Land of the Kagu: Birding New Caledonia August 2014 trip Report and Advice

I found updated information on birding in New Caledonia lacking and hope that this trip report will clear up confusion, providing recent information. For a quick overlook of current statues of bird sites, skip to the end of the report.

We encountered the same questions over and over, asked by somewhat incredulous French tourists. How did you hear about New Caledonia and why did you decide to visit? I tried to explain, without going into too much detail, that the island of New Caledonia is actually well-known among birdwatchers for harboring several avian gems and to a biologist is a wonderland full of ancient Gondwanan life. After more stares of disbelief I learned to shorten my answer, well we were already in Australia and it’s just a skip across the Coral Sea so we tagged it onto a longer trip. This answer seemed to satisfy all.

Kagu is New Caledonia's most famous endemic belonging to a monotypic family Photo Stephan Lorenz

Kagu is New Caledonia’s most famous endemic belonging to a monotypic family Photo Stephan Lorenz

Indeed New Caledonia, being a former French colony and still maintaining close ties with the European country, is a well-established holiday destination among the French. Even though it is a long haul from the city of the Eiffel Tower, we met Parisians everywhere. Among South Pacific islands, New Caledonia is often overlooked for its more famous neighbors like Fiji, Tahiti, and Samoa and while we met a few travelers from other nations, the French dominated. I would explain to anyone that would listen that New Caledonia supports many fascinating species of birds and plans, including a whole bird family found nowhere else on the planet. Of course New Caledonia’s Kagu has been the main draw for birders from all over the world, but a suite of other endemics plus South Pacific birds makes the island a more than worthwhile destination.

Goliath Imperial Pigeon the largest arboreal pigeon in the world endemic to New Caledonia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Goliath Imperial Pigeon the largest arboreal pigeon in the world endemic to New Caledonia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Grande Terre is by far the largest island of New Caledonia, which also includes the three Loyalty islands, Lifou, Ouvea, and Mare, and Ile de Pins, plus many lesser islands. Grande Terre holds nearly all the endemics and has a mountainous spine, with peaks rising to 5,000 feet and the island extends for 220 miles north to south and roughly 40 mile width. Grande Terre is continental in origin and has been isolated from other landmasses since the end of the Cretaceous, harboring several ancient lineages of life, including one of the most basal flowering plants and many ancient conifers.

We spent a total of two weeks on the island, approximately eight days too long if the only aim is to track down all the endemic birds, but were able to explore nearly every corner and chased after snorkeling opportunities. Despite the excellent birds found in New Caledonia and ease of travel, it is not heavily visited by birders, probably due to the fact that it is still relatively remote. It lies no less than 800 miles east of mainland Australia. There are several direct flights from New Zealand and Australia to Noumea, the capital, and flights are just under three hours from either Auckland or Sydney.

Yellow-bellied Flyrobin a tiny endemic Photo Stephan Lorenz

Yellow-bellied Flyrobin a tiny endemic Photo Stephan Lorenz

New Caledonia is a well-developed country with a booming mining industry, having some of the largest nickel reserves in the world, and a growing tourism sector. So far tourism still plays a minor role and many places are refreshingly empty, especially along some of the spectacular beaches on the smaller Loyalty Islands. Not surprisingly, it is an expensive county even by South Pacific standards, but camping grounds are sprinkled throughout the island, likely due to French influence, making a budget trip viable.

07/30/2014

We flew the national airline Aircalin from Sydney to Noumea and if tickets are booked in the low season it is possible to get away with a $400 one-way fare. The flight from Sydney was on time and before we knew it we were descending towards the lights of Noumea illuminating the evening sky. We had booked a rental and reasonable rates are available through several international and local companies. I had prepared as well as I could, given the limited time and resources I had, but realized that updated information on several birding locations will be helpful to future travelers. In addition, older trip reports and newer information are often conflicting and I will try to clarify some of the confusion.

Streaked Fantail a bird of Micronesia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Streaked Fantail a bird of Micronesia Photo Stephan Lorenz

The majority of international flights arrive in the evening, creating the first challenge of navigating either into Noumea or away from the airport to a place to stay. Having made no detailed plans or reservations, I walked to the help desk and had the friendly women call the Auberge du Mont Khogi. The price we were quoted for one night almost floored us, but it apparently included dinner. I dreaded the idea of driving into the capital so we bit the bullet and decided to spoil ourselves in a mountain chalet. Besides, after the night flight from Perth to Sydney we had not really slept in two days. At the car rental I grilled the desk person for directions and he was very helpful providing landmarks, turns, and distances that were spot on.

