This trip report is based on a two week holiday and birding trip to the Cook Islands, from 4th to 18th February 2010. We thought we would relax on the beautiful beaches and enjoy the tranquility, unfortunately we were hit by a cyclone which impacted on our view of island paradise.
The trip included the four islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Mangaia and Atiu in the Southern Cook Islands, all of which need to be visited in order to see the six endemic species and two lorikeets.
The Cook Islands endemic species are:
Lilac-crowned Fruit Dove Rarotonga & Atiu
Atiu Swiftlet Atiu
Mewing Kingfisher Mangaia
Rarotonga Monarch Rarotonga & Atiu
Cook Reed Warbler Mangaia
Rarotonga Starling Rarotonga
In addition there are two introduced species of interest:
Violet Lorikeet Aitutaki
Kuhl’s Lorikeet Atiu
The Violet Lorikeet (Blue Lorikeet) or Blue Monk as the locals call it, was introduced to Aitutaki sometime before 1899 and is now fairly common.
The Kuhl’s Lorikeet (Rimatara Lorikeet) or Red Lorikeet as the locals call it, was reintroduced in April 2007 to Atiu from Rimatara in French Polynesia and is now breeding successfully. The fossil records and oral traditions show that the Kuhl’s Lorikeet was formerly a native bird on most of the Southern Cook Islands and was much prized for its small red feathers which were used for ceremonial head dresses.
Birding highlights were all six endemics, the Kuhl’s and Violet Lorikeets plus breeding Red-tailed Tropicbirds. Rarities for the Cook Islands included an Asiatic Whimbrel and Black-browed Albatross both seen on Aitutaki. The Black-browed Albatross were seen ahead of storm fronts and seen on three occasions. Another interesting bird was a single Eastern Rosella seen in Rarotonga.
The trip took place during the cyclone season which may have contributed to some of the unusual bird sightings. Cyclone Oli had just passed to the north of the Cook Islands prior to our arrival and as a result it was very windy for the first day at Rarotonga. Cyclone Pat was upgraded to a Category 2 Hurricane and passed over Aitutaki in the early hours of the morning that we were due to fly out to Atiu.
Cyclone Pat hit Aitutaki at 2am and continued battering the island until 6am with sustained winds up to 180 km/hr. The damage to the island was extensive with about 50% of the houses losing rooves and about 20% of the houses completely demolished. This was the worst cyclone since 1967 to hit Aitutaki and even though there were regular warnings before the cyclone hit, most of the islanders underestimated the intensity of the cyclone.
We were moved to a safe house prior to the cyclone to get away from the shoreline to avoid the storm surge, which in any event didn’t materialise. The house we stayed in at least was solid and withstood the storm fairly well, except for flying roof sheeting and other objects which severely damaged a section of the roof and put holes through the walls - see photo below.
Later that day, the owner of the guest house, two Germans, a local artisan and myself, stripped away the roof, replaced some of the damaged rafters and resheeted the roof. Compared to others on the island, we were very fortunate, as was the owner, who had the major repairs completed within a day and avoided further damage from rain that evening. In addition we had limited access to a generator which at least kept the fridge cool, provided water and lighting. Many others on the island neither had the money, materials, labour or inclination to repair their homes, assuming that there were supplies available for purchase.
There was no power on the island, telecommunications were non-existent and there was no emergency response effort organised. The local shops were quickly sold out of supplies and as there was no power, many homes were without water. Petrol was also not available as there was no power to pump the fuel.
The birds seem to have survived the cyclone and only one dead bird was seen. However much of the vegetation had been stripped away and there were quite a few forlorn looking White Terns looking for new roosting sites. The Violet Lorikeets were much more evident as they searched for food amongst the remaining palm trees.
As news slowly filtered out the first response was a couple of flights bringing in supplies for the major tourist resorts. Only the following day did any politicians arrive and plans were supposedly being made to bring in emergency supplies. A week later a group of 19 volunteers flew from Atiu to Aitutaki to assist with the clean-up and rebuilding. Presumably the other islands also sent teams of volunteers to assist.
