Papua New Guinea
12th June - 1st July 2007
a TROPICAL BIRDING custom tour
Report written by Sam Woods
Papua New Guinea, or 'PNG', is rightly considered a dream destination for many birders. It is a beautiful country full of rich natural resources, that includes rugged mountains with miles of unbroken, unspoiled, pristine rainforest, that is loaded with some of the most dazzling and extraordinary birds on earth. No birder leaves New Guinea disappointed, as the birds are nothing short of breathtaking. Of course the most familiar of these are the infamous Birds-of-paradise, that the BBC thrilled us with in their landmark production 'Attenborough in Paradise', that has become a classic natural history film amongst birders, and left many drooling, and dreaming about a trip to this fabled island.
Our first tour to this thickly forested paradise was a great success, with 340 species recorded. With the wealth of mind-blowing species in PNG, on this trip more than any other it was impossible to pick a clear winner for a single bird of the trip. Certainly the Birds-of-paradise were a highlight, they were expected to be amazing, and they were every bit as impressive as people thought they would be. However, there were many other less obvious birding highlights, that illustrates well the difficulty in picking a clear winner. Indeed PNG must be one of only a few countries where you can get good looks at a couple of dazzling pitta species, and they do not even get a mention at the end of the trip, as they have been being drowned out by the truck load of other incredible birds! Listed below are some of the highlights from this memorable tour:
The tour began by birding the lowland forests around Kiunga and Ekame (just above sea-level), and we made our way upwards from there; stopping next around Tabubil where there is access to higher mid-elevation rainforest (around 800m+); and around Kumul and Tari we birded montane forest ranging between approximately 1800 and 2800m. The tour then ended close to Port Moresby birding the foothill forests and eucalypt woodlands of Varirata, that offered some very different birds again.
PACIFIC ADVENTISTS UNIVERSITY
With our afternoon arrival from Brisbane we only had a short time to begin our PNG birding, so we opted for some gentle introductory birding on the outskirts of the capital. The open woodland and savanna of the quiet university grounds brought us some Aussie species that can be difficult to pick up there in a 'standard' trip, as they are only found in the remote regions of Cape York that are rarely visited on such tours. These species included Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds, that were common and conspicuous around the university, and Black-backed Butcherbirds. We also found our first endemic - Grey-headed Munia feeding unobtrusively in the long grass there, as well our first Brown Orioles; and at the close of the day, we watched a frozen pair of Papuan Frogmouths roosting in a garden grove. We also saw our first Yellow-faced Mynas and our only Torresian Imperial-Pigeons of the trip there.
One of a pair of roosting PAPUAN FROGMOUTHS
Pacific Adventists University
We began our tour in earnest after flying to Kiunga, on the banks of the Upper Fly River, not far from the border with West Papua or Irian Jaya. Kiunga will be probably be best remembered as the place we first came into contact with the incredible Birds-of-paradise, as during our first afternoon of 'proper' forest birding in New Guinea we saw two different species displaying in the lowland forests there. On arrival we immediately heard the distinctive, distant cries of Greater Birds-of-paradise, although with the heat of the day not yet beginning to cool, they remained vocal but hidden. We waited out the early afternoon lull of activity and then the cries were heard a lot closer, and we then quickly focused our attention on the canopy of a known display site, where soon enough a flash of bright yellow feathers had us homing in on the flashy display of several male Greater Birds-of-paradise, a stone's throw from where Attenborough had encountered them in his legendary program. These birds have been known to hybridize with another similar 'BOP' in the area, Raggiana, although the clean yellow raised display plumes confirmed these as Greaters. We watched and filmed mesmerized by our first encounters with these strange, otherworldly birds, doing what they do best - dancing and showing off their fantastically adorned plumage in an amazing display. Later in the afternoon we stumbled across a red-tailed male Raggiana Bird-of-paradise going through similar motions right by the side of a small trail. We had only just began exploring the lowland forests of PNG and already we had come across displaying males of 2 different BOPs, just what was needed to calm the nerves, and kick start the trip. We also got some other New Guinea endemics, such as Lowland Peltops, Boyer's and New Guinea (Black) Cuckoo-shrikes, Orange-breasted Fig-parrots and a superb male Golden Monarch. The same area also brought us a few near endemic birds, that are also found in the remote regions of the Cape York peninsula in extreme northern Australia, such as Red-cheeked Parrots which were a vocal and conspicuous bird in our time around Kiunga.
Day 3 (morning only)
With our boat trip up to the remote Ekame Lodge, on the flanks of the thickly forested Elevala Rive,r scheduled for the afternoon we spent the morning birding close to the port of Kiunga once more. Undoubted highlight of the morning was getting good views of one of those rainforest floor skulkers that us birders crave so much - a 'crippling' Blue Jewel-babbler crept into our tape revealing his all blue plumage and pristine white throat as he slinked through the close undergrowth. Other morning highlights included a perched up Hook-billed Kingfisher for one lucky observer in the right position - a commonly heard species in the lowlands, that is downright difficult to see; although the noisy Rufous-bellied Kookaburra responded well and perched up in plain sight right above all of us; and the first of many colorful pigeons and doves with Pink-spotted Fruit-Dove and Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeon both seen; along with Papuan Flowerpeckers; Trumpet Manucode (an indistinctive bird-of-paradise that is also found in extreme northern Australia); New Guinea (Rufous) Babbler and Pygmy Honeyeater. The latter species being a rather nondescript member of our first of two endemic New Guinea bird families on the tour - the Berrypeckers and Longbills.
The world's largest, and arguably most spectacular, pigeon - SOUTHERN CROWNED PIGEON - was found perched by the Elevala River on the way into Ekame.
RED-CHEEKED PARROTS were noisy and conspicuous in our first afternoons birding in the lowland forests near Kiunga.
