Friday, March 25, 2011

Birding Papua New Guinea

August 2009
(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, text and scenic photos by Chuck Bell)
Thursday, August 6
Our itinerary took us through Sydney to get to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, where we joined a scheduled Rockjumper Birding Tours trip.   Waiting for our flight in Sydney, we had a fascinating conversation with a woman who works for the World Bank in Port Moresby.  She gave us a very good fill in on the copper mining at Ok Tedi, and how the company is very responsibly preparing for 2013 when the copper runs out.  They plan to turn the installation into a training center for ecotourism.  They had a disastrous tailing dam break in 1984 that did serious damage to a lot of villages along the Fly River, and they established a trust which has gotten a share of the profits ever since to provide compensation.  The trust will fund the ecotourism training center.  She also said that Exxon-Mobile is the lead partner in a LNG development that promises to triple PNG's income beginning next year.  There is a whole lot of corruption in PNG, and the government is not interested in World Bank funding because of the oversight and restrictions it requires.  For their share of the LNG project, they borrowed money at very high rates, but with no strings attached, from Persian Gulf countries.  She also said that the level of crime in Port Moresby is really high and no one goes out walking on the streets.  She sleeps behind bars in a very well guarded gated community.

Our 2 hr 45 minute flight on Air Niguini was quite comfortable on a Boeing 767.  After completing formalities at Port Moresby airport, which were quite smooth, and changing dollars into Kina, we were met by Nelson, the meeter and greeter for the ground agent that works with Rockjumper Tours.  We went to the Gateway Hotel, where the check-in was rather confused and we ended up with a room that had no keys.   The buffet dinner at the hotel was excellent, however, and we were grateful for a room with air conditioning, as the climate was warm and extremely humid.  You could almost wring water out of the air.

Friday, August 7
We were up about 6 am and after a cup of nasty Nescafe, we enjoyed the gushing water of the outstanding shower.  We then went out birding on the grounds, joining Stuart, Giles and Renée.  We got three lifers.  We corrected our misidentification of the previous evening and decided that the pair of brown birds we saw, which we saw again this morning, was the Yellow-tinted Honeyeater.  We then had to verify that they also ate insects, when we saw one of the birds devouring a caterpillar.  We also saw a Yellow-faced Myna, and after much disbelief, Chuck finally accepted the fact that the three birds that flew into a tree over the parking area were indeed Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds, a type of Bowerbird very different from those we saw a few years ago in Australia.

At noon, we assembled in the hotel's pizza restaurant for lunch.  We met the other four people who were on the New Britain part of our tour, as well as David Hodinott, our South African Rockjumper leader.  After our lunch of burgers we headed to the airport a little before 1 pm for a 3 pm flight.  We checked in, and 3 pm came and went.  Air Niuguini announced that the plane would leave at 4:30 pm.  We waited some more, birding as best we could from the departure lounge windows.  A little after 4 pm, they called our flight.  We all hustled to the departure door, and three of our group had their tickets taken and were on the way out to the airplane, when they were called back and we were informed that the flight had been cancelled.  It seems the cabin attendants had already put in their allowed hours and could not fly.  So we all trooped back into the main part of the airport, where Air Niugini gave us vouchers for the Crowne Plaza hotel.  The hotel bus was called and we waited, and we waited, and we waited, in the heat and humidity out in front of the airport.  We waited nearly an hour.  We were told the bus had a flat tire on its way to pick us up.  It finally came and took us on the 20-minute drive to the Crowne Plaza, a very fancy hotel down near the port.  The hotel buffet was excellent, a nice consolation for a very disappointing set of circumstances.  David did the best he could dealing with things beyond his control, but today's events were a tour leader's nightmare.  We turned in soon after dinner, as we needed to get up at 2:30 am to get to the airport in time for our flight, which had been rescheduled for 4:50 am.

Saturday, August 8
We left the hotel at 3 am and checked in for our flight.  The airport was extremely warm and humid.  They apparently do not turn on the air conditioning so early in the morning. But we left right on schedule for Hoskins, New Britain.  They even served coffee and biscuits on the small Dash-8 aircraft.  

Hoskins Airport was built originally by the Japanese military in their attempt to take all of New Guinea on their way to Australia in World War II.  The airport was the only place on the tour where we could pick up the Sooty Munia, which we found easily in the grasses alongside the runway.

On the way from the airport to the resort on Kimbe Bay, we stopped at Doré Ridge, where we saw Blue-eyed Cockatoo, tremendous numbers of Eclectus Parrots with their raucous calls, scores of Rainbow Lorikeets & Red-flanked Lorikeets.  A Bismarck Kingfisher posed for us and an ungainly Blyth's Hornbill flew over.  

Flying Fox
We got to the Walindi Dive Resort on Kimbe Bay a little after lunch time.  We sat right down to eat, then checked into our chalet and had some downtime after such an early morning.  In mid-afternoon, we went high up a hill with very tall grasses.  It was very hot and humid.  We saw 8 Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeons, 1 Bismarck Imperial Pigeon, and 2 Red-knobbed Fruit-doves in the top of a tree in the setting sun.  The most exciting thing we saw were huge bats, known as Flying Foxes.  We enjoyed a very good BBQ buffet dinner with a local band for entertainment.

Sunday, August 9
We headed out at dawn for a piece of primary forest that had not been cleared for oil palm plantations (L'Oreal is the primary buyer for use in ladies' cosmetics!)  We worked hard to get the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher and finally succeeded.  We also visited a megapode nesting area, with deep holes in the ground where they lay their eggs and let the heat of decomposing vegetation incubate them.  The natives harvest eggs here twice a week as they have for centuries with no apparent adverse effect on the megapodes.  We observed several of them scurrying away from us through the bush.  They look somewhat like small turkeys that sit in trees. 
Megapode nest

We ate a packed lunch along side our bus on a forest track and watched some flowering trees.  When one person went into the woods for a potty break he found a flowering tree with many birds.  We left our lunch and all scrambled there to see Red-chinned Parakeets and Splendid Myzomela feeding on the flowers, plus a pair of White-mantled or New Britain Kingfisher that sat patiently in a tree over the track giving us all very good scope views.