Luckily no one was seriously injured as I am not sure how the locals would have been able to handle any major injuries considering the total lack of any civic organisation. A week later and power had not yet been restored to Aitutaki, even though it was reported to have been restored by the local TV a day after the cyclone!
All flights to and from Aitutaki were cancelled however we managed to get a flight to Rarotonga a day later. As we had missed our flight to Atiu, I had to rearrange our trip to try and still fit in visits to Mangaia and Atiu.
I had made the original bookings with Jetsave Travel, (www.jetsave.co.ck) a local travel agent, who had an office in Avatui, Rarotonga which is close to the airport. With their capable assistance I was able to reorganise the trip, visiting Mangaia first and then Atiu, and change all the accommodation and flight bookings.
The Air Rarotonga flights are haphazard at best, as they don’t necessarily follow their published schedules and are often cancelled. In any event we booked a flight departing the following morning for Mangaia returning to Rarotonga on Monday and then twenty minutes later flying onto Atiu. As it turned out, the same plane which flew us from Mangaia to Rarotonga was used for the Rarotonga to Atiu sector, so we had no problems with the tight connection.
Overall the weather was generally humid and hot, irrespective of cloud cover. The rainfall during the trip was much less than expected and the only rain we had was associated with Cyclone Pat. Mosquitoes were encountered on all islands with Mangaia being the worst.
The Cook Islanders we met were very friendly and our hosts were very generous and looked after us well. In fact the people of the Cook Islands are what makes these islands special.
Of the four islands visited, Atiu was the best in terms of holiday experience and birding. The island is still relatively pristine, has a low population, unspoilt reef and the greatest variety of birds. Aitutaki is the main tourist destination, as it has fantastic beaches and is great for seabirds. Mangaia is the least developed and still a bit basic, with not much of interest for birding. Rarotonga is probably too developed and busy.
Unfortunately all the islands visited are being impacted by rapidly declining population numbers, as Cook Islanders emigrate to New Zealand and Australia to seek better opportunities. The agricultural sector has declined to the point that exports are virtually non-existent. The main income sources are from tourism and the export of black pearls, and the latter is also declining in value. This will impact on the future viability of the country to function properly and ultimately will also impact on its specialised birds.
Pacific Rat (rattus exulans) is present on all the Cook Islands visited and does not impact on the birds. The destructive Roof Rat (rattus rattus) or Ship’s Rat is present on Mangaia and Rarotonga, but luckily is absent from Atiu and Aitutaki, which enables the two lorikeet species and the Rarotonga Monarch to thrive.
The other major impact on the birds is the introduced Common Myna which probably exceeds 10,000 birds on Mangaia and Aitutaki. It is only on Atiu that steps have been taken to reduce Myna numbers with a bounty system in place of NZ$2 per bird. Over 5,000 birds have been eliminated so far and there is a noticeable difference on this island compared to Mangaia and Aitutaki.
The itinerary was as follows:
4 February – Arrival into Rarotonga in late afternoon on Air New Zealand flight from Auckland.
5 to 9 February – Aitutaki with birding mainly in the north along the beach, including the golf course and airport, and area around Mount Maungapu (124m). Also included for a day trip in the south to Honeymoon Island, One Foot Island and other smaller islands.
10 February – Cyclone Pat, clean-up and repairs to roof.
11 February – Scooter ride around island to survey cyclone damage, midday flight from Aitutaki to Rarotonga.
12 February – Early morning flight to Mangaia, some birding in morning and then snorkelling in afternoon.
13 February – Mangaia, cave tour in morning and drove around island in afternoon.
14 February – Mangaia, visited southern and eastern areas including taro plantations in morning and then snorkelling in afternoon.