While it was a tough drive along narrow roads and minimalist road signs, we found it without getting lost. One lane of asphalt curved up the mountain, doubling back in exciting hairpins before ending near a large parking lot and the impressive Auberge befitting more of an alpine setting than tropical Mont Khogi. The staff at the hotel was very friendly and had prepared to cook a full course dinner, but we realized we were just too tired and not hungry, deciding to skip dinner which took a considerable amount of money off the room cost. A chalet it was not to be, we were led to a rustic bungalow and the rotten staircase threatened to collapse. The room could best be described as basic, but at least the beds were comfortable and the shower hot, all that mattered at that moment. In most countries the bungalow would have cost one tenth of what we paid, but on a positive note, it is located right within a great birding location.

one of the most beautiful endemics the Cloven-feathered Fruit Dove Photo Stephan Lorenz

one of the most beautiful endemics the Cloven-feathered Fruit Dove Photo Stephan Lorenz

07/31/2014

I woke up just after sunrise and stepped out onto the rickety porch. I did not mind the actual bungalow, despite being in dire need of renovations, I just thought the price was off target. I forgot the bungalow quickly though as new birds were emerging from the secondary forest across the road. The first bird was somewhat anticlimactic as it proved to be the widespread Grey Fantail, which is common also in Australia, but within minutes and staying with the theme, the first South Pacific species materialized in the form of a busy flock of Fan-tailed Gerygones. The Fan-tailed Gerygone is common throughout the island. One of the species that proved to be the most numerous on the island was also the first New Caledonian endemic I saw, the Green-backed White-eye. Including the Loyalty Islands, three endemic white-eyes are found in New Caledonia, a speciose and taxonomically challenging group with many islands in Micronesia supporting endemics.

the most common endemic Green-backed White-eye Photo Stephan Lorenz

the most common endemic Green-backed White-eye Photo Stephan Lorenz

I snuck out the front gate and walked up the road a bit towards taller forest and steeper slopes. In a small clearing I flushed two Metallic Pigeons, shimmering birds with distinct white throats. A pair of active Streaked Fantails reminded me that we had definitely left Australia and I entered the gloomy understory of the tall forest. Here it did not take long to get onto the tiny Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, even though it was almost invisible in the low light unless it moved. The species is reminiscent of yellow robins in Australia, but much smaller yet equally confiding. A decidedly larger bird attracted my attention, perched stock-still on a heavy branch sat a Goliath Imperial Pigeon, an appropriately named species with dark upperparts and chestnut underparts, which is apparently the largest arboreal pigeon in the world. I was surprised by the bird’s tameness and it allowed me to set up my scope for long looks.

An odd call lured me off trail and I briefly spotted a medium-sized brown bird flush from a clump of dead leafs. I followed until I noticed another clump shake and a tail flipped into view, waiting patiently I finally pieced together a Southern Shrikebill, a unique monarch. The species sports a long ivory colored bill with a pronounced hook. It is somewhat uncommon so I was pretty satisfied to spot one during the first hours of birding.

Barred Honeyeater Photo Stephan Lorenz

Barred Honeyeater Photo Stephan Lorenz

I retraced my steps, hoping that breakfast would not be a letdown and discovered that the scrumptious French breakfast of my imagination, eggs, crepes, and other tasty morsels, was butter and bread in reality. Since I was hungry anyway I moved the limited selection to the bungalow’s porch and watched birds while nibbling plain bread, at least the coffee was good. I observed a mixture of birds shared with Australia, like the Rufous Whistler, South Pacific species in the form of a Long-tailed Triller, and true endemics when a New Caledonian Whistler appeared.

By now both of us were up and we managed to stretch the spartan breakfast to at least an hour. A blooming shrub right in front of the porch held constant distractions, most exciting, an endemic Barred Honeyeater visited for long sips of nectar from the flowers. The strange calls of Horned Parakeets from nearby forest had me almost leap off the porch, but before I could make up my mind the distinct calls had faded in the distant valley.