Day 3 (afternoon only)
The river trip to get to Ekame Lodge is an amazing birding experience in its own right, and is worth the admission alone. As we cruised up first the Fly, and then the Elevala Rivers, many flocks of Collared Imperial Pigeons passed overhead, with the occasional Pinon Imperial Pigeon amongst them. Closer to the lodge itself we encountered our first hulking Palm Cockatoos that flapped lazily over us, while carrying their huge frames from one side of the river to the other; small groups of another forest giant, Blyth's Hornbill, were encountered as we snaked our way up the Elevala River - from a largely Asian and African family, this species has the most southerly distribution of all species within this colorful family; a pair of massive Channel-billed Cuckoos was found from the boat; colorful Eclectus Parrots regularly passed overhead; and Papuan Needletails swooped low over the glassy waters within inches of our boat as they hawked for insects just over the surface of the river. Best of all was saved for our time just before we arrived at the lodge, when a group of 4 Southern Crowned Pigeons were found preparing to roost in some riverside trees. These massive pigeons are the world's largest, and are seriously impressive birds, their size being immediately obvious. Aside from the size they are unusual amongst pigeons in sporting a strange, feathery gray crest. A great end to our 'Fly River cruise'.
Our first day at Ekame was a New Guinea birding classic, not full of birds but about a few top quality species, and getting cracking views of all of them. We began with a very short boat trip and soon alighted on a river bank where we awaited our first quarry, a short time after daybreak. On arrival we could hear the clear ringing calls of our target bird, and a few minutes later in a flurry of yellow we saw a male Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise alight on his regular display perch - an emergent dead snag. He remained there for over 15 minutes calling continually the whole time, with the culmination of his show being a short stint of dancing along his 'dancing pole', presumably being brought on by the appearance of an unseen female in the forest below. A magical start to the morning. We then proceeded to a nearby village where we staked out some fruiting trees for one of the most striking birds on the tour. Before he arrived though, a small burst of nearby song had us homing in on a cracking pair of endemic Emperor Fairywrens. Then a frantic shout went up as a flash of bright orange had been glimpsed in the fruiting trees, and a short time later the male Flame Bowerbird shot out of from its hiding place and landed fortuitously on an open branch in a near dead tree. Almost as soon as he had alighted, this shy species took off leaving us gagging for more. The villagers have recently built a number of purpose-built hides at bowers of this incredible species and we then proceeded to these, splitting the group between two close bowers. Patience was required for the sun to come out and conditions to become favorable for their arrival at the bowers, although in the end everyone got good looks at male Flame Bowerbirds 'performing' at their respective bowers, a superb site and one that was still being talked about fondly at the end of the trip, despite many, many other avian distractions along the way. After lunch back at the lodge we set out in the afternoon for another displaying 'BOP', with our day closing with good views of a male scarlet-and-white King Bird-of-paradise calling from a rainforest vine tangle. This really memorable days birding also included Spot-winged and Black-faced Monarchs, and Black Sunbird.
Due to space limitations we had to divide the group in order to visit two separate FLAME BOWERBIRD bowers near Ekame. One group came face-to-face with 2 full adult males, a female and a young male dancing beside a partially deconstructed bower (see title shots)...
...while the other group were treated to the site of this stunning younger male tending to his far more impressive bower. During this same amazing mornings birding we also watched a dancing male Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise displaying.
Another day was spent birding the steamy lowland forests around Ekame, although this time we focused our efforts on some other trails in pursuit of some other special rainforest birds we were after. Unfortunately the hoped-for Painted Quail-thrush was nowhere to be found, a notoriously difficult forest skulker that we had further chances of at Varirata later in the trip. However, the same area gave us another shot at Blue Jewel-babbler that one or two people had not seen well in the previous showing at Kiunga. A pair of these exquisite denizens of the forest floor were really obliging on this occasion, the male of which called repeatedly from an open low perch for a few minutes, where thankfully this time everybody could get an eyeful of this blue wonder. A trip later in the day to another small bird rich area of forest found us staring straight at a brilliant blue Common Paradise-Kingfisher; and in this same amazing small forest patch both Blue-breasted (Red-bellied) and Hooded Pittas also showed well, along with the endemics Grey-headed Cuckoo-shrike and Hooded Monarch.
Our final morning at Ekame saw us stopping the boat suddenly for a pair of the strange Vulturine (Pesquet's) Parrot perched up by the river, and a short time later we found a noisy party of the extremely localized White-bellied Pitohui calling in the riverside tangles. A forest trail finally brought us Black-sided Robin that had eluded most of us the day before; Double-eyed Fig-Parrot was a familiar Aussie bird for those who had visited the Cairns area before; good views of the diminutive Dwarf Fruit-Dove, in addition to Beautiful, Wompoo and Superb Fruit-Doves; further views of Southern Crowned Pigeons prowling the forest floor; and our first Zoe Imperial Pigeon of the trip. A Thick-billed Ground-Dove was typically more elusive, being glimpsed only in flight by one person when we were trying to track down a calling bird. Having packed to leave Ekame we birded the clearing around our cabins while the boat was being loaded, and although generally quiet in the heat of the day, it did provide a great parting shot when a pair of highly vocal Golden Cuckoo-shrikes came in and perched right beside the lodge. The best-looking of all the endemic Cuckoo-shrikes and completely unique in donning gold-and-black plumage unlike the usual grays and blacks that normally dominate the plumage of this family. The river trip back was less eventful than the one out as we cruised directly back to Kiunga, picking up some of the regular Ekame birds that we had run into over the last few days - like Golden and Yellow-faced Mynas, Eclectus Parrots, Moustached Treeswifts, Palm Cockatoos, Blyth's Hornbills, Black-capped Lories, and a few Glossy-mantled Manucodes.
