Birding on Atiu in the Cook Islands

Atiu or ‘Enua Manu’, the land of birds, is a great place for bird watching and is an easy domestic flight from Rarotonga or Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands.

Atiu is the third largest island in the Cooks at 2695 hectares. It has lush valleys of forest growing on old coral reef or makatea, that lead up onto a raised plateau covering most of the island. All five villages on the island are located up on this plateau.

It’s a great place for walking and exploring with little traffic or tourism development, and several local tour operators offer birding, nature and cultural tours, as well as accommodation. Not to be missed on Atiu, is the half-day birding tour of the island with “Birdman George”, the local expert birder. George Mateariki shares his bird knowledge with an engaging and informative tour of the island and its birds, and includes information on the ancient trails, plants and their uses, and a beach picnic.

Atiu is the only island in the Cook Island group that is free of Ship rats, and trapping and monitoring is carried out at arrival points to ensure protection for the birdlife.

Kopeka or Atiu Swiftlet

Birding highlights on Atiu include several rare birds, but the most unusual is a tiny endemic, swiflet called the Kopeka, that lives and breeds deep within the caves. To navigate in the dark caves, the Kopeka uses echo-location like a bat, emitting a series of rapid clicks to find its way. These little swifltlets, (scientific name Aerodramus leucophaeus sawtelii), fly through the dark to build tiny mud nests in cracks and lips of the cave wall. They use sharp eyesight outside the caves to catch insects on the wing.

Outside the cave they fly constantly, never landing and only resting when upside down hanging from the ceiling of the cave, or incubating on a nest. The main cave visited for views of the Kopeka, is Anatakitaki or Kopeka Cave, one of two caves on the island used by the birds for nesting. The Kopeka population is estimated at about 380 – 400 breeding pairs One of the local tour operators, Marshall Humphrys of Atiu Tours, takes an excellent guided walk to this cave to see the Kopeka. Sturdy shoes are recommended for any off-road walking on Atiu, as the coral makatea is sharp.

Kura or Kuhl’s Lorikeet

In 2007, this beautifully bright coloured red, green, blue and yellow lorikeet, was successfully reintroduced to Atiu, from Rimatara Island in the Society Islands of south-east Polynesia where it occurs in small, localised populations. It was once native to the southern Cook Islands, but became locally extinct there in the 1820s, due to both exploitation for its red feathers and the impact of Ship rat predation.

The Kura is a medium-small, lorikeet with a stout appearance due to its short rounded tail. It usually occurs in pairs or small family groups on Atiu, and the population is believed to be increasing from the initial translocation of 27 Kura, four years ago. The Kura, (scientific name, Vini kuhli), nests in small hollows in mature rainforest trees. Its favoured habitats are mixed horticultural woodlands, coconut plantations, and native makatea forest, and it feeds on nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants. It is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and is fully protected under CITES Appendix 2.

Kakerori or Rarotongan Monarch

Kakerori were translocated to Atiu in 2001-3, to ensure an alternate population to the main one of about 250 birds, on Rarotonga. There, the small, pale yellow, Kakerori are now confined to the rainforest valleys of the 155 hectare Takitumu Conservation Area, where extensive rat control is carried out.

On Rarotonga, the Kakerori, (scientific name, Pomarea dimidata), prefers steep-sided, wet, forested, small valleys sheltered from south-east trade winds in the headwaters of streams. It feeds mainly on small caterpillars, flies, beetles and bugs.

The total Atiu population of this little flycatcher is unknown, but possibly remains around 16 – 20. It is possible to see the Kakerori on both islands – on Rarotonga, by inquiring about the community based Takitumu Conservation Area walking tours at the Tourism office in Avarua; and by contacting “Birdman” George Mateariki, on Atiu.

Ngotare or Chattering Kingfisher

This small kingfisher (to 22cm), is usually seen perching on wires or the local rugby goal posts on Atiu. It is found throughout the island, usually on the edge of the forest. It calls with a chattering ke-ke-ke or ki-kiu sound.

Other specialist birds to see on Atiu, include the pink-capped, Cook Islands Fruit Dove in the woodland and rainforest areas, while on the coast there are the Eastern Reef Egret (White and Blue plumage phases), White-tailed and Red-tailed Tropicbirds, the Brown Noddy, and in winter, the Karavia (Aravii) or Long-tailed Cuckoo, a winter migrant from New Zealand between March and October.

Things to do

Other things to do on Atiu, include fascinating historical and safari tours, a tour of Atiu Coffee and its Fibre Art Studio, visiting a traditional evening gathering at the Tumunu, deep sea fishing, lagoon and reef fishing, whale watching and pig hunting. The local bakery in the main village is also recommended as an island treat.

If you stop off in Aitutaki on the way, be sure to see the diminutive, but striking, Kuramo, or Blue Nun Lorikeet, and the Pacific Golden Plovers, that use the island as a staging site when migrating across the Pacific. Also seen are the Great Frigatebird, Eastern Reef Egret, both species of tropical birds, two species of Noddy, and the Red-footed Booby.

On Rarotonga, other birds to look out for at Takitumu include the large Pacific Pigeon, the Rarotongan Starling, and the Cook Islands Fruit Dove.

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