Palm oil plantation on New Britain
The forest is gone from most of the flatland in New Britain and replaced by palm oil plantations that cover hundreds of square miles.  This monoculture habitat is devoid of nearly all native birds. 

Monday, August 10
We boarded a substantial metal boat well before dawn and headed out into Kimbe Bay.  Our objective was to be at one of the small islands at dawn.  When we arrived, it was just getting light, and we had a hard time seeing any birds.  But we did manage to see a few island species, including Nicobar Pigeon.  We then went far out to where the bay meets the open sea to look for pelagic birds.  We saw lots of Brown Booby, a few terns, and finally, yes, the Heinroth's Shearwater, which is a special for these waters and was a new bird for us.  We also looked for the rare Beck's Petrel, but the sea was calm and the pelagic birding was not good.  We tried to chum, but no birds came to the chum due to the calm conditions.  After awhile, we gave up and headed back into the bay, where we stopped for snorkeling and lunch on a small island.  The snorkeling was fabulous -- we could glide over the edge of a reef and look at literally more than a hundred different species of brightly-colored tropical fish, as well as a fantastic array of corals, many of the species vividly colored.  We sprayed sun screen on each other, but we neglected to rub it in, so our backs ended up very blotchy -- light where the spray hit and red where it didn't.  Quite amusing!  We then began our slow return to the lodge dock, picking up a host of terns along the way, and Chuck was thrilled to get a Black Noddy, which he had never seen before.  It was quite a distant sighting, but it was clearly an all-dark bird with a bit of white on the head, and appeared smaller than the Brown Noddy, which was also present.  
Dawn at sea off New Britain
Back ashore, we showered off the sea salt from our snorkeling and headed out again up to the grassy ridge near the lodge for more birding.  We debated whether or not to go, but we were glad we did, as we had a very good sighting of the Superb Fruit-dove, another new bird for us.  The highlight of this late afternoon outing was to watch a Blue-eyed Cockatoo perched up on the end of a snag and display by fanning his wings.  

There were also some very beautiful views out over the sea with storm clouds bracketing some of the old volcanoes that jut from the bay.  We learned from a New Zealand gal working on ecotourism in New Britain, who accompanied us today, that the Bismarck Archipelago is still quite active volcanically, with at least two active volcanoes, frequent earthquakes, and thermal fields.  We observed one thermal field from the boat.  She also told us that getting tourism going on the island is really difficult, because the people tend to fight among themselves -- each little area has its own tribe -- and the violence could well involve visitors, making many areas of the island unsafe to visit.

Tuesday, August 11
We got up at 3:30 am for a 4 am breakfast followed by departure for the one-hour drive to Hoskins Airport.  As we waited for our 6:45 am flight, we birded the airfield, picking up Clamorous Reed-warbler in some tufts of high grass just beyond the aircraft parking apron.  The airport was a real two-bit affair, with contract security guards making desultory checks of our luggage and then a rather inefficient check-in process.  But we didn't mind, as we still had time to bird. With security non-existent we were able to bird from the end of the runway.

We each picked up 42 species on New Britain.  Our totals for the trip so far are 101 birds seen, with each of us getting 49 new species.

Upon our arrival back in Port Moresby, we stopped at a store for water, and Chuck bought rubber Wellingtons for $8.50 to use later on during the trip.  We went to Varirata National Park, which has a great number of bird species.  We found the gate locked.  It seems all the park service people were at a meeting.  So Dave consulted with Daniel, a local ornithologist who had joined us for the day, and we set off down a very slippery forest track.  The object of our trek was the Barred Owlet-Nightjar.  Daniel knew the general location where the bird roosted, and he found it after perhaps 10 minutes of searching, sitting very quietly and well camouflaged in a tree crevice.  We all got good views, and Nancy got some reasonable pictures despite the low light and all the foliage in the way.  We could not go very close to the bird as it would surely have flushed if we did.  This is a very cool looking bird and our first for this family. 
Nancy with Daniel, photographing Barred Owlet-Nightjar

We then trekked off down the main trail, which was extremely muddy and slippery on the steep parts.  David had found a nest of a rare Doria's Goshawk, and we went to the nest location.  The bird was there but flew off the nest as we approached the area.  We waited for about 10 minutes until it returned.  Everyone saw it but Chuck, who was blocked by some big leaves.  David went and fetched our lunches from the bus, and after everyone settled down to eat, Chuck stayed in view of the nest and was rewarded with a beautiful sighting of this outstanding bird.  

Pacific Adventist University campus
We trekked back up the trail and got back on the bus for the short drive to Pacific Adventist University.   It is a huge, sprawling campus with lots of forest and ponds.  We birded here for the remainder of the afternoon, picking up lots of waterbirds and some passerines.  Our local guides had a pair of Papuan Frogmouths staked out, and we had great views, and great photos, of these birds.  Nancy also had a heyday photographing the water birds, including an obliging Rufous Night-heron who just sat above us in a big tree.  To cap off a very good day of birding, we visited the bower of a Fawn-breasted Bowerbird.  It was an elaborate structure of two 15-inch thick towers of carefully assembled dry grass stocks adorned with green berries impaled on grass sticks.  Chuck took photos of the bower.  We got 10 new birds today out of a total of 51. 

