Flights of fancy

Birds’ names tell tall stories

John Gerson

Is it ever too late to right a wrong? In 1990 I was preparing for a week of birdwatching in Fiji. That meant reading Birds of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, produced in 1982 by a naturalist named Dick Watling, who was wonderfully knowledgeable about Fiji’s wildlife. In the section devoted to sea birds was a brief entry that would bring most readers up short: MacGillivray’s Petrel, Pterodroma macgillivrayi, was, it said, “known only from a single fledgling”. This was collected in October 1855 by Frederick Matthew Rayner, HMS Herald’s medical officer, but named after John MacGillivray, the ship’s naturalist.

So Fiji boasted perhaps the rarest bird in the world, if indeed it still existed. Watling’s entry was a reminder that the great naturalists Charles Darwin, T.H. Huxley, and Joseph Banks sailed like MacGillivray on Royal Navy vessels. It also conjured up images of Patrick O’Brian’s fictional ship’s doctor and naturalist Stephen Maturin, ferreting about in the world’s oceans with his friend Captain Aubrey 50 years beforehand. The truth, I discovered, was closer to the real-life saga of HMS Bounty.

‘In 1990 I was preparing for a week of birdwatching in Fiji, knowing that it boasted perhaps the rarest bird in the world, if indeed it still existed’

John MacGillivray’s father William was a notable Scots ornithologist and a friend of the bird painter John James Audubon (who named MacGillivray’s Warbler after him). Despite winning a similar accolade, the son was a rascal. In 1852 he abandoned his wife and children to set sail on Herald, under Captain (later Vice Admiral Sir) Henry Denham. Mrs MacGillivray was ill at the time with tuberculosis and practically destitute. T.H. Huxley generously raised £50 to pay for her passage to Australia where she might have been looked after by her parents. She died on the way.

Meanwhile, her husband was stirring up trouble for Denham. He libelled him in the Australian press and attempted to land him with large debts. In April 1855, a Court of Inquiry in Sydney dismissed him from the ship. The president of the court later pronounced him “base minded . . . deceitful and a self seeking intruder . . . in his general habits there is no redeeming point, he is a determined drunkard and mixes only in the lowest society.” So in October 1855 MacGillivray was not even in Fiji when “his” petrel was discovered.

Ignorant of these sad facts I set off, knowing only that 135 years earlier on Gau Island, off to the east of Fiji’s capital, an elegant, dark brown bird resembling a small albatross, with long wings and a body roughly the length of our green woodpecker had come ashore, probably at night and very likely in search of its nest burrow on the forest floor. I did not look for it. There was excitement enough in seeing the archipelago’s other exotic and distinctive birds: the resplendent Golden Dove, sonorous Barking Pigeon, vivid Musk Parrots, and many others.

On return I happened on another book about the island’s wildlife, Fiji’s Natural Heritage by Paddy Ryan, a photographer, published in 1986. On page 130, after mention of MacGillivray’s Petrel as a great rarity, came a shock. Ryan wrote that Dick Watling (author of the earlier book), convinced of the bird’s continued existence, had made a series of visits to Gau Island in search of it, with the strong encouragement of Ratu (Chief) Filipe Lewanavanua.

Watling had been professional as well as indefatigably enthusiastic. In April 1984 on his seventh trip he had set up spotlights close to the island’s forested summit and brought equipment to beam out the mating call of the closely related Collared Petrel (Pterodroma brevipes). The night of April 30 was windy and rain soaked but Watling left his tent and struggled up to the viewpoint. Some Collared Petrels flew in. He waited on. Suddenly a dark shape hurtled out of the rain. As Paddy Ryan reported, the speeding object “hit Dr Watling on the head and fell to the ground.”

It was, of course, MacGillivray’s Petrel.

Next morning the bird was measured and photographed. After a brief ceremony it was released by Ratu Lui, Paramount Chief of Gau. Watling remembered that, “It dipped off Ratu Lui’s hands and just cleared the ground before sweeping up through a gentle arc and flying strongly out to sea.”

New interest in the ensuing years produced a very small number of further sightings, all on Gau. In May 2009 Watling and others mounted an elaborate and skilful expedition to search for the petrel at sea. They succeeded and obtained very worthwhile information. Yet still no nest has been found, and ground-nesting birds face a new threat from the spread of feral pigs on Gau. Nevertheless, the proud and active support of the islanders and the expert involvement of local and international conservation bodies give hope that the species will survive.

MacGillivray’s Petrel is now reclassified as Pseudobulweria macgillivrayi and renamed the Fiji Petrel. MacGillivray himself did not prosper after his dismissal. In 1867 he was found dead in a wretched Sydney hotel. His death was unremarked but his name lived on attached to the petrel and it is honoured still: indeed, Wikipedia today gives him credit for the discovery. Surely it should be named rayneri after its true discoverer, and Watling’s Petrel after its saviour?

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