Chasing the New Caledonian punk-rock bird

Angelo Risso
(Australian Associated Press)

 

Brash, upright, mohawked, New Caledonia’s punk-rock bird instigates a Mexican stand-off with a national park ranger.

On one leg, it stares the ranger up and down with ruby-red eyes, black pupils dilated. Its companion, a step behind, warily does the same.

Much coaxing has already been required to get the bird to this point, on the side of a Riviere Bleue National Park dirt track, where tourists’ cameras snap incessantly. Boom-box over his shoulder, another ranger plays the bird’s greatest hits on repeat – tempting, seducing, beseeching his feathered friend to take an impromptu stage.

Until, suddenly, there it is – a blur in the forest undergrowth.

The Kagu.

Flightless and ashen grey, the New Caledonian national emblem – an endemic, and the sole member of its birding family – is a ghost among thick lashes of forest green. But where its conspicuousness is now an asset, it was once a deep curse.

Introduced pig, dog and rat species predated the bird to near-extinction by the 1970s, until conservation efforts at Riviere Bleue – just 60 kilometres north of Noumea – helped the Kagu recover to a stable population of 1500. The national park now serves as the bird’s greatest sanctuary, and a perfect day trip for the Kagu-curious.

At first, the Kagu struts to-and-fro in the shrubbery, sizing up its options as a horde of sweltering birdwatchers do their best paparazzo impression.

In response to the bird’s gallivanting, the ranger, Marc, is unruffled. He knows the tricks of the trade – and how to get the punk-rock bird to play a tune.

Tapping, tapping, tapping a shovel on the track, Marc lifts a chunk of soil from the rainforest and sifts through it, finding a thick, juicy worm.

As long as a forearm, the worm is Marc’s honey-trap. With his palm outstretched, the orange-shirted park ranger lures the Kagu and its reluctant buddy into the open – and our interspecies Mexican stand-off is on.

Pointed orange beak unmoving, beautifully patterned wings still, the Kagu tells the whole story with its flittering eyes. Marc, smiling wryly, returns serve.

Travellers, guides, rangers, the birds in the trees – for a second, there is no movement, no sound except the whir of shuttering cameras.

The Kagu takes one step on spindly legs, gazing upwards. Stops.

Another. Stops – friend following faithfully behind.

And then – sensing the all clear, the call of safety – a little skip, snatching the worm in the middle of the track and slurping it down.

The Mexican stand-off, is over.

All around, as purple-breasted butterflies hover, astounded birdwatchers and tourists unleash a very meek attempt at pandemonium – politely clambering over each other to snap photos, get close, take in the birds’ smoky plumage.

Now firmly front and centre, the punk-rock bird and his side-act find the publicity a little intoxicating. Cocking their heads upwards, the two buddies play up for the press pack as shovelfuls of fresh worms are air-dropped in.

Later, the birding group will pitter-patter along the burnt-orange track, finding the most unusual things – tangerine-flecked crawling insects, lanky kauri trees brushing the sky, a rockery of rich brown hues. In the undergrowth to one side, crimson-ringed tree logs sit idle, felled without explanation.

Amidst the humidity of a New Caledonian wet season, the sheer colour injects science-fiction into a tale of island fantasy. But this day does not belong to those things – the insects, the rocks, the trees.

It belongs to the New Caledonian rockstar.

Having had its fun with the adoring crowd, the Kagu ambles back into the forest undergrowth, his mate following suit. But for those who saw the bird’s sharp beak, its crested hair, its concentrated stare and glinted eye, the moment will live on through more than a photograph.

Back in the air-conditioned confines of a tourist ship, the Kagu-ites gush over the events of the day. One man, from England’s north, spent his childhood pining for the Kagu and a visit to New Caledonia – another, a Dutchman, has just lived out the highlight of his bird-watching life. Over the clutter of cutlery and chinks of glass, the ship’s guests discuss the realisation of a dream.

To see the Kagu in the flesh – the semi-reluctant, red-eyed, ever-curious star of New Caledonia’s lush Riviere Bleue.

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: Riviere Bleue National Park is around an hour’s drive from Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. Car parking is available, as are shuttle buses around the park. A number of car rental companies service Noumea, including Avis, Europcar and Hertz. For all-included trips, Heritage Expeditions’ 18-day Western Pacific Odyssey takes in a full day at the park, as well as a day at Mount Koghi and free time in Noumea.

GETTING IN: One adult entry ticket to Riviere Bleue will cost 400 Pacific Francs (AU$5), with reduced rates for groups of more than 10 people, students and those on a pension. Children under 12 years old enter free. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, between the hours of 7am and 5pm.

ONCE INSIDE: Other than seeking out a stray Kagu, rent a bike or a kayak and view the park from a different perspective. You may also care to visit the Grand Kaori, a mammoth 1000-year-old Kaori tree that is 2.7 metres in diameter.

BRING ALONG: You’ll need to bring your own food, water and first-aid kit, as well as essentials like sunscreen, hats and spare clothing.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Heritage Expeditions.

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