Bower of Fawn-breasted Bowerbird
Wednesday, August 12
We got up at 4 am and our group departed the hotel at 4:30 am.  We had a two-hour drive north to the Brown River area.  It was only about 100 kilometers, but the road was in very bad condition once we got away from Port Moresby.  It appears that money allocated for road maintenance probably gets siphoned off through corruption, which is said to be a very serious problem here.  Once we neared our destination, we turned off on a side road and headed toward the coast.  We birded the mangroves during the morning.  One of the specials we saw was the Mangrove Flyrobin and another was the brilliant blue Emperor Fairywren.  We ate our packed breakfast sitting on a bridge over a river channel, while David called out new birds for us to see.  We then birded along the road, and went down along a beach, where we saw a single but close Beach Stone-curlew, a bird that we tried very hard for with no success in Australia a few years ago.  Nancy got good photos of it.  There were also Greater and Lesser Sandplovers on this beach.  We then birded some more along this back road, where we never saw a car all morning. 

In the afternoon, once it had begun to cool off a bit, we went to a marsh area to check out the ducks, cormorants, etc.  We had a beautiful White-winged Fairywren, and we picked up the Silver-eared Honeyeater, which apparently has never been seen except at a petrol station in the area.  After the marsh, we headed to the petrol station and enjoyed cold cokes.  We got permission to walk up behind the store into a eucalytus woodland where we saw three good birds that we had previously seen in Australia.  Back in the bus and on down the road to a place that Daniel knew as a good location for Common (Galetea) Paradise Kingfisher.  Dave played the tape, and he got a quick response.  We all moved quietly into the forest and watched for the bird while Dave played its call.  A loud racket came from overhead, and Nancy and Stuart had spotted the Rufous-breasted Kookabura, another PNG endemic.  We all took a break from the Paradise Kingfisher and enjoyed this huge Kookabura.  Then we resumed calling and soon we both got on this wonderful Paradise Kingfisher.  We moved back while others worked to see it, which they eventually did.  Chuck also returned to the bus to get insect repellant as there were mosquitoes in the forest.  We then birded the road, picking up quite a few new birds.  Our last bird of the day was a Yellow-billed Kingfisher.  We had a 6 kingfisher day.  PNG must have the highest number of kingfisher species in the world.  The trip list for the day must have totaled 100 birds.  We personally saw 89 species, 19 of them new for us. 

Thursday, August 13
Today was an extraordinary birding day.  We got up a little later today, had breakfast at 5:30 am and were off on our bus at 6 am for Varirata National Park.  We started at the picnic grounds, where we found a flowering tree.  It was teeming with honeyeaters.  We also saw our first Bird of Paradise, a young male Raggiana.  We then took a walk in the forest, where we picked up quite a number of lifers, including a difficult Paradise Kingfisher.  Chuck was extremely lucky to be in just the right place to be the only one in our group to see a Chestnut-backed Jewel-babbler as it shot across the dark, leafy forest floor and disappeared.  We came back to the picnic grounds for lunch and to spend more time looking at the flowering tree.  The tree was behind several others and very tall with all the birds flitting around the highest branches.  It was difficult to find the exact same bird that someone else was looking at and identifying.  One of the locals with us led us over to another tree with three roosting Marbled Frogmouths.  Then we took another walk in the woods for yet another Paradise-Kingfisher, our fourth member of this very secretive and difficult group.  We finished our visit to the park in mid-afternoon with a visit to a Raggiana Bird of Paradise display ground, where we spent close to an hour watching these incredibly beautiful birds flit around and occasionally go into a full display mode, by putting their heads down and making their tail feathers stand up in gorgeous array.  Nancy set up her tripod and camera aimed at one branch where the birds occasionally displayed.  Her patience was well rewarded when birds did use that branch and she was thrilled with her photos.  

While we were watching the display, Dave heard another bird and we all eased down through the forest for very good sightings of the White-crowned Koel, a very rare bird which is generally not seen on birding trips.  

We finished the day with a walk down through a eucalyptus forest on a high ridge, where we picked up a few more lifers.  We stopped for pictures of a waterfall in the deep gorge running out of the park as we headed back to town.  We have noticed over the past two days that most of the people along the road -- and there are a whole lot of them everywhere -- take great pleasure in giving us very enthusiastic waves.  The little kids, especially, have a great time waving and shouting to our bus load of white folks.  It really is quite amusing.  

Even in places like the airport, it is quite customary to make eye contact and smile at complete strangers.  On another occasion, two rural women with two small children were walking down a dirt road where we were birding.  They said a friendly hello to us, then said something to the children that sent them off running ahead screaming and laughing at the same time.  We were sure that the women told the little kids that those white people would catch them and eat them! 

Friday, August 14
Our flight for Tari left an hour late but was quite smooth.  We sat in the very front seats.  Our arrival was clearly a very significant local event.  There were at least 1000 people, wearing brightly colored clothing with brightly colored umbrellas lined up several deep along the airfield fence to see the plane arrive.  

This apparently happens at each arrival, as there are only about 3 big planes a week (ours was a Dash 8).  It made us realize immediately how primitive these people are.  A good number of the men were wearing elements of traditional clothing, particularly tiaras made of leaves and moss.  Some had bones through their noses.  But T-shirts and tennis shoes were evident everywhere as well, attesting to the way modernity is creeping into their lives.  The main market was right across the street from the airfield, and it was thronged with people, creating a constantly moving mass of bright colors.  As we stepped down the stairs of the aircraft, we went over and had a good look at two Oriental Pratincoles on the airfield near the parking apron.  Nancy was able to stay on the airfield and photograph the pratincoles.  Nobody seemed to mind.

Our bus ride to the Ambua Lodge took about 50 minutes.  The lodge itself is a little bit of modern paradise tucked into this remote valley.  There are at least 25 chalets ranging down the hill, and a huge central hall with a beautiful thatched ceiling held up by tall carved pillars.  The central hall housed the dining room, the sitting room and the bar.  Our chalet was round with a conical thatched roof.  It was furnished quite basically with two single beds, a table and chair and two night tables.  It had double doors that opened out onto the forest.

