French Polynesia, Pitcairn & Henderson

Friday 8th October – Thursday 28th October 2010 (21 days)

Marquesas Islands Extension from Monday 4th October (3 days)

Leaders: Mark Van Beirs and the Braveheart staff

Ship: The Braveheart (capacity 11 passengers)

How many chances does one have to visit a scattering of largely uninhabited tropical islands where deserted white sand beaches are fringed with luxuriant vegetation, haunted by rarely seen endemics, and the seas are enlivened by a host of little-known seabirds? Not many, but here is one fantastic opportunity! Add into the mix the romance and violence of the Mutiny on the Bounty story, the classic, real-life tale of putting love before duty and its tragic consequences, and you have something extraordinarily alluring. The Polynesian triangle between Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island stretches about 8000 kilometres across the central Pacific Ocean. This vast area is dotted with numerous tropical islands, many of them of volcanic origin and never connected to the continents. Amongst this scattering of tiny isolated dots on the map of the world, there are two broad island types: the first being the high volcanic islands where erosion has produced gentle windward slopes that often contrast with the steep and rugged leeward cliffs, frequently encircled by fringing reefs. The second consists of the low-lying islands, mostly coral atolls and or raised former atolls. Both island types have evolved endemic birds, reptiles, plants and insects, the existence of many of which is under threat from introduced rats and human activity, and during our travels we shall explore fascinating examples of each. This exciting journey focuses on some of the rarest and most exciting island birds in the entire Pacific region. French Polynesia covers a vast expanse of the South Pacific, equivalent to a region stretching from Finland to Spain! Its farthest flung outposts are the remote Gambier Islands at the eastern end of the Tuamotu Archipelago, and still more remote, far beyond the Gambiers, are Pitcairn and Henderson islands. Our journey through the islands will start in Tahiti, the largest and highest of the Society Islands, where we will arrive in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. This cosmopolitan city with over 100,000 people will provide a great contrast with sparsely inhabited or uninhabited islands we are soon to visit. Here, on the beautiful island where so many of the Bounty's crew fell for the local ladies, and from where they eventually set sail to seek refuge from the King's justice on remote Pitcairn Island, we will mainly be birding in the interior highlands, dominated by two old volcanoes. Here we should find such endemics as Grey-green Fruit-Dove, Tahiti Swiftlet, Tahiti Kingfisher, the extremely rare Tahiti Monarch and Tahiti Reed Warbler. From Papeete we will fly far to the southeast, to Mangaréva in the remote Gambier Islands. Here we will board our boat, the Braveheart , and set sail for the end of the world, or so it will seem to us. First we will explore famous Pitcairn Island, last refuge of the Bounty mutineers, their Tahitian ladies and some male relatives (the ancestral mix of today's Pitcairn islanders), where Pitcairn Reed Warbler will be the main target. Moving on to uninhabited Henderson Island, we will be looking for the fearless Henderson Island Crake, Henderson Island Fruit-Dove, the stunning Stephen's Lorikeet and Henderson Reed Warbler, while on Oeno we will see an extraordinary seabird colony at eyeball to eyeball distance. In the Acteon Group in the easternmost Tuamotus we will visit Tenararo, home to that Holy Grail of Pacific birding, the extraordinary little Tuamotu Sandpiper (surely one of the most endearing birds of the trip). Considered one of the rarest waders in the world, this unusual endemic species is most definitely a long-dreamed-of bird for many people. Tenararo is also the haunt of Atoll Fruit-Dove, the delightful Polynesian Ground-Dove and the endangered Bristle-thighed Curlew (another of the world's rarest shorebirds, the majority of which winter in the Tuamotus). To cap it all, as we sail between these tiny specks in the vastness of the Pacific, we are going to see the most glorious collection of tropical and subtropical seabirds possible, including Tahiti, Phoenix, Murphy's, Kermadec, Herald and Henderson Petrels, Christmas and Tropical Shearwaters, White-faced and Polynesian Storm-Petrels, Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds, Masked, Red-footed and Brown Boobies, Great and Lesser Frigatebirds, Spectacled (or Grey-backed), Sooty and Common White Terns, and Black, Brown, Blue and Grey Noddies, plus a selection of stragglers from cooler waters further south, such as Grey and Cape Petrels. All in all, this is a remarkable opportunity to explore one of the most remote and least touched places on planet Earth today, and see some of our world's most seldom-seen birds!


