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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Why Are Birds So Beautiful?

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 30 March 2012 I like to call them “Henderson” lorikeets, though their technical name is “Stephen’s.”  Every time I see a bird that is in the tropics, is bright green, red, blue, orange, and yellow, I think “What makes you that way and why are you always in the tropics?”...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

30 March 2012

I like to call them “Henderson” lorikeets, though their technical name is “Stephen’s.”  Every time I see a bird that is in the tropics, is bright green, red, blue, orange, and yellow, I think “What makes you that way and why are you always in the tropics?”

This lorikeet is like somebody took all the color out of Ronald McDonald, mixed it with green and packed it into a tiny bird on steroids.  We know what Charles Darwin would say: “It is sexual selection,” or “It is for camouflage, or distraction.”  Over millions of years of selecting the brightest and most tutti-frutti, this is what you end up with.

But why is the result something so eye-catching and beautiful to the human eye?  Why do we stare and “ooo” and “ahh” at this work of nature?   Why do most people look at this bird as a little jewel of the forest rather than something to eat?

That is why I am lucky: I don’t have to worry about answers to these questions.  There are lots of people out there theorizing at their desks while I get to romp around a place like Henderson Island in the middle of the Pacific and just marvel at these wonders of nature.


Final Day on Henderson

I perched myself on the cliff above where we camped because the lorikeets seem to really love the coco palms for some reason. I sat for maybe 30 minutes then I heard the sharp cries.  Two came zooming in with their extra-fast wing beat and in a flash were gone into the canopy of the trees.  It is impossible to say what they are taking from these trees, but Pirate Pawl from Pitcairn says that they come and drink nectar off the fresh flower heads.  They buzzed in and out three or four times, but never did I get that last long look I wanted of the Henderson lorikeet.  The Claymore passed us by and gave the signal for pick-up so I had to say goodbye to this forested plateau of coral.

The sea was pretty flat considering the soaking and driving wind off the east side the day before.  There was nice cloud cover and it was cool.  Nigel, the ship’s owner, brought the jet boat in four times to pick up our gear and in no time we were sitting on the boat ourselves.


Departing a Treasure of an Island

As I did on Ducie I finagled a ride on one of the dive boats to snorkel around before we left for Pitcairn.  We were on the southwest side and the rollers were big.  We hung a few hundred yards from the break line and I jumped in.  Immediately I left my world of crakes and rats and entered one full of a diversity of coral and fish.  Same intense colors there in all the life. I spied several large snappers but no sharks.  The others had been seeing lots of grey reefs.

Departing from Henderson was spectacular. There was a huge squall coming from the west and the sky was billowed with dense black-grey clouds.  All I could think of was how long I could have spent running around on Henderson, and never come to the end of the crooks and crannies of this place.


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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.