Thursday 23 October 2014

PAPUA NEW GUINEA - People and scenes

We came across this amazing funeral procession during our first day in the highlands. (Click on the image to enlarge). The men have smeared face and torso with yellow clay. They were so pre-occupied that no-one noticed our vehicle going past. The funeral was for a local business man who had recently been taken ill in Port Moresby. 

At our first lodge we spent time with Max, local birder and orchid-grower. Living not far from the lodge, he invites guests for a tour of his orchid garden, which he has built up over several years. He has 200 species, and knows most of their scientific names. He also helped us find several birds of paradise and many other strange species such as ploughbill, ifrit, melampitta and bowerbird.

Temperature and humidity were quite different at the next place, a lodge in the Sepik lowlands in the north. We spent mornings and evenings out on the river, keeping cool in the breeze and watching flights of lorikeets, cockatoos, imperial pigeons and birds of prey. 

The river is full of fish including the delicious barramundi. Boys learn to spear them from a young age. The kites, herons, egrets, darters and cormorants also had fishing in mind, though when we were there river levels were very high. There were few places for herons to perch. We had a spectacular thunderstorm that lasted most of one night.

 A speedy charter flight soon had us back in the highlands. We spent four nights at the beautiful Ambua Lodge, where many species of birds of paradise feed in the garden. From here it's a short drive up to the tree-line at 2800 m, but most of the time we stayed near the lodge and explored its magnificent Waterfall Trail.

The river that flows through the lodge grounds has many impressive waterfalls, and quieter stretches like this. Here I saw a Torrent-lark, a New Guinea endemic that had eluded me on previous trips. I took this shot from one of the three suspension bridges - all built by a bare-footed forester whom we met with his umbrella (but no machete).

The wood is all lashed together with strong lianas - all cut locally. Both bridge and builder deserve a photo of their own! 

One of the highlights of a visit to Ambua is an opportunity to watch the local Huli people perform their traditional war-dance. Traditionally this was a prelude to battle with neighbours, usually over land, women, or pigs. Between them they are wearing a frightening number of bird of paradise and lorikeet feathers! 

Yellow and red clay is smeared on the face. The black 'hat' is in fact a ceremonial wig made of hair which is grown and cut at a local wig-school. The blue feathers are the breast feathers of the Superb Bird of Paradise, with lorikeet feathers above. Now that they are forbidden by law to fight with their neighbours, they keep their culture alive at annual shows, school openings, etc.  

Wednesday 22 October 2014


Further to my last post about Birds of Paradise, here are a few more PNG birds. Brehm's Tiger-Parrots live in highland forest, and in a few places become confiding visitors to bird feeders, where they enjoy papaya and pineapple. They have a comical way of moving down a branch: by a series of jumps alternately facing left and right. Tiger-Parrots are a group of four species endemic to the New Guinea mountains, staying under the canopy of forest and never flying over it. This is the largest: 23 cm. We got to know its plaintive ee-yore call.   

Owlet-nightjars are a small family (neither owls nor nightjars) almost endemic to Australia and New Guinea. Swifts and hummingbirds are (surprisingly) their closest relatives. This is the forest-dwelling Barred Owlet-nightjar. As it peered out of its hole, it somehow reminded me of an Aye-aye. They feed only at night on insects taken by pouncing on the ground or in flight. Not much is known about the nesting ecology of this species, but its repeated yapping call could be mistaken for a small dog's.

 Here's another bird that has been confusing taxonomists. The Blue-capped Ifrit (formerly Ifrita) used to be classed as a babbler, but is now placed in its own family (between monarchs and drongos). It behaves like a nuthatch, exploring lichens, mosses and epiphytes on cloud forest trees. In the sun, the blue cap is as brilliant as any hummingbird. It lays a single egg in a bulky nest of moss and plant material. Its rising and falling song has the quality of a child's squeaky toy. The word ifrit is Arabic for a spirit or djinn.  

This male Regent Whistler was photographed in the same forest garden as the Ifrit, at 2800 m. When two males meet each other, they can expand the yellow nape patch in defiance and sing a loud whistling song. Related to the whistlers are the pitohuis, a group of New Guinea passerines whose skin, flesh and feathers have recently been found to be poisonous, thanks to a beetle that forms part of their diet. 

