Cook Islands: Return of the natives

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles heads into the bush with the birdman of Atiu to see some of the Cook Islands' avian success stories.

A kura or rimatara lorikeet sits on a banana flower in its new home of Atiu in the Cook islands. Photo / Peter Odekerken
A kura or rimatara lorikeet sits on a banana flower in its new home of Atiu in the Cook islands. Photo / Peter Odekerken

George Mateariki led us into the lush tropical rainforest which covers much of the island of Atiu and started making kissing noises. What was he doing? Trying to attract a girlfriend? In a way, yes.

In the Cook Islands he is known as Birdman George for his knowledge of birds and, in particular, involvement with the successful projects to safeguard the future of the endangered kakerori, or Rarotongan flycatcher, and the equally threatened kura, the spectacular red lorikeet.

The kissing noise, intermingled with whistles and chirrups, is how George attracts the local birds, especially the kura, to display their charms to visitors.

At first the kura played coy and, though we could hear them calling in the trees, they didn't show their faces. "Come on," he said. "I know your nest is there. Come out and say hello."

Instead several plump rupe, the Pacific wood pigeon, came to see what the kissing was about and sat in the trees above us feeding on berries.

Next a longtailed cuckoo from New Zealand, enjoying its annual vacation in the islands, where it is called karavia, flew overhead.

Then a chattering kingfisher, the ngotare, arrived and lived up to its name with a burst of non-stop noise.

Finally a kura made an appearance, its bright red feathers shining brilliantly against the green of a puka tree, and sent George a kiss in return for his efforts.

It was soon joined by its mate and the two of them sat on a branch nibbling beaks and grooming each other's plumage.

They are beautiful birds to watch, made all the more appealing by the wonderful story of how they came back to Atiu after a long absence.

While I was in Rarotonga, on my way to Atiu, I had met Gerald McCormack, the former Auckland school teacher who is head of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust. Gerald explained that kura were once common in the Southern Cook islands, such as Atiu, but their red feathers were highly prized for use in ceremonial clothing for chiefs and they became extinct 200 years ago.

They did survive on Rimatara, in the Austral Islands of French Polynesia, he said, but there were growing fears that if the black rat ever became established on Rimatara the kura's future would be in doubt.

So, in 2007, Gerald led a delegation from Atiu to Rimatara - the islands have strong traditional links - asking to be allowed to establish kura in Atiu as a safeguard if the worst happened. After days of discussion the Rimatara people agreed to give Atiu's traditional chief, Rongomatane Ariki, 27 of their birds.

Later that year the birds were flown to Atiu on a special Air Rarotonga direct flight, released amid widespread celebrations and immediately prospered.

"I'm not sure how many there are now," said George, "but we've seen lots of young ones and when I organised a count a few weeks back we got to 50 and I'm sure that wasn't all of them."

Certainly if my experience during a few days on Atiu is anything to go by there are kura all over the place. They even pay regular visits to the gardens of Atiu Villas where we were staying.

But that was by no means all the birdlife we saw during our walk with Birdman George. Later he took us to one of Atiu's small lakes where - in between swatting away mosquitoes - I watched from a clump of trees as several great frigate birds, or kota'a nui, including a male with a magnificent red inflatable chest sac, soared backwards and forwards across the water looking for food to steal.

Down on the surface of the lake a grey duck, or kota'a nui, paddled to and fro making sure to stay out of range of my camera. And whenever the frigate birds took a rest, the white-tailed tropics birds, or rakoa, and white terns, or kakaia, took over the air patrols.

During our walk to the lake George had stopped at a clump of trees to make more kissing noises. "I'm calling the kakerori," he explained. "They'll be here when we get back."

The kakerori, or rarotongan flycatcher, is one of the birds I really wanted to see because it is another of Atiu's amazing success stories.

During my talk with Gerald he recalled that due to depredations by black rats by 1989 there were only 29 kakerori left on Rarotonga - the only place where it is found - and it faced extinction. Local landowners formed the Tokitimu Conservation area, intensive trapping of rats allowed the birds to breed safely and they're now over the 300 mark.

But as an additional safeguard 30 kakerori were released on Atiu and, again, they have flourished. There are now probably 50 of these pretty little rust-coloured birds there. And, sure enough, when we returned from the lake there were two of them flitting about just where George had said they would be.

I was amazed but George gave the birds a ticking off about their performance. "Come on. You can get closer than that. Sit on that branch over there. Oh you're not being very nice today."

I guess the reason he expected better is that his trademark photo shows him with a young kakerori perched on his arm at Atiu Villas and they still make regular visits there. I didn't quite get one to sit on my arm but I did watch a couple flit around the swimming pool so close that I had to put a smaller lens on my camera to photograph them. And one almost landed on the head of New Zealander Roger Malcolm who runs the place.

Meanwhile Birdman George still hadn't finished finding birds. As we walked back to his truck from seeing the kakerori he pointed out a Mangaia kingfisher or tangaeo. Out on the road we spotted a pacific golden plover or torea.

And then, the final triumph, he picked out the fast flying shape of the island's third rare bird, the Atiu swiftlet or kopeka, found only in two caves on the island. I saw lots more kopeka when I visited the Anatakitaki Caves, where some 500 of them nest, but they're hard to spot in the forest because they never land outside the caves.

That evening when I bumped into George at one of Atiu's tumunu - a drinking club in the bush - he was still excited about how many birds we had seen. "The kakerori didn't behave very well but we saw them. And all the other special birds. It was a good day, wasn't it?"

It was a good day. A day worth toasting with a cup of the tumunu's bush beer. So we did

TRAVELLER'S TIPS

Getting there: Air New Zealandflies from Auckland to the Cook Islands six times a week, with airfares starting from $265 per person one-way.

Air Rarotonga flies from Rarotonga to Atiu every day except Sundays.

Where to stay: Atiu Villas has self-contained villas, with a central restaurant and bar, and is happy to organise tours with Birdman George.

Further information: For more about visiting Atiu see cookislands.travel.

Gerald McCormack's Cook Islands Natural Heritage Biodiversity Database, which includes details of all Atiu's birds, can be found at cookislands.bishopmuseum.org.

Jim Eagles visited Atiu with help from Cook Islands Tourism, Air Rarotonga and Air New Zealand.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 23 Jul 2014 20:47:08 Processing Time: 1521ms