About the Phoenix Islands

BIRDS

The Phoenix Islands are an internationally important seabird haven. Today, 19 seabird species including petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, tropicbirds, boobies, frigatebirds and terns breed on the islands and feed in the surrounding waters, and many others visit this rich feeding area. Some of the other seabird visitors actually migrate through the PIPA from temperate and polar regions, including large numbers of sooty, short-tailed and flesh-footed shearwaters and mottled petrels from Australia and New Zealand and Leach’s storm-petrel from Alaska. Other birds that are non-breeding visitors to the islands include several waders or shorebirds, notably the threatened bristle-thighed curlew, along with ruddy turnstone, wandering tattler and Pacific golden plover, all of which are Arctic-breeding species. Pacific reef herons and great crested terns are uncommon, while one land bird, the long-tailed koel, is a non-breeding visitor from New Zealand to the southern forested islands.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, scientific expeditions began to document the millions of seabirds that were present on the islands. Colonies of brown and masked boobies on Enderbury and the three small islands are still among the largest in the world, as are colonies of lesser and great frigatebirds. The spectacular sight (and sound!) of hundreds of thousands of nesting sooty terns still graces some of the islands, including Orona, Enderbury and Rawaki while grey-backed terns and blue noddies are locally common or recovering on the increasing number of rat-free islands.

The petrel family is well-represented on the islands by shearwaters, petrels and storm-petrels and it is also the home of the iconic Te Ruru or Phoenix petrel. This bird is ranked as Endangered on IUCN’s Red List and recent reports (or lack of them) from some former nesting areas suggest that this species is in urgent need of management. In the Phoenix Islands, they currently breed on Rawaki, but prospecting birds can sometimes be seen at some other islands. They typically nest in short burrows or depressions often sheltered by Lepturus grass or dwarf shrubs

Another Endangered seabird present is the white-throated storm-petrel known in I-Kiribati as Te Bwebwe ni Marawa or “sea-butterfly”. Fifty years ago it was still present in large numbers on two islands, but one of these islands (McKean) was invaded by Asian rats in about 2001 and this bird species along with many others was virtually wiped out there. Rats were successfully eradicated from McKean in 2008, and we are monitoring the island to measure the recovery of white-throated storm-petrel and others.