Birding the Solomons 1

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By Phil Gregory

(published by The Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau,republished here with their permission)

The Solomon Islands are relatively close to Australia, one of our near neighbours, a mere 3 hours from Brisbane to Honiara in fact, but they remain remarkably seldom visited and with the avifauna surprisingly poorly known. Recent taxonomic changes mean there are now over 100 endemic species, a remarkably high total and with extraordinary diversity amongst white-eyes, whistlers. myzomelas, fantails and monarchs in particular, so much so that it is one of the great examples of evolution in action, up there with the Galapagos and Hawai’i. I have been lucky enough to make several trips there, with two in the past year, and I have been very pleased to find that everything is looking good, the fairly recent troubles seem to have settled down and I was made very welcome everywhere I went.

To bird the islands properly you do need to visit multiple islands, which is best done by air. Solomon Airlines provides quite a good service to the major centres, always subject to weather of course as some strips are not yet sealed and become unusable in heavy rain. The climate is hot but often overcast, and the coastal areas have sea breezes, which make conditions quite tolerable, whilst rain is quite frequent but often at night, so you tend to get the mornings at least for birding. Accommodation has improved in recent times and there are good hotels in Honiara and Gizo, whilst the homestays and local guesthouses make for entertaining and enjoyable visits, though do not expect luxury.

Honiara itself is a thriving small town with the major birding site of Mt Austen just 45 minutes drive out. A morning here can be very rewarding with sightings of Solomons Cockatoo, Yellow-bibbed Lory, Cardinal Lory, Buff-headed Coucal, perhaps Guadalcanal (Woodford’s) Rail, Claret-breasted Fruit Dove, Mackinlay’s Cuckoodove, Ultramarine Kingfisher, Brown-winged Starling, Long-tailed Myna, Chestnut-bellied Monarch, Cockerell’s Fantail and Midget Flowerpecker all possible, and an easy walk along the road too.

The Botanic gardens in the main town is also worth a look as it is a site for Duchess Lorikeet and Black-headed Myzomela as well as some of the other commoner small species. Betikama wetlands are also worth a look if you have the time.

Going around the islands, Rennell is about an hour’s flight away from the capital and has some 6 endemics, all of which can be found quite near the airstrip if you take a local guide and use the logging tracks nearby. A two-night stay is well worthwhile either in one of the very simple guesthouses at Tigoa, or several small lodges at the World Heritage site Tengano Lagoon, but this is several hours drive away on a bad road. You can expect to see the striking and quite vocal Rennell Shrikebill, Rennell Starling, Rennell Fantail, Rennell White-eye, Bare-eyed White-eye and the elusive Rennell Whistler, whilst the local form of Melanesian (Collared) Kingfisher is a quite distinctive one and a potential split, as is the odd lowland dwelling form of Island Thrush. Silver-capped Fruit Dove is another local special, and both Pacific and Island Imperial Pigeons can be seen, as well as the delightful thumb-sized Finsch’s Pygmy-Parrot, which creeps about on mossy limbs. Song Parrot is also around and an outlying population of Brown Goshawk is also here, as are endemic races of Australian Grebe and Australian White Ibis.

Kolombangara is a gem of an island, the great forested volcano rises up to 1800 m and splits into three separate peaks, and is one of the wettest places in the Solomons, “kolo” meaning water and “bangara” meaning water-lord, so expect some rain. Happily there is a conservation agreement in place with the local landowners to safeguard the beautiful forests above 400 m, which may in due course perhaps become the first national park in the Solomons. Logging on these steep slopes would be a catastrophe, so this is a hopeful development, with some logging permitted in the lowlands as a trade-off. This is really a site deserving of World Heritage designation, and the homestay at Hambere is a super little place, sited on the lagoon and very handy for the flightless, rare and quite recently discovered Roviana Rail, which comes and forages in taro patches near the school. You can see White-capped and Kolombangara Monarch and Solomons White-eye here, as well as Beach and Common Kingfisher and Melanesian Scrubfowl. The research station at Imbu Rano has a couple of rooms and small dormitory, and is well sited in the forest at 300 m, so you can hike up the trails towards the crater summit, using one of the very experienced local rangers as your guide, who can also give you much insight into the local culture. There is also a very small motel style accommodation place not too far away at Ringgi. The striking Oriole Whistler is common here, with a distinct form on most islands, and it is a good place to see Kolombangara Monarch and the very lovely Pale Mountain Pigeon. If you want to get up into the cloud forest it will mean an overnight camp partway up, but this is the key to seeing the montane specials Pacific Robin, Kolombangara Island Thrush, Kolombangara White-eye, Island Leaf Warbler and the restricted range Kolombangara Leaf Warbler. This species is only found in the highest altitude forest on the mountain and has one of the smallest geographic ranges of any species.

Gizo is the hub in and out for the Western Solomons, with the nice little Gizo Hotel that serves very good meals. The bright yellow Gizo White-eye is only found on this tiny island, and is quite easy to locate in remnant forest near the town, along with Steel-blue Flycatcher and White-capped Monarch. Dive Solomons can provide you with a boat for the 1 hour transfer to Kolombangara, and if you go early morning before the wind gets up it is possible to get to both Vella Lavella and Ranongga en route, each of which has an endemic white-eye that should be quite easy to find in forest. Seabirds are also of note and the rare Heinroth’s Shearwater quite often gets in with the flocks of Black Noddy feeding out here, whilst Black-naped Tern is likely too. Use waterproof bags for your electrical gear though and take waterproofs, as it can get quite wet on the crossing!

