Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fiji Trip report

Ok, ok, so its 8 months late, but heres a proper trip report from my visit to Fiji last year, slightly more comprehensive than the drivel i wrote in some windswept shack of an internet cafe while i was there.


29th August- 14th September 2006


This trip to Fiji was part of a 7 month backpacking trip around Australia. Before leaving the UK for Australia I had been planning to have a short visit to either Fiji or New Zealand. After a lot of deliberating I finally decided on Fiji as it would be a much cheaper trip and was seemingly more ‘off the beaten track’ as far as birding visits go.

Obviously the main goal of the trip was to see as many as the Fijian endemics as possible but this was also meant to be a relaxing trip, enjoying the laid back atmosphere and stunning beaches.



After an early morning flight from Sydney I arrived in the tourist hub of Nadi at midday, where I was met by a rep from ‘Awesome Adventures’, the company I would be spending the next few days with. This was the ‘relaxing’ part of the trip, I had booked a package trip around the Yasawa Islands, a well known backpacker destination not far offshore from the west coast of the main Fijian Island Viti Levu. I was taken to my hotel at Nadi Bay, just North of Nadi, where one nights accommodation was provided as part of my package. After dumping my stuff in the dorm I took a stroll along the beach and bordering scrubland for a few miles North. This was a very productive start to the trip, within seconds of leaving the hotel a pair of Collared Lories buzzed over my head and into a nearby palm. The scrub and grassland held several Fiji Woodswallows, a small flock of Fiji Parrotfinches, a pair of Silvereye, and a single Wattled Honeyeater, along with many introduced Red-vented Bulbuls, and Common and Jungle Mynahs. The tide was well out and I could see a few distant waders, a lengthy and muddy stalk revealed these to be a mixture of Pacific Golden-plover and Wandering Tattler. A few Pacific Reef-egrets were also present and several White-rumped Swiftlets were hawking overhead. 3 Crested Terns were perched distantly on the offshore buoys.

A very pleasant evening in the hotel followed with an impressive display of traditional fire dancing and ‘hula girls’, accompanied by plenty of Bounty Rum.


In the late morning I left my hotel in Nadi Bay for the marina at Lautoka where I boarded the Awesome Adventures massive catamaran bound for the Yasawas. After passing the island used for the filming of ITV tosh ‘Celebrity Love Island’ and the islands where the film ‘Castaway’ and the Bounty chocolate bar adverts were filmed, we headed out further into the Pacific. Passing a few deserted islands complete with soaring Lesser Frigatebirds we had some close fly-bys from Brown Booby’s and a Sooty Tern. I was dropped off at the island of Kuata, the first and smallest of the Yasawa islands. Knowing that there were no landbirds here that I wouldn’t see later in the trip, and fancying a break from birding having not stopped for the previous 2 months I took off my bins and packed them in my rucksack, vowing not to use them again until I returned to Viti Levu. After a short sunbathe I went for my first snorkelling session off the beach. The shallow clear seas were incredibly warm and held a vast variety of colourful fish and including a few Nemo look-alikes and some cool blue starfish. Much more interesting was an impressive Sea snake that came a little too close for comfort. Returning to land I broke my binocular vow as a superb Orange-breasted Myzomela darted around the flowers between the dorms and the beach. The next few hours up until sundown were some of the most enjoyable birding I have ever had, lying in a hammock at the top of the beach with bins in one hand and a cold Fiji Bitter in the other enjoying some of the commoner Fijian birds, with Polynesian Triller, Fiji Parrotfinch and Vanikoro Flycatcher joining the Myzomela, along with Fiji Woodswallows and Pacific Swallows hawking overhead.


After a welcome lie-in I caught the catamaran onto the island of Naviti at midday, the rest of the day was spent lazing around the beach and bar along with a bit of snorkelling, so no new birds were seen.