15 February – Flight to Rarotonga and then onto Atiu in morning. Birded around Atiu Villas and on walk into town.
16 February – Atiu, eco tour with “Birdman” George Mateariki in morning and explored island on scooter in afternoon.
17 February – Atiu, scooter ride along west coast. Flight to Rarotonga in late afternoon.
18 February – Rarotonga, walked up Mount Raemaru in early morning and then visited Takitumu Conservation Area in late morning, followed by shopping in Avatui in afternoon. Flight to Auckland in late afternoon.
RarotongaRarotonga is a busy island by Cook Island standards. Three areas were visited briefly during the short one night stopovers in Rarotonga, these being Muri Beach, Mount Raemaru and Takitumu Conservation Area.
Of these, Takitumu is the best place to visit if one has limited time in Rarotonga. Takitumu was set up as a project to help the critically endangered Rarotonga Monarch which at one stage was down to 27 birds. The threat is the introduced Roof (Ship’s) Rat which has to be constantly controlled by poisoning. The project has been very successful to date and the conservation area is estimated to hold over 600 birds.
The conservation area is located on the south-eastern side of the island and covers an area of 155 hectares of upland forest. Access to the conservation area needs to be arranged beforehand with Takitumu Nature Walk on (682) 29 906. We phoned up at 9am and were directed to Tom (24 964) who is the guide for Takitumu, with whom we arranged to meet up at 10am.
The brochures say that tours are only available on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, however Tom indicated that he will take visitors anytime and any day including Sundays. A late afternoon tour is best for seeing the birds. The cost of the tour is NZ$35 per person.
To get to Takitumu, there are busses running clockwise and anticlockwise around the island every hour. Just wave down the bus anywhere on the route and asked to be dropped off at the Queen’s Representative’s Residence, which is not a designated bus stop. From the Residence walk 100m eastwards and then take the road/track to the left for 300m, where you will find the Takitumu offices.
The only bird which can’t be seen on the other islands is the Rarotonga Starling. This is a bit of a nondescript bird which tends to sit quietly in the trees. Takitumu Conservation Area was the only place on Rarotonga where I managed to see this bird and this was after walking through similar habitat in the hills behind Muri Beach and on the walk up to Mount Raemaru on the western side of the island.
AitutakiAitutaki is located 270km north of Rarotonga and is reached via a 40 minute flight on Air Rarotonga. The island and lagoon is about 12 km wide and 15km long and its best to have some form of transport such as a scooter. A local scooter licence costs $2.50 and helmets are not required if you keep to less than 40 km/hr.
The specialities of the island are the Violet Lorikeet and Bristle-thighed Curlew. The Violet Lorikeet is usually found in the fruit plantations and palm trees in the centre of the island. I found up to 20 birds in the Mount Maungapu area, which were usually initially located by the high pitched single or double schee. In addition I found up to 10 birds including juveniles closer to town.
|View from Mount Maungapu|
The Bristle-thighed Curlew winters in the Cook Islands, arriving in September and is usually found on the open areas of the airport and adjacent golf course. These birds were not seen on Aitutaki even after three visits to the airport and golf course, plus exploring most of the main island and smaller islands.
The islands in the south had breeding Red-tailed Tropicbirds and the cliffs at Mount Maungapu appear to be the nesting site for White-tailed Tropicbirds.
MangaiaMangaia is located 220km southeast of Rarotonga and is reached via a 35 minute flight on Air Rarotonga. The island is slightly smaller in size than Rarotonga however the current population is only about 550 persons.
It’s best to have some form of transport, such as a scooter or jeep, to explore the island fully. There are a number of interesting tracks crisscrossing the island and Lake Tiriara in the south is worth visiting. We rented a jeep which cost NZ$60 per day with no paperwork, Cook Island drivers licence or upfront payment required. A jeep is more suitable than a scooter for most of the inland tracks. Fuel was expensive at NZ$2.90/litre.We stayed at Babe’s Place which is in the town of Oneora on the western side of the island. The accommodation rate of NZ$55 pp includes three meals a day which were excellent. Avoid Friday and Saturday nights, if possible, as the adjacent Babe’s Bar is very noisy until the early hours of the morning.