Afterwards we explored some of the nearby forest trails and gained a good vantage point for views of small islands lying offshore and the fringing reef. Almost the entire lagoon surrounding the island has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and teems with marine life. Before we could dip our feet into the perfectly blue waters though, we had more endemics to track down and in the early afternoon made our way to the single most important birding location in New Caledonia, Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue. Before leaving, we finally spotted the best bird of the morning when a male Cloven-feathered Dove flew onto an exposed perch. This stunning endemic fruit dove has deep green upperparts offset by a bright yellow belly and silver fringes on its wing. When the bird flew I heard the distinct flutter of its wings due to specialized feathers.

From Mont Khogi we drove south, bypassing Noumea, and then east towards Yate and after quick stops for groceries and supplies found ourselves following a winding road over low mountains through empty landscapes. It is important to stock up in the larger towns, preferably in or on the outskirts of Noumea since not much is available in rural areas. We were passing through a hilly landscape dominated by “maquis minier” a soil rich in metals but depauperate in nutrients, leading to low plant growth. The red soil showed in barren patches among shrubby growth and stunted Auracaria trees. While the land looked relatively arid it is actually the poor soil that leads to the heath-like growth, supporting an enormous variety of endemic plants. The rough road continued west through this relatively bird-less landscape.

Despite reading about other travelers having some difficulty locating the right route and entrance to the national park, we found it without trouble and drove up to the entrance station to plan for the next morning (as long as following signs to Yate there should be no problem). Past trip reports and some guide books mention that permits are needed to visit the park, that it is no longer possible to drive in, and that bicycles should be rented in order to reach the farther reaches of the park. The park has grown in popularity over the years and currently there is an excellent shuttle service set up, taking visitors to the farthest points in the park. No special permits are necessary and the park is open every day, except for Monday. The entrance fee is less than five dollars, valid for several days, and camping is free. In other words, New Caledonia’s premier birding site is easier to visit than ever before. Almost all the New Caledonian endemics can be found in the national park.

We arrived just before closing time and in broken French arranged to be on the earliest shuttle in the morning, which leaves the bridge around 7:00 am. It is true that the old bridge crossing the lake had been washed out in a flood and only foot access is possible to reach the shuttles, which run regularly along the main park road. A new causeway does allow vehicular access though and tour groups for example drive directly into the park. The very helpful park ranger also advised us on nearby camping. A new section of the park or completely new park, I could not tell which, offers camping near the entrance. Backtracking to the main road, turning west again and taking the first right got us to Camping Des Bois Du Sud, a secluded campsite set among a grove of tall trees lining a small stream (ask for directions if needed). The campground is a perfect spot for a night if planning to enter the park first thing in the morning.

08/01/2014

We packed up early and drove back to the entrance station with only moderate delays after ticking the first Gray-eared Honeyeaters and fleeting glimpses of Red-throated Parrotfinches. As promised we arrived at the gate before 7:00 am, paid our modest entrance fee, and secured a camping permit. We met the van driver at the bridge, planning to return to retrieve our gear after some early morning birding. After some delays we drove down the track of red dirt and after passing scrubby hillsides entered a forest of secondary growth along the Riviere Bleue.

New Caledonian Friarbirds can be abundant in forests Photo Stephan Lorenz

New Caledonian Friarbirds can be abundant in forests Photo Stephan Lorenz

The van driver asked whether we would be interested in seeing Kagus and of course we were, this is the star bird of New Caledonia, a monotypic family, Rhynochetidae. The Kagu is about the size of a night-heron with bluish gray plumage and coral red bill and legs. Its large reddish eye could easily confuse it as a nocturnal bird, which it was believed to be, but in reality it is active during the day. They stalk through dark rainforest, probing the ground for worms, insects, and other prey. It is flightless and runs swiftly through tangled forest, but its wings are obvious during displays, flashing a banded pattern and the birds  raise a large crest. The wing display is reminiscent of the Neotropical sunbittern, which is believed to be the Kagu’s closest living relative.

Habitat destruction and introduced predators pushed the species to the brink of extinction and at one point only around sixty birds survived in remote areas of the central mountains. After protection and the work of mainly one man, Yves Letocart, the species has rebounded dramatically and now numbers nearly 1,500 birds in forested parts of the island. Continued predator control and habitat protection will improve populations further. It is one of the truly special species of the world that has actually become much easier to see and it did not take us long. As soon as we had entered the forest the van driver slowed down the vehicle and helped us look, since we were the only passengers, plus a park volunteer we had a private tour. The driver and I exclaimed simultaneously when I spotted a largish silver-grey bird with a withdrawn neck walking through the forest. When walking slowly, Kagu’s give the appearance as if constantly ducking beneath invisible spider webs, but when alert or displaying their short neck is revealed and the large crest erected.

