Also known as: Red-throated Lorikeet, Charmosyna amabilis
The Kulawai, endemic to the Fiji islands, is a small, delicate lorikeet that measures up to 18cm from beak-tip to tail-tip. It is entirely green in colour but for its red cheeks, throat and thighs. The red throat is bordered with yellow whilst the undertail and tail tips are a mustard yellow. The sexes are similar and both have an orange bill and legs. Immature birds have purplish thighs and are duller than adults.
In the past, Kulawai specimens were collected from Viti Levu, Ovalau and Taveuni. On Vanua Levu, there has only been one unconfirmed observation. However, since 1965, there have been no confirmed records (specimens, photographs or observations by those familiar with the species) of the bird on Taveuni or Ovalau, either. [For more details on distribution, recent searches and threats, see the Species Recovery Plan (SRP 2013)]
The last confirmed sighting of the Kulawai was on Viti Levu in 1993, on the slopes of Mt Tomaniivi, Fiji’s highest mountain. Since then, several dedicated surveys were conducted in areas of unconfirmed sightings of the bird, as well as in promising sites of undisturbed forest and remote upland catchments, but none reported any sighting of the Kulawai. (Herman 2011)
Kulawai historical distribution map
Habitat, Ecology and Behaviour
Very little is known about the Kulawai. Though generally considered to inhabit mature forest, most observations of the bird have been at the forest edge or in secondary or degraded forest areas. This may simply reflect the fact that they may be easier to observe in such situations. (SRP 2013)
The species is believed to be highly nectarivorous, and reliant on mature old growth forests. Observations placed it in the mid to upper canopy, foraging in the blossoms of local trees, and giving way to both Collared Lories and Wattled Honeyeaters at feeding sites. With only one or two exceptions, confirmed observations of the Kulawai have been made at three flowering trees – Vuga Metrosideros collina, Drala Erythrina variegata and Drala (wai) E. fusca. (SRP 2013)
Nothing is known about the species’ reproductive timing/behaviour, habitat requirements or seasonal movements. However, morphology would suggest that the species is highly mobile and capable of roaming over large areas in search of appropriate resources. (Herman 2011)
The flight of the Kulawai is known to be direct with rapid wingbeats which produce a fluttering quality to their flight. Its call is a brief high-pitched monosyllabic squeak given whilst feeding and in flight, with the latter louder and more resonant. (Watling 2004)
The Ship Rat (Rattus rattus), which is now the most common rat in our forests, is known to be a serious predator of nesting Pacific lories and lorikeets and may be responsible for the rarity and continuing decline of the Kulawai.
The Nadarivatu-Monasavu area, where the Kulawai was best known, has experienced a significant increase in development, infrastructure and human presence since 1965. Each of these factors may have had a direct impact on the bird. In contrast, there has been less change to the forests of Taveuni over the last 50 years, with the vast majority of its forest remaining untouched. Moreover, there has been insufficient survey work on Taveuni, Vanua Levu and Ovalau to reach any conclusion on the Kulawai’s status on these islands. (SRP 2013)
The Red-throated Lorikeet is listed as “Critically Endangered” under the IUCN RedList. Due to the extreme rarity of this species, it is considered to have a total population of less than 50 birds. It may, in fact, be extinct. (BirdLife International 2018)
Between November 2001 and September 2012, highly experienced ornithologists undertook 2,122 hours of either focused searches for the Kulawai, or general forest bird surveys, without finding this lorikeet.
This represents 354 days of 6 hours searching/observation. The Kulawai, as with all of the Charmosyna, is unobtrusive and very easily overlooked; even experienced field observers will likely miss it on occasion unless they are specifically looking for them. The forest survey time is nonetheless sufficient to conclude that the Kulawai is extremely rare, and consideration given to a status of extirpated from Viti Levu. (SRP 2013)
Remarks and Cultural Significance
In January 2013, the Reserve Bank of Fiji released a new Fauna and Flora series of banknotes and coins to promote Fiji’s unique national heritage and biodiversity. The Kulawai is featured on the five-dollar note.
Photo: William Beckon, 1973
BirdLife International 2018. Charmosyna amabilis (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22684693A129622366. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22684693A129622366.en. Downloaded on 26 November 2019.
Herman, K.J. (2011). Red-throated Lorikeet “Kulawai” Charmosyna amabilis Monasavu-Tomanivi, Viti Levu. Report from January – March 2011 survey. Unpublished report for NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, Suva
Watling, D. 2004. A Guide to the Birds of Fiji and Western Polynesia: Including American Samoa, Niue, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Wallis & Futuna. Environmental Consultants (Fiji) Ltd. Suva.
Kulawai – Red-throated Lorikeet – Charmosyna amabilis Species Recovery Plan 2013-2017, in Dick Watling, 2013, Biodiversity Conservation Lessons Learned 24: Building community support to search for the Red-throated Lorikeet in Fiji. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and Conservation International Pacific Islands Program (CI-Pacific), © 2013 Conservation International
Updated 27th November 2019