Original feature in the March 2012 issue of Bird Watching, in all good newsagents from Wednesday 21 March.
I learnt quite quickly that if I was going to be working on Fiji’s reefs and land all day every day I’d have to stop trying to keep up with the Fijians in their nightly Kava drinking sessions. Kava is the Fijian’s traditional drink. It’s a root that’s pounded into dust then mixed with water and poured into a communal drinking pot, a tanoa. You’re then passed a coconut shell (bilo) filled with Kava and have to drink it all in one go. The only thing I can liken it to is drinking a muddy puddle (although I’ve never tried that!).
For the first week I’d see birds when I wasn’t even looking for them. Every afternoon I played rugby with the locals (dodging the land crab holes) and it wasn’t uncommon for five or six Lesser Frigatebirds to pass over while the Mynahs and Spotted Doves would be found foraging among the chickens around the pitch.
Due to the threat of drought we weren’t allowed to use the toilet for wee breaks and instead had to make do with the surrounding bushes. At my usual site, White-collared Kingfishers, Slaty Monarchs and Vanikoro Broadbills all spied on me, making my usual boring toilet break somewhat more interesting, and a Fan-tailed Cuckoo would call to me from the undergrowth with its almost snore-like whistle.
On my first visit to Fiji, I’d immediately noticed just how friendly the people were, always wanting to help, show you stuff and, it seems, fatten you up! Talking with the locals on Moturiki was a great help. However, sometimes it was hard to communicate our priorities to them – they couldn’t understand why we wanted to find these animals.
Finally, we had a breakthrough. After weeks of searching in the bush for the scarce Banded Iguana, I was talking to two of the village elders about the Vokai (the Fijian name for iguanas) when they told me to follow them.
A short walk from where we were, they took me to a tiny tree metres off the path, just behind the village shop. Within minutes we had a stunning, albeit tailless, male Banded Iguana in our hands, after finding it disguised perfectly among the leaves.
One afternoon, the local kids brought me a Polynesian Triller tied to a stick. They’d found it flying around their kitchen, doing it’s best at pest control.
However, they quickly eclipsed their Triller find, appearing at the door one evening with yet another stick, this time adorned with a dazed and confused Tongan Fruit Bat. They proudly told me how they’d hurled stones at it, knocking it from the sky, and thought that instead of eating it (apparently they taste like chicken) they’d donate it to my temporary menagerie.
Two days later, after eating all of our banana supplies and stinking out my bedroom, the much livelier than on its arrival fruit bat was set free, but not before demolishing another banana!
When I wasn’t taking care of the various creatures that were put in my care, I was snorkelling on the pristine reef, taking surveys of what was about, dodging sea kraits (a type of snake), reef sharks and stingrays or climbing trees looking for hidden skinks and tramping around the island barefoot in search of birds.
I had my main wader fest after one of the dumbest ideas I came up with. After a night in which we definitely each consumed 50 bowls of Kava, the traditional root-based drink, leaving us and the rest of the village with very sore stomachs, and I’d stumbled straight into a disguised tree stump, leaving my little toe swollen and a beautiful shiny purple colour, my friend and I, and one of the Fijians, decided we wanted to conquer the island.
Packing bottles of water, a few samosas and my trusty 7D camera we headed off at 8am on a 10-mile round trip, with the aim of visiting all 10 villages on the island.
The one thing I did forget were my shoes. Barefoot walking… with a bad toe… for 10 miles… on a mixture of surfaces… is not fun and my feet complained for days afterwards, but, after hours of walking, on reaching the penultimate village from home we found a wader lover’s dream – the tide had left exposing miles of gooey mud.
The expanse was dotted with mangrove trees and an array of waders. Wandering Tattlers, Ruddy Turnstones, Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers moved about, feasting on what the mud had to offer. Among them I was surprised to see Fiji’s very own heron success story (much like our Little Egret invaders), the White-faced Heron. Feeding in large groups, they have only appeared in Fiji in recent years but are going from strength to strength!
They obviously like it here – and it’s not hard to see why.