Fieldwork Journal: Off to Vanuatu to Survey Birds

From the Field posts

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

This week I‘m taking a 30-hour flight half way around the world to Vanuatu, an Oceanian island nation in the Southwest Pacific—my first expedition as an assistant curator of ornithology at the Museum. There, I’ll meet up with Museum ornithologists Mike Andersen and Bill Mauck, who’d left New York several days earlier to get a head start on the logistics for our month-long Niarchos expedition to inventory the birds of Vanuatu.

Niarchos Vanuatu Expedition Team (from left to right). Mike Andersen, Brian Smith, and Bill Mauck. Courtesy of B. Smith 

Niarchos Vanuatu Expedition Team (from left to right). Mike Andersen, Brian Smith, and Bill Mauck.

Courtesy of B. Smith 


For the past decade, I’ve been exclusively studying New World birds, particularly the birds of the tropical Americas, so the avifauna in Vanuatu—an archipelago in southern Melanesia—will be entirely new to me. This means I will be encountering not only new species of birds, but new bird families. It is going to be a lot of fun and challenging to learn about a new biota.

There’s a long history of exploratory ornithology by Museum curators, and it’s really exciting to be part of that tradition. The diversity and distribution patterns of birds in the Southwest Pacific were first documented by the Museum’s monumental Whitney South Seas Expedition nearly a century ago. 

Biologists on the Museum’s historic Whitney South Seas Expedition, including the young Ernst Mayr (second from left), collected thousands of bird specimens. © AMNH Library/273081

Biologists on the Museum’s historic Whitney South Seas Expedition, including the young Ernst Mayr (second from left), collected thousands of bird specimens.

© AMNH Library/273081


The Whitney Expedition included a massive collection of specimens from each island, from the Bismarck archipelago in northern Melanesia to eastern Polynesia. Because of a long-term focus on cataloging the biodiversity of the Southwest Pacific, the Solomon Islands and Fiji have been relatively well sampled in recent decades, whereas intervening regions, such as southern Melanesia, are under sampled. 

These Palm Lorikeet (Charmosyna palmarum) were collected in Vanuatu during the Whitney South Seas Expedition in the 1920s and 1930s.  Courtesy of B. Smith 

These Palm Lorikeet (Charmosyna palmarum) were collected in Vanuatu during the Whitney South Seas Expedition in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Courtesy of B. Smith 


That’s why we’ll be inventorying the birds on three to four islands in Vanuatu in the coming weeks, collecting voucher specimens with genetic samples, and recording bird vocalizations. These specimens will help unify the Museum’s extensive collection from the Whitney South Seas Expedition with modern genetic samples, and we’ll be able to use these specimens to better understand the evolutionary history and biogeography of the Southwest Pacific birds.

As we island-hop across the Southwest Pacific over the coming weeks, I plan to provide regular updates about our expedition.

Learn more about Brian Smith's research: 


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

Read the next post in the series here.