The driver stopped the van and we got out. Instead of running away the bird came closer and was clearly used to gawking birders and tourists alike. A bit of scratching with my foot in the leaf litter brought the curious bird within three feet. It has definitely become much easier to see than a few decades ago when hardcore birders tracked out at night to observe wild birds sleeping near enclosures of captive bred Kagus. Nowadays several hundred Kagus are roaming through the lowlands of Riviere Bleue National Park and their populations are increasing in other parts of the island. It is not uncommon for two or three Kagus to dash across the main park road and grassy picnic and camping sites are favored foraging areas at dawn and dusk.

relatively easy to see now  the Kagu Photo Stephan Lorenz

relatively easy to see now the Kagu Photo Stephan Lorenz

I informed the driver to drop us off at the Grand Kaori one of the oldest and largest trees surviving in the park. It was apparently too large to be felled and is estimated to be 1,000 years old. The loop trail around the tree and forest in the vicinity also make for excellent birding. We saw at least three more Kagus here, an area they frequent, plus many of the more regular honeyeaters, especially the vociferous New Caledonian Friarbird, which was abundant throughout the park. Interestingly, no other trip reports I read mentioned how numerous the species is, providing a constant din of calls in the forest and we saw dozens each day.

The bird I planned to focus on was the endemic Crow Honeyeater, a large bird with glossy black plumage and distinct orange facial wattles. It has strong yellow legs and flies in a floppy manner on broad wings. At over a foot in length it is one of the largest honeyeaters in the world and also one of the rarest with a current population estimated around 200 individuals. Even within suitable habitat it occurs in low densities and despite its size is unobtrusive, sticking to the canopy or denser vegetation. I searched all around the area for two hours and only saw a flash of a larger bird, but found no other new endemics.

Though the forest consists mainly of regenerating second growth and some of the distant mountain ridges remain barren, the park maintains a rugged beauty with the river, sparkling cold water rushing through a rocky channel, at its centerpiece. Even though we had seen the Kagu, the morning had been somewhat disappointing in terms of birds and we took the shuttle back to the bridge around noon to collect our camping gear and supplies. We stuffed the gear as well as we could into two packs and quickly got back onto the shuttle, which by now was crowded with many tourists entering the park and local families on camping trips. I was not exactly sure where to camp and decided to get off a Pont Germain, a picnic site overlooking the bridge and river with incredible views of the distant peaks.

South Melanesian Cuckooshrikes are not endemic, but have a limited range and are easily seen in New Caledonia Photo Stephan Lorenz

South Melanesian Cuckooshrikes are not endemic, but have a limited range and are easily seen in New Caledonia Photo Stephan Lorenz

I believe this is not an official campsite, but the park personnel seem fairly relaxed about where to camp and throughout our visit were extremely cordial and helpful. One interesting rule they have established in the park is that camping is bivouac style, meaning tents need to be packed up after eight in the morning and can only be re-erected in the evening. Gear can be left at camp sites and picnic tables as it is absolutely safe. We received a friendly reminder one morning from a park ranger and he explained that the rule was initiated to reduce impact on the park, since locals would set up for long weekends of camping and partying in the park. I must admit the park retains a wild feel, especially in the mornings and evenings before day visitors arrive.

We set up camp at the picnic site and relaxed for some time, taking in the gorgeous surroundings and enjoying the peace of the river. Yellow-bellied Flyrobins visited the nearby tree regularly, perching within touching distance, snatching invisible insects from the air. I kept an eye on the tree tops on the other side of the river, scanning for large black bird when the irritated calls of a friarbird got me onto a White-bellied Goshawk a compact and distinct Accipiter and New Caledonia’s only endemic raptor.

While resting, a tour group arrived with a local guide and five charges from Australia and Japan. The leader, Francois, invited us to lunch and we were happy to skip crackers and canned tuna for grilled venison, sausage, potato salad, and even cake. He was nice enough to leave us all his leftovers, enabling us to stay an extra night at the park. Amazingly he was mentioned in two other trips reports by birders who enjoyed the same hospitality. He was extremely knowledgeable, including the local birds and mentioned that he had recently seen a pair of Crow Honeyeaters exactly in the picnic area, advising me to listen for their metallic calls. If visiting the park for one day I can only recommend his Caledonia Tours.

