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Waking in the Clouds to a Chorus of Birds

October 18, 2010, 5:58 pm

By CHRIS FILARDI

Kolombangara peregrine country. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

Friday, Oct. 15

Waking at 1,600 meters in the Solomons is like waking in the clouds. Cloud days begin with a vigil of sorts: a slow and deliberate ascent up a ladderlike trail through the tangles to a perch that hangs out into the gloaming heart of morning cloud surrounding the high ridges. At dawn, wind heaves up from the central caldera, shifting the heavy mist. Other than this mountain breath, there is little indication of anything beyond moss, wood and orchids splaying out everywhere along the limb holding me up.

A just-released Meek’s lorikeet. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

From this perch one can read the morning chorus of birdsong. Many bird species roost for the night at perches reflecting their distribution within a forest and then sing in a beautifully clocklike species-specific cadence at dawn. This awakening can disclose the presence and distribution of species that are otherwise seldom detected and, properly interpreted, can provide an incredible amount of information about a forest bird community.

Mornings here I actually hear two choruses — one softly twittering in the mossy heights, and another, almost a din, rising from the crater floor far below. It is remarkable, indescribable really, hearing montane songs in the leafy tufts around my head unique to Kolombangara and reminiscent of Eurasia or North America, and simultaneously the blare of whistlers, monarch flycatchers, coucals, fantails and cuckoo-shrikes rising from tall hill forest nearly 1,100 meters below.

Like late-night lounge acts and Wall Street brokers trading night for day in the early morning city streets, our science is divided between day workers studying birds and plants, and the work of those studying bats and frogs, creatures of the night. There is overlap in our work. The mammalogists are setting traps and looking for signs by day, and I have been rising in the night, while the froggers are still afoot in the bush, to stand at the crater rim listening for the raucous, almost maniacal calls of shearwaters coming in to nest.

An encounter during a night shift. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

Miniature albatrosslike birds, shearwaters are icons of the pelagic realm, commonly seen wheeling among the waves and feeding on shoals of squid and anchovies far out to sea. To nest, some species fly into montane areas on oceanic islands to dig burrows where they lay their eggs and feed chicks that will outweigh them for a time before trimming down to fledgling size, fully feathered to take to the sea.

One species, Heinroth’s shearwater, is an uncommon bird of pelagic waters north of Kolombangara and rarely seen elsewhere. Its nest has never been found, its night calls never heard by scientists. Most suspect it nests in the lush carpet of moss and vines lining the crater wall that falls away from the ridgelines here. Despite listening out into the black air above the crater each night, no signs yet. Mystery persists.

A gecko’s eye. Photo by T. Lavery

On this trip, we are more focused on a general assessment of cloud forest diversity than on specimen collection. Specimens are critical to improving scientific understanding of life, and rapidly advancing specimen-based molecular techniques increasingly provide insight into ecological processes like nutrient cycling and the spread of anthropogenic toxins in wild populations. At the same time, specimen preparation is hugely time-consuming. A small window of relief from this has given me the opportunity to spend far more time than usual just observing, and it is paying off.

The black stripe on this bat’s back was unexpected, as was its presence at 1,700 meters. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

We have heard peregrine falcons on both previous expeditions to the adjacent crater rim, but have never been able to detect whether these are Asian migrants, as ornithological accounts suggest, or resident birds representing a regional endemic form. Two observations from the ridgelines provide nearly certain observational evidence that these are resident birds, nesting along the sheer cliffs rising from the crater and foraging on doves, lorikeets, songbirds and bats.

Back to camp in the dripping black night. I hear a frog, and then another — the first a single croakish chirp, and the other the same tinking double chirp from deep in the moss. I have never heard either anywhere else, and specimen-based work on other species suggests that these frogs will be new to science, with evolutionary histories rooted in the ecological gradients marking the ascent from lowland rain forest up into the clouds.

A likely new frog species. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

The next morning, I see Patrick Pikacha has one of the tiny frogs (single croakish chirp) and is photographing it. These will be the first photographs and specimens ever taken of this frog. Kolombangara clicks forward, ratcheting up the towers of scientific uniqueness. This is the same ancient beating drum of the heart of a place that inspired language, art and culture, simply heard more clearly again.

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