MV Braveheart , our home for two weeks, is a very well equipped and comfortable vessel, 39 metres (about 128 feet) in length, with capacity for 12 passengers and five crew. Built in Japan, she was later converted for expedition-style cruising and is now based in New Zealand. She has six twin-berth, air-conditioned cabins and three shared bathrooms for her passengers (some cabins have double berths), modern safety equipment and three zodiacs (inflatables with rigid hulls) for making landings in remote areas. There is a spacious mess (dining area) and a smaller lounge/library area with DVD player, power points for computers etc. A large, shaded area on the deck towards the stern is excellent for seawatching. Braveheart offers much more space and comfort than a yacht and is the perfect vessel for a cruise of this kind.


During the optional pre-tour extension we will explore the Marquesas, a chain of rugged, volcanic islands some 1500 kilometres (or around 940 miles) to the northeast of Papeete. Here we will explore Nuku Hiva, the largest of the chain, and also Ua Huka in search of such endemics as the strange Nukuhiva Imperial Pigeon, White-capped Fruit-Dove, the beautiful Ultramarine Lorikeet, Marquesas Swiftlet, Iphis Monarch and Marquesas Reed Warbler, as well as the delightful near-endemic Little White Tern.


Mark Van Beirs has travelled extensively in the Pacific islands. Birdquest has been operating tours to French Polynesia since 2002 and to Pitcairn and Henderson since 2008.


Day 1   Afternoon flight from London bound for Papeete.


Day 2   Morning arrival at Papeete for a three nights stay. Our very fancy resort hotel is located by the ocean and has fantastic views across to the mountainous island of Moorea with its conical volcanic peaks. It is a great place to rest up after the long journey. Many introduced birds are present in the grounds, including Zebra Dove, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Myna, Silvereye, Common Waxbill and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, some of which will undoubtedly try to share our food as we eat in the open air restaurant!


Days 3-4   During our visit to the island we will explore the mountainous interior of Tahiti in search of three endemics, the attractive Grey-green Fruit-Dove, Tahiti Kingfisher and Tahiti Reed Warbler (the latter favours tall bamboo thickets). We are also likely to encounter Pacific Black Duck, Pacific Swallow (the nominate race here is dark and very different to most other populations) and the introduced Swamp Harrier and Red-browed Firetail. With the help of a local expert, we will also explore one of the island's deep forested valleys. Here we will find the endemic Tahiti Monarch, now critically endangered with perhaps only about 40 individuals surviving, and we will also be able to visit a colony of Tahiti Swiftlets, watching the adults whizzing along a narrow, rocky defile as they return to, or leave, their nests.


Day 5   This morning we will catch one of the very infrequent flights to Mangaréva in the remote Gambier islands at the far eastern end of the scattered Tuamotu archipelago. It is a long flight, for a domestic route, over 1600 kilometres (1000 miles) as the Tahiti Petrel flies, and the journey is broken by a stopover at the almost equally remote Hao atoll. As we descend over this huge atoll, so large that one cannot even see the far side, it will be brought home to us how little land there is in the Tuamotus: just thin barrier islands and numerous tiny islets (known locally as motu ) projecting above the water on top of the coral reef forming the atoll and protecting a huge, impossibly turquoise lagoon. Everywhere are beaches of white sand, backed by the deep greens of coconut palms and native island ‘bush'. Once we arrive at Mangaréva, where Pacific Golden plovers favour the grassy edges of the runway, we will transfer by ferry from the airport island to the harbour of the main island, where Braveheart , our home for the next 14 nights, will be waiting for us. During the afternoon we will set sail for the magical, largely uninhabited world of the islands that awaits us. As we head southeastwards, towards Pitcairn island, we will keep a lookout for our first Phoenix and Herald Petrels, Christmas Shearwaters, Polynesian Storm-Petrels, Great and Lesser Frigatebirds, Greater Crested Tern, Brown and Black Noddies, and pretty Blue Noddies (the latter formerly lumped with Grey Noddy under the name Blue-grey Noddy).