In the evening we walked the rest of the main road until it ended near some campsites. We discovered a nice swimming hole for the next day and chanced up a juvenile Kagu, with scalloped contour feathers, feeding on the open lawn. This bird was clearly not used to people and dashed down the trail at surprising speed; it is still a conservation miracle that this species has survived to this day. While getting ready for sleep three Kagus stepped from the forest at dusk, foraging for worms unconcerned in our campsite, probably one of the best campground birds I have ever had. Interestingly just as it got dark, odd metallic calls in the forest right behind the camp announced the presence of Crow Honeyeaters. The birds continued calling well after sunset and started the next morning an hour before sunrise. Despite trying to see them first thing in the morning, they went quiet once there was enough light. This routine continued every night and morning and the species is well-known for calling in the dark.

Striated Starling are a fairly common endemic species Photo Stephan Lorenz

Striated Starling are a fairly common endemic species Photo Stephan Lorenz

08/02/2014

The following morning was a stark contrast to the previous day. I walked along the main road back towards the Grand Kaori tree, a distance of three miles, and within the first hours of daylight caught up with several endemics. The best sighting of the morning was of three New Caledonian Parakeets that first flew over and then a pair landed in view. Though they were distant I was glad to get onto them since they are not guaranteed and sure enough this was the only sighting of the species during the trip. Moments later the second endemic parakeet, this time the colorful Horned made an appearance. This fairly large parakeet with its black face, red crown, and yellow cheeks sports a unique set of feathers that give it its namesake appearance. Both species of parakeets are not very common and the subspecies of the Horned Parakeet on Ouvea has been elevated to species level, but we were unable to visit the Loyalty Islands, more on that later.

I saw plenty of Goliath Imperial Pigeons, stumbled across another Southern Shrikebill, and finally obtained great views of New Caledonian Cuckooshrikes. Melanesian Flycatchers, New Caledonian Whistler, both fantails, and friarbirds made multiple appearances, and of course I saw a Kagu or two. When I returned to camp a Red-throated Parrotfinch made a convenient appearance and the single bird would visit every day, feeding in the short grass. In camp two Horned Parakeets flew down to the river to drink.

distant Horned Parakeet a distinct endemic Photo Stephan Lorenz

distant Horned Parakeet a distinct endemic Photo Stephan Lorenz

We met one of the park rangers, who reminded us to collapse our tent and after talking to him offered us a ride to the Cagou Trail, where he said one of the local guides recently had luck with Crow Honeyeaters. He continued down the road to collect us fifteen minutes later. Of course New Caledonian Crows made an appearance in the meantime across the river and after distant views came right into camp, with a young bird perching right overhead. Too soon I had to give up on the crows since our ride arrived and we headed to the Cagou Trail, which is a short loop at the beginning of the main road, the first trail after getting onto the shuttle. Sure enough when we arrived a local birder had photographed three Crow Honeyeaters within the previous hour and I quickly headed down the short loop.

It took twenty minutes of anxious searching, but suddenly a Crow Honeyeater flew into a tree right over my head. Even though I could not see the complete bird, the yellowish legs were distinct from a crow and eventually the bird popped out its head for nice views. It foraged in an epiphyte for a moment and moved on quickly out of sight. A small flock of New Caledonian Crows distracted me and I found the crows to be fairly common in the park, despite some trip reports stating that the national park is not the best place to see them. I also observed several using sticks as tools one of the few birds in the world that regularly uses tools. With the honeyeater finally under our belt we got a ride back to camp and hiked to the waterhole for an afternoon of swimming. In the evening we ate some of the leftover and just enjoyed doing nothing when the metallic nasal notes alerted me to the presence of Crow Honeyeaters across the river; amazingly a pair flapped across and landed on the edge of the campground. I got onto one bird rummaging in palm fronds, hanging upside down and climbing about with strong feet.

the rarest endemic the Crow Honeyeater Photo Stephan Lorenz

the rarest endemic the Crow Honeyeater Photo Stephan Lorenz

The pair disappeared up the slope into dense forest, but tracking their constant calls I looped around onto the main road and fifteen minutes later found them foraging along the road edge. Finally I obtained long views of these dramatic honeyeaters, which along with the Kagu have to be one of the best endemics of New Caledonia. The honeyeaters were not shy and foraged down to eye level along stout branches, probing among dense clusters of leafs. We managed to see all the species endemic to the main island of New Caledonia in the park in two days, except Cloven-feathered Dove, which is rare in the park and New Caledonian Thicketbird, which does not occur in accessible area of the park. Two days minimum are recommended to do the park justice.