Also up in the cloud forest lives Belford's Melidectes, a large honeyeater. They are common, conspicuous, noisy and bullying towards smaller birds such as tiger-parrots, which they chase away from a food source. Their varied notes, both clear piping and harsh cawing, were often our morning alarm calls. The nest is a cup of twigs and moss; but despite their abundance the egg is still undescribed. Melidectes means 'receiver of honey' in Greek.

A birdless photo here, but instead the bower of MacGregor's Bowerbird. The owner made it quite clear he was too shy to pose in the picture. Up on a ridge at 2100 m, we came across this 'maypole bower' of small twigs built up around a small sapling with a mossy 'running track' around it. The male may decorate it with berries and fungi. The male - a stocky brown bird of 26 cm with a flattened orange crest - spends most of the day near the bower; while the crest-less female has to attend to all nesting duties on her own. Maintaining that bower is a full-time job!

Finally, not all our PNG tour was within forest. We spent time in savanna, and boating along a river in the Sepik lowlands, in the north of the country. Near Port Moresby our first outing was to a campus where two lakes held a variety of duck, cormorants, herons and egrets, plus grebe, jacana, and swamphen among much else. This group of Plumed Whistling-Duck were non-breeding visitors from Australia, which is only a short flight across the Torres Strait. Thanks again to Jenny and Bryan for these photos. Soon I will post a few PNG landscapes and some of its more colourful human residents!  

Tuesday 21 October 2014

PAPUA NEW GUINEA - Birds of Paradise

I am recently back from leading my second Ornitholidays tour to Papua New Guinea. At our first lodge, this male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia has just emerged from the forest after his annual moult. Our hosts told us that when they are without their tail streamers, they don't like to appear in public! Here the tail is only a third of the length it will soon become - in older birds it may reach a metre in length, about four times the length of the body. Quite apart from the tail, the iridescent plumage on head and neck are stunning. In nuptial display, males droop wings and arch tail streamers as they leap between branches, advertizing themselves with noisy wingbeats. In all we saw 15 bird of paradise species - which would have been 18 if three had not recently been found (by DNA analysis) to be better placed in separate families.

Look carefully at the astrapia on the right for an idea of full tail length. (Click on the image to enlarge). Astrapias are mostly frugivorous, especially enjoying the knobbly fruits of the umbrella-plant Schefflera (illustrated). They live in the cloud forest from about 2400 m to the tree line at 2800 m. The females have much less spectacular plumage, and have to attend to all nesting duties alone. She builds a large, grassy nest in places like the centre of a tree-fern.  

By comparison, the Short-tailed Paradigalla is almost dull - the glossy black plumage relieved only by a striking lemon-yellow face-wattle. We found it common in the garden of our third lodge, which is also up in the highlands at 2100 m. Their diet is fruits and animals found in epiphytes such as insects, spiders, worms, frogs and skinks. Although the male has no more fancy plumage than his mate, he takes no part in nesting duties. The name means 'paradise chicken' - a reference to the cock's comb-like wattle. 

 The Brown Sicklebill is another highland bird of paradise - this is a female. The male has a much longer tail, and glossier, mostly black plumage. His machine-gun territorial call is a distinctive feature of the mountain forests - it is audible up to 2 km. This individual was a regular at a bird-feeder where papaya and pineapple were favourite items. Sicklebills also find insect food behind bark, within rotten wood and inside epiphytes.

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise sets one record: surely no other bird name has six words. The male's two head-plumes emerge from ear-tufts and can grow to 50 cm; his whole body length is only 22 cm (smaller than a Blackbird). The courtship song is a spluttering jumble of insect-like notes that has been described as bad radio static. He can entice a female by raising and waving the plumes; but if she shows interest, he leaves his perch and continues courtship in the undergrowth. 

Finally, the Raggiana Bird of Paradise is the one lowland species in this selection. Males take five or six years to reach maturity, and come to the same lek (display ground) year after year. They are noisy, producing a repeated wau wau wau which echoes round the forest. They are persecuted in some areas for their superb plumes, which are used in many tribal war-dances and performances. However, as with all members of their family, forest destruction is a much greater threat. Many thanks to fellow travellers Jenny, Bryan and David for allowing me to use their images while I was busy with the telescope. My next post will feature a few interesting species from other families.  