In the morning I joined a group of Australian backpackers I had met the night before for a snorkelling trip in the deeper waters off the South end of Naviti. As our hired speedboat cruised into the straits I spotted the distinctive shape of our target species breaking the surface of the glassy waters, we sped over and all dived into the water, a few frantic hand signals later and we were all swimming towards a Manta Ray. This awesome creature of the deep was completely unperturbed by our presence and glided by just a few metres away. This was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life (well, it would’ve been if a leaking snorkel hadn’t prevented me from breathing in the first place). We left the Ray to carry on in peace and set about exploring the rest of the deep channel. Whilst taking a good look at the coral garden I got some good but brief views of a small Shark in a narrow canyon below me before it disappeared into the shadows. Once we were all knackered from some long distance swimming and not much breathing we reluctantly hauled ourselves back onto the boat to return back to Naviti. While waiting for a few stragglers to join us a White Tern flew quickly past the boat and east up the straits.

In the evening I joined local fisherman Sammy for a handlining fishing trip into the bay off the West coast of Naviti. After catching plenty of good sized reef fish for the nights dinner a pair of Audubon’s Shearwater flew North up the bay, presumably towards their nesting burrow.

That night I joined Sammy, a few other locals and some other backpackers for an impromptu beach party and Kava ceremony. Kava is a local narcotic drink made from the dried roots of a Pacific Islands plant. It relaxes and numbs the body quite pleasantly and there is no hangover the next morning, great stuff.


Unfortunately this was my last day in the Yasawas, and in the afternoon I caught the boat back to Lautoka on Vitit Levu. As we cruised through the islands I noticed a few seabirds including a superb Red-tailed Tropicbird, a group of 4 Black Noddy, and several Brown Booby. It was almost dark by the time we arrived back at Lautoka Marina and on the bus journey back to my Hotel at Nandi Bay I saw a Barn Owl hunting along the side of the cane fields.


This was the day that the proper birding started. In the morning I got a taxi from Nandi Bay to Nandi Bus Station for an express bus to the capital of Suva, on the other side of Viti Levu. On arrival at Suva a few hours later I got a Taxi up to nearby Raintree Lodge. After checking into the dorm room for three nights I headed straight into the adjacent Colo-I-Suva Forest Park. This mix of Primary and Secondary growth rainforest seemed very birdless at first but I gradually started to see various Fijian and Pacific Island endemics. I concentrated on the main track through the path and the smaller paths around the waterfalls (where parts of Anaconda 2 were filmed) and saw Masked Shining-Parrot, Slaty Monarch, Streaked Fantail and the stunning Blue-crested Flycatcher.


I spent a very cool, wet and misty morning in the Forest Park, on the same route as yesterday picking up Fiji Shrikebill, Fiji White-eye, Peales Imperial-Pigeon, Island Thrush and Giant Forest-Honeyeater in addition to the birds seen the day before. At midday I got the bus down into Suva to look do a bit of food and souvenir shopping and to see some of the big old colonial buildings. A Swamp Harrier was feeding in the wasteland next to the harbour.

After being dropped off at the Colo-I-Suva bus stop and walking back to Raintree Lodge a Polynesian Triller and a small group of Fiji Parrotfinches showed by the side of the road, and a pair of Collared Lory buzzed over.


I again headed into the Forest Park in the morning, hoping to pick up the few remaining endemics of the area. Having spent the previous days birding the forest East of the main road I decided to take the Pylon Track to the West of the road. It was very overgrown and hard work in places but the birding was worth the effort. Best bird was definitely the fabulous Golden Dove, which looked like it was wearing an oversized golden trenchcoat, with a little green head poking out the top. Masked Shining-Parrot were very common along this trail and I got a brief glimpse of what was probably the rare and elusive Black-faced Shrikebill. A Fiji Goshawk showed well perched above my head, being mobbed by a Vanikoro Flycatcher. A nesting pair of Scarlet Robin was also nice.

I enjoyed a fine meal at the Raintree londge restaurant that evening, on table overlooking a huge pool, with masses of White-rumped Swiftlets swooping overhead, and periodic bursts of Fruit Bats leaving their daytime roosts.


