Searching for the pahi

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Wed 16 May 2018 03:37
The pahi (Todiramphus godeffroyi) is a small bird with a white head and neck, dark blue eye stripe and petrol blue back and wings. It is only found on the island of Tahuata and the total population is thought to be 400 to 500. It used to thrive on the larger neighbouring island of Hiva Oa until the Grand Duke of South America owl was introduced in the 1700s. According to Lonely Planet, its English name is ‘Marquesan kingfisher’, and it us it certainly looks like it is in the kingfisher family though as far as we understand, it eats insects and not fish. In French it is called a ‘Martín-Chasseur’, perhaps reflecting its insectivorous diet.

The deal was we would pay Louis 5,000 Polynesian francs for his time and pay Jeanne-Marie the same for the use of her car. We had hoped to go by horse but this no longer seems to be an option.

We arrived at Jeanne-Marie’s house around a quarter past seven and she rang Louis who turned up within minutes. Jeanne-Marie had put some coffee on to brew, much to Franco’s delight. We spent the next hour chatting and joking. We found out that the older woman we had met the day before, the one we had been led to believe was Louis’s wife, was also called Jeanne and married to a Louis, but not our Mr Pahi, hence the confusion!

Jeanne-Marie had a beautiful collection of large bowls, full of grapefruit, on top of a bar separating the dining area from the kitchen. They looked remarkably like the one we had admired at Simon-the-sculptor’s on Fatu Hiva. 

“Simon? He’s my cousin! We are both from Oa Pou.” Jeanne-Marie told us. (Oa Pou is an island downwind, we will stop off there on our way to the Tuamotus.)


My favourite fruit bowl

Louis spent 20 years living in France and spoke excellent French. He has five children, two girls and five boys, each boy by a different woman. His wife in France told him she was divorcing him but, on his wages, he couldn’t afford the maintenance payments so returned to Tahuata.

Jeanne-Marie met Felix, her husband, through a catholic inter-island get together, he piled the flower garlands around her neck and she fell in love. She’s been to France a couple of times and has taken the island youth group to Poland. She has a couple of rooms that she lets on a B&B basis and according to Louis, her pancake breakfast is not to be missed. As the mayor’s wife, she has an important role in the community and feels it is her duty to organise. She has formed a group with the young mothers and they are making a little money selling products (honey, fruit, crafts) out of a thatched kiosk on the sea front. 

“That’s a fantastic idea!” interjected Franco, “now all you need to do is let tourists know, you need a sign advertising the shop.” This is a pet theme of his, every small village we have been to, from Spain to French Polynesia is the same, there are no signs. Everyone in the village knows where the butcher, the craftsman, the hairdresser live, but we don’t. For Jeanne-Marie, this was a lightbulb moment, it was so obvious, how could she not have thought of it!

At last, coffeed up, we got going.

Our first stop was a dead tree with a couple of holes.


Nesting tree

The pahi is territorial and returns to the same nesting site every year. The upper hole used to be the nest but a couple of seasons ago was abandoned when no longer waterproof, and the pair pecked out a new hole below. Only one chick is raised each year and is usually fledged by late March. We were pushing our luck, but if the young was still in the hole, then the parents would return every 15 minutes or so to feed it. Nobody came.

Our next stop was the top of a ridge where the pahi is often seen flying. 


Franco searching for the pahi

I found scanning the sky for a bird I had never seen very difficult. Over the past few years I have become quite good at spotting animals, but only once I know the signs; the way the water changes when a whale breaches, the flight pattern of a bird, it is nearly subconscious.

The road went to Hapatoni and we soon spotted Caramor in the cove below.


Caramor at anchor

From a view point, Louis pointed at a large house with a red roof. 

“We are going there next, I’ve often seen pahis flying in the garden.” He told us.

We parked on the road just as the home owners arrived in their vehicle.

“Don’t park there! You’re under a coconut palm.” The woman shouted out to Louis.

The dog Nika had got itself tangled up but once released, the introductions were made. He was Doudou and we’d already met him in Vaitahu that morning as we were changing by the kayaks. Doudou is French. She was Hélène and originally from Oa Pou where the couple had run a B&B for years. Hélène is Jeanne-Marie’s aunt (if the world is small, Polynesia is a microcosm!).

Our hosts apologised, the pahi hadn’t been seen flying during the day in recent weeks, we would stand a better chance much later, around 5pm. We went to watch anyway from their large shady veranda overlooking the sea.

“They always fly in pairs and you will hear the strange dissonant cry before you see it.” Louis assured us.

It was the hottest time of the day. A time when nothing moves. Franco and I weren’t hopeful we would see the bird but it didn’t really matter, it had been fun searching.

As boredom crept in we started chatting. We covered ‘why do yachties who sail all the way here, then use a polluting outboard engine on their dinghy’ (Doudou gave us points for the kayaks) to ‘French nuclear testing in the Pacific’. As a child I had been aware of it but had never realised how close to populated islands the explosions had been detonated. Hélène told us that the cancer rate in French Polynesia is far higher than anywhere in France but that the French Government, which incidentally is paying a vast amount of compensation every year, denies this has anything to do with the nuclear tests.

Between 1966 and 1981, France detonated 193 atmospheric nuclear explosions on two atolls in the Tuamotu group before moving them underground, below the atoll lagoon. In 1985, French secret service agents bombed and sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, killing four people. The ship was on its way to protest about testing on Moruroa Atoll. The last round of testing was completed as recently as 1996 while the riots in Tahiti were completely ignored in France.

It was difficult to concentrate on bird spotting while discussing such a tragic subject and Louis had started making noises that it was time to move on.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a iridescent petrol blue flutter.

A single pahi landed in the middle of a fork in a tree and sat there quietly for the next fifteen minutes. It is a very pretty bird. As I admired its perfectly white crown, I wondered how it stayed so clean, none of our ‘whites’ are white anymore.

When we got back to Jeanne-Marie’s, she had prepared a feast for us. In addition to the pancakes, Louis had badgered her for in the morning, there was delicious fried fish (very bony) and fried plantain bananas. We scoffed the lot.


Kath with the Pahi Team - Louis and Jeanne-Marie

Jeanne-Marie filled our kayaks with grapefruits and saw us past the surf line.

If you count two dollars per grapefruit and the tasty meal, we didn’t pay anything for the car hire!