Days 7 and 8
We finally left the lowlands behind on this day, climbing gently uphill to the mining town of Tabubil, the base for workers to the local OK Tedi copper mine. One of the world's largest mines, the infrastructure brought into the area for mine workers ironically provides facilities for birders that make visiting the area straightforward and that may well have been impossible in the days before the mine. So it is a twisted payoff for birders who want to bird the mid-elevation forests (800m+) in the area. En-route to the town we made a special stop for the localized, dubius resident race of Little Ringed Plover, that has a very different call and an obvious fleshy base to the bill - that leads many to split this 'race' off completely as a Papuan endemic shorebird. This same area finally brought us good, out-in-the-open views of White-bellied Thicket-Fantail, that until then had us pulling our hair out in frustration in our attempts to get a decent look at this skulking forest bird. Having birded only lowland areas (just above sea-level) before then, the suite of birds at Tabubil is markedly different. In our time at Tabubil we birded several different sites, all of which provide easy roadside access to this important habitat. A quiet mountain road in the Dablin area brought in many new birds for us with the corresponding rise in altitude compared to the other sites visited previously. Pick of the bunch was probably Magnificent Bird-of-paradise. When there are fruiting trees along the road, this can be a regular visitor and in our time there we we found a number of trees laden with fruits that brought in not only 3 or more females at a time but also a brilliant male, that was seen over several visits to the site. This was a really lucky find as male birds-of-paradise, with their much more visible plumage, are famously much shyer than the much dowdier, easier-to-see females. Therefore males of this species are rarely encountered away from their display areas, where they still remain very difficult to observe without the aid of a a well-placed blind and a lot of patience. Despite the bundles of fruit seemingly available in this area at the time, we missed Carola's Parotia, another target bird-of-paradise in the area, that was frustratingly only heard calling distantly during our stay. However, the Dablin area of Tabubil provided many other key species that were not seen again elsewhere on the tour, including a small party of handsome Fairy (Little Red) Lorikeets, feeding on some ripe red fruits close to a small group of Red-breasted Pygmy-Parrots;a Doria's Hawk that flew across our path after a bout of calling closeby; a few close, tree-clasping White-rumped Robins; an agitated, close calling Mountain Kingfisher; several White-eared Bronze-cuckoos; a single Northern Scrub-Robin; a lone perched up New Guinea Bronzewing; several powerfully built Stout-billed Cuckoo-shrikes; a number of well-named Obscure Berrypeckers; many Mountain Peltops, including several found sitting on their indistinct treetop nests; and a stunning group of Ornate Fruit-Doves, that proved once more that the dull field guide illustrations rarely do the birds justice in PNG. Another forest road, at a slightly lower altitude than Dablin, pulled in arguably the top kingfisher of the tour. We arrived pre-dawn, especially for this semi-crepuscular species, spotlighting a Papuan Boobook (Jungle Hawk-Owl) while we were waiting. Just as we'd trained the spotlight on the boobook, the kingfishers began calling in earnest in the half-light, and the hunt was on. After a little frantic searching we finally found the strange Shovel-billed Kingfisher calling from an open perch by the road, displaying his odd stumpy, shovel-shaped bill in the process. This same forest road also brought us our only Great Cuckoo-Doves and Red-flanked Lorikeets of the tour; a male Magnificent Riflebird was found calling from last year's songperch in heavy rain; good perched views of Variable (Dwarf) Kingfisher; and our first, unforgettable sighting of Pheasant Pigeon that crashed across the road within meters of several very lucky stunned people at the front of the group.
A bird table regular at Kumul: BREHM'S TIGER-PARROT.
Surely one of the most highly sort-after and enigmatic Kingfishers in the world - the incomparable SHOVEL-BILLED KINGFISHER, Tabubil. A bizarre semi-nocturnal, ground-feeding kookaburra.
KUMUL LODGE (MOUNT HAGEN)
Kumul Lodge, just a short drive from the large city of Mount Hagen in New Guinea's Enga province, was unanimously voted as the top birding site of the trip. Not only was this where we got our first taste of New Guinea's bird-rich mountains (the lodge is located at around 2800m above sea-level), but it is also a superb lodge with great facilities. Notably among these is a well stocked bird table that is laden with fruits that pulled in some very desirable birds, including several species of Birds-of-paradise that could then be watched from the comfort of the lodge balcony while sipping a hot brew. This rare spectacle provides truly unique photographic opportunities, of species that would otherwise be extremely difficult to get a shot of, or even see at all. In addition to this, the lodge is also close to a number of other good birding areas that can be visited on short day/half-day trips. On arrival at the lodge a quick glance at the feeders in the late afternoon was massively disappointing - not a bird in site and the garden appeared deserted. So with this in mind we quickly dropped our bags in our cabins, and then met in the garden right outside our cabins where we were quickly greeted with the sight of a pair of Crested Berrypeckers feeding in some low garden shrubs, and then a ruffle of feathers behind us while we were watching this cracking endemic, saw us come face-to-face with an impressive female Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (one of the high altitude birds-of-paradise)! We then returned to the balcony overlooking the feeders and were met with the sight of our first male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia on the bird table - this one being an immature with long black tail streamers. From then on until dark the action and new birds were nonstop, with everyone enjoying a flurry of 'ticking action' as we got our first real taste of highland New Guinea birding. The bird table pulled in several Brehm's Tiger-Parrots, Common Smoky Honeyeaters, noisy Belford's Melidectes and a few Island Thrushes. The blooming shrubs in the garden twitched with feeding Grey-streaked (Black-backed) Honeyeaters, while several approachable White-winged Robins clasped onto the vertical trunks below, a Friendly Fantail flicked around in the low shrubs, and an adult Rufous-naped Whistler hopped around on the lawn a few meters away (a strange terrestrial whistler species). This was more than enough for all of us, but the best was still to come: a vivid flash of fiery orange caught our eyes, and we watched amazed as a stunning orange-and-black male Crested Bird-of-paradise screamed in and perched up on a lichen covered branch high up in one of the stunted mossy trees that were clearly visible from the balcony. The black phase Papuan Lorikeet that flew in a short time later, that was also clearly visible from the balcony, was almost missed in the post-crested bird-of-paradise chaos. This was an incredible sight that some voted for as bird of the trip. It was not all plain sailing though, as the nightbirds fell flat, with not a sight of either Mountain Nightjar or Mountain Owlet-nightjar in our first attempts.
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Far less dramatic than the male's appearance, though it was good to see this nesting female CRESTED BIRD-OF-PARADISE over several days on one of Kumul lodge's trails.