Sunday 12 October 2014


Latest films of our regular visiting Otter, caught on camera traps. Clips edited by Clare.

Copy and paste: 

Sunday 14 September 2014

Arctic Canada - landscapes, seascapes, etc.

...starting with a skyscape! On 2nd September we were steaming along the east coast of Baffin Island. Just after dark we were treated to a great display of shimmering Aurora borealis above us (if anything, a little to the south of us at about 66 degrees north). My staff colleagues quickly fired up the hot tub on Deck 6: a perfect spot to enjoy the show and keep warm. The lights lasted about an hour. 

In mid-August much of the sea off Baffin Island still had a partial covering of ice. Near Pond Inlet we take to the zodiacs to enjoy and photograph the floes, seals, skuas, kittiwakes, etc. This has been the heaviest year for ice for some years, and prevented us sailing through the North-west Passage. 

Out on the zodiacs again - see the red jackets in front of the left side of the long berg (and click on the image to enlarge). Much of the Baffin Island scenery is on a vast scale. These are the Akpait Cliffs - 800 m high - from which the guillemot chicks were jumping (see the previous blog). Akpait is the Inuit name for guillemot. As we looked up from our tiny boats, the huge cliffs reminded us of the architecture of a Gothic cathedral. 

Gibbs Fjord is 50 miles long and navigable to the end - one of the many impressive features of East Baffin. The huge cliffs on both sides gave misleading ideas of scale: a Polar Bear swimming along the shore was barely visible even with binoculars. 

These lonely graves on Beechey Island belong to two sailors from Sir John Franklin's expedition in search of the North-west Passage in 1845. Three men from the two ships Erebus and Terror died during the first winter. They were recently exhumed and re-buried: lead poisoning was implicated in their deaths. As I arrived home last week, news arrived that one of Franklin's ships has been found at last, and photographed on the sea-bed off King William Island. 

On a community visit to Pangnirtung, we were warmly received and invited to a ceilidh! The local Inuit had learnt a number of complex dances from Scottish whalers who had exploited the Bowhead Whales in the 1920s. Now Bowheads are strictly conserved, with a quota of just one for the whole of Baffin Island each year. This summer our ship, the Akademik Ioffe, has visited Pangnirtung three times - the only ship to visit at all. The village is famous for its artwork: much of it was bought by our passengers! 

Back on board, we try out a blues jam in E minor in the bar. Passenger Steve (guitar) is joined by staff members Nate (ukelele), Simon (banjo-mandolin), Boris (harmonica) and Quinn (percussion), while former BBC film-maker Peter Bassett looks on. Thanks for the photo Rob. 

One of many memorable sunsets during my five weeks on board. Most of these photos are mine, but many thanks to the fellow-passenger who shared the Northern Lights image. 

Arctic Canada - wildlife

I'm just back from Arctic Canada where I spent five weeks on the good ship Ioffe as one of the naturalists, trying to spot distant Polar Bears and whales so that our passengers could enjoy views like this. Here is a mother with her two well-fed second-year cubs, in the sea north of Baffin Island. There were plenty of Bearded and (their favourite) Ringed Seals for their meals. The yellowish tinge of the fur (compared with the ice) is a good indication of a possible bear at two miles distance (thanks to my Swarovski scope). 

We were lucky to have great views of Narwhal, a rare and elusive Arctic whale with a unique tusk (in adult males). This was the origin of the myth of the unicorn, propagated by traders who would not reveal the source of this spirally-carved ivory (click on the image for a larger view). They show little of themselves above the water, but the whitish mottled skin is distinctive. The name is Norse for 'corpse whale.' Growing up to 4.5m in length, they are sociable animals, swimming in loose groups of over a hundred. In theory they are protected from over-hunting by a quota system.  

A much more widespread cetacean is the Orca, not a whale but the world's largest dolphin. We were surprised to find this pod at 70 degrees north. Up here their diet is mostly fish, but seals and even Narwhal should be wary of them. Narwhal usually find safety under ice, where the long-finned Orca cannot go. But in mid-summer when ice has melted, Narwhal seek refuge from their predators in shallow bays. 

