New Britain - 3rd August – 9th August 2009

Published by Arjan Dwarshuis (arjandwarshuis AT hotmail.com)

Participants: Arjan & Kees Dwarshuis

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About New Britain

New Britain is the largest island of the Bismarck Archipelago, to the east (and part) of Papua New Guinea. The main capitals are Kimbe in the western part and Rabaul in the eastern part of the island. It is crescent shaped and approximately 600 km long along its southern shoreline. A mountain range with some peaks reaching well over 2000 m acts as the spinal core of the island. The climate is tropical with hot daytime temperatures and high humidity. The infrastructure is limited and the only proper road networks are found around Rabaul and Kimbe. The currency is the New Guinea kina. The island used to be covered in dense tropical rainforest, but mining, extensive logging and the establishment of huge palm-oil plantations along the coast caused the rainforest to be severely fragmented and now only the inaccessible mountain ranges still contain large tracks of forest. Bird-wise the island is not very species rich, but it makes up for this with a high level of endemism. Some families are especially well represented, like pigeons and kingfishers, and the island is home to several endemic birds of prey. Some species are notoriously hard to find like Bismarck kingfisher, yellow-legged pigeon, New Britain bronzewing, white-backed woodswallow, black-tailed monarch, rusty-faced ticket-warbler and some species (especially those confined to the higher mountains) are considered nearly impossible like New Britain rail, golden masked owl, an endemic honeyeater placed in its own genus vosea and all three species of accipiter. Besides these land-endemics two species of tubenose are confined to the Bismarck sea to the north of the island: Heinrott's shearwater and Beck's petrel. Both species require a pelagic trip off Kimbe.

The main birding areas

The most well known gateway for birding is the Walindi Dive Resort, an hour west from Kimbe airport. Several fairly pristine tracks of forest can be found within (4 wheel) driving distance of the lodge. Most famous being the Garu reserve and Pukili. To see all the specials of these reserves, several visits, lots of luck, perseverance and a tape recorder are essential as many species are either rare, very shy, high up in the treetops, depended on fruiting trees or a combination of all these factors.

The Garu reserve is the place to be for pigeons as a road runs straight through the reserve, which provides good views of the hillsides. Most common is emerald dove and the spectacular red-knobbed imperial-pigeon and with some effort black-, finch's-, and yellowish imperial-pigeon, brown cuckoo-dove, red-knobbed fruit- and white-bibbed fruit-dove can all be seen. Pied cuckoo-dove requires a bigger effort and you have to be very lucky to see one zipping across the road. There is even a recent record of yellow-legged pigeon from this area. The higher ridges should be scanned for circling birds of prey; among the many brahminy kites; black honey-buzzard and pacific baza are sometimes seen. The endemic kingfishers are all present. But although they are often heard, they are difficult to see as the road through the reserve is quite busy with traffic to and from the nearby oil plantations. Parrots are common and there noisy calls are ever present, besides blue-eyed cockatoo, purple-bellied lory, red-flanked- and red-chinned lorikeet, buff-faced pygmy-parrot, eclectes parrot and rainbow lorikeet, the endemic song parrot and the rare bismarck hanging-parrot are sometimes seen. Melanesian scrubfowl breeds in the reserve. A short trail runs to their mount were the locals harvest their eggs. Though shy, some of these weird birds should be seen here. Two spectacular endemic coucals (violaceous and pied) are readily found in thick tangles along the roadside. Endemic passerines are also present, with long-tailed myna, Bismarck flowerpecker and New Britain friarbird definitely being the most common. ashy- and red-collared myzomela are a little bit more scarce and black-tailed monarch and little shining flycatcher are both real difficult birds, especially the latter.

Pukili is another birding hotspot. It's located to the north of the airport and sort of controlled by the people living in the small village at the entrance, so a visit should be arranged via the Kimbe dive resort staff. A small dirt-road runs straight through the reserve and provides the best (accessible) birding on the island. The harsh descending calls of the magnificent black-headed paradise-kingfisher are ever present. Seeing one however is a whole different thing. The birds are extremely shy and when they respond to the tape, they only zip past and immediately freeze on a secured branch several meters below the canopy. The endemic race of variable dwarf-kingfisher regularly feeds around small puddles on the road. Don't miss this bird, it could well be a future split and therefore the fourth endemic kingfisher species on the island. White-mantled kingfisher should hide somewhere in the canopy: In 2009 however, we only managed to hear the bird, it sounds much like collared kingfisher. Black-tailed monarch and lesser shining flycatcher are fairly doable and with some persistence with the tape-recorder they can be lured in to view. All the species mentioned for the Garu should occur here, but since the canopy is closed, pigeons and parrots are more difficult to observe. In 2009 two New Britain Boobooks were roosting in a large tree on the right side of the road, a rare opportunity to observe this endemic owl. There is a recent report of New Britain bronzewing by a Rockjumper tours group, tape recordings were made of its booming call.

