Wednesday 29 August 2012

Tuamotu Sandpiper — a Morning Encounter with an Endangered and Strange Bird

There are some species of birds that have the appearance and behaviour of having been designed by a committee of civil servants. The mesites of Madagascar constitute one such example. However, there is another.

The Tuamotu Sandpiper (Prosobonia cancellata) now occurs on only a few atolls in French Polynesia and is classified as Endangered. Rats, cats and human expansion have taken their toll and only five atolls now have a population according to the latest reports by Birdlife International.

A sighting of this species is highly desirable to the ‘World Lister’, that curious breed of bird watcher (bird ticker is a better term) that attempts to see as many species as possible, often, unfortunately, with little or no understanding of what they are seeing. Hard-core bird ticker trips usually head at very great expense for Tenararo, in the Actaeon group of the Tuamotus, where sightings of the bird are the most reliable.

The first time we went to Tahanea atoll in 2009, nobody on board Clipper Odyssey knew it was worth looking for the Tuamotu Sandpiper. Had they done done so, Brent Stephenson, the ornithologist on board this Noble Caledonia expedition cruise, would not have let the opportunity pass us by. Tahanea is a drop-dead gorgeous, straight out of south sea island tourist brochure, atoll. The ship enters the lagoon through a gap between the motus — the islets that surround the lagoon. Zodiacs set off to explore the motus and for snorkelling. An excellent morning. We were not disappointed when, the next year, in 2010, we saw that on another Noble Caledonia expedition cruise from Easter Island, via Pitcairn, to Tahiiti, we were to visit Tahanea again. This time word had got out that there were Tuamotu Sandpipers on a rat-free motu and there was research in progress on this species. On the outward voyage from Tahiti to Easter Island, Clipper Odyssey was carrying a Zegrahm Expeditions cruise. They had visited Tahanea and seen the beast. This time Simon Boyes was ornithologist on board for Noble Caledonia and he had a rough map showing which motu was the one to visit. As soon as the ship was anchored in the lagoon, the expedition team set off to find the landing place. We followed in Zodiacs across the large lagoon (Tahanea is a large atoll, 48 km long and 15 km wide). Those interested in seeing the bird split up to explore an area of scrub bounded by the beach and by a depression in the coral part-filled by water. Simon thought he had seen the bird flittering upwards soon after he arrived as part of the scouting party. I scanned the side of the depression and saw  a small brown wader running across and going into the scrub. Just enough of a look to say it was the sandpiper but not enough to get the others on to it. We managed to signal to Simon and party coming from the other side and both these groups moved to meet in the middle. As we met, the third group flushed the bird from where I had seen it running and it flew into a tree where it clambered about like a passeriform rather than a wader. I tried to get some video footage but it was really out of range of my camera and my ability to hold the camera sufficiently still at full zoom. I did get some footage but it was too shaky to be of much use. Then Maggie, who had flushed the bird and who had the lens with the longest focal length, went forward as far as possible and took the shot you see below. As I was trying for more video, the bird clambered along the branches for a short time and then flew with its strange flittering flight into the scrub again. As we returned in the Zodiacs across the lagoon to the ship (the Zodiac drivers clocked more than 100 miles that day), we realised we had seen not only a very rare bird but also a very unusual one, and what turned out to be an even more unusual than we then thought.

Maggie's photograph of the Tuamotu Sandpiper

Since returning to UK I have been keeping an eye on reports of research on this species in Tahanea and elsewhere, while also wondering what this bird’s salt gland would be doing in this habitat.

Marie-Hélène Burle, an MSc student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has done the work and links to websites showing research reports are shown below. She spent 5 months in the austral summer of 2008-2009 on Tahanea, with another 4½  months in the austral winter from May 2011. In that time she has made what I would consider remarkable progress in understanding this bird and its habitat on 27 motus of the atoll and I look forward to reading the papers that will emerge. I will only draw attention to two aspects here.