In the morning I took a taxi down to Suva Airport to catch my flight to the island of Taveuni. After roughly an hour long and slightly hair rising flight we were touching down on the grass airstrip at the North end of Taveuni. I was met here for a transfer to the Garden Isle Resort, near Somosomo, where I was staying for the next three nights. After checking into the dorm (which luckily I had to myself, so effectively had a massive single room at a fraction of the usual price), I walked South down the coast road for a few miles and had several Lesser and one Greater Frigatebird soaring overhead. A Collared Kingfisher was hunting lizards from the telephone wires and a Fiji Goshawk made a pass over the palm trees. A solitary Black-naped Tern was sat on the rocks just south of the hotel.

In the evening I wandered up the hill from the hotel to the International Date Line for the obligatory photo with one leg in each day.


By far the most well known site on Taveuni is the 3921ft Des Voeux Peak. The lush rainforest on the slopes of this mountain hold many endemic Fijian Endemics, including Silktail and Orange Dove, two gems limited to Taveuni and a small peninsula of the neighbouring island of Vanua Levu. The usual tactic is to take a 4X4 Taxi to the peak at dawn and walk down through the very birdy forest to a pre-arranged pick-up from the taxi as the jungle starts to thin out into less-birdy cleared land. Unfortunately this costs FJD$100 which was way over my backpackers budget so I made the decision to walk the 10km from my hotel and climbing to the summit from Sea Level. The walk started well and I had seen several small groups of Collared Lory and a few single Red Shining Parrots (endemic to Taveuni) in isolated tree stands in the lower areas of farmland. A pair of Fiji Goshawks at the nest was a nice sighting and a solitary Polynesian Starling was in a palm tree next to the track, White-rumped Swiftlets were constantly overhead. By the time I was in sight of the lower edges of the rainforest I was seriously knackered as the temperature and humidity were getting pretty unbearable, and the cloud-shrouded summit seemed a very long way off. Luckily, on entering the jungle the temperature dropped noticeably thanks to the altitude and the damp, misty atmosphere. Carrying on up the track I picked up more endemics previously seen on Viti Levu, including the Taveuni endemic yellow billed race of Giant Forest Honeyeater. The birds seemed easier to see here than on Viti Levu and and I had excellent views of Orange-breasted Myzomela, Blue-crested Flycatcher, Fiji Shrikebill, Streaked Fantail and Fiji Bush-warbler. Island Thrushes were seen frequently feeding on the track.

With the summit in sight, I stopped at a set of metal gates across the track to regain my breath. While taking a welcome swig of water from my rapidly emptying bottle I caught a flash of black and white out of the corner of my eye!! Could it be!! A quick pish and what should jump out onto an unobscured branch but a Silktail, this gorgeous bird proceeded to jump along the branch just metres away from my face getting a good look at me, flashing its dazzling white rump and uppertail that give it its name and with odd shafts of light reflecting off metallic blue spekles on its head, a truly fantastic bird in a wonderful environment of mossy branches dripping from the mist. A good look around revealed at least 2 more of these beauties, as well as another Polynesian Starling and various other endemics.

With renewed energy I set off for the summit with hope of Orange Dove. To my surprise, the rainforest beyond the metal gates was not at all great for birding and at the top had been cleared quite heavily to make way for a radar station. Fiji Bush-warblers were seen frequently but not much else. I headed back down the mountain and despite hearing Orange Dove calling frustratingly close by, I failed to see any. On getting back to the hotel I reluctantly decided that there was no way I could manage the gruelling trek again the next day and I couldn’t justify the taxi fare for just one species and resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to see what was surely the ‘Mother of all pigeons’.

By some massive stroke of luck, at Dinner that night I met Chris Gaskin, of Kiwi Wildlife Tours, who was leading an English couple on a birding trip around Western Polynesia. After a shameless sob story of my lack of cash and desire to see Orange Dove, Chris very kindly agreed to let me join them on their trip up to Des Voeux the next morning and to share the taxi price (just FJD$25 each for a 4-share). I jumped at this chance for another try and we arranged to meet up in the early hours the next morning.