Our late afternoon arrival the day before meant that, despite the flurry of birds then, there was still plenty on offer right around the lodge at Kumul. So we decided to spend the morning in the immediate vicinity of this scenically positioned lodge. Positioned on the balcony once more, we soon found our first Blue-capped Ifrita, Fan-tailed Berrypeckers, Black-throated Honeyeaters and Black-throated Robin of the trip. However, a substantial movement by the bird table was the main attraction as it heralded the arrival of the bird table's star visitor - a striking female Brown Sicklebill, that with a tail nearing a half-meter long, a huge decurved bill and strikingly barred underparts is a very impressive bird to see, particularly at this close range greedily wolfing down fruits right in front of us. Although not always present, this bird is a stunning regular at Kumul's well-stocked bird table. Other birds around the lodge that morning included two new whistlers - the beautiful Regent Whistler, and the far less impressive endemic Brown-backed Whistler, in addition to Rufous-throated Bronze-cuckoo, Mountain Mouse-Warblers, Papuan Scrubwrens, Mountain Firetails and a lone Wattled Ploughbill for one lucky person. A female Crested Bird-of-paradise (the males take no part in the rearing of the chicks like many birds-of-paradise) was also found nesting very close to the lodge where we saw her regularly brooding her chicks. Another person got extremely lucky, when wandering off onto one of the lodge trails during the lunch recess, they found one of the hardest birds in PNG - Papuan Whipbird, that could not be relocated in a later search. A very rarely recorded species indeed. The afternoon was much quieter, as expected, after the morning surge of birds although we took a trip downhill from the lodge in pursuit of one of New Guinea's most highly sort after birds-of-paradise - both by visiting birders and the Huli tribesmen around Tari, who use the males bizarre feather adornments in their flashy headdresses. Our journey to the site brought us our first of three encounters with a roadside party of cute Black Sitellas, a small low-flying squadron of Mountain Swiftlets, and also a group of very smart Black-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes. As we climbed the short trail to THE site we began to hear the metallic rattling calls of males in full song, and the tension began to mount, before a cry went up from the front as someone had located a male King-of-Saxony Bird-of-paradise calling from a high dead snag. The bird proved to be a bit of an anticlimax though as the unique long, serrated white head feathers that are the appeal of this fantastic bird were missing in this immature male. The complete silence on getting the bird this time was not from being lost for words in excitement, but more from being completely underwhelmed! This was short-lived however, as someone else quickly found a fully-feathered, exquisite adult male just across the trail from the original. We all breathed a sigh of relief. We were to come across this bird a number of times around Tari later on the trip and it is fair to say that we were never able to easily walk away from a full-plumaged male. Another definite trip highlight for many, especially one person who grabbed this species as his landmark 5000th bird. Another superb close to a day in the Kumul area.
This species - the awesome KING-OF-SAXONY BIRD-OF-PARADISE - was a very acceptable 5000th bird for Keith. What this bird lacks in color compared to some of its more dazzling congeners, it more than makes up for with its strange serated 'antennae' that are completely unique in the bird world. This bird was photographed in the upper Tari valley.
Again this Bop is much less striking than some of the other more colorful members of this extraordinary family. However, this huge Bop is a very striking, hugely impressive bird. This female BROWN SICKLEBILL was a very welcome daily visitor to the lodge bird table at Kumul, where it was watched greedily tucking into fruits, just a few meters away. The distinctive 'machine-gun' rattles of the males were a regular, highly evocative sound in the highland forests around there also.
Well if the days had closed well around Kumul up until this stage, this day was all about the opening performance. We left shortly after dawn and made a short morning trip to lower altitudes for some very special birds indeed. On arrival at the site we could hear our quarry calling from a small clump of casuarinas, in a highland garden isolated from the near forested ridge. Several males of a special bird-of-paradise species sail in during the early mornings to display in these open 'cypress-pines'. So we positioned ourselves in the garden overlooking the small patch of pines and waited. Our first glimpses of a male Lesser Bird-of-paradise were nothing short of frustrating - a small patch of yellow here, and patch of red there, and then nothing. However, when a few females arrived the action dramatically kicked off, with several fully plumed males lurching into full display and we watched genuinely entranced by this avian spectacle as one male danced up and down his clearly visible display perch, rubbing his bill against the perch, flaring up his display plumes and spreading his wings out to full stretch, while females came in and pecked him aggressively. A really magical piece of birding and universally agreed as the greatest spectacle of the trip as were able to watch and film these amazing displays for well over 30 minutes. Other new birds in this general area also included our only Ornate Melidectes of the trip; and our first Yellow-breasted Bowerbird, New Guinea White-eyes and Mountain Myzomelas, in addition to another Black-headed Whistler. We then checked out a waterfall for Torrent Lark and found a female perched on a rock within the rushing mountain waters. This was a relief as we had tried for (and missed) this striking endemic in Tabubil earlier on the tour. Another notable sighting in the same area were some large, stout-billed Papuan Parrotfinches feeding in some seeding casuarinas. The afternoon was markedly quieter, although we picked up another Yellow-breasted Bowerbird for those who had missed the brief morning bird, and all managed to see our first male Superb Bird-of-paradise.
What a bird! This amazing LESSER BIRD-OF-PARADISE provided the undisputed spectacle of the trip, on one of our trips out of Kumul lodge. We witnessed the full range of their incredible displays, when several males reacted dazzlingly to the agressive approaches of several close females.
This strange waxwing-like bird - CRESTED BERRYPECKER - is one of the classic high altitude birds that can be found easily around Kumul lodge. This beautiful species was a daily visitor to the small garden shrubs around the lodge itself, allowing very close approach at times. From one of two endemic bird families in New Guinea, we cleaned up on this two-bird family, the Tit and Crested Berrypeckers, in the highlands around Kumul.
