Report from Palau in Western Micronesia via Guam
December 7 to 19, 1997

My destination was the Republic of Palau, 470 miles east of the Philippines. Palau includes over 200 islands totaling 200 square miles scattered from north to south for 125 miles. The majority of the islands are within a single barrier reef. The thickly vegetated high island of Babeldaob is the largest island in Micronesia after Guam. The population is approximately 18,000.

For birders and divers, Palau has Micronesia's richest flora and fauna, both on land and underwater. Of the 141 different bird species of 41 families recorded from Palau, the majority, 91 species, are migratory or vagrant. 50 species are resident birds of which 8 are endemic [Palau Fruit- and Ground-Doves (Ptilinopus pelewensis and Gallicolumba canifrons), Palau Owl (Pyrroglaux podargina), Palau Bush Warbler (Cettia annae), Palau Flycatcher (Myiagra erythrops), Palau Fantail (Rhipidura lepida), Palau Morningbird (Colluricincla tenebrosa), and Palau Greater White-eye (Megazosterops palauensis)]. While no native species have gone extinct, several are rare and one, the Micronesian Megapode (Megadodius laperouse), is on the U.S. Endangered species list.

By December, the majority of migratory birds had passed through Palau. The uncommon migrants that I saw were Gray Heron (Ardea cinera), a rare winter straggler; Intermediate Egret (Egretta intermedia) and Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), uncommon winter visitors; Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), an uncommon winter visitor; Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), an uncommon and irregular visitor; Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), a rare visitor; Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus), a very rare visitor; and Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), rare in western Micronesia and not shown as present in Palau by Pratt or Engbring; and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata), an uncommon migrant. Most of these birds I saw on Peleliu where the tide exposes mud flats.

Nineteen species, primarily shorebirds spend the winter in Palau of which I saw 10. Of the 50 resident birds I saw 34, or 60%, including the endangered Micronesian Megapod. I saw 7 of the 8 endemic species. I did not see the Palau Owl, which my local contacts say is very rare.

My main references were The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific by H. Douglas Pratt, et. al., out-of-print Field Guide to the Birds of Palau by John Engbring, and A Field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia by Bharat Bhushan et.al..

The major reason for Palau's biodiversity over other Micronesian islands include its proximity to surrounding landmasses, comparatively diverse geography, and relatively large size. Reaching this island paradise is not easy!

The first leg of my journey was a 14 hour plane ride from Washington, D.C. to Honolulu, Hawaii crossing five time zones. During my two day layover in Hawaii in which I did not have time to go birding as I had meetings at the University of Hawaii, to prepare for workshops and meetings in Guam and Palau on El Ni§o, I could not help but see the usual introduced species. The common introduced birds of Waikiki are Red-crested Cardinal (Paroaria coronata), Red-Whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinersis), Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata), and Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis).


The second leg of my journey was an eight hour flight to Guam crossing 10 time zones plus the international dateline. I stayed in the Mai'Ana, a convenient but unpretentious hotel, near the airport. I had an 11 AM meeting with a NOAA grantee responsible for issuing El Ni§o forecasts for Micronesia. Being on east coast time, I was up before daybreak and headed out to tour/bird the island by taking the scenic coastal highways of Route 1, 2, and 4. In a whirlwind trip of the island, I did see Intermediate Heron, Black- bellied Plover, Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica), Black-winged Stilt, Wandering Tattler (Heteroscelus incanus), Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), Bristle-thighed Curlew, White Tern (Gygis alba), Rock Dove , Philippine Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia bitorquata), Island Swiftlet (Aerodramus vanikorensis), Black Drango (Dicrurus macrocercus), Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus), and Chestnut Mannikin (Lonchura malacca).

I found the best birding on the southern end of the island on a mud flat across from a horse ranch just east of the boat launch for Coconut Island off the scenic highway. The scenic highway which is a combination of Route 2 and 4, is well marked and has numerous pull-offs so birding the shoreline is relatively easy. I just did not see very much at most of my stops until the southern end.

Gary Wiles, a local birder who works with Guam Fish and Game Department very kindly gave me directions to some "good" birding spots. Unfortunately, they were not that productive for a variety of reasons from Christmas festivities to rain squalls and high tide. If you are ever Guam, you might have better luck. Here are the directions to four local favorite spots. In Guam directions are given in terms of places such as Pizza Hut and turn right, for street signs are nonexistent.

Skinners Park which is located just south of the junction of Route 1 and 4 across from Chamorro Village on the oceanside is a good location for nesting Yellow Bitterns (Ixobrychus sinensis). Unfortunately, it is also the location of Christmas festivities, and I did not find any birds among the lights, reindeer and Santa Claus.

The west end of the airport runway at Tiyan and Route 8 is an opened mowed lawn and some concrete areas that gathers rain water. If the tide is high shorebirds will move into this spot. I ran out of time and did not have a chance to check this location.

