Brown Noddy
Continued from Page 2
….A Herald Petrel passed in front of the bow. The M-mark across the upperwings was accentuated by sunlight and clearly visible on this one. Interestingly the Heralds to date have all been pale morphs, having white underparts with clear dusky breastbands.
….An all too brief sighting was of a whale that forward-breached, only once, at a distance of three miles. It was not identified to species but was one of the rorquals.
….The wind became stronger; the ship was beginning to throw quite a spray over the bow and onto the decks, and it started to rain. This wasn’t the weather we anticipated and meant one had to get out of the wind. Just at this point an interesting Pterodroma shot down the port side. It was another 'Cookilaria', this bird having no hooded appearance and an extremely distinct half-collar when side-on. I believe it was a Black-winged Petrel but it’ll remain one that got away.
Wednesday 5 November
We had arrived at the Gambier Islands, actually one large atoll. The ship sailed into the huge lagoon using the channel markers. The Captain told me later that at one spot the clearance was one metre to the seabed! The wind had picked up and waves were now up to two metres high. I wondered if the landing would be cancelled.
….The Captain, with the Expedition Leader, decided the landing could go ahead. We would be going ashore onto the island of Mangareva, one of ten in the Gambier Islands. The zodiac ride across to the quay was bumpy and took time as the ship laid some way offshore. Local girls welcomed us with our regular flower leis. These girls were dressed very differently to those of the Tuamotus and here wore grass skirts and tops.
….After the dance we walked to the cathedral. The story behind this edifice is bizarre. An evil priest in the mid-nineteenth century enslaved the population to build this ‘cathedral’. It has twice the capacity of the current population and the altar was made from mother-of-pearl. This fanatical French priest imposed an inflexible moral code on the islanders and forced them into building 116 structures in total. Single-handedly he destroyed an island culture.
….We raised anchor at 1730 and the ship repositioned to the leeward side of a small uninhabited island. Just on the approach, at last, a small flock of Christmas Shearwaters were feeding. About five birds, they were smaller and daintier than either Short-tailed or Sooty Shearwater and their underwing was dark (although I saw one bird showing white primary quills, again not mentioned in the books, maybe sign of moult?) At least these birds were close to the breeding grounds (the Gambiers is a known location).
….A very small shearwater joined the others momentarily. The small size, stubby appearance with short neck immediately said Little rather than Audubon's Shearwater, but I opted to stay on the Christmas Shearwaters. Little Shearwater does breed to the west of the Gambiers and Audubon's is in the area also. Both species I believe would overlap here. Another one that got away!
….Birds were returning to the island at dusk, probably to roost. Individual Brown Boobies were coming in and there was the largest gathering of frigatebirds seen to date. Some sixty were in the air together - those I studied all Lesser Frigatebird.
Thursday 6 November
Today we were at sea all day. We had left the Gambier Islands during yesterday evening and were on our way sailing eastwards to Pitcairn Island, home of the descendants from the infamous mutiny on the ‘Bounty’. This would be a long journey; our arrival at Pitcairn would be tomorrow morning.
….The sea had a swell, although the wind speed was only Force 5 Beaufort. This was due to a low-pressure area to the south of us that was sending waves and swell across hundreds of miles of open ocean. On deck it became noticeably chilly and sweaters and fleeces went on. We hoped it would subside by tomorrow or we could have difficulty in landing on Pitcairn Island, one of the most important islands of the cruise.
….Birding was slow and required dedication, though the few species that put in an appearance were class birds. Pterodromas were appearing every half-hour or so. Firstly, Herald Petrels (all light phase again) and another new gad-fly petrel, Murphy's Petrel. This large all dark Pterodroma is depicted wrongly in 'Seabirds' as it does have a white primary patch on the underwing (corrected in Harrison’s 'Seabirds of the World', and correctly described in 'Enticott and Tipling'). By late afternoon the tally had reached five Heralds and three Murphy's Petrels.
Friday 7 November
At 0630 the World Discoverer was off the tiny island of Pitcairn, said to be the most remote populated island in the Pacific. It was here in 1790 that nine of the mutinous crew of HMS Bounty landed and formed a colony together with nineteen Polynesians. The Bounty was burned which sealed their fate. The community was not discovered until 1808 when a whaling ship visited the island by which time only one of the British sailors was still alive. This morning we were to visit the descendants of Fletcher Christian and John Adams - the total population today is currently 43 only - to see how they live and see some relics from the Bounty.
….It was a relief that the sea conditions had improved from early yesterday. It can be difficult to land on Pitcairn at the best of times. Most landings are tricky, if they take place at all. If we had the swell from yesterday I fear we would not have been going ashore. The Captain broadcast the landing was to take place!
….The transfer to shore went smoothly.
….It was a lovely day ashore. The sun shone and the walks were relaxed. One of the optional hikes was to Fletcher Christian's Cave. Red-tailed Tropicbirds were displaying around the cliffs here. This involved the birds flying a steep climb to virtually stall, and then drop backwards with wings flapping. There were Grey Noddies also - these in this latitude the pale form, and in my view correctly split from Blue Noddy. It would appear that the marked change from 'dark' to 'light' birds, their ranges, is associated with latitude - Blue Noddy being tropical and Grey Noddy subtropical and temperate.
….Along the trails many White Terns were seen to be courting, birds chasing each other in small groups and many could be seen closely and photographed sitting in the nearby trees. Pitcairn Reed-Warbler was common on the island. Nicholas counted more than forty during the morning. The islanders have an appropriate name for this bird....sparrow! The plumage has mixed white feathers particularly in the wings.
Pitcairn Reed-Warbler - not a seabird, I know!
….As we were about to sail, the ship’s horn was sounded to bid farewell. We were some of the very few to see this remote historic island with its isolated population and we did get ashore!
….The ship circumnavigated Pitcairn. It was a lovely warm evening, as the sun was setting there was fading light on the island, somehow adding to its solitude. As I gazed I wondered what were Fletcher Christian’s thoughts on first seeing Pitcairn?
….We sailed away with numbers of terns and noddies coming past. A gad-fly petrel was seen coming straight towards us. Nicholas had his binoculars on it quickly. Head-on the light feathering around the base of the bill could identify it – it was a Murphy's Petrel – and a close fly-by.
….tomorrow's landing on Henderson Island. This will be an important island for the birders. Five endemics are here including the enigmatic Henderson Island Crake. I arranged that we should disembark on the first zodiac, ahead of all other passengers. We held a group briefing after dinner for the logcall and to discuss procedure for tomorrow.
Saturday 8 November
What a fabulous island was in view! There were trees and vegetation, a very green island with sandy beaches, and lots of birds visible in the sky. As the ship went in closer, the first of two large Pterodroma went cruising by towards the open sea. These all-dark birds were a darker brown than Murphy's, these had to be the recently split Henderson Petrel. Previously treated as a dark morph of the Herald Petrel but here on Henderson these are now known to breed independent to pale birds, thus dark birds only with dark birds.
....Our group were first at the zodiac boarding station. There was quite a swell at the platform but we were soon off the ship and powering towards the beach. The shore party had quite an awkward job as the zodiac crossed a bed of coral and then had to be turned manually. We had to wade thigh-deep through the surf.