We knew that the bird is an unusual member of the Scolopacidae. It does not frequent beaches and mud but low vegetation. It has a short bill and legs. It has short, rounded wings which give it the characteristic flittering flight. It perches and moves amongst the branches in trees. But what we did not know is that the bird is, as Marie-Hélène Burle discovered, a nectar feeder. Of course, it takes any small organisms that it finds but a nectar-feeding wader takes the my prize for adaptation this year. The work begun on the structure of the tongue (an unusual shape) that Marie-Hélène Burle has started should prove informative.

She also exterminated the rats on one motu to investigate the effects on the bird and observed a crash in the population in 2011 (55% of the birds died within a month on Tahanea) after an overwash from an unusually strong swell. On her third visit (detailed in her report linked below) she plans to study breeding success after this perturbation as well as to follow up the results of the rat eradication.

I am filled with admiration for the dedication lone workers who spend months in the field. I think Marie-Hélène Burle (and the organisations who have supported her financially and organisationally) has done and is doing a great job in finding not only far more about this species than anybody has done in the past but also pointing the way to the key requirements for its conservation. I cannot help but comment that as an MSc student she could point out that PhDs have been awarded for far less.

So we not only saw a very unusual wader during our morning in Tahanea but a nectar-feeding wader. And yes, I did chant out loud, as the outboard motor propelled us as maximum revs to the ship, the last sentence in the Origin of Species — the one beginning, There is grandeur in this view of life...

Tahanea - showing the scrubby vegetation to the right where the Tuamotu Sandpiper was found; the lagoon is on the left.


Birdlife International - Tuamotu Sandpiper

Reports and Press Reports on Marie-Hélène Burle's Research

Brent Stephenson's Blog

Simon Boyes's Website

Noble Caledonia Website

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Tahiti - Introduced Birds - More Information

Following up my account of Eastham Guild’s introduction of birds to Tahiti, I now have much more information plus an inconsistency.

I found a copy of Carrie Guild’s book, Rainbow in Tahiti, on The book is the British Empire edition, published in 1951. The US edition was published in 1948. It is a book of its era and gives an account of how the Guilds (pronounced by them to rhyme with ‘wild’) came to travel and settle in Tahiti. A fixed, unearned income went a lot further in Tahiti than in Europe. They acquired land and built a house, Te Anuanua, at Paea, a village on the west coast of Tahiti, on a derelict vanilla plantation. They arrived in Tahiti in 1923 and left after the fall of France as transport across the Pacific became difficult, food supplies became limited and with the threat of the Vichy regime taking over French Polynesia.

I haven’t been able to locate the site of Te Anuanua. Several places, as viewed in Google Earth, fit the clues gleaned from the book. My guess is that it was to the north of the river at Paea where the mountains are closest to the lagoon. The road round the island bisected the property which ran from the beach to the mountains, and the house was built between the mountains and the road. The answer must lie somewhere in the land records in Papeete.

A misleading clue in the Foreword by James Norman Hall (1887-1951, author with Charles Nordhoff of Mutiny on the Bounty, 1932), is that the house was 18 miles from Papeete. Paea is 18 kilometres not miles, from Paea. But the Hall & Nordhoff version of the mutiny on HMAV Bounty is not renowned for its accuracy either.

A whole chapter in the book is devoted to birds and how Eastham Guild first came to release them from his aviary. They eventually released 10,000 birds of 55 species from waxbills and humming birds to pheasants and black swans.

And that’s where the anomaly appears. According to the excellent website of the Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie (MANU) there are at present 11 introduced species surviving in the [Royal] Society Islands of which Tahiti is one. The Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) introduced in 1885 in an attempt to control rats appears to have had a devastating effect on the endemic fauna. The Jungle Fowl and Rock Pigeons are feral populations. The Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) was introduced to combat insects in 1910 and is mentioned in the Guild book. Two species were introduced after the Guilds, the Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata) in the 1950s and the Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) around 1970. Two introduced species are certainly the result of the Guild releases: Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) and Crimson-backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus). However the MANU website lists the following three species as being introduced before the Guilds arrived: Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild); Red-browed Firetail (Emblema temporalis) and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin (Lonchura castaneothorax), the first at the beginning of the 20th century, the others at the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless, all three species were released by the Guilds and included in the list of birds which had nested and reared young in the wild. The Guilds in their book and articles make no mention of these species occurring in Tahiti before their releases. That is the anomaly. Did the Guilds add to already-present introduced populations of three species, or are the records of earlier introductions wrong? The view that only two of the species introduced by the Guilds survived has been copied into the scientific literature. I suspect that view is wrong.

