Chasing the New Caledonian punk-rock bird

Angelo Risso
(Australian Associated Press)

 

Brash, upright, mohawked, New Caledonia’s punk-rock bird instigates a Mexican stand-off with a national park ranger.

On one leg, it stares the ranger up and down with ruby-red eyes, black pupils dilated. Its companion, a step behind, warily does the same.

Much coaxing has already been required to get the bird to this point, on the side of a Riviere Bleue National Park dirt track, where tourists’ cameras snap incessantly. Boom-box over his shoulder, another ranger plays the bird’s greatest hits on repeat – tempting, seducing, beseeching his feathered friend to take an impromptu stage.

Until, suddenly, there it is – a blur in the forest undergrowth.

The Kagu.

Flightless and ashen grey, the New Caledonian national emblem – an endemic, and the sole member of its birding family – is a ghost among thick lashes of forest green. But where its conspicuousness is now an asset, it was once a deep curse.

Introduced pig, dog and rat species predated the bird to near-extinction by the 1970s, until conservation efforts at Riviere Bleue – just 60 kilometres north of Noumea – helped the Kagu recover to a stable population of 1500. The national park now serves as the bird’s greatest sanctuary, and a perfect day trip for the Kagu-curious.

At first, the Kagu struts to-and-fro in the shrubbery, sizing up its options as a horde of sweltering birdwatchers do their best paparazzo impression.

In response to the bird’s gallivanting, the ranger, Marc, is unruffled. He knows the tricks of the trade – and how to get the punk-rock bird to play a tune.

Tapping, tapping, tapping a shovel on the track, Marc lifts a chunk of soil from the rainforest and sifts through it, finding a thick, juicy worm.

As long as a forearm, the worm is Marc’s honey-trap. With his palm outstretched, the orange-shirted park ranger lures the Kagu and its reluctant buddy into the open – and our interspecies Mexican stand-off is on.

Pointed orange beak unmoving, beautifully patterned wings still, the Kagu tells the whole story with its flittering eyes. Marc, smiling wryly, returns serve.

Travellers, guides, rangers, the birds in the trees – for a second, there is no movement, no sound except the whir of shuttering cameras.

The Kagu takes one step on spindly legs, gazing upwards. Stops.

Another. Stops – friend following faithfully behind.

And then – sensing the all clear, the call of safety – a little skip, snatching the worm in the middle of the track and slurping it down.

The Mexican stand-off, is over.

All around, as purple-breasted butterflies hover, astounded birdwatchers and tourists unleash a very meek attempt at pandemonium – politely clambering over each other to snap photos, get close, take in the birds’ smoky plumage.

Now firmly front and centre, the punk-rock bird and his side-act find the publicity a little intoxicating. Cocking their heads upwards, the two buddies play up for the press pack as shovelfuls of fresh worms are air-dropped in.

Later, the birding group will pitter-patter along the burnt-orange track, finding the most unusual things – tangerine-flecked crawling insects, lanky kauri trees b