Monday 17 October 2016


Here are some of my latest Ornitholidays group in the cloud forests of Papua at 2600 metres. We are looking for a Spotted Jewel-babbler (which on this occasion remains unspotted). We visit three main lodges, two in the highlands, and one in the lowlands. I work with a different birding guide in each place. In the picture wearing red is Joseph, who has turned this patch of forest into a nature reserve. Since he can't get any local or national authority to protect it, he has a team of locals maintaining trails and deterring hunting or tree-felling.

In the same area, we visit these colourful characters, who are Huli Wigmen. The Huli have a long tradition of tribal warfare, which is now illegal. However, they keep their customs alive, such as growing their hair and cutting it ritually to make into wigs that are worn on ceremonial occasions. On the left is the professor of the wig school, with three of his students. A number of bird of paradise feathers can be seen in two of the wigs. (Click on the photo to enlarge). 

A 40-minute flight in a 10-seater plane takes us quickly from highlands down into the steamy lowlands of the Sepik region, in Northern Papua. Our lodge is connected to the outside world only by air or river: there are no roads. For the local inhabitants, the coffee-coloured river is both larder and highway: there are plenty of barramundi in the murky depths which the boys learn to spear from dugout canoes at an early age.  

The villagers harvest sago from the widespread sago palms, and export cinnamon bark by the sackful. For us, the main attraction of the area is the great numbers of parrots (such as Eclectus Parrots and Dusky Lories), imperial pigeons of three species, Blyth's Hornbills, cockatoos - both Palm and Sulphur-crested - mynas, manucodes and many more! We have to be active from dawn to mid-morning and again in late afternoon, since the middle of the day is too hot for man or bird to be out and about.  

 This female Blyth's Hornbill was saved from the local village as a chick after the tree with the nest was felled. Free-flying but totally habituated, she takes slices of banana from the hand, tries to drink beer from the glass and likes to explore the guest bedrooms. Males have chestnut necks. The three wrinkles on top of the bill show that she is three years old. Mature birds have six wrinkles. 

Dawn is a magic time in the Sepik. Flocks of Metallic Starlings and Papuan Spine-tailed Swifts hurry past our boat. Great-billed Herons fly up ahead of us, and the Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise calls from his favourite dead palm just beyond the airstrip. We cover great lengths of river silently by drifting down with the current. The chorus of Hooded Butcherbird, Spangled Drongo, Zoe's Imperial Pigeon, Helmeted Friarbird and many others is memorable. At present the villages are only small, and almost all the forest intact. But how long before palm-oil plantations change the place for ever? 

Back in the highlands, we spend time watching birds of paradise - such as this male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia - at another lodge. Huge amounts of papaya, pineapple and passion-fruit are put out to satisfy great numbers of honeyeaters - mostly Common Smoky Honeyeaters and Belford's Melidectes - plus a few astrapias, Brown Sicklebills (another bird of paradise) and Brehm's Tiger-Parrots. 

Our final full day is in the Varirata National Park in the hills above Port Moresby. The quiet road passes through many beautiful landscapes, including a very Australian-like eucalypt zone, before reaching a patch of rainforest at 800 metres, where one of the highlights is displaying Raggiana Birds of Paradise. The birdlife is rich throughout, with each visit producing a different set of birds. This time Forest Bittern, Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeon and Papuan Cicadabird were just a few of the species new to me. There was even a new bird of paradise - Growling Riflebird, a recent split from the Magnificent, since instead of whistling, it growls! 

On this latest tour, we recorded an amazing 117 New Guinea endemics. Finally, back to the reality of airports. The instructions in Pidgin are worth a look! For a more comprehensive look at PNG spread over three blogs, see October 2014.