Echoing across a valley on the island of Fatu Hiva in the South Pacific Ocean is a sound heard nowhere else on Earth. Few have ventured into this narrow gorge of yellow blooming hibiscus and razor-leaved pandanus, for the only pathways are those forged by wild pigs. Anyone foolhardy enough to follow these trails must come armed with a machete and a willingness to scramble over sharp, slippery boulders.
Scientist Caroline Blanvillain describes the unusual cry heard here as “So powerful you believe the dinosaurs are coming”. Others liken this peculiar noise to the squeals of a dying cat. It emanates not from some mythical creature but from an insectivorous songbird called the Fatu Hiva monarch. At the time of writing, there are precisely 17 individuals left, making this little bird one of the most endangered animals in the world.
Fatu Hiva is the most southerly of the Marquesas Islands, an archipelago in north-eastern French Polynesia. There is no airstrip on Fatu Hiva and it can only be reached by boat. When drawn on a map, it is often depicted as a mere dot, and at only 15km long, it is indeed of miniature proportions. However, to visit Fatu Hiva is to witness the grandeur of a volcanic eruption frozen in time; a crest of mountains forms the spine of the island, from which ridges and ravines descend into the ocean. The island emerged from the sea so recently (a few million years is, of course, recent in geological timeframes) that its shores have not yet softened to sandy beaches; instead, black basalt columns rise like battlements, sheltering the rich green interior of the island from the vagaries of the waves.
The Marquesan name for the Fatu Hiva monarch is ’Oma’o ke’e ke’e, meaning ‘black bird’. As the name suggests, despite sporting magnificently fluffy eyebrows, these flycatchers are not the most visually splendid of birds, and during the three years it takes for the downy, buff-coloured fledglings to don the glossy black plumage of adults, they look downright scruffy. However, it is not for its looks or even its rarity that the Fatu Hiva monarch is fabled, but for its behaviour. The birds live in monogamous pairs and raise a single chick every year, both parents carefully tending to their young until it is ready to claim its own territory. Once a male monarch has acquired a mate and a patch of forest to call his own, he will proudly patrol the boundaries of his kingdom, greeting all those who enter, be they fellow bird or sweaty scientist, with a tail-flicking dance and ear-splitting declaration.
Caroline is a conservationist and veterinarian with BirdLife International partner SOP Manu, the French Polynesian Ornithological Society. She describes how when she first encountered the Fatu Hiva monarch, she was so enchanted by its curiosity and lack of guile that she saw the birds as “The fairies I was looking for when I was young in the forest”. Caroline can even imitate the chirruping call of the monarchs by smacking her lips against the palm of her hand, summoning birds down from the treetops. To any onlooker, it briefly appears as though woman and bird are engaged in conversation, each spellbound by the other.
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