Birds are probably not the first attraction most people think of when dreaming about visiting the Polynesian Islands. But once you get your fill of glistening waters in every possible shade of blue, grand landscapes that tower like skyscrapers, gregarious indigenous cultures, and gorgeous tropical sunsets, the islands’ forests are well worth exploring.
French Polynesia is comprised of 118 islands and atolls stretching more than 1,200 miles across the South Pacific. And though the five island groups—Austral, Gambier, Marquesas, Society Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago—offer just 1,609 square miles between them, they’re home to 122 different bird species. Of these, 27 are endemic to the Polynesian Islands, and the same number are currently under threat of extinction.
Due to their small populations and limited range, you’re much more likely to see migratory birds such as albatross, boobies, egrets, frigatebirds, and herons. But here is a brief look at some of the more rare and beautiful endemic avian species of the Polynesian islands.
There are roughly 90 species of kingfishers of the world, four of which are endemic to the Polynesian islands. All of them have huge heads, pointed bills used for catching fish and small invertebrates, short tails, and stubby legs. Most of them have bright plumage and nest in tunnels dug into the ground (though some species prefer abandoned termite nests).
With its blue-green upper body and brown crown, the Tahiti kingfisher is the most frequently seen Polynesian species, found in forests throughout the Society Islands. The other three endemic kingfishers are all critically endangered. The Marquesan kingfisher is a beauty—bright blue-green on bottom, mostly white on top, with blue eye stripes and a buff triangle on it back—but there are less than 500 left.
The blue, orange, and green Niau kingfisher is found only on the island for which it was named, with around 125 birds left in the wild. The blue, cream, and rufous-colored Mangareva kingfisher is also found only on Niau, with a population of around 135 (up from around 50 a decade ago).
The Monarchs encompass around 100 different passerine birds. All are small, broad-billed, insect-eating songbirds with long tails (some of which are spectacularly colorful). Their preferred habitat is forests or woodlands, where many decorate their cup-shaped nests with lichen.
There are five species of Monarch flycatchers endemic to the Polynesian Islands. With around 500-1,250 nesting pairs on the Marquesan island of Ua Huka, the black-and-white Iphis monarch is the only one not currently nearing extinction. The endangered Marquesas monarch has a small, stable population on the island of Mohotani, but it is being threatened by habitat degradation (by feral sheep) and predation (by feral cats).
The black Fatuhiva monarch (found only on the Marquesas island for which it’s named) and Tahiti monarch, and the black-and-white Ua Pou monarch are all currently classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The latter species, found only on the third largest of the Marquesas Islands, was believed extinct until a sighting was reported in 2010. If you see one, congratulations: You’ve spotted one of the rarest birds in the world!
Lorikeets are brightly colored, small to medium-sized parrots distinguished by the brush-lipped tongues they use to feed on flower nectar and soft fruits. They’re widely distributed throughout southeast Asia and Australia, with three species endemic to the Polynesian Islands. All of them are increasingly endangered by deforestation and the introduction of black rats.
Found in the Austral and Cook Islands, the Kuhl’s lorikeet is the most vibrant of the three. With its bright red belly and cheeks, blue nape, and green back and crown, its vivid colors make it particularly vulnerable to hunters. The Ultramarine lorikeet, with its green back and wings and spotted cheeks and throat, is also rare, found only on Ua Huka island in the Marquesas. The Blue lorikeet is the most common parrot species in French Polynesia. With dark blue plumage offset by a white throat and orange beak and legs, they’re found on at least eight islands and have been successfully bred in captivity.
The swiftlets are a group of around 30 species found primarily in Australia, southern Asia, and the islands of the South Pacific. Their narrow wings make them speedy fliers, with wide mouths and tiny beaks made for catching insects in flight. But what truly makes them unique, even from other swifts, is their use of echo-location to navigate through darkness in the caves in which they roost and breed.
The Tahiti swiftlet (a.k.a. Polynesian swiftlet) is typically found at high elevations in wet, rocky, forested valleys on the island of Tahiti, with a total population of around 1,000. The natural habitat of the Marquesan swiftlet is the tropical or subtropical moist lowland forests of the Marquesas Islands. Although they live 1,200 miles apart, there have been BirdLife International discussions about classifying these birds as a single species.
Once considered Old World warblers, the warbler species found in the Polynesian Islands have recently been placed into the Acrocephalidae family, which includes reed, marsh, and tree warblers. Most of these birds are fairly large, fairly plain (with coloring ranging from brown to yellow), and found in marshes and reed beds.
The most endangered of these species is the Tahiti reed warbler: Two of its former subspecies—the Garrett’s reed warbler and the Moorea reed warbler—have already gone extinct. The Rimatara reed warbler, found only on the Austral Island for which it is named, is currently listed as Vulnerable. The Tuamotu reed warbler is very common, widely distributed throughout French Polynesia. The northern and southern Marquesan reed warblers were once considered the same species, but now each has four subspecies and are plentiful in the Marquesas.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.