The fish life within the protected coral reef is magnificient and we made good use of our little underwater camera.
The specialities of the island are the Mewing Kingfisher and Cook Reed Warbler. The warbler is very common and widespread. The kingfisher is more difficult to locate as it is usually found in the forest and does not call frequently.
We saw our first kingfishers whilst doing the cave tour which commences in the township of Ivirua. Terra, our local guide for the cave tour, knew the Cook Island birds and their calls, and assisted with locating the kingfishers. There are a number of good walking and driving tracks through the forest, however none appear to be marked, and the walking tracks are not obvious.
The other bird of interest is the Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, which is reported to be a recent natural coloniser of Mangaia, and was found in the fresh water wetlands.
AtiuAtiu is located 230km northeast of Rarotonga and is reached via a 40 minute flight on Air Rarotonga. The island is smaller than Rarotonga and is about 6 km wide and 8 km long. The current population is only about 475 persons.
We stayed at Atiu Villas which are close the town of Areora on the southern side of the island. The villas are within easy walking distance of town and overlooks a forest and the sea. As the villas are high up, the accommodation has gentle sea breezes moving up the valley, which are cooler and less humid than being on the coast. The villas also have lovely gardens, a swimming pool and provide dinners, with a fully stocked fridge for other meals. Scooters were available for hire at NZ$25 per day.
Whilst the island has the harmless Pacific Rat, it is free of the aggressive Roof (Ship’s) Rat and as a result 30 Rarotonga Monarch were successfully introduced to the island between 2001 and 2003 and now number over 200 birds. The monarch is territorial and will respond to intruders by flying out of the forest to investigate and making a chattering call similar to a Grey Fantail. Their territories are quite small, ranging from 1 to 2 hectares and along one section of road there are approximately 10 pairs of birds. The 1st and 2nd year birds are orange in colour, the 3rd year birds are a mix of orange and grey, and the adult birds are grey.
More recently, in April 2007, 27 Kuhl’s Lorikeet were also successfully introduced to two different locations on the island. The lorikeet was easy to locate and was seen flying over the town and at Atiu Villas. The bird makes a high pitched call and was seen in the Atiu Villas gardens, feeding on passionfruit flowers and in the Casuarina trees, on all three days of our stay. Based on the number of birds seen in a relatively small area, it appears that the birds are increasing in numbers.
Local guide “Birdman” George Mateariki monitors the survival of these birds and his tours include visits to the monarch territories and the lorikeet nesting sites. George estimates that there are now 50 Kuhl’s Lorikeets on Atiu and they are currently breeding again.
The other specialities of the island are the Atiu Swiftlet, Chattering Kingfisher and Lilac-crowned Fruit Dove. All three birds are common and easy to locate.
The Lilac-crowned Fruit Dove has minimal lilac colouration on the breast as compared to the birds in Rarotonga.
1. A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific, Douglas Pratt, Phillip Bruner & Delwyn Berrett, 1989
2. The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, Barrie Heather & Hugh Robertson, 2005
3. Pacific Birding – New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Samoa & the Cook Islands, Dave Sargeant, 8 October – 2 November 2006
4. Polynesia Tour Report, Pete Morris, 6 – 28 September 2006.
5. Rimatara Lorikeet Reintroduction Programme, Gerald McCormack, Cook Islands Natural Heritage Articles, 5 August 2006.
6. Cook Islands Biodiversity and Natural Heritage, The Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust website is http://cookislands.bishopmuseum.org/default.asp
The Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific was the recommended field guide for the Cook Islands and was adequate even though it is a bit dated. It is best to refer to supplementary field guides which have better illustrations, however there are weight limitations on travel within the Cook Islands. In my case I had the Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand with me, as I was stopping over in NZ, and this proved to be a useful second reference book. The trip reports by Dave Sargeant and Pete Morris were also excellent sources of information.
Systematic List of Birds
The list indicates where the birds were seen for each of the four islands visited.
Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus
Cook Islands: Common in townships and forests on Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Mangaia. Not as common on Atiu.
Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa
Aitutaki: Up to seven birds seen in wetlands area adjacent to WW2 airstrip and on airstrip. Two birds also seen in south of island. A rarity for Aitutaki.
Mangaia: Up to 22 birds seen at Lake Tiriara and in surrounding farmland.
Atiu: Up to four birds seen at Lake Teroto and surrounding taro plantations.
Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris
Aitutaki: Up to 20 birds seen off-shore beyond the reef, when conditions were windy and in the lead up to the hurricane. Most birds were immature with black underwing markings. According to the Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand many immatures move northwards to the Coral Sea and the South Pacific to about New Caledonia and Fiji. Stragglers have been recorded as far east in the subtropical Pacific as the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.
Herald Petrel Pterodroma heraldica
Rarotonga: Four birds seen in early morning on the hillside overlooking Muri Beach. Birds were flying low over the trees and appear to have been leaving their nesting sites. The one bird flew out of the scrub directly towards me. It is reported that the birds nest on Rarotonga and visit their nesting colonies during daylight, where they nest on the surface of the ground and are tame and confiding.
Wedge- tailed Shearwater Puffinus pacificus
Aitutaki: At least 20 birds seen from coast on northern Aitutaki where the reef runs close to the beach.
Red- tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda
Aitutaki: At least 20 birds breeding on one of the southern islets, one chick also seen.
Mangaia: Up to four birds seen at Lake Tiriara and seen nesting in limestone cliffs.
Atiu: Single bird seen.
White- tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus
Rarotonga: Two birds seen at airport
Aitutaki: Up to four birds seen at Mount Maungapu.
Mangaia: Up to 10 birds seen at Lake Tiriara.
Atiu: Single bird seen at Lake Teroto where they breed.
Pacific Reef Heron Egretta sacra
Rarotonga: Up to four birds seen at Muri Beach, including dark and white morphs.
Aitutaki: Common bird and up to eight birds seen on one of the islets, including dark, white and pied morphs.
Mangaia: Regular sightings with up to four birds seen, including dark, white and pied morphs.
Atiu: Regular sightings with up to eight birds seen, including dark, white and pied morphs.
Great Frigatebird Fregata minor
Aitutaki: Up to ten birds seen.
Mangaia: Up to four birds seen.
Atiu: Up to ten birds seen skimming the fresh water at Lake Teroto.
Lesser Frigatebird Fregata ariel
Mangaia: Single adult male seen. The Lesser Frigatebird breeds on the Northern Cook Islands.
Atiu: Single bird seen at Lake Teroto.
Red-footed Booby Sula sula
Aitutaki: Up to six birds seen on the northern coast, all were the white-tailed brown morph.
Atiu: Up to 14 birds seen from Cook’s Landing, all were the white-tailed brown morph.
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
Aitutaki: Up to two birds seen.
Atiu: Single bird seen from Te Tau (southern point of island).
Asiatic Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus variegatus
Aitutaki: Single bird on Honeymoon Island, Asiatic subspecies identified by white rump in flight. A rarity for the Cook Islands.
Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva
Rarotonga: Up to 20 birds seen on western side of island, mainly in fields and at airport.
Aitutaki: Common throughout island with up to 50 birds seen in a day.
Mangaia: Up to 24 birds seen, common on rugby fields, in gardens and on roadsides.
Atiu: Fairly common with up to 20 birds seen in afternoon.
Wandering Tattler Tringa incana
Rarotonga: Up to two birds at Muri Beach
Aitutaki: Up to four birds and generally common on beaches, with both breeding and non-breeding plumage seen.
Mangaia: Up to four birds seen with both breeding and non-breeding plumage seen.
Atiu: Up to six birds seen on coastal reef.
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Aitutaki: Three birds seen on One Foot Island, an uncommon bird for the Cook Islands.
Brown Noddy Anous stolidus
Rarotonga: Up to six birds seen, both inland and offshore.
