet at the camp site but no food is available in the park.  One of a pair of New Caledonian Crows near the camp site was fascinating, carrying a long stick in its bill (something noted of two others seen subsequently too).  Returning for a meal (of bread and tuna) before it got dark we were delighted to have two Kagus feeding around the tents in a plover like fashion (running then stopping and listening) for nearly half an hour before dusk.  When disturbed, or on a couple of occasions clumsily bumped into each other, they would display to each other for a minute or two.  This consisted of standing bolt upright in very close proximity to each other with belly stuck out, crest raised and wings partially opened and inverted - a ridiculous posture!  The less dominant of these two had yellow rings on each leg.  A truly magical place and Kagu immediately joined Giant Pitta and Wilson’s Bird of Paradise as my best birds ever.
Riviere Bleu, a magical place




Wednesday 19th August.  We spent all day at Riviere Bleu walking the road from the camp site to the Grand Kaori tree and beyond.  A good days birding with most of the New Caledonian specialities seen, my first White-bellied Sparrowhawk, although only in flight, and several Kagu sightings.  I saw two about 1km from the camp site, one chasing the other off across the road.  Near the Grand Kaori tree a ringed individual (pale green & yellow) did three running passes in response to a brief play of the tape before crossing the road where it started calling very loudly.  It was soon joined by a second (unringed bird) and a duet, if two barking calls can be described as such, ensued for several minutes while the birds were in full view less than 10m from us.  They eventually wandered off into the forest and almost immediately after three were seen on the road 100m away by John & Gary.  Two had gone by the time I’d caught up with them although they may have been the noisy pair which had been going in that direction.  The third bird had a pale green ring on one leg.  Later, at the camp site before dusk, the two birds that had been seen previously appeared again, but only for 5 minutes this time. 
me at Le Grand Kauri
very impressive 
the incomparable Kagu



one of the world's most amazing birds
Thursday 20th August.  We spent the morning at Riviere Bleu walking the road to the Grand Kaori tree.  An unringed Kagu was seen in the forest by a small picnic table about 0.5 km from campsite then, when walking down the road before the Kaori tree, a pair started hissing at me.  I hissed back and one approached to within 4m.  I took a photo of it with my pocket camera and promptly ran out of film.  Both birds, which were unringed, wandered off but further hissing when I’d changed the film enticed them back, one to nearly as close as before enabling a few more photos to be taken.  Somewhat surprisingly the photos came out very well!  Kagu has got to be one of the best birds ever.  Further down the track I saw a calling New Caledonian Sparrowhawk perched on an exposed tree top branch, a much better view.  We reluctantly returned to the camp site, packed up and left Riviere Bleu.  It had been an immensely enjoyable visit. Somewhat spoiled by Nick not having been able to come.  We drove to the west coast near Yate seeing 12 summer plumaged Wandering Tattlers on the shore.  We continued parallel to the coast to Goro but few places seemed to allow access to the beach, although we all saw a sparrowhawk in patchy forest beside the road.  We drove back to Noumea Airport in fading light, seeing a superb sunset on the way, and camped in the back of the car park ready for an early check-in.
leaving Riviere Bleu with sadness, it had done us really proud
the coast near Yate
New Caledonia sunset
Friday 21st August.  We returned hire car to a different and much less pleasant lady at 06:00.  She insisted the voucher we’d presented was not valid as it was in Nick’s name and wanted payment again.  We refused and eventually, and with very bad grace, a written statement to the effect that we’d had the car booked and paid for by Nick in England seemed to satisfy.  We flew with Aircalin to Sydney arriving just after 10.30.  John and Gary departed for a harbour tour ahead of a flight to Darwin (for a further 6 days).  I hired a car and drove straight to Barren Grounds were I walked the ‘ground parrot’ trail with increasing frustration for over four hours. Superb weather, 3 Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos and an Eastern Bristlebird provided little consolation!  I decided to try nearby Budderoo, as much for a change of scenery as with any great expectations, but amazingly flushed a Ground Parrot and a Lewin’s Rail within five minutes of getting there!  It clouded over at dusk and I drove back to Royal National Park, sleeping in the car at Bonnievale.
departing Noumea airport
Saturday 22nd August.  I was up at dawn and spent an hour at Bonnievale seeing little, followed by a brief walk on Curra Moors, which was exceptionally wet.  I returned to Sydney Airport, dropped off the car and departed at 13:00. 

What seemed like several days later I finally arrived home.  I had seen 122 new birds (98 in Australia and 24 in New Caledonia) and almost 300 species.  It had been a very enjoyable trip and John Cooper and Gary Edwards excellent companions, although Nick Preston having had to pull out at the last minute rather left a gap and he wasn’t far from my thoughts.  We were privileged to spend time in the field with Margaret Cameron, Mike Carter, Yves Letocart, Phil Maher, Gordon McCarthy, Dr P Milburn, Des Quinn and Lindsey Smith.  Tony Palliser offered much advice on all aspects of the trip and Murray Lord provided helpful information regarding sites around Sydney, we regretted not being able to meet up with either of them.  Richard Thomas’s The complete Guide to finding the Birds of Australia was invaluable as was his unpublished New Caledonia Trip Report and various advice and information he provided.  Dave Cooper loaned us several bird tapes, some of which proved to be very useful.  Other useful information, without which we would have struggled to find several species, was received from Lawrie Conole, Stuart Dashper, Terry Gould, Roger Hicks, Jack Krohn, Peter Menkhorst, Michael Norris, Dick Norton, Don Roberson & Trevor Quested.  Thanks to all.


[blogged January 2016]

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