Kagu-mania!

2008 June 18
by David J. Ringer

KANGAROO GROUND, AUSTRALIA — I never could have imagined that I would develop an antagonistic relationship with a Kagu. But apparently, anything is possible in New Caledonia.

There I was: hungry, tired from miles of walking, dripping wet, and worried about camping for three days in the rain. As I sloshed back into my campsite, I heard a harsh, unpleasant hiss. Kagus. As I neared the picnic shelter, he hissed again.

I was in no mood to take that sort of cheek, not even from a Kagu, and I muttered something that would only sound silly if I repeated it here.

Next thing I knew, the Kagu had run around and come up onto the picnic table, just inches from my baggage. Like an inspection. And when I changed my clothes, I felt like he and his mate were watching.

kagu-rhynochetos-jubatus-portrait

The Kagu, Rhynochetos jubatus, is a strange and unique bird endemic to New Caledonia’s Grande Terre (the main island). It is the only living member of its family, and its closest living relative may be the enigmatic Sunbittern of the Neotropics. Nearly driven to extinction by habitat loss and marauding dogs, Kagus now thrive at Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue (Blue River Provincial Park).

riviere bleue

This is the Rivière Bleue (Blue River) for which the park is named. In this protected valley, and that of the neighboring White River, Kagus are doing very well. Perhaps half of the world’s wild population lives in the park. More about Kagus: Gray Ghosts of the Cloud Forest and Don Roberson’s Kagu page.

kagu-rhynochetos-jubatus-feeding-posture

Kagus are residents of the forest floor, and they behave a bit like gigantic thrushes as they hunt for worms and other invertebrates, rushing forward a few steps only to pause with one foot lifted, peering intently at the ground, eventually plunging a strong orange bill into the mud or beneath the leaves and coming up with a prize.

kagu-rhynochetos-jubatus-courting

A pair of Kagus regularly hunted the Pont Germain campsite, which is where I camped. Though our relationship got off to a rocky start, I’d like to think that the pair eventually accepted me. One member of the pair was ringed — I think it was the male. When he and his mate had wandered apart, he would raise his crest and charge toward her, as shown here. And one morning, I heard their weird yipping duet at first light — wow!

kagu-on-table

Ah yes, and here’s proof that the Kagu really did climb up onto the table to check me out. They don’t fly (or at least not much), so he must have hopped up there. I was very surprised to turn around and see him there.

the-kagu-and-i

One of my friends urged me to photograph myself with a Kagu, inspired by the shot of Dr. James Clements published in the 5th edition of his world bird checklist. This was the best I could manage under difficult conditions.

red-throated-parrotfinch-erythrura-psittacea-2

New Caledonia has lots of other great endemics too. How about this Red-throated Parrotfinch (Erythrura psittacea)? Beautiful!

female-melanesian-flycatcher-myiagra-caledonica-2

There is so much yet to learn and describe about Melanesian avifauna. Female Melanesian Flycatchers in New Caledonia have bold white eyerings and largely white outer tail feathers, as shown in this photo. But neither of these features is illustrated or mentioned in Doughty, Day, and Plant’s field guide to the region.

southern-shrikebill-clytorhynchus-pachycephaloides

The Southern Shrikebill (Clytorhynchus pachycephaloides) is an odd monarch flycatcher that also occurs in Vanuatu. Its bill is laterally compressed, like that of an oystercatcher.

There were other birds too — the weird and brilliant Horned Parakeets, the colorful myzomelas, the lovely Barred Honeyeaters. Deep, powerful hooting was often the only clue to the presence of Goliath Imperial Pigeons, but I managed to see three of them — shockingly huge pigeons, the size of a male Red-tailed Hawk.

And on my last morning, when I’d almost given up hope, there was the Crow Honeyeater rushing past my face and slipping through the brush — a brief but satisfying encounter with one of the world’s rarest birds.

You can read about each of the species I encountered in more detail on my New Caledonia list (change to report view to see notes and details).

Spathoglottis sp.

New Caledonia is also famous for its plants, an amazing 75% of which are endemic. I saw several orchids, including this beautiful pink job. Can anyone identify it? Update: I believe it’s a species of Spathoglottis.

pitcher-plant-nepenthes-vieillardii-aerial-2

New Caledonia has an endemic pitcher plant (Nepenthes vieillardii), which like other Old World pitcher plants sprouts insect-trapping pitchers from the tips of its leaves. Insects dissolved in the pitchers offer additional nutrients to the plant.