Days 6-18   During our two weeks on Braveheart we shall explore the easternmost Tuamotu Islands and the even more remote Pitcairn, Henderson and Oeno Islands. The run to Pitcairn will take about 36 hours, but the journey will provide some interesting seabird opportunities. In addition to some of the species likely as we left Mangaréva, we will be keeping a lookout for our first Murphy's and Henderson's Petrels, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Tropical Shearwater (split from Audubon's) and White-faced Storm-Petrel.


Not many travellers have the chance or the privilege of stepping ashore on rugged Pitcairn Island, so we shall join a select band as we explore this fascinating spot where the Bounty mutineers ended up. As with almost all of our landings, we will not be able to get ashore directly from Braveheart , so we will use the zodiacs instead. Although Pitcairn and its dependencies are an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, the islands are effectively administered from New Zealand, itself amazingly distant. Pitcairn's isolation is exacerbated by the lack of an airport, and there are no regular shipping connections, so visitors are a rare event! We are sure to be made most welcome and no doubt some of us will want to visit the post office in the small settlement in order to buy those sought-after Pitcairn stamps to put on the ritual postcards. Pitcairn's single-island endemic, the Pitcairn Reed Warbler, is common on the island, so we will have no trouble finding some.


As we wait for the zodiacs to take us back to Braveheart , we will be only about 100 meters from where the blazing hulk of the Bounty sank after the mutineers decided to burn her to leave no easily visible trace of their presence. As with any such tale, both sides have strong views. From the islander's perspective Captain Bligh was a cruel tyrant who virtually compelled Fletcher Christian and his allies to mutiny, yet if that were truly the case one wonders why so many of the crew elected to join Bligh in a small open boat when the mutineers put him off the ship in the then unknown seas off Tonga, facing almost certain death. And one marvels at a man who could then save his men by a remarkable feat of seamanship, sailing that tiny boat 3700 nautical miles, all the way to Kupang in Timor, in the then Dutch East Indies.


Offshore we will keep a lookout for Masked Booby and in particular for Grey Noddy (the latter breeds on Henderson but regularly occurs around Pitcairn as well). As we sail northeast from Pitcairn to Henderson Island we will encounter more and more Henderson's Petrels, a species that only nests in this remote, uninhabited place (and which was formerly, mistakenly, considered a dark morph of Herald Petrel), and we should also come across Kermadec Petrel. We will reach the southernmost point of our voyage in the waters around Pitcairn and its dependencies, so we will be looking out for cool-water wanderers throughout the region, such as an albatrosses, giant petrels, and Cape, White-chinned, Great-winged and Grey Petrels.


Unlike rugged Pitcairn, Henderson is a raised coral reef and so is basically a flat, thickly vegetated plateau of limestone rising 20 metres or so above sea-level. After finding our way from the beach up onto the plateau we will start looking for Henderson's four single-island endemics. Most of the flightless crakes of the Pacific islands have long been extinct, but sheer isolation and unsuitability for human settlement has allowed the bold little Henderson Island Crake to survive. We should eventually be able to find one or two of these rather inquisitive little birds wandering around under the scrubby woodland, feeding in the leaf littler. Henderson Reed Warbler (split from Pitcairn) is a common species on the island, but we will probably have to work harder for good views of the stunning Stephen's Lorikeet and the attractive Henderson Island Fruit-Dove.


