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Finding Nico: my quest for Nico, the Nicobar Pigeon

Scott Ritchie | Guest contributor


Nico the Nicobar Pigeon on Green Island, off Cairns Qld. Photo by Scott Ritchie.

I had to see this bird. I had twice gone to Green Island (28 km east of Cairns, QLD) to see the Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica), recently arrived, and affectionately referred to as Nico by local birders. I saw the photos. Its lovely head: striking iridescent green plumage; blue-grey dreadlock plumes on its shoulders. The king of pigeons in my book.

 

But at first I hesitated. This is an escapee, a pet on the loose, not a wild bird. What’s all the fuss about? The local Cairns Birders kept posting comical images of this Pigeon: Nico walking around their feet; Nico sitting on the jetty railing, welcoming tourists; photos taken at Nico’s eye level, right on the ground. Then up he goes. Sitting in a tree, looking down at all the twitchers gazing at him. He even made the ABC News! Bug**r  it! I had to do it.

 

So off I went to try my luck on Green Island (Isl.). My friend, Mikey Kudo, was on the early boat that left half an hour before mine. When we were 10 minutes from landing, I got a text from Mikey: “He’s here - sitting on the rail”. That got my heart pumping. Five minutes later - five minutes from Nico - Mikey texted me again: “He just flew off over the café”. The resort staff had reported seeing him in this area.


My strategy was to hang around the cafés: Nico was bound to drop in for a treat. But, other than chip-stealing Buff-banded Rails and Pacific Reef Herons, no Nico. However, I did get out to explore the Island, and captured some nice images of the lovely Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove collecting twigs for nesting, and Black Noddies coming in to their nests.


The beautiful Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove collecting nest material. Photo ©Scott Ritchie.

But too soonish, the boat’s horn signals “All aboard”. Dipped on Nico. Only 10 minutes out to sea, I get another text from Mikey: “He’s back at the restaurant!”. I didn’t need to hear this.

 

Two days later I tried again. I ran into birders from Cairns as well as New South Wales and Victoria. Nico’s got pulling power! We exchanged mobile numbers, pledging to ping each other if we saw Nico. Once again I struck out. I ‘celebrated’ my double dip with two scoops of ice cream. I did, however, get some good photos of the Ashy-bellied White-eye, a controversial Green Isl. resident and close relative of the common Silvereye.


So what’s all the fuss and bother about Nico the Nicobar Pigeon? Well, first of all, there’s no doubt he’s an exotic bird that does not naturally live in Australia: a vagrant visiting our shores. Nicobar Pigeons, as the name suggests, live on offshore islets of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, extending eastwards through Thailand, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands. I read one report that stated that in addition to fruit, they feed on seeds in the poo of imperial-Pigeons. Well, Nico would be right at home on Green Isl. with its large population of Torresian Imperial-Pigeons. There have been rare sightings of Nicobar Pigeon in the Kimberley, Western Australia, and on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula. And they are the closest living relative of the Dodo!


But what really separates Nico from our other birds is his stunning plumage. His back and wings are iridescent emerald green that glistens with coppery highlights in the sun. His regal head is festooned with long, drooping blue-grey plumes: a ceremonial cloak. Finally, he has a startling white rump that might be used as a taillight for members of the flock to follow as they navigate through their archipelago home.


Nico coyly shows off his white rump. Photo by Scott Ritchie.

But it was his personality that really won people over. People reported him coming right up to them, allowing full frame photos. He’s cheeky, posing on tables outside the café, jumping on the deck, dodging Buff-banded Rails as they lunge for your chips. He even visited Green Isl. staff inside their offices. Just a very affectionate, endearing bird.

 

Then there is, of course, the mystery of Nico. How did he get here? Where did he come from? There are two theories. The first was he was a wild bird, somehow blown off course, perhaps from an unseasonable early season cyclone (Tropical Cyclone (TC) Lola) that came through the Solomon Islands in late October. Easterly winds on the south side of TC Lola could have flung Nico towards the Coral Sea. Green Isl. would’ve been the perfect natural refuge that he would have been relieved to see. The other hypothesis was that Nico was an escapee. Perhaps he was someone’s pet that escaped and travelled on a boat, then flew off to Green Is. as the boat traversed offshore from Cairns. One thing supporting this was just how tame Nico was.

 

Well, Nico certainly caught the attention of local birders, and pulled our heartstrings as well. Many of us travelled to Green Isl., some for the first time in years, just to see Nico. So I decided one last trip: third time lucky or three strikes you’re out. I felt good about this trip. Jun Matsui was on the boat, and this man is a master birder - eyes like a hawk. At my age, I need young eyes. Nico had last been seen along the path extending south from the resort. So it was south we went. Down to the helipad, no luck. We headed back towards my bad luck café. Suddenly Jun stopped and looked up, and pointed to an overhanging branch. And there Nico sat, only 10 m away. I took shot after shot from every angle possible. But it was a bird in a tree, with harsh background light. OK for an ID shot, but not what I was really after. I asked Jun to text me if anything happened while I checked my backpack into a locker. I was only gone 10 minutes when I got a text from Jun: “Come now!”. Well, I ran right over and there was Jun and another photographer (Julio) sitting on the footpath, telephoto lenses pointing to The Pigeon only 2 m from them!


Jun and the author literally stunned as Nico checks out Scott’s shoe. Photo courtesy of Julio.

I came over, slowly sat down next to the path, got my camera out and started shooting as the pigeon slowly walked among us. He was very curious: sticking his head into my camera lens bag, playing with sticks, and even pulling at my shoelaces. One of the National Parks staff who was on the Island for a turtle survey texted his colleagues, “The pigeon’s here right now. Come”. Five minutes later, they were there. It was like a media scrum as they surrounded the pigeon, taking photos and videos. Nico wasn’t the least bit bothered, seemingly playing up for the cameras. So I finally got my pigeon photos. Overjoyed, but also greatly relieved. I couldn’t have stomached a triple scoop ice cream.


“He’s brought the tele-extender. Maximum close-ups of me!”. Photo by Scott Ritchie.

It was with a heavy heart that I heard Nico had been tragically killed in early January. He was evidently run over by one of the carts used by staff. I can’t say I’m surprised. Nico was so carefree, wandering around the paths like a puppy on the highway. I almost knew it wasn’t going to end well.

 

Nico really captured our imagination, and tweaked our emotions. Some birds can do that to you. Our trips to see Nico also proved what a great spot for birding, and especially bird photography, Green Isl. is. Seabirds, shorebirds, cuckoos and fruit-doves were common, and accommodating to the camera. I will still go back to Green Isl. to capture that special closeup. And I will always hope that a Nicobar Pigeon will be on the footpath just around the corner.

 

Acknowledgements

 

A big thank you to Lindsay Fisher for suggesting this piece, and Jenn Muir for editorial assistance. And I also thank the staff of Green Island National Park, especially Ashlea Skye, for Intel on where Nico could be seen. Finally, I thank all the local and visiting birders whose enthusiasm drove the Nico phenomenon.

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