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.

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