From Henderson we turn to the west and sail to Oeno island, the last of the Pitcairn islands group that we will visit. Oeno is a coral atoll with a perfect ‘desert island', covered in luxuriant vegetation and surrounded by white coral sand beaches, in the middle! The seabird colony here is truly spectacular, with breeding Murphy's Petrels running into the thousands, along with smaller numbers of Christmas Shearwaters, Great Frigatebirds, Masked and Red-footed Boobies, Red-tailed Tropicbirds, and Spectacled (or Grey-backed), Sooty and Common White (or Fairy) Terns. As with all remote and uninhabited tropical islands, the seabirds are unafraid of man, so we will be able to enjoy some extraordinary views and will feel truly privileged to be able to wander around in such a wonderful place. In particular, watching the lovely Common White Tern at such close range that one can see its ‘mascara-like' dark eye smudge (which enhances its already huge eye, perhaps adapted for seeing in the forest interior) and the blue base to the dagger-like bill, is a real delight. Long-tailed Cuckoos (or Long-trailed Koels) from New Zealand spend the Austral winter on Pacific islands like Oeno, so we will keep a lookout for this interesting species.


Sailing now to the northwest, after a full day at sea with great opportunities for a selection of Pterodroma species and other deepwater pelagics, including Tahiti Petrel, we come to the Acteon group of islands and in particular the island of Tenararo. This beautiful and remote uninhabited island, which is rat-free, is this one of the last breeding sites for the rare and enigmatic Tuamotu Sandpiper. As we step ashore on this pristine desert island and our footprints mark the virgin white sand we will feel quite Robinson Crusoe-like! It should not take long before we find the little sandpiper, which feeds mostly along the tideline but also spends much time walking on the leaf litter under the tangled jungle of the island's interior, or can even be watched walking up tree branches high above one's head! When the birds display they hover and veer in the manner of Temminck's Stint, all the while uttering their beautiful trilling call. Even better is their confiding manner (not a help with rats, sadly) and we should be able to walk right up to them without causing any concern! On Tenararo this wonderful bird remains extraordinarily common and we may see up to 200 individuals during our visit!


Amongst the trees and bushes on Tenararo we should easily find another Tuamotu endemic, the beautiful Atoll Fruit-Dove. We will also search for the unobtrusive but dazzling little Polynesian Ground-Dove, which as its name suggests spends its time on the ground. We will have to search patiently and carefully, for these birds are both slow-moving and unafraid, so they can even be spotted walking along right next to one's feet! If we are in luck we will be able to watch the male displaying close to us, stretching out its wings to display their purple iridescence. Sadly this species has disappeared from most of its range in the Tuamotus owing to the depredations of rats. This is also a good island for seeing Bristle-thighed Curlew, a species that flies south from Alaska to the Tuamotus to winter in paradise, and Wandering Tattler.


We may have time to visit another of the Tuamotu atolls, such as Morane, but our highest priority will be to see the key endemic landbirds and pelagic seabirds well, so we will spend more time in places like Henderson if we need to.


Day 19   This morning we will go ashore at Mangareva and head for the airport in time for the afternoon flight to Papeete, where we connect with an evening flight bound for London.


Day 20   In transit to London.


Day 21   Morning arrival at London.


Marquesas Islands Pre-Tour Extension Itinerary


Day 1   Afternoon flight from London bound for Papeete.


Day 2   Morning arrival at Papeete. From here we will fly to the island of Nuku Hiva in the distant Marquesas for an overnight stay, covering a greater distance (nearly 1500 kilometres) than that between London and Rome! En route we should enjoy some fine aerial views of the Tuamotus. The airport, for want of suitable flat land elsewhere, was constructed in the far northwest of the island, at the opposite end of the island from the two main villages, so we will cross this rugged and spectacular island before we reach Taiohae, where we will stay for two nights. This very scenic island has many high rocky peaks, rising to 1224m at the summit of Mount Tekao, and sheer coastal cliffs that rise to over 500m in places.


Day 3   Today we will visit the best part of the island for finding the endemic Nukuhiva Imperial Pigeon. This huge dark and rather lethargic pigeon has a broad, flat, white-feathered protuberance projecting above its bill, giving it a decidedly strange appearance, and its weird, rather unpigeon-like calls simply add to the mystique of this very rare bird that now numbers only about 200 individuals (shared between Nukuhiva and Ua Huka, where the species has been reintroduced). We should be able to find some sitting in some large fig trees and obtain splendid views of this unusual species. We will also have our first encounters with three more endemics: White-capped Fruit-Dove, Marquesas Swiftlet and Marquesas Reed Warbler, all of which are common. Our first Little White Terns (or Little Fairy Terns), a near-endemic species, will be seen flying high overhead or perching in roadside trees, sometimes alongside Black Noddies.