Not to be missed is a boat-trip in search of the critically endangered Beck's petrel (This bird was considered extinct for over 80 years till it was rediscovered several years ago), some 50 miles out on the Bismarck sea. We were the first twitchers to give this mythical bird a try... and we succeeded! Some special arrangements should be made with the staff (ask for a very friendly guy named Allan) to take you out on a small dive boat around 03.30 AM. Allan knows the exact coordinates where we observed a bird in 2009. If the weather is calm you should arrive at daybreak and the staff will put a floater (essentially frozen chum) out. Heinrott's shearwater and wedge-tailed shearwater are both common, but beck's petrel is much rarer (we observed only one bird very well for about a minute. Obviously it was attracted to the floater, but it didn't linger. We were able to make a 10 second video-recording, but the oceanic swell makes filming extremely difficult). Around a huge bait-ball (look for circling frigatebirds) hundreds of white-, gray-backed-, bridled-, sooty terns, brown boobies and brown noddies (black noddy not 100% sure) participated in a feeding frenzy along with two streaked shearwaters and a white-tailed tropicbird. On your way back, make sure to stop at Malo Malo island, one of the best places in the world to see Nicobar pigeon along with yellow-bibbed fruitdove (seasonal and missed by us) and island imperial-pigeon. The eery calls of the pigeons give an amazing prehistoric vibe to this picture-perfect island. Don't leave until you see all the specials: island monarch, sclarlet-bibbed myzomela, beach kingfisher and mangrove golden whistler.

Some birding can be done around the Kimbe dive resort. Blue-eyed cockatoo, New Britain friarbird, ashy myzomela and thick-billed munia are all common. In the evening it can be very relaxing to lay back with a beer on the veranda and watch ospreys dash down in the tropical Bismarck-sea, while you recover from the difficult birding in the forest The staff is extremely helpful and will provide your every need. And don't forget to do some diving or at least some scuba-diving while your at it, 70% of all the coral species in the world can be found here!

Conclusion

New Britain offers some very exiting birding opportunities. Many areas are still to be discovered and glory awaits the first person to photograph a golden masked owl, New Britain Rail or the vosea honeyeater. The island is easily combined with a trip to Papua and you could even continue to New Ireland and Manus (Superb Pitta being the grand prize). For the time being, Kimbe is definitely the place to be and hopefully they will offer trips into the mountains in the near future.

Species Lists

1.Beck's Petrel
2.Streaked Shearwater
3.Wedge-tailed Shearwater
4.Heinrott's Shearwater
5.White-tailed Tropicbird
6.Brown Booby
7.Great Frigatebird
8.Lesser Frigatebird
9.Little Pied Cormorant
10.Intermediate Egret
11.Pacific Reef-egret
12.Cattle Egret
13.Rufous Night-heron
14.Pacific Black Duck
15.Osprey
16.Pacific Baza
17.Black Honey-buzzard
18.Whistling Kite
19.Brahminy Kite
20.Variable Goshawk (These birds look very different from the Papuan form)
21.Melanesian Scrubfowl
22.Masked Lapwing
23.Whimbrel
24.Common Sandpiper
25.Sooty Tern
26.Bridled Tern
27.Common Tern
28.Grey-backed Tern
29.Great Crested Tern
30.Brown Noddy
31.White Tern
32.Slender-billed Cuckoo-Dove
33.Stephan's Dove
34.Nicobar Pigeon
35.Superb Fruit-dove
36.White-Bibbed Fruit-dove
37.Red-Knobbed Fruit-dove
38.Red-knobbed Imperial-pigeon
39.Island Imperial-pigeon
40.Finsch's Imperial-pigeon
41.Bismarck Imperial-pigeon
42.Yellow-tinted Imperial-pigeon
43.Rainbow Lorikeet
44.Purple-bellied Lory
45.Red-chinned Lorikeet
46.Blue-eyed Cockatoo
47.Buff-faced Pygmy-parrot
48.Song Parrot
49.Eclectus Parrot
50.Brush Cuckoo
51.Violaceous Coucal
52.Pied Coucal
53.Bismarck Boobook
54.White-rumped Swiftlet
55.Uniform Swiftlet
56.Moustached Tree-swift
57.Black-headed Paradise-kingfisher
58.Beach Kingfisher
59.Sacred Kingfisher
60.Variable Dwarf Kingfisher
61.Little Kingfisher
62.Common Kingfisher
63.Rainbow Bee-eater
64.Dollarbird
65.Papuan Hornbill
66.Pacific Swallow
67.Varied Triller
68.Mangrove Golden Whistler
69.Black-tailed Monarch
70.Island Monarch
71.Lesser Shining Flycatcher
72.Northern Fantail
73.Willie Wagtail
74.Scarlet-bibbed Myzomela
75.Black-bellied Myzomela
76.Ashy Myzomela
77.New Britain Friarbird
78.Spangled Drongo
79.Torresian Crow
80.Metallic Starling
81.Long-tailed Myna
82.Red-Banded (New Britain) Flowerpecker
83.Black Sunbird
84.Olive-backed Sunbird
85.White-bellied Cuckooshrike
86.Slender-billed Cuckooshrike
87.Thick-billed Munia