After eating lunch and checking into our rooms, we birded around the lodge grounds, getting the Loria's Satinbird, the Yellow-browed Melidectes, the Black-chested Boatbill and the Hooded Munia, among others.  The weather was quite good for up here at about 6600 feet.  Clouds would come and go and a few dropped very light rain, but we didn't even need umbrellas.  We then got on the bus and went up the road a ways where we birded along the road.  

We saw some very good birds up here, especially the Madarasz's Tiger-parrot which came in very close and fed on a branch above the road, giving Nancy an excellent photographic opportunity.  Another very good bird was the Ifrita, with its blue head and yellow stripe below the eye.  We also saw a couple of different kinds of robin.  While we were birding, a small party of men and boys came along.  Their leader, a very grizzly type, had some English and explained they were going hunting for cassowary (probably dwarf) and a local kind of possum.  They didn't appear to be armed other than with machetes.  They were quite a friendly group and enjoyed having their pictures taken, but they were really quite primitive.  A little later, another hunting party went by while we were very preoccupied birding so we didn't interact with them other than to greet them.  One of the boys in this group had a fairly serious slingshot.  We came back to the lodge in time for showers before dinner.  After dinner, we did the day's checklist and then went out and found a Jungle Boobok owl, which was hanging around the lights of the lodge.  It is a fairly small owl, with eyes that shine bright red in the light of a nearby flashlight. 

Saturday, August 15
One could say that today was the day for which we took this trip.  It was a superb Bird of Paradise day.  In total, between morning and afternoon birding, we saw 6 different Birds of Paradise or closely related species.  We started the day birding a road.  A male Princess Stephanie's Astrapia settled in some nearby trees drawing gasps of disbelief from our group as we looked at its incredibly long broad tail, at least 3 or 4 times longer than the bird.  As if we hadn't seen enough, shortly afterward, a stunning male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia settled into a tree, dragging its even longer two white ribbons behind it.  They look so fragile it's a wonder they don't get shredded in the trees.  But there he was in full splendor.  We got back in our bus and went up the road a little farther, until we came to a screeching halt ordered by David who had seen a King of Saxony Bird of Paradise sitting commandingly on a bare snag.  The two extremely long delicate feathers protruding from its head were a marvel, and Nancy worked very hard to try to get a decent photo of this distant bird.  But the scope views were smashing.  

Bellford's Honeyeater
We drove on up to the Tari Gap, on a road which heads south toward Mt. Hagen.  We reached the high country near the gap, and the forest opened up into grasslands at about 8800 feet above sea level.  We stopped and put our binoculars on a small grove of trees.  David pointed out a fruiting tree which has had good birds in the past, and indeed they were still there, including Plum-faced Lorikeet and the Black-throated Honeyeater, both relatively high altitude species that are extremely hard to get.  We were blessed up here, and indeed all morning, with wonderful sunshine, which is rare up here in the highlands.  We headed back down the hill to Ambua Lodge for lunch, stopping occasionally to bird along the way.  We saw two more Tiger-parrots, the Painted and the Modest, as well as the Belford's Honeyeater, which at these higher altitudes replaces its cousin the Yellow-browed which is so common around the lodge.  Back at the lodge, Chuck managed to get on a female Superb Bird of Paradise, which he had missed yesterday.  And a Loria's Bird of Paradise flew through the trees over the chalets.  We had seen Loria's yesterday as well.  We had some down time before and after lunch, but it started to rain after lunch.  We went out in the bus anyway, to an area they call the garden.  Along the road, we saw a small group of Red-breasted Pygmy Parrots, tiny little birds no bigger than a sparrow but still very much a parrot.  We enjoyed them through our scopes.  In the garden, Chuck picked up the Yellow-billed Lorikeet, which he had missed yesterday, but then it really started to rain hard and we returned to the lodge about 4:45 pm. 

Sunday, August 16
We started the day with some road birding down the hill from the lodge, scanning the tops of dead trees for perched Birds of Paradise.  As we were getting out of the bus, a few, including Nancy, saw a Lawe's Parotia drop from a tree but it was replaced by a Black Sicklebill.  The tree itself was a long ways away, and a scope was necessary to see the long curved bill of the sicklebill.  A few minutes later, a beautiful male Blue Bird of Paradise appeared, giving us yet another of this wonderful group (which also includes the parotia and the sicklebill).  We then birded along the road, picking up several more species including Marbled Honeyeater, Papuan Sittella and Hooded Cuckooshrike.  We donned our boots and headed down a forest path to look for skulkers.  After trying the calls of several species, Dave got the Lesser Ground Robin to move rapidly in a circle around us, about 10 yards away, offering fleeting glimpses as it moved through holes in the foliage.  Down in the forest, we also saw both the Large and Papuan Scrubwrens within a few minutes of each other giving us a good opportunity to compare size and coloration.  A third new species, the Black Fantail, was also added to our list as we enjoyed a beautiful rufous female and a jet black male. 

We returned to the lodge for lunch, then went several kilometers back toward Tari to see a cultural demonstration put on by the Huli Wigmen.  Through an interpreter, we learned how bachelors spend 18 months with a teacher growing and caring for their hair.  We never did quite get the significance of it all, but they clearly still follow these traditions, which include ornamenting themselves in bird feathers (top knots from the Dwarf Cassowary) and wearing little skirts made out of leaves and ferns.  It is actually quite normal to see men along the road wearing various elements of traditional garb, especially head-dresses made of ferns.  And a lot of men have their noses pierced. 

After the wigmen, we went to a small farm where a Sooty Owl is known to roost.  The farmer beat the living beejesus out of the big tree trying to get the owl to come out, and he even stuck a very long bamboo pole down into the hole, but either the owl was not in there or was too frightened to come out.  The guy was relentless as he is only paid if he produces the owl.  But it sure was a violation of the ABA Code of Birding Ethics!!!!!  We got back in the bus and tried a second tree along the road, to no avail.  We did manage to see three new species while we were waiting to see if the owl would pop out.  We got the Capped White-eye, the Black-breasted Whistler and the Brown-backed Gerygone.

Monday, August 17
We started the day with a short trip down the road to scan the treetops for the Lawe's Parotia, but while the sky was perfectly clear up at the lodge, we got into low cloud about 100 feet above the scanning point.  We couldn't see a thing, so we turned around and went back to the lodge to pack up and have breakfast.  By the time we got back down the road to the scanning point, the cloud had cleared but the only good bird we saw was a very distant King Parrot.  We continued on to Tari to get there in time to check in for our flight.  The check in office was across the road from the air strip and was exceedingly primitive.  A Huli Wigman in full regalia was the chief guard employed by the airline.   I never thought I would hand over our bags to a "savage" in full regalia.  But he was really a nice guy and even spoke a little bit of English.  As on the day we arrived in Tari, the place was teeming with people in brightly colored clothing.  And many of the men wore various types of head dresses. 

We checked our bags in, and eventually moved the bus out to the airstrip once the guard found the key to the gate.  We waited there for about an hour before the plane came in.  This has to be one of the few places in the world served by commercial scheduled air service where you can walk out onto the airfield and go birding.   Nancy had some very good photo ops with some Australian Pratincoles that came in very close.  We boarded the Dash 8 aircraft and departed Tari only about 15 minutes late. 

Our bags came off the plane really quickly in Port Moresby and we raced through to get in line to check in for our next flight (don't even think of trying to check your bags through from one Air Nuigini flight to another!).  Our flight to Mount Hagen left only about 15 minutes late and was a jet, a Fokker 100.  We got our bags and piled on our bus with brightly covered seat covers.  We headed up the hill to the Kumul Bird Lodge, which sits at about 9000 feet on the slopes of the 12,500-foot Mount Hagen.  We went straight to the upper deck to look at the bird tables.  A beautiful Brown Sicklebill was there.  It was great to see!  Then darkness set in and we went to our room to shower before dinner.  The rooms are basic, and the shower leaves much to be desired, but it really is quite cozy, all made of native materials, including straw mat walls. 

Tuesday, August 18
Breakfast was at 6 am, and we were out on the balcony as soon as it got light enough to see well.  What a show!  The Brown Sicklebills were seemingly everywhere, including 3 different males that came in, dragging their very long tails behind them and giving their machine-gun-like calls.  The cute little Brehm's Tiger-parrot was at the feeding table more often than not, and the Ribbon-tailed Astrapias were much in evidence, including a young male with a short tail, and then a fully developed male with an extremely long streamer trailing behind him.   A Chestnut Forest Rail appeared pecking at fruit scraps beneath the table, and around the corner of the building, Nancy spotted a Fantailed Berrypecker.  A young Archbold's Bowerbird, a rather rare species, came in, and it appeared to be developing a crest, suggesting it was a male. 

Juvenile Archbold's Bowerbird
We all walked down next to a grassy area next to our cabin (giving Chuck a chance to duck in and put on a T-shirt, as it was so cool and damp), and we saw a small group of Crested Berrypecker, which with the Tit Berrypecker gives us a clean sweep of this small bird family, which is a new one for us.  We then took a short walk in the forest and picked up Mountain Mouse Warbler and Lesser Melampitta, which looks and behaves exactly like the very secretive dark tapaculos of South America. 

In the afternoon, we took our bus down the road to another trail operated by the lodge.  It was a very difficult forest trail cutting through a couple of very steep gullies, and the birding was equally difficult.  We did manage to coax a Wattled Ploughbill out of the bamboo.  Farther up the trail, Nancy saw movement in the trees and it turned out to be a small flock of Black Sittella, which thrilled David as he said he had only seen them on one previous tour. 

Mount Hagen Birding Lodge
Wednesday, August 19
We departed in the bus a little after 5 am and headed down the mountain to a lower elevation, where lodge founder Max knew of a display tree for the Lesser Bird of Paradise.  After travelling about an hour in the bus, we all crammed into a 4X4, which had been following us from the lodge, and climbed the last 20 minutes up a very rough mountain road.  We arrived shortly after dawn, and were pleasantly surprised to see that the local farmer had developed a viewing site for birders, complete with thatched shelters in the event of rain and with a nice trail carved out of the hillside.  The birds were indeed present.  There were about 5 males in total, and though they were quite far up and often hidden by leaves of the display tree, we all had good looks through the scope.  From this viewing site, we also had good views of the Ornate Honeyeater, and fleeting views of the New Guinea White-eye, and a good view of a Midget Myzomela with its brilliant red head gleaming in the morning sun as it sat at the top of a flowering bush. 

We then got back into the 4X4 and went back down the hill to our bus.  After awhile, we arrived at another site that Max knew, this one for the Yellow-breasted Bowerbird.  As we rounded a hut and walked out onto a grassy promontory, we saw two bowerbirds perched in a distant tree.  David also called in a Brush Cuckoo, which we had seen in Australia, and the New Guinea White-eyes came through and perched right out in the open on a nearby bush giving us all stellar views.  Back in the bus again to another site, this one for the Magnificent Bird of Paradise, which  we quickly found high up in a tree.  Though he was well hidden, most of us saw his bright yellow back, enough to record a lifer.  Then we headed back toward the lodge stopping at a bridge to look for two river birds.  The Torrent Flycatcher was right there on a tree over the river, gleaming in its black and white plumage.  Shortly thereafter, Nancy spotted the much more elusive Torrent Lark, which was popping in and out from behind rocks on the far side of the river.  We put the scopes on it and all had very good looks.  We then returned to the lodge for a bit of downtime and lunch.

We then went for a walk in the forest below the lodge, getting no new birds.  However, Dave had a very brief view of a female Crested BOP, and we hurried back the trail to go up by the lodge to see if we could find where she was headed.  We paused momentarily on exiting the trail for a brief close view of two Papuan Lorikeets.  We then spent the remainder of the afternoon looking for the Crested BOP, to no avail, and Nancy took more photographs around the feeding table.  While we were watching from the upstairs balcony, a young male Brown Sicklebill began a very amusing display, rolling over on its back on the ground, flapping its wings and opening its large bill.  

Around 5 pm, a lodge staff member spotted a Mountain Firetail down in the parking lot, so we all trooped down there for close views of this small bird with a very red tail.  At 6 pm, we headed down a very steep trail that left from near our room in a quest for the endemic New Guinea Woodcock.  It was a very difficult trail to descend, mostly muddy log steps until we got to the bottom a good 100+ feet below.  We walked a ways in this dense forest in the fading light until we came to an area where Dave and the local guide Max had seen the woodcock previously.  We all stood very still for at least 20 minutes, and finally we heard a loud croaking coming from near where Dave was standing.  We all moved quietly up to him and saw this bizarre bird, somewhat similar to the American Woodcock but much larger and flying up in the trees.  It then flew over to another branch, where Chuck had a good silhouette view of it, and then back to the branch it was first seen on, where Dave was able to put a light on it so we could all see it in some detail.  It was a fine ending to an excellent day of birding. 

Feeding Table at Mount Hagen Birding Lodge
Thursday, August 20
This morning, our destination was a fruiting tree that Max knew about 15 minutes down the road.  We began by hiking up a very steep trail and when we came to the tree it didn't take us long to realize that it was no longer fruiting.  We hung around there for about 2 hours, though, as David most likely did not have a real alternative for us this morning in view of the fact that we have gotten nearly all of our targets here.  We hoped in vain that the Lawe's Astrapia would appear.  But we spent time looking at both Blue & Superb BOP through the scope.  One of the two male Superbs displayed for quite a long time.  Nancy also spotted some larger birds higher up in a tree and they turned out to be Stout-billed Cuckooshrike, a lifer for us.  David commented that this is one of the targets he had for us at Tabubil.  Max said he saw a male Lawe's but none of us could find it, so we walked back down to the bus and drove up to do the very difficult Max's trail that we had done yesterday.  At one point Chuck had a fleeting glimpse of a Lesser Melampitta, and we tried in vain for a few other deep forest species like Wattled Ploughbill, which Stuart still needed to see.  Then we went to a spot that David knew was a territory for Forbe's Forest Rail.  He played the repetitive duck-like call for quite some time and finally the bird answered.  Nancy and Chuck were at the front of the line and Nancy spotted the bird hidden in dense cover on the ground.  She told Chuck to look over her shoulder, and he saw the bird though not in the same detail that Nancy did.  Then the rail moved down out of sight, and David's attempts to bring it back up failed, so no one else in the group managed to see the bird, to much consternation.  We then hiked a couple of trails around the lodge, and David brought in another Lesser Melampitta, so now everyone in the group has been able to see it.  We also saw a black phase of the beautiful Papuan Lorikeet.  We climbed back up toward the lodge and just below our cabin, Stuart spotted a blaze of yellow-orange high in a tree.  It was a wonderful male Crested Bird of Paradise, the species we have been trying so hard to see over the past three days. 

Friday, August 21
We boarded our Airlines PNG flight at noon and arrived in Port Moresby an hour and a half later.  We went quickly through the domestic terminal check-in process and reboarded the same aircraft for our flight to Tabubil.  To our surprise, the plane landed at Moro which is just down the road from Mount Hagen, where we began the day's journey.  Moro is an oil field depot, and we dropped off four workers.  We were only on the ground about 10 minutes before we took off again, heading north for Tabubil.  After about 40 minutes, we saw the big river below us that has been completely silted up by a big tailings dam break at the Ok Tedi copper mine in 1984.  The plane was low but as we approached the airfield, there was a bank of clouds close to the ground and the pilot had to abort the landing.  We went back up in the sky and headed south to Kiunga, where we had a ceiling high enough to land.  There wasn't much to Kiunga airport either, just a shack and a gravel strip.  Airlines PNG called for a bus, and as we waited, we watched the pilot and co-pilot button up the plane for the night and head to the Kiunga Rest House in their little van.  Before too long, our bus arrived, a typical bush vehicle with windows covered with such a layer of dirt that you could hardly see out.  We loaded our bags through the back window onto the back seat of the bus, and along with three Australian guys heading for the Ok Tedi mine, we set off on the 3 - 4 hour journey up the gravel mining road for Tabubil.  Dave had to be very firm with the driver and the baggage guy to keep them from stopping and picking up friends, etc., as this journey was clearly somewhat of a lark for them.  We arrived at the gates of Tabubil after about 3 hours and 15 minutes, which we largely spent dozing.  

After clearance by the security guard, we headed to Tabubil, a bit of Australia plunked down in this remote corner of PNG, a rather large modern town that is completely self-sufficient and entirely devoted to the copper mine.  It is the quintessential company town.  The company is quite nice to let birding groups come here, but ordinary tourists, or anyone else without a purpose, is not allowed in.  The bus dropped us at the Cloudlands Hotel, where Dave had called ahead and had our room keys ready and steaks, fries and ice cream on order.  We dropped our bags in our room, waded through the horde of New Guinean middle managers downing beers and chain smoking cigarettes in the beer garden (it was Friday night), and went into the restaurant.  At dinner, we met the local bird guy, Kwiwon, who lives in Kiunga.  He has worked with Dave for 3 years.  His English is quite good.  He told us that due to the weather pattern up here, only 40% to 50% of the flights manage to land.  We went to our rather sterile, but quite efficient, hotel room and fell asleep.

Saturday, August 22
We had a 6 am breakfast and 6:30 am departure on a rather dilapidated bus with very dirty windows.  We headed up hill from Tabubil toward the Ok Tedi mine, but turned off on the Dablin Creek Road, which was a road along a water supply pipeline, and it climbed very steeply.  The bus drove a little ways up and we got out and started to climb on foot, birding as we went.  It turned out to be a spectacular morning's birding with many highlights, chief among them the Carola's Parotia, which we saw at a considerable distance through the scope -- first a female, then joined by a young male, and then finally an adult male bird.  Other new birds this morning included Orange-breasted Fig-parrot, White-eared Bronze-cuckoo, Scrub, Long-billed and White-eyed Honeyeaters, the very tiny Obscure Berrypecker, which was only discovered about 10 years ago, the Black-shouldered, Black-tipped and brightly colored Golden Cuckooshrikes, Variable Pitohui and Black-winged Monarch.  We returned to the hotel around noon.  

Salvadori's Teal
After some down time, we went out in the bus at 2:30 pm to the Ok Menga Hydro Plant, where we picked up the beautiful Salvadori's Teal, fishing in the swift waters of a river.  We then walked the road, which had a very long tunnel that we had to pass through, and in a small flock of birds we picked up Glossy-mantled Manucode.  We were merrily birding our way down the road when a barefoot village man carrying an axe and machete started screaming at us.  Obviously, he was not pleased we were on his clan's land, even though we were on a public road.  He insisted we depart, which we did.  The clan is cutting the forest and that might be part of the reason he didn't want us around, or he may well have thought we were a party of surveyors looking to take the land.  Anyway, we returned to the hotel, and Kwiwon's later talk with the clan headman still did not result in permission for us to bird there tomorrow.  

Sunday, August 23
Up again at 5 am for breakfast at 6 am and departure at 6:30 am.  We went back to the same road we were on yesterday morning.  Nevertheless, we did well on this same road again this morning.  We got 7 more lifers, bringing our total for this road to 20 so far.  Two Black Coucals were calling from the scrub below us, and we saw one.  Up in the forest, we saw Ruby-throated Myzomela and Pale-billed Scrubwren.  Chuck was quick to get on the White-rumped Robin but thought it was the very similar White-winged Robin until later.  Nancy saw the bird too, but not as well.  She spotted white-eyes for the group, which turned out to be the new species for us, Black-fronted White-eye.  And we managed to get on to two very high Goldenface, which are classed with whistlers but probably are not part of this family.  The highlight of the morning was a very good view of a wonderful Mountain Kingfisher, a very rare species which we really didn't expect to see.  This blue and rufous bird sat very still on a vine not too far from the trail.  We also had a very good scope view of the female Carola's Parotia, better than the view we had yesterday.  American ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen from Michigan State was birding the same trail and shared her scope so we could see the Rose-breasted Pygmy-parrot, which we had seen briefly before on this trip.  Chuck in turn called to her to come see the female parotia in our scope.  She is on a grant funded by MITRE Corp. to produce pictures and sound for a website.  She is the lead author of the excellent two-volume “Birds of South Asia.”  We returned to the hotel at noon for a 12:30 lunch and downtime until 3 pm.

While we were resting it began to drizzle, and the light drizzle continued all afternoon.  Dave said this is the usual weather for Tabubil.  We have just been extraordinarily lucky to have 2 days without rain (it did rain at night but not during the day).  We took the main road up toward the mine and birded along it for a bit.  On a side route, along the slurry pipeline, we saw an Ivory-billed Coucal, also known as the Greater Black Coucal.  It was huge at more than 2 feet long.  Its bill was white, rather than black as in the Lesser Black Coucal that we saw this morning.  With rain putting everything down, we drove through town and went west to a small farm where Kwiwon and his colleagues had gotten permission to bird.  There was some forest around the farm but it was rather degraded.  We had two flybys of Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, in response to Dave's playback, but the bird never perched in our sight.  The farmer said they sometimes heard Shovel-billed Kookabura up in the back, and we all trooped up there to the amusement of his extended family, and played its call, but to no avail.  With rain continuing, we returned to the hotel for showers, checklist and dinner. We were amused this afternoon by some signs using the local language, whatever it is in these parts (New Guinea has 850 different languages).  We saw a sign for Yuk Creek, and a street in Tabubil was named Fukup Street!

Monday, August 24
We set off in our bus, with our luggage, at 6 am to return to the farm and try for the Shovel-billed Kingfisher.  We got there at first light, and we heard the bird calling way up the mountain from the farm.  Dave tried without success to coax it down to where we could see it.  We all piled back in the bus and set off for Kiunga, which is 85 miles down toward the coast from Tabubil.  On the way, we had a Papuan Nightjar fly right alongside the bus.  At a stop, we saw Gray, or Bare-faced Crows, and we finally got reasonable looks at flying Dusky Lories.  As we were stopped, the first of three convoys of 22-wheeler trucks came by.  The mining company runs its ore delivery and resupply trucks in convoys up and down this road, which it maintains.  Since it has been relatively dry the past few days, the dust from the gravel road generated by these trucks was awful.  One convoy had 9 of these huge rigs in it.  When the convoy comes, you need to stop and let it through.  We set off from our birding stop and had a reasonably pleasant drive in our rattletrap bus, until we came to a village with a market.  The whole convoy had stopped for something and was just getting underway.  We had to wait for it to pull out completely, and that meant that it was ahead of us on this road, churning up mountainous clouds of dust.  We hung back as much as we could to let the dust settle, but it was very still and humid and the dust just hung over the road for a long time.  We couldn't hold back too long, either, as there was another convoy behind us.  So we drove mostly with the windows up in the sweltering humidity, with dust seeping in around the windows.  Nancy said it was like taking a 4-hour sauna with a dust bath thrown in!  We finally reached the town of Kiunga about 11:30 am and headed right for the Kiunga Guest House.  It is in a seedy part of town and looks like a warehouse from the outside, but once inside it is a bit of an oasis with lots of rooms around a swimming pool, and the air conditioned rooms are quite nice and very spacious with living room and kitchenette. Nancy showered to get the caked dust out of her hair. We had quiche for lunch and rested up in preparation for our afternoon's birding in this new, and much lower habitat.  Kiunga is on the Fly River, which winds its way up here for nearly 800 kilometers from the sea, but it is such a huge river, that big ocean-going vessels come all the way to Kiunga to service the copper mine operations, including taking on most of the ore which is transported down here as slurry through a pipeline that is nearly 100 miles long.