One of the major highlights of a bird trip to the Solomons could be a visit to Santa Isabel, where there are a couple of options. For a relaxing stay on the edge of good forest, with the huts built out over the mangroves (and amazingly free of noxious insects!), then Isaisao Homestay is a newly opened landowner lodge that offers a great cultural experience, good food and the chance of Nicobar Pigeon, Grey-capped Cicadabird, Solomons Pied and Chestnut-bellied Monarch, Oriole Whistler and Yellow-throated White-eye, with West Solomons Boobook calling at night. It is just possible Black-faced Pitta or Fearful Owl occurs here too, so if you want to pioneer, this could be for you.

The more dedicated birdoes would want to go to Tirotonga on northern Santa Isabel, a quite steep 2 to 3 hours trek up from Buala but home to some of the mega birds of the Solomons. Your homestay (there are 2 in the village, I stayed at the new Bubuli Homestay) will have the local guides who know where and hopefully how to find the rare birds, for it is here you can see Fearful Owl, the bizarre and quite recently described Solomons Frogmouth (actually in its own genus of Rigidipenna as it is so unlike the others in the family) and the one that everyone is after, the near legendary Black-faced Pitta. This is quite vocal and if you can find a calling one you may get lucky- I crouched down on a very steep slope balanced against a tree fern and peered through a gap in the leaves to see mine, which sat calling beautifully, but very well hidden, only visible from that one spot. My guide had of course seen it in the open when first found but couldn’t get me onto it before it moved, making for an adrenalin fuelled few minutes until it came good.

The supporting cast here includes the little-known Santa Isabel Rail, formerly Woodford’s Rail but now split, and quite viewable near the village with a bit of luck, whilst Brown-winged Starling and Finsch’s Pygmy-Parrot are both around, and lucky previous visitors have encountered two other major rarities here, White-eyed Starling and Imitator Sparrowhawk, so keep your eyes peeled! Going back to the airport, make a quick stop at the adjacent Tasia Island which has Island Monarch, one of those weird species that are only found on smaller islands.

Makira is the island that actually has the most endemics, but getting to see them is quite a challenge and necessitates a long trek up into the quite steep hills, staying a couple of nights in the villages to see the higher altitude Makira Boobook, Shade Warbler, Makira Drongo (split from Spangled), and Makira Thrush, whilst two species known from these heights have not been seen in recent times- Thick-billed Ground-Dove and Makira Woodhen. Finding either of these would be a sensation.

More realistically, around Kirakira you can get a little way up into the hills and find Makira Honeyeater, Makira Starling, perhaps Makira Cicadabird, Makira Fantail, Sooty Myzomela, Makira Oriole Whistler, Mottled Flowerpecker and White-headed Fruit Dove. There are several homestays in and near the town, I used “Freshwind” and found it quite comfortable, with good meals and hot showers too. Just offshore from the small town, about an hour by boat, lies tiny Ugi Island, and this has the peculiar form of Chestnut-bellied Monarch which is entirely black and also calls quite differently, the Ugi Black Monarch, as well as highly distinct forms of Rufous Fantail (with a dark throat) and White-collared Monarch, plus Silver-capped Fruit Dove (otherwise a Rennell special) and Chestnut-bellied Imperial Pigeon if the right trees are in fruit.

Malaita is the other island that may be worth a trip, but logistics here are not quite so easy and the birding seems tough, though you have a chance of Malaita White-eye, Malaita Starling, Red-vested Myzomela and the local distinctive form of White-collared Monarch, whilst an as yet undescribed rail that sounds as if it is one of the Woodford’s Rail derivatives is also seen at times, and the Malaita Boobook is amazingly little-known, mainly I suspect due to the lack of visitors looking for it. Malaita Fantail is only in the highlands and various access problems seem to preclude visits at this time, things like sacred sites, disgruntled landowners etc. but maybe in time it will be feasible. The airport at Auki has been closed for several years but is now forecast to reopen later this year, which should make things easier, and hopefully Malaita will become more accessible to birders in the near future.

A really adventurous trip would be to take a flight to Nendo Island in Temotu (Santa Cruz), in the far–flung east of the archipelago, where some very rarely seen species exist- the Nendo Shrikebill would be a great prize here, a single island endemic that has been seen just a handful of times, and Sanford’s White-eye would be another exciting find along with Santa Cruz Whit-eye. A trip over to Vanikoro necessitates a small boat crossing for some hours, in quest of Vanikoro Monarch and Vanikoro White-eye, and should only be attempted in the best of conditions.

If you want something more relaxing, you can combine your birding with surfing, diving, snorkelling or learning about local culture, and there are several very comfortable lodges scattered about the islands. Trekking is also possible, and there are a couple of ecolodges in the New Georgia group that would be fascinating places to spend a few days. If you are a history buff take time out for some WW2 battlefield tours- the original foxhole is on Guadalcanal (named after a soldier by the name of Fox), and the quaintly named Ironbottom Sound contains many shipwrecks which are great for diving.

So, a birding trip to the delightful Solomons is quite an adventure, but with over 100 endemic species it is right on our doorstep and eminently possible to see many of them. The Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau is very good at handling queries and helping with logistics, my recent trip was sponsored by them and was designed to identify good birding sites and help with developing infrastructure, local guides, information and publicity.

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