The south shore of Tumon is a good location for shorebirds early in the day before they are disturbed by people and dogs. To reach an access point from Skinners Park, take Route 1 north to the end of the bay and take the first major after the bay on Camp Watkins Road (#30) on at the Pizza Hut. Take the second left onto Tranlalo road, which drops and parallels the bay. At the bottom of the dip a dirt road goes left to a parking area with good access to the beach and shorebirds.

Another good shorebird spot is the first left south of the stop light at Route 4 and the cross island highway, Route 17. You will soon drive through a cemetery staying to the south, or right, until you meet a beach road which provide access to the shoreline. I only saw Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) and a Bristle-thighed Curlew, which is unusual for Guam at this location.


The last leg of the journey was a short 2 hour hop back one time zone though the body was still on D.C. time and wanted to go to bed when it was time to get up and have dinner when it was time for breakfast. Palau is 14 hours ahead of D.C so that when it is 6 AM on 12/6/97 in D.C. it is 8 PM on 12/6/97 on Palau.

I stayed the first three nights at a very friendly, medium-sized hotel, Sunrise Villa on Arakabesang Island, with a lovely view of the sunrise over the hills and lagoons of Bebeldoab and Koror, the capital of Palau . The pool and hot tub were located next to the open air bar which had a sweeping view. The hotel has a very nice restaurant.

I then moved to the very moderately-priced and clean DW Hotel in downtown Koror to be with the rest of the team that was conducting workshops on global change and El Ni§o for informal educators such as emergency and water resources managers as well as teachers. The hotel while not for everyone has a decidedly south seas charm and is conveniently located. The staff is very friendly. The other guests are interesting world travellers. We would gather on the veranda at the end of the day for a glass of wine and to swap travel stories.

Palau Pacific Resort, a top end hotel, is the place to go for snorkeling and a drink at sunset. In Koror, Ramen House is a good inexpensive Japanese restaurant. The Southern Cross on the water at M-Dock has great water views and good food at reasonable prices.

Before breakfast each day at the Sunrise Villa, I took a short walk along the hotel road where I saw my first Chestnut Mannikin, Island Swiftlet, Micronesian Honeyeater (Myzomela rubratra), a subspecies of Cardinal Honeyeater which Pratt believes should be split into a separate species; Palau Morningbird, and Palau or Mangrove Flycatcher, and heard the incessant cooing of the Palau Fruit Dove and the mournful, dissonant calling of the Palau Bush-Warbler.

I found a path leading down to the lagoon just before the juncture with the main road across from a white house. While this path is very muddy and somewhat steep, it leads through some great habitat that is criss-crossed with transects. Unfortunately, I saw no birds nor did I hear any. Back up on the road, I did see a Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis)and Rufous Night- Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus) fly by. The first day was clear and sunny and the birds were singing but the following two day broke with a tropical downpour and overcast skies. Even when the rains stopped very few birds were calling.

Typical of birders, my first destination on my first day was the Malakal sewage plant at end of the paved road on Malakal Island. Before the day was out, I found that Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Island Swiftlet, Chestnut Mannikin, and Micronesian Honeyeater were very common birds found at all my stops. The additional birds at the sewage plant and neighboring park and lagoon were Collared Kingfisher (Halcyon chloris), Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), Black Noddy (Anous minutus), and Pacific Golden Plover.

The next stop was the dump next to the Marine Hotel and Fish and Fin Dive shop where Cattle Egret, and Rufous Night-Heron feed on the flies and Banded Rail (Rallus philippensis)covort in the vegetation around the edges. Little Egrets are suppose to hang out at the dump though I did not see any. Just before the bridge from Koror to Babeldaob is a sign to preserve Palau's mangroves and a rutted but driveable dirt road to the right, or southeast. This road produced Collared Kingfisher, Micronesian Starling (Aplonis opaca), Palau Fruit-Dove, and Palau Morningbird.

Exploring the dirt road leading past the airport, I found a few new birds: Palau Fantail and Dusky White-eye (Zosterops cinereus) in some fragmented forest, and Little Egret and Yellow Bittern in taro fields.

My last stop of the day was a boat ramp at the end of the road on Airai past the airport. I was fortunate to see a flock of the rare Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica pelewensis)). The endemic Palau subspecies is proposed for Endangered Species listing.

During two kayak tours of the Rock Islands (Ngermeaus, Mecherchar, and Omeang), I visited a jelly fish lake, Japanese gun emplacements, petrogliffs, and caves. The snorkeling was unbelievable! This ecofriendly method of transportation was a marvelous way to see the islands. The trip produced a few birds: Micronesian Pigeon (Ducula oceanica ) and Nicobar Pigeon, Greater Sulfur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), Eclectus Parrot (Eclectua roratus), Common Sandpiper, and Whimbrel were seen flying between the islands. Little Pied Cormorant (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos) and Collared Kingfisher sat on trees around the jelly fish lake and Palau Fantail, Dusky White-eye flitted in the tropical vegetation. Palau Fruit- and Ground-Doves, and Palau Bush-Warbler could be heard calling. Black Noddies, White Terns, Great Crested Terns (Sterna bergii), Barn Swallows, Island Swiftlets, and White-tailed Tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus) flew overhead. A cross Babeldaob via dirt road in the back of a pick-up truck to Ibobang then over to Melekeok, which was a site-seeing trip and not a birding trip did produce a new island bird for my list, White-breasted Wood-Swallow (Artamus leucorhynchus), a rare resident. A boat trip to the north end of Babeldaob via the west coast to Ngarchelong and return via the east coast produced one new shorebird for my Palau list, Ruddy Turnstone.