Our last full day at Kumul saw us return to the infamous 'Saxony Trail', (after a brief stop to look at our only trip Goldie's Lorikeets around the lodge car park). This is a superb birding trail just a short distance from Kumul. The morning action there was excellent, with high activity and many new birds all around. As well as further, much appreciated views of singing male King-of-Saxony Birds-of-paradise we also picked up loads of new trip birds. Only a short distance up the trail we were getting our first looks at crippling male Tit-Berrypeckers, that along with the daily Crested Berrypeckers around Kumul completed this small endemic New Guinea family for everyone; and a little further on we picked up small parties of both Buff-faced Scrubwrens and Orange-crowned Fairywrens. A Black-breasted Boatbill put in a brilliant performance, shortly before a male Princess Stephanie's Astrapia was found perched in a ridge top tree; and several Blue-grey Robins showed well in the same area. Lemon-breasted (Mid-Mountain) Berrypeckers also made their first appearance along there, and we got further looks at both Black and Red-collared Myzomelas. Later a frog-like call had us scanning the trailside undergrowth, where one person got great looks at the Forbe's Forest-Rail that came in really close to him, while the rest of us were unfortunately blind-sided. Another new bird-of-paradise was also picked up later, when a pair of Loria's Birds-of-paradise were found calling from the canopy. A far more understated member of this extraordinary family, lacking the extravagant plumes of many of the other more flashy species.
Two regular garden birds in our time at Kumul lodge: First, this BLACK-THROATED ROBIN that fed on the lawn on occasion...
...and this gorgeous male REGENT WHISTLER that visited the trees around the feeders several times while we sipped coffee on the balcony!
This was essentially a travel day between Kumul Lodge and Tari, brought about by Papua New Guinea's unpredictable flight services, forcing us to make the journey on road rather than by air as planned. Having fared badly at Kumul for nightbirds, missing amongst others the normally easy Mountain Nightjar, we decided to rise early and have a good crack at Mountain Owlet-nightjar that had at least been heard calling in our time there. The plan paid off, when a very close calling bird was found within meters of the lodge and incredibly remained there for half an hour, until just before full light, allowing us to round up all the more relaxed birders who had decided to maximize on sleep that morning, rather than look for this cute high altitude nightbird! The rest of the day was quiet in comparison with an impressive male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia crossing the road in front of us, displaying a full over a meter long, ivory-white tail in the process, and a male Papuan Harrier found quartering close to our lodge on arrival in Tari, as well as our first few Yellow-browed Melidectes in the same area. However, one of the day's highlights was non-avian, as by moving into the culturally diverse Southern Highlands province we were in the realm of some of New Guinea's most distinctive and well known mountain tribes. Making our way along a quiet mountain road to Tari we were greeted by the sight of two Huli Wigmen in full regalia, dressed up for the local 'singsing'. The Huli tribe is one of the most extravagantly adorned tribes when in full dress, and regularly kit themselves out with feathers from a number of different bird species, including several birds-of-paradise, to go along with their vividly painted faces and bodies. In our time around Tari we came across men adorned with the quills from King-of-Saxony, Superb, and Lesser Birds-of-paradise and Ribbon-tailed Astrapias, in addition to many found wearing the casques of male Blyth's Hornbills across their shoulder blades. Some were also noted to have used Cassowary bones in their costumes.
Tari is probably the most famous and well-birded area in New Guinea. The reason for this is simple - there is a massive diversity of species in the area, largely due to a range of forest types for birding in, allowing birders to cover a range of altitudes (between 1800-2800m), and therefore species. Tari is especially rich in birds-of-paradise, as proved by our first day where we recorded an incredible 8 species. We had covered some of the same altitudes around Kumul Lodge, and so began our first day targeting lower altitude species that had not been possible until this point on the tour. A short downhill walk (hearing Large-tailed Nightjar, Greater Sooty Owl and Australasian Grass Owl on the way), saw us positioned overlooking a bank of misty mountain forest where we waited patiently for the dawn light to brighten the trees. As dawn broke we began to hear several calling males of our target bird-of-paradise, so we all focused our efforts on emergent dead snags within the forest, as these are used by this species to give its unique and 'alien' display in the early morning light. Tension built as many scanned snags just drew blanks from all of us, before someone with a Swarovski scope found the large black 'surfboard' shape of a displaying male Black Sicklebill, and soon enough all scopes were swung in the same direction. A crazy bird with a strange metallic call and a truly unique display, we later also found a second bird that was content to just call from his perch in the morning sun. We were really pleased to be able to watch this bird at length giving its very weird call and markedly weirder display that is unique amongst the paradisae. The thing about New Guinea birding is there can be very long periods of quiet, followed by moments where everything happens at once. This was the case on this morning, as not long after we began watching the sicklebill, we heard another highly desired species calling behind us. After everyone was made aware of the significance of the sound, it was not too difficult to drag people from the sicklebill and into a local birders garden - a regular haven for birds-of-paradise, where we were soon 'eyeballing' a brilliant male Blue Bird-of-paradise. This ivory-billed species, with its fancy tail streamers and neat white spectacles, comes into this garden daily and calls for prolonged periods from his open perch for nearby unseen females. We watched transfixed for over 20 minutes as the bird remained calling from the open branches of a low tree. Superb. Superb Birds-of-paradise harshly called from the same area and several female Black Sicklebills were also seen in the same garden along with Marbled Honeyeater, Blue-faced Parrotfinches and several Papuan King-Parrots. Whilst walking back up the valley the roadside verges contained several large groups of endemic Hooded Munias. The birding on this morning was thrilling with many new birds and many of these often tough species that are never to be expected. A busy fruiting tree on a nearby trail brought yet another new 'BOP', with first several black-headed females and then a brilliant male Lawes' Parotia. The same area also attracted a male Princess Stephanie's Astrapia and White-breasted Fruit-Dove, and a passing flock there held a fine red-throated female Papuan Treecreeper and several Sclater's Whistlers. We then focused our attentions on a small blind that had been set up by a MacGregor's Bowerbird bower. This species makes a 'maypole' type bower with a distinctive central column of sticks that protrudes out from a clean mossy green arena below. We all enjoyed seeing this strange bower, although the bird itself was very shy. The people positioned in the blind only got glimpses of the bird that was much more visible to the people outside who also got very lucky with the rare Buff-tailed Sicklebill that also showed for them only. Up until now we had been lucky to be only marginally effected by rain on the trip, although heavy rain on this afternoon limited our options a little. In spite of this, a visit to a small mountain garden still found us our main target - Short-tailed Paradigalla feeding on fruits in the driving rain. Rufous-backed Honeyeaters were also fairly common in the area and new to us, being our first visits to these altitudes. Unfortunately the other hoped-for species, Wattled Ploughbill, felt a lost cause in the heavy downpours. Still we could not moan at a list of 8 Birds-of-paradise for the day (Ribbon-tailed & Princess Stephanie's Astrapia, Blue Bird-of-paradise, Superb Bird-of-paradise, Black & Buff-tailed Sicklebills, Lawe's Parotia, and Short-tailed Paradigalla).