The Guilds received many visitors including Dr James Paul Chapin (1889-1964) the noted ornithologist of the American Museum of Natural History:

Although in principle he disagreed with Ham over the introduction of birds from other lands, he finally admitted that the experiment was a noble one and certainly had been a success.


Although Tahiti was clearly home base for the Guilds, they travelled widely and became involved with aviculturists throughout the world. A delicious chapter in the book describes a visit to Woburn in 1936 with Alfred Ezra (1872-1955) the wealthy aviculturist (commemorated by a plaque at the entrance to the Bird House at London Zoo) to visit the 11th Duke of Bedford (Herbrand Arthur Russell, 1858-1940), saviour of Père David’s Deer, and his son the Marquess of Tavistock (Hastings William Sackville Russell, 1888-1953) later the 12th Duke. Father and son had only recently been reconciled and Carrie Guild’s description of the argument between them on whether Rolls-Royces or Fords should be used to transport the visitors around the estate, conducted in ‘monosyllabic monotone’, is priceless.

The reason for the visit to Woburn was parrots, for Tavistock had asked the Guilds to collect for him some of the lorikeets or vinis from French Polynesia to add to his large collection. Extinct on Tahiti, it was, and is now further, restricted to other islands of French Polynesia. The Guilds by visiting these islands and arranging collection and transport by others, gathered about sixty birds, mostly Coryphillus [sic][Coriphilus] [Vini] peruvianus [peruviana]’. The mostly is interesting. The others were the Marquesas Lorikeet (V. ultramarina sometimes known as C. smaragdinus). The Guilds brought the vinis by ship through the Panama Canal and then to London, where they were collected by Tavistock’s heated lorry for delivery to his aviaries in Sussex. This trip with birds which feed on nectar was no mean feat with 38 of the 40 birds surviving. The trials and tribulations are described in the book. Tavistock did in fact go on to breed both Vini peruviana and V. ultramarina, reporting his results in Avicultural Magazine in 1938 and 1939.

After the War

I was left wondering whether the Guilds had returned to Tahiti after the war. There is a great deal of information on the movement of individuals in and out of the USA on A quick search showed the Guilds arriving from Tahiti at San Francisco on 2 January 1946 on board M/S Thor I. In my searches I had never some across a photograph of Eastham or Carrie. However, the same search showed that US passport applications are in the public domain and have been scanned. Eastham’s passport (a joint application with his then wife Olive Boyd Guild) in 1920 shows his photograph and date of birth (14 April 1889) and does Carrie’s also from 1920. She is shown as a widow, Caroline Heywood, born 12 August 1893. Eastham was in 1920, treasurer of Schmitz & Guild of 110 State Street, Boston. Carrie’s travels before the war were under the name Heywood. Olive Boyd Guild is shown as divorced in the 1930 and 1940 US Censuses; died in 1974 — see below. Was that why Eastham and Carrie were living in the Netherlands in 1922?

The story does not end there though. I find that Olive Boyd Guild bought a piece of land in 1958 which passed to her son Eastham Guild Jr on her death in 1974. Eastham Jr (1915-2007) gave the land to the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust and it is now the Green Point Reserve, West Bath, Maine. The Guild natural history story thus passes from French Polynesia back to New England, leaving in Tahiti the results of an experiment that still excites the interest of ecologists and conservationists while horrifying them at the same time.

Eastham Guild - Passport Application 1920

Caroline Heywood - Passport Application 1920

References and Links

Guild, Caroline. 1948. Rainbow in Tahiti. Doubleday
Guild, Caroline. 1951. Rainbow in Tahiti. London: Hammond, Hammond

Information on M/S Thor I:
First Breeding Register (Avicultural Society):
Eastham Guild Jnr:
Green Point Reserve, West Bath Maine: