Field Journal: Searching for Birds in the Malakula Heat

From the Field posts

Brian Smith, assistant curator in the Department of Ornithology, is blogging from southern Melanesia, where his team is conducting an inventory of birds on a month-long Constantine S. Niarchos expedition. Read the first post in the series here 

[Filed December 14, written December 2] After a short overnight rest in Vila, we set off on an hour-long flight to Malakula, an island to the north. Luckily, there were not many people on the plane, and all 12 of our bags of luggage and equipment made it on board.

 

B. Smith Island

This photo was taken out the window of the plane while flying from Vila to Malakula

© AMNH/B. Smith


We safely landed on a grass runway in Malakula and set off for Lingarak, a small village with a population of 300 people. Half of the village came out to greet us, and afterwards we were ushered off to a hut designated for dining. We happily accepted the rice, Lap Lap—a traditional root vegetable cake—and tea, but we were unprepared for all the dishes that kept coming. After lunch, we rested in the grass and were offered more fruits and nuts from the gardens. As the sun set, we watched large silhouettes of fruit bats flying down from the mountains to forage in the gardens.

B. Smith Lap Lap

Root vegetable cake, called Lap Lap, is a traditional dish made in Vanuatu.

© AMNH/B. Smith


Before we were granted approval to work in the forests surrounding the village, we had to meet with the community and discuss our project. The community members wanted to know why we were in Malakula, what we wanted to learn about the birds, and if we could provide conservation recommendations based on our findings. The community leaders graciously welcomed us onto their land and granted us permission to work in the forests, and they assembled a team: two guides, a cook, two of our team member Lilly's nephews, and a village elder to oversee the operation. We all piled into a truck and headed out to the forest.

B. Smith Malakula Crew

The Malakula field crew stands in front of a Banyan tree.

© B. Mauck


We scouted two forests surrounding the village with the goal of finding intact and mature forest. Matters were complicated by the extensive gardens surrounding the village. One of the reasons we were offered so much to eat is because a lot of food is grown on Malakula, meaning there is less forest in the area. Fortunately, we were able to locate mature secondary forests along slopes bordered by gardens. We were dropped off at an overgrown campsite, and we quickly got to work setting up camp and putting up mist nets.

B. Smith Malakula Camp

Mike and Brian prepare to work 10 straight hours under a blue tarp at camp.

© B. Mauck


The next eight days were a heat-induced blur. We fought through constant dehydration and mounting bug bites and wounds to work really long days to keep up with our productive nets. The forests were home to species not found at our last camp and contained species that were much more rare in other areas. To name a few, the range-restricted Vanuatu Kingfisher was abundant, and we also encountered the Vanuatu Honeyeater. We recorded several sightings and heard nightly vocalizations of the Vanuatu Megapode, an increasingly rare bird that incubates its eggs in a large mound of dirt.

The camp ran smoothly and seemed to grow each day with new visitors. Even a tiny malnourished and sick puppy wandered into camp one day. We could not turn him away, so we named him Rascal and started to nurse him back to health.

B. Smith Rascal

Rascal arrives at his new home in Lingarak Village.

© B. Mauck


After we completed our camp, we returned to Lingarak with Rascal and prepared for our next locality farther north on Gaua Island. We attended a closing meeting with the community to report our findings. Then we bid our friends in Lingarak goodbye, gave Rascal a last meal of canned fish at his new home, and set off to catch our flight.

This Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition is generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Read the next post in the series here