By James Fitzsimons, director of conservation, The Nature Conservancy in Australia
This explosive call announces the arrival of a new day on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea’s smallest and northernmost province.
The call belongs to a bird the locals call the “Chauka” and ornithologists call the Manus Friarbird (Philemon albitorques), a species endemic to Manus Island.
The Chauka is part of the honeyeater family (Meliphagidae), one of the largest bird families of Australia and New Guinea (it includes more than 180 species if one accounts for species in neighbouring Indonesian and Pacific Islands). I suspect it is the loudest member of the family.
I was visiting Manus to learn more about the responses of local coastal villagers to anticipated impacts climate change. In the short time I spent on Manus Island, the Chauka seemed to be well known by everyone, much like the Kookaburra of Australia, Ostrich of Africa and Bald Eagle of North America. The species is relatively common around human habitation and when the locals realized I was interested in birds, they were quick to point out the Chauka, noting its ability to tell the time.
It pops up in the provincial flag, commercial logos, the local radio station (which has as its byline “Maus Blong Chauka,” or “the voice of the Chauka” and in art . It could be the most well-known and iconic Honeyeater within its range in the world, possibly eclipsing the endangered Helmeted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus melanops cassidix), the state bird of Victoria, Australia. It appears that the Chauka is favoured by human settlement and the more open habitats that have been created in many coastal localities.
Not all Manus birds are as easy to observe as the Chauka. Manus Island and the surrounding smaller islands that make up the Admiralty Islands are home to six endemic species (three of which are considered threatened) and numerous other endemic subspecies, but the ecology of these and the other resident species still isn’t well known.
This, to some extent, is the result of Manus Island being somewhat off the beaten track in terms of birding destinations. For example, it wasn’t until 1990 that Guy Dutson, a friend and colleague, described in any detail the ecology of the Superb Pitta (Pitta superba), a spectacular ground-dwelling member of a family highly prized in birdwatching circles. Unfortunately, my brief search in the foothill forests outside of the provincial capital, Lorengau, failed to locate this sought-after species.
Thus there is much to be documented to better understand the biodiversity on Manus and the ways to conserve it. Some mysteries still need to be solved. For example, why has the Manus Fantail (Rhipidura semirubra) disappeared from the main island of Manus? And what is the status of the Manus Masked Owl (Tyto manusi), a bird known only from two historic specimens and that hasn’t been encountered since 1934?
Even with the highly conspicuous Chauka, there is still much to be learned. The authoritative field guide for the region suggests the species range is restricted to Manus Island and “probably” nearby Los Negros Island. However, I recorded the Chauka on Los Negros and Ndrilo, another small island to the north of Manus.
As the Chauka’s characteristic call signals the end of the day, Manus’s birds await further documentation of their natural history by those Manusians who know their species and by visiting scientists. A peer-reviewed journal I co-edit, Australian Field Ornithology, has recently expanded its geographic focus to encompass the geographies of Wallacea, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia in order to provide a vehicle for publishing original papers on the ecology, behaviour and natural history of bird species from this region. With that explosive call still ringing in my ears and the vision of two birds with heads to the sky calling in unison, I hope I can be part of this sharing of knowledge – knowledge that is the foundation of informed management and conservation.