Our new regular column by bird expert Dr Mark O’Brien, Regional Program Coordinator for BirdLife International.
Photography by Phil Bender.
We are at the village of Kurumambe on Tongoa – in the Shepherd Isles. This is my first trip to the outer Islands of Vanuatu in more than ten years. We have chosen to come to Tongoa because it is known as an island with lots of wildlife interest. I am particularly interested in the Scrubfowl colony, as I have previously been involved in working on this species. We show the community some images of birds that we are interested in seeing. They pick one out – naming it ‘Diamond Bird’ – the Royal Parrotfinch. I have never seen a Royal Parrotfinch, so that is really interesting. A little later some of the kids in the village come running up to me calling Diamond Bird, Diamond Bird. Sure enough, on the edge of the village in a small tree there is a parrotfinch. Overall bright emerald green wings, with red head, red tail and a bluish back and breast, one of those little jewels of a bird. The bird appeared to be ‘drinking’ the rainwater on the leaves of the tree. Or maybe it was bathing.
Royal parrotfinches are considered to live predominantly in closed canopy forest. They will also use gardens, isolated fig-trees and similar, – so our sighting on the edge of the village is not a big surprise. The best way to find them is to find a fruiting fig tree. If you are in the right place, and luck is on your side, you should be able to get some sightings of the bird.
Available evidence suggests that there has been a significant decline in Royal Parrotfinch distribution since the 1980s, when they were considered to be scarce, but present, on most islands of Vanuatu and rather more common on Tongoa and Emae. In the last 20 years, birds have only been reported positively on Efate, Epi, Emae, Tongoa and, in the north, Gaua. It is not entirely clear whether the lack of records elsewhere is due to a lack of birds, or a lack of people recording the birds.
Royal Parrotfinches are not the only species of Parrotfinch in Vanuatu. It is also possible to see Blue-faced Parrotfinch – a bird with a blue face, but no blue in the breast or on the back, and red around the tail but not the head. Blue-faced Parrotfinches are present in countries from Indonesia in the West to Vanuatu at the eastern end of its range. I have seen them in the bushes around the perimeter of the golf course near the airport at Port Vila.
Why Diamond bird? This confused me for a while. Yes, they are little jewels – but sapphires more than diamonds. It turns out that the French name for Parrotfinches is ‘Diamant’ – and the Royal Parrotfinch is known as ‘Diamant vert-bleu’.
That first sighting was in 2014. I revisited Tongoa late last year. The effects of Cyclone Pam were still apparent – with the Nakamal roof yet to be replaced in the village. I tentatively asked about the birds – and, yes, the diamond bird was still around, but, no, no-one was that sure where to go to see one. I spent a couple of days walking along the paths and tracks leading from Kurumambe, listening out for the high-pitched ‘seep’ characteristic of parrotfinches flying overhead. I failed to hear any. Next time, I will have to check again with the villagers, venture further into the forest or find and sit down beside a fruiting fig tree.
Mark O’Brien is the Regional Programme Coordinator for BirdLife International in the Pacific. He is based in Suva, Fiji where he moved, from Scotland in the UK, in 2010. Mark’s first experience of the region was a 6-week secondment to Vanuatu, where he worked with Vanuatu Protected Areas Initiative and Wan Smolbag on megapodes on Ambrym and Santo.
The BirdLife International vision is of a world rich in biodiversity with people and nature living in harmony, equitably and sustainably. BirdLife International is the largest global partnership of non-governmental nature conservation/civil society organisations. It works with both VEAN and VESS in Vanuatu to help deliver high impact and long-term conservation for the benefit of nature and people. www.birdlife.org, www.vanuatuconservation.org.