Birding Where There Are No Birds

Ahu tongariki, Easter Island [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Ahu tongariki, Easter Island [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Well, that is the common understanding of the “navel of the earth” as the locals used to refer to one of the most isolated islands on earth, Easter Island or Rapa Nui. The perception is that human induced ecological collapse left a wasteland, a place empty of wildlife but full of archaeological riches. There are nuances, and new information about the ecological collapse idea, particularly that the co-culprit in the extinction of the local trees was the introduced Polynesian Rat, but that is another story. So how is it that a place that is empty of wildlife can become one of my favorite places to use my Leicas in the world? Because it is magic!

Rapa Nui from Motu Nui [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Rapa Nui from Motu Nui [Alvaro Jaramillo]

            My first visit was on a lark, because I had a willing travel partner and air miles to do it, I described that initial visit on this podcast:  What was exciting was finding that this island said to be dead, was not. There were actually a nice number of birds there, the native birds were all seabirds. The scientific literature suggested that there had once been a great number of seabirds, but that they were mostly gone, yet on my first trip I saw four species of Pterodroma petrel! And this was not from a pelagic, but birds displaying and flying over a nesting islet! From that first trip, I was able to collaborate with several visiting birders and botanists and we put together a modern account of the local birdlife, available here.

Kermadec Petrel, Easter Island [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Kermadec Petrel of the pale morph, Easter Island [Alvaro Jaramillo]

But it has not stopped there, we now know that Murphy’s Petrel may breed on the island, and last year we found the first evidence that Black-winged Petrel also is trying to establish itself. This petrel may be expanding its range in the Pacific. So suddenly we are talking about an island that has perhaps 6 species of breeding gadlfy petrel! That is a lot of petrels on one rock. In the last couple of years we have confirmed that Wandering Tattlers are a regular wintering species there, that Cattle Egrets arrive out of nowhere at times, and just a few days ago the first record of Pacific Golden Plover showed up. It is more than exciting to see that one of the most isolated places on earth, can still be found by migrant birds, it truly is amazing. To me the excitement of being on the nesting islands (called Motus), hearing the screaming calls of Herald Petrels, and watching pairs doing aerial dances overhead is just awesome. Being able to walk up to sitting Phoenix Petrels, to watch their bicolored feet, while Masked Boobies and Great Frigatebirds go overhead is just so cool. Then seeing the critically endangered Henderson Petrel, a bird that may nest here and Henderson Island only, and getting to know them and how they differ not only in color but in shape and bulk from the Herald Petrels is a privilege. The two were once thought to be the same species, the Henderson then considered the dark form of the Herald. Then there is the bewildering Kermadec Petrel which comes in dark, really dark, pale and really pale forms! And all of them seem to be found here, what a great lesson on seabirds. It is absolutely amazing, and I have had the chance to sleep out in the open grass here, listening to petrels and shearwaters on my way to slumber land. These are prized and happy memories I treasure.

Herald Petrel, Easter Island [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Herald Petrel, Easter Island [Alvaro Jaramillo]

            Yet the complete surprise to me about this place is that everywhere you look is an open and living museum, one you become a part of when you visit the island. Just over a week ago my friend Sebastian took me to a cliff where with a little descent allowed you to go into a narrow cave that was littered with petroglyphs, of whales, tuna, and canoes. When on the motu we did not have tents, but had the idea of climbing into caves if rain fell upon us. Yet these were not any old caves, but the very ones that the cult of the bird people had used hundreds of years ago during their ceremony of “the bird man” where they had a complex competition involving climbing, swimming, waiting and eventually the retrieval of the first intact tern egg which brought mana (ancestral magic) to the bird man and his group. That cave, once you allow your eyes to adjust to the low light, has the most gorgeous and peaceful face carved in the roof. A “Makemake” or maker god, likely made by terrified young men undergoing this grueling competition; that face has stuck with me, it gives me shivers when I think about it. At the far end of the cave, there are human bones, someone who did not make it. This is a very real place, where you feel like the bird men are there still, you can almost relate to those guys. They were there to see and interact with the very same things you are out to see, the birds. You can imagine them knowing the difference between the calls of the Herald and Kermadec petrels, because after hearing them for a little bit you can’t help but hear how uniquely different those calls are. The Rapa Nui family I have become good friends with appreciate a love for birds, they think this is good, healthy and important. Anyone you talk to on Rapa Nui about birds is interested, their ancestors were intricately tied to the birds, as much as they were to the moai (stone statues the island is known for). My friends have started to call me the “Tangata Manu” or bird man, just a nickname, but also an honor for me. The beauty I have seen on Rapa Nui, its birds, history, rugged scenery, and the amazing people all of this is why it has become one of my favorite spots to bird in the world….even if there are “no birds.”

Makemake - Creator god image, Motu Nui [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Makemake – Creator god image from the bird man cave, Motu Nui [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Want to train your Leicas on some local petrel action? Join me June 13 and 14 in North Carolina to see some Gadflies in this hemisphere with Brian Patteson on the Stormy Petrel II.

Phoenix Petrel - Rapa Nui [Alvaro Jaramillo]

Phoenix Petrel – Rapa Nui [Alvaro Jaramillo]