Weeks before we came to Atiu, we had heard and read about George Mateariki, or “Birdman George”, as he is called on the island. He was put in charge of various bird recovery programs, like the one for the almost extinguished Rarotonga Flycatcher.
Another project he participated in was the reintroduction of the Kura, a brightly colored bird that became extinct on Atiu. Their beauty was also their demise: their brightly red colored feathers were used for the headdresses of the chieftains. Last year 26 of those birds were directly flown in from Rimatara, one of the remote Austral Islands in French Polynesia, where they only survived because the last queen protected the birds with a “Tapu” (taboo).
Luckily, we spotted four of these cute birdies that seem to be happy in their new home, some have even ventured out to nearby islands, 16 kilometers away.
Other birds we saw were the very rare and tiny Rarotongan Flycatcher, the also rare Chattering Kingfisher, and the beautifully speckled Pacific Golden Plover, various Fruits Doves, Pacific Wood Pigeon, Grey Ducks and a few others … It was so exciting waiting in silence, searching the canopy with our binoculars and being rewarded for our patience. Of course, George knew exactly which area or tree was a favorite of his birds.
He also explained the use of various plants like “candlenuts”, which can be used as a candle or “Nui” fruits that smell like old cheese and are used as medicine. We further learned which tree was a native and which was introduced on the island and why.
The Minah bird from India was also a species introduced to fight a bug that was killing the palm trees. They did their job alright, but now, with no natural predator, these cheeky creatures turned into vegetarians, eating fruits and vegetables not meant for them, a real nuisance!
At the end of the afternoon, Birdman George took us to a nice beach where we enjoyed a very pleasant pick nick, with food cooked in an Umu, accompanied by many local fresh fruits. An Umu is a Polynesian specialty: stones are heated by putting them on top of burning wood, then the food is wrapped in banana leaves and left in the pit to be cooked, layers of banana leaves serve as regulators for the heat. This is a special treat that George offers his customers on Sundays.