One of our most memorable bird encounters was watching the fledging of the half-grown chicks of the Brunnich's Guillemots, known in America as Thick-billed Murre. At two weeks old, the chick makes an almighty leap from its nesting ledge with its father: perhaps as high as 800m above the sea. Though its wings are useless for flying, they can glide and help the chick to head out to sea, avoiding the Glaucous Gulls waiting on the rocks below. They can dive immediately to avoid danger. Now they swim together towards Greenland, learning to fish and fly as they go. At this time the parent moults his feathers and becomes flightless for a few days. These auks are truly pelagic, spending all their time out at sea except when they have to return to land to nest. 

 The Gyrfalcon is the largest falcon in the world, much prized throughout the ages by royalty and more recently by Arab sheikhs both for hunting and as a status symbol. My staff colleague David took this photo as it fed on a Kittiwake on Devon Island, north of Baffin Island. It allowed a surprisingly close approach, not only to David but also to a group of passengers who chose to hike up to the hilltop where it was busy feeding. 

The Long-tailed Skua (or Jaeger in America) is one of three skua species we met on my three Arctic voyages. They nest inland on the tundra, where they feed on lemmings. In early August we met several on the sea-ice, but by the end of the month they had all gone, heading south and dispersing out to sea. They completely change their diet, and spend the rest of the year harrying seabirds such as kittiwakes and terns, forcing them to disgorge their fish meals. 

 Finally, another staff colleague came across these Snowy Owls on the point of fledging. Thanks Nate! We had been watching the pure-white male up on a distant ridge, where he found a lemming and brought it over to the chicks. It has been a good year for Snowy Owls on Baffin Island, with several appearing on the shores as we steamed past. My next blog will feature some Arctic landscapes, seascapes, residents, and Northern Lights! Many thanks to fellow passengers for letting me share their photos. 

Saturday 5 July 2014

Some Mongolian Birds

Demoiselle Crane, the smallest of the world's 15 cranes, is a common breeding species in Mongolia. Pairs mate for life and raise two chicks. After the breeding season they form large flocks and migrate to grasslands and wetlands such as the Little Rann of Kutch in Western India to escape Mongolia's fierce winters. Also here are a few larger White-naped Cranes, a rarer species whose main population is in Manchuria, on the borders of China and Russia. 

This Saker Falcon was nesting in an old Raven's nest in a Siberian birch on the edge of the rolling steppe typical of northern Mongolia. As we watched it, we heard a commotion behind us: an immature Golden Eagle was flying through the territory, being harried by the male Saker. These feed mostly on rodents, and are declining through habitat loss and being taken from the nest as eggs or chicks to be sold to Arab falconers. Here's an interesting fact about falcons: just recently studies have shown that they are not related at all to hawks. They are now placed between the woodpeckers and parrots!

This immature Steppe Eagle is another raptor that helps to keep a check on the huge populations of ground-squirrels and voles. In many areas we walked in, the ground was littered with burrows (which were also used as nest-holes by birds such as Isabelline Wheatear and Père David's Snowfinch). The adults are much darker; in winter they migrate mostly to East Africa. 

The rocky gorges of the Gobi mountains hold healthy populations of Bearded Vultures. There is a move to use this name in preference to Lammergeier ('lamb vulture') since they don't take lambs and don't deserve that reputation. Raptors do not need any more bad press! The wing-span is almost three metres, and they are famous for dropping large mammal bones onto rocks below to expose the marrow that is their particular favourite food. With long wedge-shaped tail and widely separated primaries, they have a unique silhouette and a brilliantly elegant flight-style.

And now for something completely different! The Mongolian Lark is a spectacular large lark, 20 cm in length: very distinctive too with rufous crown and wings, and startling white secondaries in flight. They are common in areas that are not too overgrazed, with cover for nesting and an abundance of weed seeds. But most of the steppe we travelled through has suffered the ravages of too many flocks and herds. Trampling of eggs and chicks must be a constant problem for larks in Mongolia. 

The Swan Goose is a declining species, since it is hunted in its Chinese wintering grounds. (Click on the image to enlarge). One lake we visited had a grazing flock of 500 or so, which made a wonderful sight as they flew over us to rest on the water. Around the capital Ulaanbaatar we came across a few families with goslings. The same lake shore had three eagle species too: Steppe, a wandering immature Golden, and a rare Great Spotted. 

