As 2007 was our ‘milestone’ year (lots of anniversaries!) we decided to use the new cheap-fares as an excuse for a short-trip to Fiji. Although birding was our main priority we also felt a need to explore the undersea world of the coral reef and go snorkelling, basically we were going to retrace the steps of the famous explorers (…and friends) Harry and Eleanor Zawacki.
We flew into Nadi (pronounced Nan-dee) Airport on Wednesday 6 June and took a cab to Lautoka and checked into the Cathay Hotel. We took a quick look around the bustling town and noted the large numbers of introduced Mynas and Red-vented Bulbuls and found the bus-station. Marie found a very pleasant Indian vegetarian restaurant but were lucky to get a meal before they closed at 05.30pm. After a swim in the spacious hotel pool we turned in and prepared for the new ‘Fiji’ experience. This arrived somewhat earlier than expected when I heard the unmistakeable call of a ‘Tyto’ Owl screeching outside our room at 04.30am!
I surreptitiously crept out with my torch and saw a ghostly white Barn Owl staring at me from a coconut-palm stump, where I’m sure it had young to feed. Fortunately I managed to evade the hotel-security and return to the room without ending up in jail as a deviant.
One of the goals of this trip was to spend some time in the Nausori Highlands at Abaca (pronounced An-batha) in Koroyanitu National Heritage Park, this is one of the last remaining areas of native-forest on the west of the island. For a small charge you can stay in a hostel near a village and (…according to Harry) there is some of the best birding in Viti Levu. Unfortunately the hotel receptionist at the Cathay Hotel informed us that the transport was no longer available and we would have to hire a cab, F$40 was suggested so we walked to the nearby supermarket to buy some provisions and casually asked a cab-driver what he would charge. When he declared he would take us up for ten dollars we were somewhat bemused but after he had taken us back to the hotel to pick up our luggage he had obviously discovered that Abaca was not where he had first thought but said he would take us anyway. After stopping several times to inspect the damage to the taxi we eventually reached Abaca and met Kalesi the village-host in the office. We saw Naren the driver off with adequate compensation for his trauma and hiked up to the Nase Lodge with our bags and saw a fruiting-tree full of Many-colored Fruit-Doves en-route.
The area around the lodge was indeed excellent habitat and I started to find new species almost immediately. Vanikoro Flycatchers, Wattled Honeyeaters, Collared Lories and Orange-breasted Myzomela were easily seen.
On the trail to the waterfall I found Fiji Scrub-Warbler, Scarlet (or Pacific) Robin and Peale’s Imperial Pigeons ‘barked’ like dogs in the surrounding trees. I had a very brief view of a male Golden Dove and photographed a Metallic (or White-throated) Pigeon.
Later Kalesi and her family arrived and began to tidy-up the garden and lodge, and cooked our lunch, a delicious mixture of local vegetables and shell-fish. As the afternoon got warmer and birding became less-productive Kalesi told us how Koroyanitu National Heritage Park was created to encourage six villages to maintain the sustainable use of their land and encourage visitors to stay and enjoy their hospitality. In the late afternoon I heard an extraordinary cacophony coming from the back of the lodge and realised that I was looking at several Masked Shining-Parrots, large colourful birds with dark heads and bright yellow eyes, although I managed to get fairly close they successfully avoided having decent photographs taken.
After an uninterrupted nights sleep we waited for the pre-arranged transport to take us back to Lautoka. We then caught an afternoon bus to Suva for F$13.50 each.
The bus took the Queen’s road route which runs along the southern coast of Viti Levu (Guess where the King’s road route goes?) and passes through the Coral Coast, a picturesque journey slightly reminiscent of the Great Ocean Road of Victoria, Australia.
It was low-tide and I was surprised to see many White-faced Heron (listed in the 1987 “Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific” field-guide as a single record for Fiji) though we saw few other birds beside Pacific Reef-Egrets.
We arrived at the busy bus-station in Suva in the dark and took a cab to Raintree Lodge near the entrance to Colo-I-Suva (pronounced tholo-e-suva) Forest Park. By this time it was raining fairly hard so we turned in reasonably early. In the morning we awoke to a nice view from our balcony of the fish-pond.
Apparently this area and the larger lake near the restaurant are old quarry-pits and were abandoned as water continually filled them. Now with their raintree backdrop they look very evocative and I saw several Giant Honeyeaters and a pair of Fiji-race Collared Kingfishers around the edge and also heard more Masked Shining Parrots.
Our next challenge was to make our way to Caqalai Island in the Moturiki Channel off Ovalau. We found it easy to get to Nausori by bus (every 15 minutes) but when trying to find the minibus to Waidalice (prounounced wan-da-lith-ey) it was a different story, we were fortunate when a friendly old gent named Manasa took us under his wing and managed to find the bus-stop. Soon we were packed-in like sardines and on our way.