We met the taxi driver at some ridiculous hour outside the hotel and set out on the drive up the mountain. It was much more fun in a 4X4 in the dark than walking and ever so slightly easier too. We were dropped on the lower edges of the rainforest as dawn began to break and arranged to meet the driver at the same spot several hours later. We eagerly trekked up to the gates, getting good views of the commoner endemics but not the birds we wanted. ‘My spot’ at the gates was again productive, and Chris was very happy to show his clients the Silktails, which again gave a superb display, including a male displaying in Bird-of-Paradise fashion, shuffling up and down branches, waving his wings in an arc over his shimmering head. We headed slowly back downhill, as the birds seemed to be getting more active as the day warmed up. I stopped to photograph a pair of Collared Lory by the side of the track while Chris and his clients took a small side track off into the jungle in pusuit of another Silktail. Luckily for me, thye flushed out a Many-coloured Fruit-Dove, which I got good flight views of as it clattered away over the canopy, and the others had reasonable views of another perched up from inside the forest. Continuing downhill we caught the distinctive ‘Tock……..Tock……..Tock’ call of our quarry, eventually we picked out a superb male Orange Dove, well obscured and surprisingly inconspicuous in a far too leafy tree, soon another bird flew in and we had superb views of this stunning, neon orange bird perched in the open, I was well satisfied with the views through my bins but a look though Chris’s scope at full zoom just blew me away, its impossible to describe just how orange this thing is. Predictably, I couldn’t resist looking up at the bird and giggling “You’ve been Tangoed mate”. Floating back down to our pick-up point in a state of ecstasy more common endemics were seen, and the priority was a celebratory lunch and beer.

After lunch I joined a few of the hotels other guests to be dropped off on nearby Korolevu island for snorkelling. I didn’t manage any snorkelling at all thanks to The Lesser Frigatebirds and Brown Booby’s frequently flying close by, along with some more distant Red-footed Booby’s and a flock of confiding Black-naped Terns on the rocks. Just before the boat came to pick us up, a quick swim with some unidentified dolphins was a fitting end to a wonderful day.


Day spent travelling. Flight from Taveuni back to Suva Airport on Viti Levu, taxi up to Raintree Lodge for the night.


More travelling today. Morning flight to from Suva to Kadavu Island. Speedboat transfer to Wassalima Resort on far eastern tip of Kadavu. A walk around the forest at the back of the resort produced a pair of Kadavu Shining Parrots and several loudly singing Kadavu Honeyeaters. There was almost constantly Lesser Frigatebirds in view soaring over the cliffs.


With two Kandavu endemics left to see before leafing the island the next day, I headed off along a small track into the forest west of Wassalima in the early morning. Very quickly I picked up a single Kadavu Fantail, and more Kadavu Honeyeaters. Kadavu Shining Parrots could be heard screeching in the distance. It wasn’t long before I head the loud inflected whistle of my final Kadavu endemic, but a long time searching, and hearing several other individuals didn’t lead to any sightings. Returning to Wasssalima for lunch I heard another whistle right above my head, I looked up and there was a male Velvet Dove, just metres above me. I got excellent views of this third endemic Fijian fruit dove and even managed a nice photo in very difficult (non-existent) rainforest lighting. I spent the rest of the day snorkelling off the beach, seeing a variety of colourful reef fish.


A long days travelling, starting with a speedboat back to Kadavu Airstrip, the light plane back to Suva, a taxi into Suva Bus Station and the Bus back to Nadi on the far side of Viti Levu.


A day spent sightseeing and souvenir shopping around Nandi


Flight back to Sydney at Midday


Peregrine's Bird Blog said...

You really make me want to go to Fiji now.Out of curiosity when you describe the birds did you know what they were before you got there or did you have a good birdguide? Some good photos as well

Joe Cockram said...

i had a vague idea of the birds before i got there from looking at pics on the net, then i bought a field guide on arrival, i think it was a field guide to the birds of western polynesia, by Dick Watling