The Gobi steppe has small numbers of this elegant Oriental Plover breeding. This is the white-headed male; the female has more camouflage for incubating. In the same habitat is the Greater Sandplover. We saw both species on our first morning in the Gobi, along with our first Bactrian Camels and Pallas's Sandgrouse. Like most waders, this plover has a clutch of three or four eggs. It migrates to south-east Asia and Northern Australia.

This is the male Pallas's Sandgrouse, which we usually saw in pairs or small groups. In some years they can be seen by the thousand. A century ago, they would occasionally wander to western Europe, and there have even been breeding records in Britain (Yorkshire and Moray, 1908). Now these eruptions no longer happen, presumably since the population has reduced with more steppe being converted to agriculture.    

Finally, the bird that my group seemed to enjoy more than any other: Henderson's Ground Jay. They are a true corvid, that makes a nest in an almond bush in a dry watercourse. On our last day we watched four birds for half an hour: two were burying almonds just as our jays bury acorns. Sandy coloured on the ground, they show a striking black and white wing pattern in flight. But usually they prefer to run. One we followed for a while was an expert in outwitting us, running over ridges and disappearing, sometimes doubling back on itself. Three of the above photos are mine - for the others I have to thank Mitko Petrakiev and Purevsuren Tsolmonjav.  


A week ago I returned from co-leading the first Ornitholidays tour to Mongolia. We flew via Beijing, and visited the Terelj National park first, in the north. This is the Terelj river, which flows into Lake Baikal in Siberia, on the southern edge of the great boreal forest known as taiga. By the river poplars and willows grow well; on the hillsides around grow substantial forests of Siberian birch and Siberian larch. The bird life includes Daurian Redstart, Pine Bunting, Isabelline Wheatear, Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Jackdaw and Red-billed Chough. I will illustrate some of the birds we saw in the next blog - this is just an introduction to the country.  

In almost every place, we stayed in gers (the Mongolian word for yurts). This one is fancier than most - but they were all spacious, with two beds, and a stove which we needed some evenings since we had cold Siberian winds on some days. The stoves burn wood, coal, and (most commonly) dried dung. Gers are also used by nomadic herders whose large flocks of sheep and goats are a feature of the country. In Terelj we also saw plenty of yaks and yak-cow hybrids. 

In the second week we flew to the south of Mongolia, to the great Gobi Desert. Most of it is stony steppe-desert, beautifully scented with Artemisia (wormwood) when you walk on it. Mongolia is the only country with wild camels: the two-humped Bactrian. However, the ones we saw were all domesticated - many are used for riding. Not all flat, the Gobi has ranges of hills and rocky gorges inhabited by Lammergeiers and Golden Eagles.  In the flatter areas live Pallas's Sandgrouse and small numbers of Oriental Plovers. Before overgrazing became an issue, it must have been a paradise for Great and MacQueen's Bustards too. (The latter used to be called Houbara - but is now split, with Houbaras confined to North Africa and Canaries). There are also plenty of rodents - ground squirrels, pikas, voles and gerbils. 

The famous Gobi sand-dunes are confined to one small area: 160 km long, on average about 8 km wide, and impressively high. A stream flows along the bottom, making a great contrast with the lush grass and patches of blue iris. Here we found Demoiselle Cranes, Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Kestrels, Asian Short-toed Larks, Saxaul Sparrows and Asian Desert Warblers. 

Here's a staff photo - our two drivers on the left, Puji our Mongolian guide, my co-leader Mitko and myself. We travelled in two Russian UAZ 4x4s - amazingly sturdy vehicles which went almost everywhere including up and down the steepest of hills. We were up on a ridge scanning for Goitered (or Black-tailed) Gazelles, which we found the following day. 

Deserts are usually defined as areas that receive less than 10 inches of rain a year. Here our leading UAZ has just emerged from an axle-deep flash flood pouring across the steppe from the nearby hills where torrential rain fell one morning. The sandgrouse didn't have far to fly for a drink that day. We came away from our June week in the Gobi with our preconceptions changed - throughout our stay it was much colder and wetter there than during the same week in the UK! I'll be taking thermal gear next visit - then no doubt Gobi will be back to its usual summer baking heat.