08/03/2014

The morning began with its usual routine. Crow Honeyeaters called before sunrise, three Kagus wandered from the forest into the clearing, displaying and even mating, and the lone Red-throated Parrotfinch hopped around on the grass. While waiting to be picked up, I managed to catch up with no less than three Crow Honeyeaters, apparently two males in territorial disputes and the noisy birds let us approach within a few feet, making Pont Germain overall the best birding spot in the park.

uncommon and easily overlooked Emerald Dove Photo Stephan Lorenz

uncommon and easily overlooked Emerald Dove Photo Stephan Lorenz

On the drive out I spotted a lone White-bellied Goshawk in the sparse maquis, sitting in a lone tree. This species is known to be very approachable and I took some photos from less than ten feet distant. We decided to continue towards Yate and loop around the remote southern fringe of the island. En route we visited the Chutes de la Madeleine, a botanical reserve with a small waterfall at its centerpiece. The reserve offers access to the rich flora of the maquis regions with lots of rare conifers and other interesting plants. Besides the common honeyeaters and a single Long-tailed Triller this habitat did not hold many birds. We continued to Yate where we got a camping spot at Gite Iya and with hungry stomachs gave in to an expensive but delicious lunch of local fish. The gite was set on a low limestone cliff overlooking the reef with a small spit of sand serving as a private beach. Since it was low tide we explored for sea creatures and found a cool slug plus many starfish and sea cucumbers.

The campground had a pair of resident New Caledonian Crows and I watched their antics in the coconut palms and regular visits to the refuse pile. The odd chisel-shaped bill is unlike any other crow.

the tool using New Caledonian Crow Photo Stephan Lorenz

the tool using New Caledonian Crow Photo Stephan Lorenz

08/04/2014

During breakfast on the verandah I spotted a frigatebird among a handful of Great Crested Terns. The views were distant even with a scope, but I concluded it was most likely a Lesser, which is more common, but Great is also possible. The bird flew off and we contended ourselves watching the resident Eastern Ospreys hunt fish in the lagoon.

We followed the coastal road south and entered a truly remote region with wild coastlines and rugged hills. We stopped at the southern cape for views of the lagoon and continued to Prony, a quiet bay with a former convict settlement. We wandered among the ruins for an hour.

Further along we came across a refinery and mining facilities, an enormous complex with smokestacks, barbed wire, and mining tracks cutting like scars into the red hills. In Noumea we stopped at the Magenta Airport to try to purchase flights to Lifou, one of the Loyalty Islands that harbors two endemics, the Small Lifou and Large Lifou white-eyes. Birders usually fly out in the morning and return in the evening, giving them enough time to track down the two endemics plus Red-bellied Fruit Dove, which is very rare on Grande Terre. Visitors to Lifou also have the chance to catch up with Melanesian Whistler. The other island usually visited in the Loyalty group is Ouvea for the recently split Ouvea Parakeet, but since it was only one species I had planned to skip a visit there from the beginning to save cost. It turned out in the end that we did not go to any Loyalty Islands, since it was a school holiday and all the flights were fully booked. The flights are also relatively expensive and should be booked well in advance, especially during holiday periods!

Other information worth updating is the ferry situation, older reports and books state that the ferry between the islands runs infrequently and is unreliable. Apparently that has changed with a regular and reliable schedule posted here http://www.betico.nc/. It is now possible to connect the islands to each other if time permits and explore the pelagic opportunities from the ferry, the fares are also much more reasonable. We took the ferry to Ille de Pins for a day trip and it was fast, comfortable, and reliable.

