Tonga’s 3 main island groups - Tongatapu, Ha’apai, and Vava’u – have mostly similar birds and other fauna. However I didn’t take many photographs on land as my camera was usually locked in an underwater housing. The wet weather and the camera-shy nature of many of the birds didn’t help either, but I did manage to get photos of a few creatures that were new to me.
The bird that woke me most mornings in Vava’u was this Polynesian Starling (Aplonis tabuensis). It regularly called outside my bedroom window and would then call on and off for the rest of the day. At least it didn’t start as early as the neighbourhood cockerels, or as early as our Kiwi fisherfolk neighbours who started their boat motor at 5 a.m. (and left it to warm up while they chatted!)
Not unusually for a starling, this one feeds on fruit and insects. The call is described as a raspy buzz or rattle, but my Vava’u friend was quite melodious, with very little rasp. There are different sub-species in the various Pacific island groups, each having different markings or coloration. The one below was on Tongatapu, and I think that the white wing edging is a point of difference between the birds on the two islands.
Another regular around our rented house was this Pacific Imperial pigeon (Ducula pacifica) with its distinctive black cere (the lump at the top of its beak.) It’s a fruit-eater, and is widespread in the SW Pacific. This one had a rather unusual “wrrrr” call.
Perhaps the prettiest of the birds I encountered was this Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris). It’s widespread across the Indian and SW Pacific ocean regions, including Australian coastal areas north of Sydney. There are some racial differences between the birds in different areas; many lack the white stripe above the eye visible in this Tongan bird. They all have an unusually large beak (which doesn’t show in this photo because of the angle of the bird’s head). Depending on locality, they mostly feed on crabs and other small prey such as lizards and frogs.
Another visitor to the shrubs around our house was this Wattled Honeyeater (Foulehaio carunculatus). The distinctive yellow markings around its face are reminiscent of the yellow-faced honeyeater seen around Sydney. Like most honeyeaters, its diet consists mostly of nectar and insects.
I also saw Polynesian Trillers (Lalage maculosa) on Vava’u, but only really got a decent photograph of this one on Tongatapu, looking for insects in our hotel grounds. It’s spread though the various islands in the SW Pacific, with some variations in appearance between the island subspecies. I’m not convinced about the “triller” name – the few calls I heard didn’t match it.
We would sometimes see White-rumped Swiftlets (Aerodramus spodiopygius), with their distinctive pale band behind their wings, swinging about in pursuit of flying insects over the waters of Port of Refuge below our house. These little birds behave very much like our Welcome swallows, to which they are related, although their silhouette is much chunkier.
On our way back from Vava’u to Sydney, we spent a couple of days on the biggest of the islands, Tongatapu, where we visited ‘Anahulu cave. In the darkness, I saw what I thought were small bats, and managed to get a couple of flash photos, albeit with a wide-angle lens. Looking at the heavily cropped images later, I discovered that the “bats” had feathers! They were in fact our old acquaintances, the white-rumped swiftlets, nesting on the cave roof. In the composite below, you can see some nests in the RH image, with the tail of one bird sticking out over the edge towards the top left corner.
Another bird we saw on Tongatapu was the Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), here seen having a wash and brush-up at the water cascade of the Scenic Hotel. Originally from the Indian subcontinent, they have been introduced to several island groups in the Pacific and now seem to be completely at home. They are quite omnivorous, with a diet including fruit, nectar, and small animals, mostly insects.
And last but not least - by far the commonest Tongan bird was the descendant of the Asian red jungle fowl shown below. This pair was patrolling the Friendly Café in Nuku’Alofa for handouts. Our Tongan taxi driver told us that chickens were introduced to the islands by Captain Cook, which I couldn’t verify. It’s known that early Polynesians had them long before Cook – they were introduced to Easter Island over 800 years ago.
So much for birds. There were also a few insects that stood out. One was this yellow wasp (I don’t know the species), which was common on both Vava’u and Tongatapu. This one seemed to have a nest in the roof of our house, although I couldn’t reach it with the camera.
Another ubiquitous insect was this butterfly. I’m pretty sure it’s a male Common Eggfly or Blue Moon butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina). Reportedly the females look quite different, with white markings (no iridescence) and resemble our Common Crow butterfly. Alas, I didn’t get a photograph.
This Common Grass Yellow Butterfly (Eurema hecabe) was another regular visitor to our garden. The butterfly is widespread with subspecies in Asia, Africa and Australia.
Less visible, but a minor pest in our kitchen, were tiny brown ants. They were drawn to sweeter things, which we consequently had to keep in the fridge. The one shown below is investigating sugar crystals.
The fish in this mediocre photo was in the pond near our house. We were told these fish originally came from a freshwater lake on the other side of Vava’u but I’ve not been able to identify them. I can find reference to three freshwater species in Tonga – the Broadhead sleeper, the Flathead mullet and the introduced Mozambique tilapia – but none of them really resembles this one. (The tilapia is probably the closest.)
Finally, there’s this mammal, which can be found in almost every garden throughout the islands. This one’s name is George, and he is the Scenic Hotel mascot.