One of the more understated birds-of-paradise, this SHORT-TAILED PARADIGALLA was one of five new Bops seen during our first amazing day around Tari.
Shortly after we had first located a dancing male Black Sicklebill, this fantastic BLUE BIRD-OF-PARADISE began calling behind us. We soon 'dropped' the sicklebill and hurried to a nearby garden that also held female sicklebills in addition to this stunner, and also a female Princess Stephanie's Astrapia!
Our second day in Tari and this time we decided to focus on some higher areas in the valley, this time birding some legendary narrow birding trails for some of those forest skulkers that so excite birders. Arriving before dawn though we tried for some nightbirds we were still missing and we all got great views of a calling roadside Mountain Nightjar, that had so frustratingly eluded us at the normally reliable site of Kumul. Before we got onto the trail though we picked up our 8th and final endemic cuckoo-shrike of the trip, with a roadside pair of Hooded Cuckoo-shrikes. We were also justifiably distracted once again by a roadside male King-of-Saxony Bird-of-paradise singing from a mossy, lichen encrusted roadside limb. On the trail itself we lured in a hatrick of new robins - a singing Lesser Ground Robin at the start of the trail, and we later picked up the similarly skulking Ashy (Grey-headed) Robin further on down the trail, and two people had good looks at a scarlet-backed male Garnet Robin. Other skulkers included a brilliant polka-dotted female Chestnut Forest-Rail that came in really close on several occasions allowing everyone views of this small rusty crake; and a very showy pair of Lesser Melampittas that duetted face-to-face on a fallen log within meters of us. Melampittas are another confusing New Guinea taxon, currently being uncomfortably grouped within the birds-of-paradise by Clements, the two melampitta species being the only truly terrestrial species within this family. It was good to also finally track down another 'catch up bird', that had previously only showed to one person at Kumul, when a fully-wattled male Wattled Ploughbill was found feeding unobtrusively in the bamboo close to the trail. This strange bird is currently taxonomically grouped with the whistlers, although is completely unique in having bright pink lobes (or wattles), of skin that hang down from its also uniquely-shaped swollen odd, black bill. A really enigmatic species that was good to finally track down and view at length for everyone in the group. Additionally, Painted Tiger-Parrots in the same area were to prove our only encounter with the species. After a hearty lunch back at the lodge we decided to use the quieter afternoon period to go after a roosting nightbird in a close village. With a little ingenuity a Greater Sooty Owl was seen perched up close to its usual roosting site, that gave us memorable glares as it looked over its boldly spotted shoulder right down at us. The late afternoon birding was typically much slower, with a few more Yellow-billed Lorikeets amongst others, although we did find our only Black-mantled Goshawk of the trip perched up close to Bailey's Bridge.
Our final full day at Tari was again about targeting those 'low down and dirty' forest floor skulkers. We spent some time first high up in the valley along the road where a fine male Garnet Robin was much more obliging than the previous day's bird, this time showing his crimson red back to all. Yesterday's failed attempt at seeing the newly split New Guinea (Northern) Logrunner, was reversed as a pair of this much shyer species (compared to their Aussie relatives), came in really close. We also came across some 'old favorites' from the Kumul area with further views of both Tit and Crested Berrypeckers, although several passing flocks of Plum-faced (Whiskered) Parakeets were new for the trip. Star bird of the morning was to be though for only two of the group that were fortuitously placed to get views of a superb Spotted Jewel-Babbler that came in quietly. However, Sanford's Bowerbird was uncharacteristically more helpful, by responding strongly to tape, and flying in and perching up above all of us where we all saw it very well. Mottled Whistler and Black Monarch were also added to the trip list in the same area.
VARIRATA NATIONAL PARK
Having arrived late afternoon the day before from Tari, we arrived just before dawn full of anticipation at our final site of the tour. Varirata is only a short drive from Papua's capital and therefore can be accessed by staying in the comforts of a good city hotel. This quiet national park is well known to locals although undervisited and is frequently deserted aside from a few keen birders. As dawn brightened the day we stood in a clearing watching a bird-packed fruiting tree that was pulling in a number of frugivorous birds - mainly Pink-spotted and Beautiful Fruit-Doves, along with our first Orange-bellied Fruit-Doves and a few female Raggiana Birds-of-paradise. Not long after it was light enough to venture onto the forest trails, we followed up a calling kingfisher and there amongst the open forest trees we found a brilliant red-breasted Brown-headed Paradise-kingfisher perched in the understorey. On this particular open forest trail these shy forest kingfishers can be easy to find as their rich red breast simply glows out from the dark shadows of the forest interior. We had had a number of run-ins with Sooty Thicket-Fantail previously on the trip with only poor views being achieved, and again the open nature of the forest on one particular good trail led us to all have cracking views of a pair of these striking fantails, as they made their strange, whipbird-like sounds. We then checked in on a roosting Barred Owlet-nightjar, that was found at its usual roadside hangout. We then hit the trails in earnest, where prolonged bird activity brought us a number of new species in addition to second chances at a number of sly species that had eluded some of us earlier on the tour. New birds included our first sightings of Yellow-billed Kingfishers, a lone Yellow-legged Flycatcher, a few Black Berrypeckers, and several Buff-faced Pygmy-Parrots that were watched with fascination as they moved along the trunks of a casuarina tree in a fashion more reminiscent of a nuthatch than a parrot. The trail saw us in the company of several terrific flocks one of which held the scarce Cape York breeder, Black-winged Monarch, a few Fairy Gerygones, in addition to some cool New Guinea endemics including the very skulking Crested Pitohui, several Hooded Pitohuis, and our first, very handsome Chestnut-bellied Fantails. Once again another skulker showed up for one lucky birder, when a White-eared Catbird passed close by and then promptly disappeared, a good sighting for this area. However, the White-faced Robin in the same area was much more obliging perching up on several vertical trunks in full view. This is another cute near-endemic species that also occurs in the remote areas of the Cape York peninsula in Australia. Varirata provided our best chance at Pheasant Pigeon for the tour (although two people had been fortunate enough with it around Tabubil), and this time another person was stunned by a pigeon that decided to cross the track right in front of him.