White-bellied Goshawk the only endemic raptor Photo Stephan Lorenz

White-bellied Goshawk the only endemic raptor Photo Stephan Lorenz

We left Noumea without any specific plans and decided to skip the Loyalty Islands due to time constraints, but with enough planning ahead of time it should be possible to use the ferry to the greatest advantage. We drove north along the excellent main road spanning the entire west coast through Bouloupari and La Foa. The trip to reach Farino takes under two hours. It was after dark when we took the winding mountain road to Farino and followed the signs to Refuge de Farino, an excellent place with basic cabins and campground. The campground even has a small communal kitchen and bathroom facilities. Situated along a river with some tall forest and pastures nearby, it held plenty of birds.

09/05/2014

The main reason we had come to the Farino area was to track down the final endemic found on the main island, the New Caledonian Thicketbird, often cited as the most difficult endemic species. The following morning I started early and explored the road leading from the campground up the mountain, Cloven-feathered Doves were common along with New Caledonian Crows. It should be possible to skip Mont Khogi completely, since the dove was very common here with distinct wing flaps heard everywhere and males perching on bare snags. The campground also had a visit by a Horned Parakeet.

endemic New Caledonian Cuckooshrike Photo Stephan Lorenz

endemic New Caledonian Cuckooshrike Photo Stephan Lorenz

Mid-morning we drove higher towards the Parc des Grandes Fougeres, a relatively new national park, and at least formerly was a reliable site for the thicketbird. The park was closed due to hunting and after brief exploration and trying several promising stops on the way down we had to give up for the day. I had a poor recording of the thicketbird’s call that I played frequently at promising looking spots, but got no replies. We spent the rest of the day sipping coffee at a nice shop in La Foa and explored the nearby beach. Hoping to get on a snorkel trip to a nearby island we realized that there was absolutely no infrastructure for tourism in this part of New Caledonia, something we would discover throughout the island. We cooked dinner in camp and had an early night.

08/06/2014

Up very early we arrived at the park (Grande Ferns) right at opening times and I eventually tracked down the person for the booth to let us in. We took the left road downhill and I stopped frequently to try for the thicketbird, no response. We looped along a longish trail and returned to the road that came uphill from the right. The hike was beautiful, with massive tree ferns and we even saw four Kagus, apparently making a comeback here due to predator control. We watched Cloven-feathered Doves right at eye level and overall enjoyed the hike, but passed no habitat suitable for the thicketbird. After returning to the car, I checked GPS coordinates I had and returned once more to the exact spot, again no response. Reading other trip reports and comparing a photo in one the entrance area (gate in older reports) used to be much more overgrown and since the new park was established the rank grasses have been trimmed and mowed, essentially destroying the thicketbird habitat and the location may not be productive anymore. We left without the bird.

Grey Fantails are common throughout Photo Stephan Lorenz

Grey Fantails are common throughout Photo Stephan Lorenz

After packing up, we drove north through  the small towns of Bourail and Poya and crossed the island west to east just south of Kone towards Hienghene on the east coast, hoping to finally get out onto the reef to snorkel. The road climbed into the central mountains and at the highest point I stopped to explore the open woodland, hoping to have a crack at the thicketbird, which apparently is most common above 400 meters. I walked a side track that led into forestry land of scattered pine and grassy clearings with thick, promising looking ferns and rank grasses. I played the call and waited, at one spot I heard a quick chuck call from the ferns in front of me but saw no movement and heard nothing further. The call did not resemble what I had on the tape. Walking back out, I halted at the same spot, played again, and once more clearly heard an agitated “chuck”. I am pretty sure it was a thicketbird responding, but it never showed, but the spot may be worth exploring in the future. The spot is near a lookout point on the right coming from the west (south side of road) along the road crossing the island (see map). Interestingly I also saw the only Silvereyes here.

female Melanesian Flycatcher Photo Stephan Lorenz

female Melanesian Flycatcher Photo Stephan Lorenz

We arrived at the gite just south of Hienghene after dark and checked in for a campsite that was pretty cheap. We also arranged a boat trip for the next morning to take us snorkeling at one of the offshore islands.

08/07/2014

We woke up very early and had a slow breakfast of cereal and crackers. The setting of the campground was truly spectacular among a grove of coconut palms within stone’s throw of the water. After waiting a bit we received the bad news, the boat trip and snorkeling was cancelled due to rough conditions and the waves were supposed to pick up by midmorning. Again our snorkeling plans were thwarted and we began to wonder whether we would actually be able to experience the unique coral of New Caledonia.