Aitutaki: Common throughout and up to 100 birds seen in southern islands.
Mangaia: Up to six birds seen, both inland and offshore.
Atiu: Up to eight birds seen, both inland and offshore.
Black Noddy Anous minutus
Atiu: Up to six birds seen close inshore.
White Tern Gygis alba
Cook Islands: Common throughout the islands visited.
Swift Tern Thalasseus bergii
Aitutaki: Two birds seen on Honeymoon Island.
Lilac-crowned Fruit Dove Ptilinopus rarotongensis
Atiu: Up to eight birds seen in area around Atiu Villas.
Pacific Imperial Pigeon Ducula pacifica
Rarotonga: Up to 20 birds seen at Takitumu Conservation Area.
Atiu: Up to six birds seen at Atiu Villas. Birds seen close-up in fruiting trees in garden.
Kuhl's Lorikeet Vini kuhlii
Atiu: Up to nine birds seen in area around Atiu Villas, with birds feeding in garden.
Violet Lorikeet Vini peruviana
Aitutaki: Up to 20 birds in the Mount Maungapu and a further 10 birds close to town.
Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius
Rarotonga: A single bird seen flying in orange orchards below Takitumu Conservation Area. According to http://cookislands.bishopmuseum.org/species.asp?id=8671 four cage birds were imported to Rarotonga c.1988 by Gerald Garnier. They were unintentionally released c.1990 and all but one dead by c.1992. One survived through to May 2000 (report Richard Barton in Arorangi). However two birds seen in 2006 (Pete Morris trip report) which may indicate that there were further releases.
Long- tailed Cuckoo Urodynamis taitensis
Rarotonga: A single bird seen flying high in hills overlooking Muri Beach.
Aitutaki: A single bird seen flying close up on Mount Maungapu.
Mangaia: Regular sightings with three birds seen one afternoon, in coastal forest close to Babe’s Place.
Atiu: A single bird seen flying close to Lake Teroto.
Atiu Swiftlet Aerodramus sawtell
Atiu: Up to 10 birds seen in area around Atiu Villas. Contrary to the field guide this species has a distinctly greyish rump and is distinctive from the Tahiti Swiftlet.
Chattering Kingfisher Todiramphus tutus
Atiu: Up to ten birds seen on western side of island.
Mewing Kingfisher Todiramphus ruficollaris
Mangaia: Two birds seen and a further bird heard in forest west of Ivirua township. A single bird seen on track south of Aramona Bungalows.
Rarotonga Monarch Pomarea dimidiata
Rarotonga: Up to 30 birds seen and heard at Takitumu Conservation Area.
Atiu: Up to four birds seen and heard including an adult and a third year bird. The adult bird had white and blue rings which indicated that this bird had been relocated from Rarotonga.
Cook Reed Warbler Acrocephalus kerearako
Mangaia: Up to eight birds seen, generally common and widespread.
Rarotonga Starling Aplonis cinerascens
Rarotonga: One bird heard and one seen at Takitumu Conservation Area.
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Cook Islands: Abundant throughout the islands visited, although were less abundant in Atiu where there is a programme in place to reduce Myna numbers.
Chestnut-breasted Mannikin Lonchura castaneothorax
Mangaia: Two birds seen at Lake Tiriara and a further four birds in taro plantations close to Ivirua Village. Both areas had fresh water wetlands and seeding grasses. These birds are reported to be a recent natural coloniser of Mangaia.
The mannikin is not wild on Rarotonga or any other island in the Cook Islands Southern Group. It is therefore most likely that the original Mangaia mannikins flew from Rimatara (530km) or from Rurutu (680km). Such an event might have been triggered and aided by the high winds of a large storm, and Rimatara and Mangaia may have got their stragglers or "mighty warriors" in the same event. This species is not recorded as a cagebird on Rarotonga, and there are no cagebirds on Mangaia, which makes it extremely unlikely that they were imported to Mangaia unnoticed.