Two top Kingfishers were seen on our first day at Varirata - first this beautiful BROWN-HEADED PARADISE-KINGFISHER...
...and this was the second of two YELLOW-BILLED KINGFISHERS seen the same day at Varirata.
This morning of the tour will be remembered for only a couple of top quality birds, but what a couple of cracking, mind-blowing species they were. The whipbird family in New Guinea holds some really stunning species, although all of them are frankly tricky to see, being shy forest-floor skulkers. So any chance at seeing them should be jumped at, which is exactly what we did when we heard one of the rarest members of the family calling right at the start of the days birding. We walked a little off the trail and positioned ourselves in an area where all of us had a great view of the surrounding undergrowth - it seemed the bird on this day was helpfully calling right by a great spot for all being able to get views of it. And so it proved, we waited a little for the light to improve, and then began playing its call back to it. At first there seemed to be no response but then suddenly the bird began calling back continually, and gradually closer before someone at the end of the line spotted the absolutely stunning male Painted Quail-thrush creeping in towards us. Somehow he managed to alert all of us without unduly worrying this extremely shy bird, and more amazingly still, all of us were in a great position and got onto it as it slowly walked off into the undergrowth. As if that was not enough, a little later in the morning a bird flushed off the trail proved to be another quail-thrush, this time the slightly more subdued looking female, that again walked off in full view of all of us! We definitely considered ourselves extremely lucky on this one as many, many people are left wanting by this shy bird. The morning was a little quiet after then, with new birds coming in the form of a raucous female 'Eastern' Riflebird (this form is often considered a separate species from Magnificent Riflebird that we had seen at Tabubil) that shot by us a few times, a noisy party of Rusty Pitohuis, and a couple of calling Rufescent (Shining) Imperial Pigeons (here at a much lower elevation than normally expected for this largely montane species). However, the morning closed with yet another cracking whipbird that was initially glimpsed on the trail edge, and was later tempted across the trail several times, allowing all of us to thoroughly soak up this striking pair of Chestnut-backed Jewel-babblers. Other birds seen that morning included a New Guinea (Black) Cuckoo-shrike, another White-faced Robin, and a small group of Varied (Papuan) Sitellas. The afternoon was far from quiet either with a number of busy flocks encountered on our way down from Gare's Lookout. It was just such flocks we were now focusing our attentions on as some of the key remaining birds were all flock species, so they were timely in their appearance. Sure enough the clear notes of a calling Goldenface (Dwarf Whistler) were heard in the flock and soon we enjoyed some great looks at this superb lemon-yellow and powder-blue bird. Although the bird is currently lumped with the whistlers it looks far from anything in that family, and is grouped in its own monotypic genus. The same flock also held Cicadabird, Olive Flyrobin and the distinctly antwren-like Wallace's Fairywren. We then finished the day overlooking the same fruiting tree that we'd scoured the day before, where again Orange-bellied and Pink-spotted Fruit-Doves were in attendance, this time with a lone Dwarf Fruit-Dove, only the second time we saw this species on the tour.
Our final morning was spent mopping up around Varirata and just plain enjoying some final looks at some of those cracking New Guinea birds we had seen before. Once again we ran into a couple of Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfishers, these ones at least allowing some photographs to be taken; Pale-billed Scrubwrens, a Green-backed Honeyeater, a number of Spot-winged Monarchs and several pairs of Goldenfaces (Dwarf Whistlers) were again found in some of the active feeding flocks, for those who required further looks at the latter 'cracker'; and a shocking three separate Barred Owlet-nightjars were seen by one person in the group who saw the regular roosting bird in addition to unintentionally disturbing two other individuals from their day roosts (one of which was disturbed when in hot pursuit of a very vocal Papuan (Mountain) Drongo that was found in one of the flocks in the area). There was even time to tape in another pair of Chestnut-backed Jewel-babblers that proved every bit as obliging as the previous days birds, indicating we were clearly on a roll at Varirata with the whipbirds. A White-throated Nightjar was flushed up from a roost and perched up well, for a couple of people who were still chasing Pheasant Pigeon, that also put in a last gasp appearance for them. Another look at the heavily-laden fruiting tree in the clearing found it to be holding over 14 Pink-spotted Fruit-Doves and 12 or more Orange-bellied Fruit-Doves, while another fruiting tree held over 5 Beautiful Fruit-Doves proving what a great time this can be to visit PNG for fruit-eating birds. Our final hours birding was spent in the open eucalypt woodland and savanna on the park edge, where we still picked up a few new trip birds like White-throated Honeyeater, Leaden and Lemon-bellied Flycatchers and Pheasant Coucal, in addition to a huge group of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, a load of (Papuan) Black Myzomelas, a Streak-headed Honeyeater and several Blue-winged Kookaburras.
BEAUTIFUL FRUIT-DOVES, Varirata. An abundance of fruiting trees in the park brought us great looks at a number of different colorful species, one tree holding Dwarf, Beautiful, Orange-bellied and Pink-spotted Fruit-Doves.
