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.  

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