Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu, Episode 2

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu, Episode 2 ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter – 7/13/15

Before, I forget again, here is the email of our Jean-Marc our guide at Rivière Bleue that I meant to include last week: jean-marc.meriot@province-sud.nc. He works as a ranger in the park, is very knowledgeable, speaks good English and worked very hard to get us the birds we wanted. The fee was 2000 CFP per hour for both of us (about 24 AUD). We had great fun with him.

Another terrific national park that we visited was Les Grandes Fougères a huge national park that was established as recently as 2008. Les Grandes Fougéres means the Great Ferns and refers to the Giant Tree Fern, endemic to New Caledonia which can reach a height of 30m. It’s claimed to be the tallest tree fern in the world, despite its scientific name (above), though it may have a rival in the shape of another very tall one in Vanuatu, but I haven’t been able to track that one down.

Parc des Grandes Fougères is inland from La Foa, which is on the east coast highway about 70km north of the International Airport, which is itself about 45km north of the capital Nouméa. The road is good and the park is easy to find. There are well-signed walking tracks and you can get a map from the ticket office at the entrance. We saw a juvenile Kagu making a fast getaway on our first visit there and we returned for a second visit on our last full day in New Caledonia.

On that second visit, at lunchtime we got chatting to a local family who shared the only picnic table in the vicinity. They were showing the park to the grandparents visiting from France, and excitedly recounted their encounter with a pair of Kagus at the next spot on our itinerary, a Banyan tree were there was a T-junction on the walking track near a stream.

We knew by then that Kagus are territorial and that their territories are usually about 20 hectares. So we searched in the region of the Banyan along the three tracks. We were on the one not on our original itinerary approaching a cut-out log that had fallen across the track when a family of kagus going in the opposite direction jumped up onto the log and, seeing us, froze. The first kagu photo shows Ma on the cut out part, Pa on the left of the photo and Junior barely visible under Ma’s tail.

The second kagu photo shows, Pa and Ma still like statues and Junior, still unaware, leaping onto the log without a care in the world. I said ‘Oh my God!’, they looked as if they said “Oh mon Dieu!’ and we all just looked at each other. These photos are full frame using only 180mm of the 100-400mm zoom so you can imagine how close we were.

The next photo shows Ma, still otherwise motionless, turning to Pa and saying ‘Alors????!!!!”. The kagu consensus seemed to be to stick to plan A, more or less, and they eventually headed down the hill to the stream. We followed them there and both we and the kagus met up with some other hikers – be warned, the park is quite popular on Sundays.

Here is Pa, fourth kagu photo, contemplating crossing the stream while the fifth photo shows Junior (note the barring on the wings) crossing back across the stream and having a drink in the general confusion. I got the impression that while cats lick their fur to avoid looking indecisive, kagus drink.

More confusion was to follow, this time caused by another kagu. Pa tried to lead Junior past us to a quieter spot further down the stream away from the tracks, when he (Pa) got distracted by an intruder, abandoned Junior and confronted the other male. I just happened to be taking an iPhone video of Pa when this happened and I’ve posted it on Youtube. The last kagu photo shows Pa and the intruder doing their threat display which consists of the two birds circling each other at close quarters with their wings hanging loose and their crests erected.

After that, we decided it was time to leave them in peace. The whole encounter lasted about 40 minutes and it was a fitting climax to our visit to New Caledonia. The photo of the displaying kagus was one of the last photos that I took on the trip.

Kagus aren’t just great birds in their own right, they are also of great taxonomic and bio-geographical interest. The Kagu is the single member of its family, the Rhynochetidae. It’s only rather distant living relative appears to be the Sun Bittern of South America, also the member of a single-species family the Eurypigidae. These two families used to be included in a heterogenous collection of birds in the Crane order (Gruiformes), but recent DNA studies (Hackett et al 2008) have led to their elevation to their own two-species order the Eurypigiformes. This makes them very distinguished – the other 39 or so orders of birds contain about 10,000 species.

The traditional bio-geographical explanation for this is that both species had a Gondwana ancestor that existed on New Caledonia when it separated from Gondwana. Recent studies (see Grandcolas et al 2008) indicate that New Caledonia has probably been completely submerged since then and all terrestrial plants and animals have colonised since then. If this is correct, then either the simple Sun Bittern – Kagu relationship is incorrect or their ancestors found some other way to get to where they are now, such as island hopping with extinctions obliterating their tracks. The mystery remains…


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Where to Find Birds in Northern Queensland: iTunesGoogle Play Kobo Books
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au

Lee’s Addition:

My heart is troubled and does not rest; days of affliction come to meet me. (Job 30:27 AMP)

I think the daddy Kagu went to afflict the other Kagu. :)

Thanks Ian, for another episode to your Kagu adventure. They are really pretty and amazed that they let you get so close. We enjoyed your first episode also: Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu



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