Day 4   This morning we will travel by one of the local boats to the equally rugged, but smaller and lower, island of Ua Huka, which will be clearly visible to the west as soon as we round the headland beyond Taiohae. The journey is excellent for pelagic seabirds and, as well as species we are likely to see during our voyage on Braveheart , we should encounter Bulwer's Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater and Little White Tern. As we approach Ua Huka we will pause at a small island where tens of thousands of Sooty Terns will be nesting. Once we reach Ua Huka itself we will leave our luggage at our guesthouse, where we will overnight, and head off into the mountainous interior, where our targets will be the beautiful endemic Ultramarine Lorikeet, which is now extinct on the other inhabited islands in the Marquesas, but which remains fairly common here, and the endemic Iphis Monarch (now restricted to Ua Huka). We will visit a forested valley where both these species are fairly common.


Day 5   After some more birding on Ua Huka we will return to Nuku Hiva for an overnight stay.


Day 6   After another chance for some birding on Nuku Hiva we will take an afternoon flight to Papeete to join up with those who have arrived for the main tour. (This is Day 2 of the main tour).


Rimatara Extension


Provided there are at least three participants interested, we will offer a 3 days extension to the remote island of Rimatara to see the exquisite Kuhl's (or Rimatara) Lorikeet. Rimatara is situated in the remote Austral Islands to the southeast of Tahiti. Please indicate when booking this tour if you are interested in this optional extension and we will let you know the potential cost once the number of interested participants is known.


Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotel in Papeete is of normal Birdquest standard (luxurious in fact!). For details of Braveheart , please see the tour introduction. During the extension, the guesthouse accommodation on Nuku Hiva and Ua Huka is simple but very clean and comfortable, and bathroom facilities may be shared. Road transport will be by minibus and roads (where they exist) are mostly good.


Walking: The walking effort is easy almost throughout, but there will be one more difficult walk on Tahiti.


Climate: Warm or hot and humid. Occasional rain is likely. At sea it can feel noticeably cooler, especially early and late in the day.


Bird Photography: Opportunities are quite good overall. Some of the specialities are exceptionally approachable.




Photograph by Pete Morris/Birdquest

The wonderfully inquisitive and totally unique Tuamotu Sandpiper will be high on our want list!

Photograph Pete Morris/Birdquest

We will visit numerous beautiful tropical islands!


Tour Price: 2010 (provisional): £7350, €9555, $13965 London/London (or £6250, €8125, $11875 Papeete/Papeete). Extension: £1290, €1677, £2451. Based on 9 or more participants.


Additional Exclusions: Gratuities on board the boat for the expedition staff and crew (most passengers give between €100-150 in total) are not included in the tour price.

Airport/hotel transfer and lunch on arrival day in Papeete for those not taking the Marquesas pre-tour extension. For the usual exclusions, please see the Booking Information.


Single Room Supplement: £210, €273, $399 (Papeete only). If you would like guaranteed single occupancy of a cabin on board Braveheart the additional charge is £4500, €5850, $8550. Please note that if you opt to share you will not have to pay the single occupancy supplement even if you do not end up with a cabin-mate. As there are only six cabins on Braveheart , participants travelling alone will have to be prepared to share a cabin with someone of either sex if need be. Bathroom facilities are not en-suite, but elsewhere on the boat, so privacy is assured. If the boat is not full, any spare cabins will be used in the first place to remove the need for any sharing with the opposite sex. Pre-tour Extension: £180, €234, $342.


Basic Deposit: £2000, €2600, $3800.


Supplementary Deposit (for those arranging international air travel through us, due 12 months prior to departure): £1050, €1365, $1995.

Photograph Pete Morris/Birdquest

The critically endangered Polynesian Ground-Dove has been pushed to the brink of extinction by introduced rats.

Photograph Pete Morris/Birdquest

A bulk of the Bristle-thighed Curlew population winters in Polynesia.

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