Rota: Small-Town Birding in Paradise

By Kevin McGowan, an instructor in our Education program
April 27, 2010
White Tern by Kevin McGowan.

If you wanted to see all of the bird species in the world, you would have to come to Rota. On this one small island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana islands live two birds found nowhere else in the world: the Mariana Crow, Corvus kubaryi (known locally as the Aga), and the Rota White-eye, Zosterops rotensis, (or Nosa Luta).

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And if all you wanted to do was have some fun birding in a tropical paradise, with spectacular snorkeling, great near-shore fishing, amazing scenery, interesting archaeological sites, World War II history, good food, and friendly people, Rota is all that as well. And more!

Rota is just about as far away from North America as you can get (it’s 7,760 miles from Ithaca, New York). But it is still technically part of the United States, so everyone speaks English, spends dollars, plugs into the same kind of electrical plugs, and drinks excellent tap water. Sweet! As with anywhere you need to be cautious, but our local hosts didn’t lock their doors and everyone in the cars we passed on the road waved at us.  Rota has this feeling of a world-class resort set in a rural town.  It’s exotic and exciting, but at the same time comfortable and slightly familiar.

For me the real excitement was the Mariana Crow. Fortunately the lowland limestone dry forest where it lives is still rather common and accessible. Rota has the largest expanses of this unique habitat of all the Mariana islands, and forest birds such as the gorgeous Mariana Fruit-Dove and Rufous Fantail are easily seen.

The “second-best” bird of the trip was the Rota White-eye. Long considered a distinctive subspecies of the Bridled White-eye that is found across the Marianas, recent genetic work shows that the Rota White-eye is very distinct and worthy of species status. It also differs from the abundant lowland and suburban-dwelling white-eyes of the other islands in being elusive and restricted to the epiphyte-laden wet forests of the high elevations of the Sabana plateau.

The bird fauna on Rota is actually rather limited, with only 45 species on the official list (I saw 25 in my 10 days). Still, they all seem different, even the sparrows. The introduced Eurasian Tree Sparrows building a nest on the deck of our favorite restaurant were a joy to watch; just slightly different from own introduced House Sparrows. Red-tailed and White-tailed tropicbirds and Red-footed and Brown boobies nest on the island, as well as the abundant and beautiful White Tern. It is just about impossible not to keep taking pictures of the White Terns as they fly by with fish for their single chick perched somewhere in a tree above your head.

The main southern high islands of the Marianas get daily flights from Guam on Freedom Air, so a day trip from Guam is easy.  And a trip to Saipan for higher populations of the forest birds and to Tinian for the endemic Tinian Monarch (Monarcha takatsukasae) would make a great combined birding trip. I’m sure all the islands are spectacular, but Rota is like the small town version. In World War II, even the U.S. Navy decided it was too small to bother clearing of Japanese soldiers. And birders know that the back roads are the best.

Rota would be a perfect place to go to find endemic birds with a spouse or other companion who was less into birding.  Swimming, snorkeling, diving, golf, and sightseeing are all easy. If I wasn’t a birder I could still entertain myself for days just exploring the shore along the inner lagoon that circles most of the island. It was a blast snorkeling in the shallow lagoon, seeing dozens of kinds of electrically colored damselfish and butterflyfish. Just scrambling over the scenic and jagged limestone rocks along the shore gave wonderful views of damselfish and moray eels.

The food was good, especially if you like raw fish.  The local cuisine has heavy influences from Philippine, Japanese, US, and local Chamorro traditions. I spent a morning fishing on a small charter boat and caught one and a half wahoos (a shark took the other half with a single, very impressive bite on a fish about the diameter of my leg). We dropped our catch off at the local Japanese restaurant, and they were happy to filet it up for sashimi and steaks for our dinner that night. For me the biggest drawback of the island was the beer, which was limited to the regular big-market bland U.S. pilsners. Paradise could really benefit from a microbrewery!

Bird conservation on Rota is a significant concern.  The University of Washington group I was with does vital work researching bird populations. Crow numbers seem to be stabilizing, although better reproductive success would be really helpful.  The white-eye population is robust where habitat remains, but the annual burn cycle of the Sabana farmers encroaches bit by bit every year.  And everyone here is terrified that the brown tree snake will make its way over from Guam, where its introduction led to the extinction of 13 bird species and two bats. Recently a dead snake was found aboard a cargo ship—a close call and evidence of the persistence of a horrifying threat.

I hope that the people of Rota will continue to value and protect their unique wildlife, not just for the millions of ecotourists that might come visit to see it, but for the wonderful spectacle and heritage that it is.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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