The 'impish' WHITE-FACED ROBIN, Varirata. This is another of those specialties that also occurs in the Cape York region of Australia.
At the end of the tour we amassed 340 species, including 24 species of Birds-of-paradise (23 males of which were seen well by the entire group). The highlights were many and varied. New Guinea truly has an abundance of unique, weird, and downright extraordinary birds that I am sure will live long in the memory. The tour 'opened' in earnest with several male Greater Birds-of-paradise displaying their extravagant plumes in the treetops of Kiunga, with a male Raggiana Bird-of-paradise seen a short time later in the same area of lowland forest. One of our best days in the lowlands came around Ekame, when in one fantastic, unforgettable day we saw a superb 'pole-dancing' male Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise just after dawn, then visited a bower for a memorable encounter with a dancing, shocking red male Flame Bowerbird, and finished the day in company with the scarlet-and-white vision that is King Bird-of-paradise. The highlands of New Guinea provided cultural highs points as we encountered a number of dramatically adorned Huli Wigmen in the Tari area. Although the mountains of New Guinea will perhaps be most fondly remembered for our time out of Kumul lodge. Just around the garden there we ran into Brown Sicklebill, Ribbon-tailed Astrapia, a fiery orange male Crested Bird-of-paradise, Wattled Ploughbill and daily Crested Berrypeckers. However, the singing and displaying King-of-Saxony Bird-of-paradise and Lesser Birds-of-paradise seen on our trips out from there provided some of the undoubted highlights for the trip as a whole. Getting full-on close up views of the lessers, and being able to watch the full, incredible range of their displays was a real privilege and gave us a moment straight out of those natural history films that rarely come in life, without a huge amount of luck and multiple days in the field preparing. Tari was equally dramatic in other ways, our thrilling first day there that saw us add five new Bops in a short time and proved to be another classic day on the tour. When the group willingly leaves a displaying Black Sicklebill for a calling male Blue Bird-of-paradise behind you, you can genuinely say that things are going very well indeed. Later the same morning we also added Lawe's Parotia and Buff-tailed Sicklebill followed by a post-lunch Short-tailed Paradigalla.
Skulkers brought some unforgettable moments, as the time and tension required in seeing some of these highly sort species makes getting them all the more sweet. We did well on this trip for these shy denizens of the forest floor - picking up ALL the jewel-babblers, including several very good views of both Blue and Chestnut-backed Jewel-babblers that completely satisfied everyone's lust for these brilliant birds. On top of that we also managed to see two separate Painted Quail-thrushes one of the most skulking and difficult of New Guinea's ground birds, that included a stunning male that paraded past all of us one-by-one while we tensely waited in position for the arrival of this magnificent whipbird. Although no forest floor skulkers, the kingfishers also deserve a worthy mention, for while not being ground birds they can be equally difficult to get to grips with, and particularly the Shovel-billed Kingfisher at Tabubil was a really great find as it called loudly just after dawn from an open dead branch. Other attractive 'fishers included Common Paradise-Kingfisher that showed at Ekame only a short distance from the spot where both Red-bellied and Hooded Pittas both showed well; and the beautiful Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfishers at Varirata that in real life are far more spectacular than the dull illustration in the field guide. In addition we encountered many, many colorful pigeons and cool parrots that seem to abound in New Guinea. The parrots were headlined by the strange Vulturine (Pesquet's) Parrots that were seen at Ekame and Tabubil; while pigeons brought many notable moments. The world's largest and strangest pigeon - Southern Crowned Pigeon was nothing short of spectacular at Ekame, and multiple sightings of the ground-dwelling Pheasant Pigeon satisfied everyone's cravings for this enigmatic species. On top of this we came across many, many colorful fruit-doves due to an abundance of fruiting trees in our time in PNG including one tree at Varirata that was loaded with over 30 different birds including Dwarf, Beautiful, Orange-bellied and Pink-spotted Fruit-Doves.
Finally, a special mention must go to the nightbirds, as these enigmatic species can never be relied on and are always thrilling to see for that very reason. We started slow on the tour for them (although we did pick up a pair of roosting Papuan Frogmouths on the first day), but eventually picked up some highly-prized 'creatures of the night'. These included an aggressive-looking Greater Sooty Owl at a day roost in Tari; a cute Mountain Owlet-nightjar at Kumul Lodge that remained frozen in one close position long enough (over 30 minutes) for us to gather all the other people who decided to sleep in and get everyone onto this diminutive nightbird; Barred Owlet-nightjar put in a great performance at Varirata where a ridiculous three separate day roosting birds were chanced upon in one day by one lucky observer (all of us getting great views of the original bird); and finally, having missed it at Kumul, it was a great relief to find a Mountain Nightjar later that flew around in front of all of us, on one chilly morning in the upper Tari valley.
Two very special nightbirds - first this MOUNTAIN OWLET-NIGHTJAR showed for over 30 minutes just before dawn on our final morning at Kumul...
...and this BARRED OWLET-NIGHTJAR at Varirata was one of a rediculous three separate birds found roosting in one day there.
So in spite of the fact that New Guinea birding really can be tough and challenging at times, this tour proves that the efforts more than justify the amazing, thrilling rewards. It should be noted however that the birds-of-paradise, that are the undoubted main drawcard for New Guinea, were for the most part some of the easiest birds to find as many were well-known to local people who sometimes have regular stakeouts for these highly desired birds. Although the birding itself was slow and difficult at times, in general this tour was far from physically challenging, meaning that New Guinea, (with frankly some of the very best birds in the world), is easily within the physical capibilities of most birders. We really look forward to going after some of these extraordinary birds again soon.
Taxonomy and nomenclature follow Clements, J. (5th ed. updated 2004) Birds of the World. A Checklist. Pica Press.
Species marked *ENDEMIC* are endemics to New Guinea (satellite islands and New Britain are included within the definition of New Guinea used here).
Those marked with an (H) were only heard.
If a species is often given an alternative name to the one denoted here by Clements, I have indicated the other commonly used name in brackets, for ease of cross-reference with other sources.