There are dozens more photos of birds, plants, etc., in the photo gallery. There are photos of the Melanesian Cuckooshrike and the endemic Yellow-bellied Robin, plus more Kagu shots. There are also lots of unidentified plants, so if you’re botanically inclined, perhaps you can help put names on a few shots.

New Caledonia logistics

New Caledonia does not receive the volume of birders that some other places do, and information (at least, information in English) is a bit sparse. Here’s what I learned; perhaps it will be helpful.

Two main points:

  1. Rent a car, rent a car, rent a car!
  2. New Caledonia is tough to do on a shoestring budget.

There is public transport in New Caledonia, but it can be difficult to use (e.g., once-a-day runs, no runs on Sunday), and strikes sometimes shut things down. Also, buses don’t go to all of the places birders want to go (so I missed Mont Khogi, which was probably my best shot at Cloven-feathered Dove). You really need your own transport to have the freedom of movement that birders require.

New Caledonia is part of France. It’s an expensive country to eat, sleep, and travel in. If you try to do it cheap, you’ll be eating hard biscuits and tinned meats and camping in the rain, as I did. French is the language of communication. I got by with a small amount of French and could sometimes use English. English is taught in schools, so some people can speak reasonable amounts.

Be prepared to deal with heavy rainfall, and bring warm clothes if you’re going in the winter.

Rivière Bleue

This is the place to see Kagus and Crow Honeyeaters. Kagus are easy; Crow Honeyeaters are hard. On my best day, I had approximately 10 Kagus. I birded mainly between Pont Germain and Le Grand Kaori, walking the road and the trails. This is the humid forest, and this is where you can find most of the species of interest. Kagus are possible all along the road. I found Crow Honeyeater at the Grand Kaori platform.

You can camp at Pont Germain. This gives you a shot at hearing the Kagus duetting early in the morning. Whatever you do, don’t rush. Take time to experience the birds. Camping for a night or two is a good way to do that.

There is no drinking water available at the campsite. There is a tap, but the sign says that it has not been treated. It may be that boiling that water would be safe, but I didn’t have anyone to ask, so I decided not to risk it. I collected rainwater when I ran out of bottled water. I would have brought more bottles, but I had read some old information saying potable water was available.

Which raises a good point — don’t rely on old information. Thing change regularly, so always check. Don’t rely on a trip report from 1999 or, for that matter, from 2008.

Park access is one thing that has changed in recent years. You can drive into the park up to Pont Perignon (a bridge — “pont” is bridge in French), which is closed to vehicular traffic. To get to the good birding areas, you park at Pont Perignon, walk across the bridge, and take a park shuttle deeper into the park. You have to book your shuttle rides in and out when you check in at the park entrance.

The distances are big — 10-15 kilometers between points, so you do need a car and the shuttle to get around, unless you want to spend all day hiking. Once you get to Pont Germain or Le Grand Kaori, you can easily walk the 2 or 2.5 kilometers between the two, and all along the road is good birding. The only vehicular traffic permitted there is the official park shuttle, though there are a few cyclists. This makes it safe and quiet. For that reason, it seems that Pont Perignon will remain closed to vehicles indefinitely. That’s good for the birds, and it’s good for the birders, if you plan ahead to overcome the logistical hurdles.

Two other complications: First, the park stops admitting visitors at 2 p.m. Second, the park is closed on Mondays. This means that you can’t camp there Sunday night or Monday night. Across the highway from the park entrance road is a camping area called Les Bois du Sud (The Southern Woods), where you can camp for a fee. Again, you’d need a car to get there easily.

The local Birdlife International affiliate, Société Calédonienne d’Ornithologie, can provide advice and information, and they should have people who can correspond in English.

6 Responses
  1. June 19, 2008

    Fantastic post, David! Love that shot of you and the Kagu.

  2. June 30, 2008

    Nice blog! great photos!!!
    Congratulations!

  3. Julie permalink
    April 30, 2009

    I Love New Caledonia~!! but i naver been to there~;;;

    I envy you ㅠ.ㅜ

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  2. Kagu - Rhynochetos jubatus | Birds of the World
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