A picnic outing by speed boat to Ulong, one of the seventy island complex known as Ngerukewid, resulted in the rarest bird of the trip, Micronesia Megapod (Megapodius laperouse), an endangered species. I spent an hour walking the island trying to find the bird with not success. When I returned to join my co-workers, much to their amusement a megapod had been walking back and forth through the picnic area while I was gone. I waited a few minutes and along came the bird oblivious to us. On the boat trip, I also saw Bridled Tern (Sterna anaethetus) and Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus).

The megapods are ground-nesters. They build communal mounds out sand and gravel. the heat from the decaying vegetation inside the mound thermoregulates the incubating egg. The young are independent at hatching. The reason why the bird is endangered is that it requires: 1) an island with enough beach so that the nest is not flooded, which is rare among the limestone high islands of Palau; 2) rat-free islands, which Ulong was not as brazen rats tried to take our picnic lunch out of our hands during daylight; and 3) undisturbed islands which unfortunately any island that meets the birds' beach requirements is also a good beach for visitors.

A day trip to Peleliu, a 20 minute small plane ride from Koror (round trip for $58), is a must for birders and World War II history buffs. The Battle of Bloody Ridge resulted in one of the highest casualties of the Pacific was with over 8,000 American lives lost in the two months that it took to recapture the island. You can hire a guide with a car for $44/day. The well known history guide is Tangie. Fre, short for Freman, was my guide. He had never had a birder before and thought my interests were most amusing. Luckily, I had The Birds of Palau that has the Palauan name so I could show him the birds and he knew where to find them. Turns out that the best birding spots are all within walking distance of the main town. If you are not interested in the history of the island or are on a budget, you could just take the bus into town from the air strip, called an airport, for $2.

In town walk to the north end of the village to the government building and take the little dirt road to the left leading by a school to the shore. If the tide is out, you have a good chance of seeing Intermediate Heron, Pacific Reef-Heron (Egretta sacra), Rufous Night-Heron, Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia), Common Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Gray-tailed Tattler, Little Pied Cormorant, White Tern, Collared Kingfisher, Black Noddy, White-tailed Tropicbird, Pacific Golden Plover, Barn Swallow, and Island Swiftlet. Chestnut Mannikins are in the grass along the road.

The government building sits at the junction of a 4-way intersection where two roads from town intersect with two roads leaving town. If you take the road leading to the right out of town, you will pass a basketball court on your right and in about a mile you will come to a fenced, fresh water fish pond on your left. This pond is excellent for birds, and I am told crocodiles. I saw a Gray Heron* (very rare for Palau), Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Pacific Reef-Heron, Little Pied Cormorant, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata), Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia), Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Collared Kingfisher, Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis), Northern Pintail, Gray Duck (Anas superciliosa), one of the rarest birds on Palau and is in critical danger of extinction; and Pacific Golden Plover. In the trees along the road, I saw Palau Greater White-eye, Palau Fantail, and Dusky White-eye. In the grass by the fence was a Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava). Barn Swallows and Island Swiftlets flew overhead.

Also within walking distance of town back towards the airstrip, are lots of taro fields that I did not have time to bird but could easily harbor White-browed Rail (Poliolimnas cinereus), and Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). The trash bird of the trip was Banded Rail.

Walking around town and along forested roads, I also saw or heard Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), Palau Fruit-Dove, Palau Bush-Warbler, Palau Flycatcher, Palau Morningbird, Micronesian Starling, and Micronesian Honeyeater.

On the day of my departure, Mic called to say that a very strong typhoon was bearing down on Guam, my destination, and to check in at the airport later in the day to find out if the plane would be flying. Turns out the plane not only did not go that day but for the next three days. Guam received a direct hit. The airport suffered heavy damage and loss of power and air conditioning in their new terminal where you could no longer open windows. Mic had taken its two planes back to Hawaii to wait out the storm then the airport repairs. Other than some heavy rains, Palau was spared the high winds. I spent the day at the Southern Cross reading on the veranda. The downside to be stranding on an island in the tropical Pacific is that the planes bring in the food and beverages. We were running out of beer and lettuce! Rather than order from the menu, you asked what they had. I had a difficult time trying to convince my fellow workers that I was really stranded and not just extending my stay. Eventually I made it home for Christmas.

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