Grey-eared Honeyeater Photo Stephan Lorenz

Grey-eared Honeyeater Photo Stephan Lorenz

We opted to rent a kayak and paddled on the nearby lagoon with its dramatic limestone formation rising straight from the water. We paddled first along mangroves and then underneath overhanging cliffs with large stalactites. Interestingly on the return, I heard a Red-bellied Fruit Dove calling from a grove of palms. While packing up in camp a flock of Red-throated Parrotfinches visited the casuarina trees and a small swarm of introduced Common Waxbills held several introduced Chestnut-breasted Manakins.

We drove north along the coast and stopped at the famous “Le Poule” a chicken-shaped karst monolith sticking out of the ocean just offshore. This is the only area of New Caledonia with distinct karst limestone, but nowhere near as impressive as formations in Southeast Asia for example. The landscape became more mountainous with lots of forest still on the high ridges and sizeable waterfall cutting silver streaks through the deep green in the distance. The coast here was pretty empty with long stretched of rock and sand completely deserted, but camping opportunities were everywhere. We turned southwest towards Quegoa where we managed to fuel up. Skipping the direct route, which is unpaved, we continued towards Koumac before turning north towards New Caledonia’s remote northern end.

the endemic Red-throated Parrotfinch Photo Stephan Lorenz

the endemic Red-throated Parrotfinch Photo Stephan Lorenz

We were headed to Relais de Poingam, an off the beaten path location right on the beach near the extreme northern tip of the island. Apparently the area is world-renowned among fly fishers for the largest bonefish. We stayed at the relaxing Relais de Poingan, famous for its serene setting and expansive dinners of typical Kanak food. The bay in front of the campground is too shallow for swimming and at low tide it is near impossible to reach the reef. We tried to snorkel again, but could not actually get into deep enough water. We gave up and just relaxed. The grounds of the campground were full of common endemics and hordes of Green-backed White-eyes were feeding on overripe papayas.

08/09/2014

From here we headed back south and finally arrived at Poe Beach, which has the best tourist infrastructure besides Noumea. We spent two nights camping at the large campground at the beginning of Poe Beach. We visited nearby Turtle Bay, which has one of the loveliest beaches in New Caledonia backed by a stand of Auracaria trees.

Riviere Bleue Photo Stephan Lorenz

Riviere Bleue Photo Stephan Lorenz

08/10/2014

We finally managed to snorkel one morning with borrowed gear and the corals were truly magnificent and our final morning we spent paddle boarding from the beach. The Poe Beach area is by far the best in terms of swimming, snorkeling, and watersports activities. It is also possible to do a few shorter hikes along the cliffs.

08/11/2014

We spent the final four nights in Noumea, staying at the Auberge de Jeunesse, the cheapest option in the capital. It is also centrally located and within walking distance of the Betico ferry terminal. They provide internet, laundry, and luggage storage and I can only recommend staying here the first few nights in order to plan a trip around the island. They also let us borrow snorkel gear and we finally managed good snorkeling at L’île Aux Canards, a short taxi boat ride from the main beach. We arrived really early and had the entire snorkeling area to ourselves. The snorkeling was surprisingly good with a path marked and underwater interpretive signs. We managed to see turtles and octopus.

The next morning we left early to catch the ferry for a day trip to Ile de Pins where our main goal was to visit the apparently touristy Piscine Naturelles. The ferry crossing took longer than expected and we barely arrived around 11:00 am. I kept an eye out for birds the entire way, but saw absolutely none. Arriving on Ile de Pins there was a bit of confusion and as we noted throughout New Caledonia people were not that helpful in terms of tourists. We tried to hitch a ride across the island, the pool being several kilometers away, but nobody would give us a lift. Eventually we flagged down a van that was a local taxi and got a twenty minutes ride. We rushed to the pool and arrived at low tide. The snorkeling was still amazing, with the calm blue waters just perfect to admire several clownfish and even a lion fish.

On the final day in Noumea I discovered incredible snorkeling right off Plage de Baie des Citrons, where I saw five sea snakes within thirty minutes. Despite it being the capital Noumea is worth a two or three days stay with some small museums and good snorkeling right off the city’s beaches.

Birding Sites:

Riviere Bleue National Park easily visited, camping free, shuttles into park, closed Mondays

Mont Khogi no longer an essential site though occasional thicketbirds are seen here

Farino area no longer reliable for thicketbird, but good for Cloven-feathered Dove and NC Crow

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