We almost missed the ‘ferry-port’ at Waidalice but this was hardly surprising as the transport seemed to be a rather large dinghy moored under the road-bridge! We were ushered on board and made our way very swiftly up the mangrove-lined river to the open sea. Unlike north Queensland rivers the mangroves seemed devoid of life (which we later found was probably caused by the introduction of Mongoose)
On the open sea I managed to see a few Black Noddies and a Brown Booby and 45 minutes later we arrived at our next stop, the tropical atoll of Caqalai Island, surrounded by Coconut Palms and looking very like a past image from a Robinson Crusoe movie.
We were welcomed as long-lost friends and taken to our ‘Bure’ a small thatched-hut made from coconut-leaves just off the beach., complete with bed and mosquito-net. From the hut to the waterline was probably less than 20m so Marie immediately leapt in and started snorkelling, coming out only to rave at the quality and quantity of the marine-life around the coral-reef so close. In fact though as a rather poor swimmer and snorkeller I soon realised what I was missing and started to add to the fish-list!
After less than an hour I was greeted with the request “Can we add another day here?” ….I duly complied and Marie made the necessary arrangements to extend our stay on the island.
The island’s bird-list is rather small, but I managed to get some reasonable images of Vanikoro Flycatcher, Slaty Monarch, Collared Kingfisher, Collared Lory, Pacific Reef-Egret and Jungle Mynah. We also saw Lesser Frigatebirds, Brown Booby, Fiji Woodswallow and the ubiquituous Red-vented Bulbul.
At low-tide it was possible to walk to the small Snake Island (so called for the Sea-Snakes that were present…..a Swedish lady photographed a Banded Krait whilst we were there.) As it was June there were few waders around but we did get up to 7 Pacific Golden-Plover and a couple of Wandering Tattler. Despite a thorough search I couldn’t find any Grey-backed Terns, only Great-crested.
In the evenings we ate simple but hearty-fare, were entertained by local musicians and enjoyed the ‘Kava’ drinking ceremony…. Bulah!
Sadly all good things come to an end and on Tuesday we left our ‘Island Paradise’ and headed back to Raintree Lodge. Our first night back there was a bit of a sleepless-one as some overseas backpackers were holding a very noisy Kava ceremony whilst watching grass-skirted Polynesian dancers performing on a large-TV screen……but as Marie reminded me in the morning, we were young once!
Before we had planned our trip we received a request from Birdlife Fiji for the use of one of my images and the Project Coordinator Vilikesa Masibalavu (Vili) offered to take us out for a day’s birding in return. This was graciously accepted and he picked us up outside the Lodge at six am. After a quick tour of Suva we took off down the Nadi road, turning into the mountains on a rough-track near Wainedoi and soon found ourselves in rainforest searching for Pink-billed Parrotfinch. This rare species proved as elusive as expected and the only sightings were of the more common Fiji Parrotfinch.
Soon we found a ‘purple-patch’ and had great sightings of Golden Whistler, Blue-crested Flycatcher, Streaked Fantail, Fiji Shrikebill and other forest ‘gems’. We also heard an Island Thrush but didn’t manage to see it. Vili showed us several Golden Doves but whenever he found a male it seemed to fly off just before we managed to get on to it!
He then took us to his favourite site for Black-faced Shrikebill and after I imitated the high-pitched whistle, was amazed that it reacted and came straight towards me. Getting my camera ready, I was too late and the bird flew over my head (however both Vili and Marie managed to get reasonable views!)
Sadly time ran out and at lunch-time Vili was required to return to Suva for a meeting (via a Polynesian Fruit-bat colony on the waterfront in Suva) though we were lucky enough to visit the Birdlife Office and meet the eleven-strong staff and discuss our trip and their goals. One point that was expressed to us was the lack of available bird-imagery throughout Fiji and the islands for publication and exhibitions, if anyone has any good pictures that they would like to donate to a worthy-cause they would love to hear from you.
As time was running-out we thought that it might prove worthwhile to spend the afternoon fairly close to Raintree Lodge at Colo-I-Suva Park. Nearly at the park HQ I spotted a Fiji Goshawk in a large tree, although we had seen a couple of others (one at Abaca, the other in the centre of Lautoka) I was keen to get some images and approached the staff with a request to go into the garden for a closer shot. I managed to take a couple of distant pics but one of the staff, Vindol also asked if we would like to join him for a bird-walk.
On the uphill path to the radio-masts we came quite close to a couple of Masked Shining-Parrots and near some secondary forest Vindol pointed out a male Blue-crested Flycatcher, Fiji Shrikebill, Streaked Fantail and Scarlet Robin. We also had several close encounters with Golden Dove but no views of males so Vindol asked us if we would like to try another trail where he finds them fairly regularly. As we entered the trail from the main-road I was surprised to see a large pale raptor fly up from the side of the track, this was the first time that I’ve seen Swamp Harrier inside forest!
For two ‘weary travellers’ it was a long walk but totally worthwhile as Vindol finally managed to put us on to a lone male Golden Dove, basking in the late-afternoon sun.
We thought that this was to be the final surprise but the following morning whilst awaiting our taxi at the entrance of the Raintree Lodge, four Fiji Woodswallow appeared on the telegraph-wires, and invited me to take their photograph.
So concluded a short but interesting-trip, we intend to return as soon as we can!
A heart-felt thanks to all who made this such a success, especially the wonderful people of Fiji!