Asian Koel
In the afternoon, we went out about a half hour from town to the place where David Attenborough was hoisted up into a tree to cover the Greater Bird of Paradise for his BBC film, "Birds in Paradise" in 1996.  We saw the tree where he filmed the birds but they no longer display there.  Our local guide Samuel was the one who helped the BBC crew and Attenborough, and he made arrangements with the land owner to conserve this large piece of primary forest.  We birded at the entrance to the path back into the forest and got some lifers, including Pinion Imperial Pigeon, Streaked Lory and Trumpet Manucode.   Nancy also saw an Asian Koel.  We walked back into the forest toward where we could hear the raucous calls of the displaying Greater BOPs.  On the way, we saw the very rufous Papuan Babbler, and some of us saw the Green-crowned Longbill.  We stayed at the display area for quite some time, and while the birds never displayed on their most prominent perch, since it did not appear that any females were around, we did see one male strutting his stuff high on another limb.  There must have been 5 or 6 birds calling from the tops of the trees, but they were not easily seen.  The forest was incredibly hot and humid.  When we came out, we were all soaked with sweat. 

Tuesday, August 25
We had breakfast at 5:30 am and were off at 6 am for a roadcut, where we could climb up on the sides and get an overview of the forest.  Dave called this PNG's "canopy tower!"  It was indeed a very good place to spot birds.  We picked up 10 lifers standing up here where we actually got a bit of breeze and were quite comfortable up through 10 am, when we dropped down into the forest.  Highlight birds were Flame-headed Fig Parrot, Eastern Golden Myna, Crinkle-collared Manucode (we wish we had seen this one better), a pair of Golden Monarchs and finally the target Flame Bowerbird.  In fact, it was a morning of bright yellow birds. 

In the afternoon, we went back out to the Greater Bird of Paradise display area.  It was incredibly still, hot and humid.   It has not rained here for 3 or 4 days, and that is very unusual in this extremely wet area.  This appears to have put the birds down.  Even the BOPs were slow to start calling in the afternoon.  We again tried for some forest skulkers to no avail.  On the way out, Dave and Kwiwon heard and then found Wallace's Fairywren high in the trees. 

Wednesday, August 26
We were up early and on the bus by 6 am for the short ride down to the river.  The level of the Fly was quite low, and we had to don our rubber boots and walk through very sticky mud to reach the boat.  It was an open outboard, about 18-feet long.  We boarded it near the port and saw a big ship tied up.  We went upstream on the Fly for quite a long ways and eventually turned off on the Elevala River.  We birded some as we went, picking up many Collared Imperial Pigeons, and once we got on the narrower Elevala, we chased a Great-billed Heron upstream.  We stopped at a place on the Elevala and scrambled up the slippery, muddy bank to a forest trail.  It led to a King Bird of Paradise display tree, and sure enough, there was this brilliant red and white bird with a bright yellow beak, black breastband, and two wires coming out of its tail.  It came in repeatedly and climbed up a display branch, giving us all very good views and giving Nancy a chance to get some photos.  
We all got back in the boat and continued upstream, taking a fork of the Elevala to look for Crowned Pigeon.  But no success, and we returned to the junction, took the other fork, which was the Ketu River, and continued to Kwetu Bird Lodge.  It was built by the enterprising Samuel, whom we had met two days ago and who is training other guides, including Kwiwon.  He gets a lease from the family or clan that owns this land and built the lodge.  The one we came to is new this season.  It seems the land owners at the old site did not take care of the lodge, so he ended his lease and built a new one, all out of native materials.   Like all the houses here, it is elevated up one story to catch the breeze and get away from mosquitoes and humidity.  It has a dining area in front and eight small rooms, each with two single beds, behind.  The cookhouse is separate.  The staff for the place comes up in a separate boat each time there are clients up here.  The river level is so low that it is getting tough to navigate through shallow places, but Kwiwon says it gets even lower sometimes, making it impossible to come up here at all.  We are fortunate that it isn't any lower. 

Appproching the Kwetu Bird Lodge
By 2:30 pm, with the sun out, it was incredibly hot and humid.  We went out in the boat to go across the river to a trail the guys have cut through the forest.  Getting in and out of the boat was very difficult, with all the mud, but no one went completely down in.  As soon as we all got up on land, we heard the calls of the White-bellied Pitohui.  David played the tape and the birds answered back but only showed themselves very briefly at eye-level in the trees.  We then all walked the forest trail trying various birds without success.   Finally, near the end of the trail David managed to get the Hook-billed Kingfisher in the scope for all to see.  We got back in the boat and began cruising the river looking for Southern Crowned Pigeon.  We stopped along a sandbank to let it get darker and give the pigeons time to come into trees along the river and roost.  We resumed our float downstream, and after a strong rain shower that got us all pretty wet in the open boat, we finally saw two lovely Crowned Pigeons high in a tree.  We saw their incredible crown of plumes.  With this target under our belts, we headed for the lodge. 

Thursday, August 27
We slept fairly well last night, given the fact that we could hear everything going on around us through the thin palm-frond walls.  The rain, which was quite heavy, ended after a couple of hours.  The staff had coffee for us at 6 am and we left in the boat at 6:15 am for a short trip down river.  We spotted our target, the 12-Wire Bird of Paradise but we also saw a Southern Crowned Pigeon at the same time.  Kwiwon elected to see the pigeon first as it would soon be leaving its roost, and he knew that the BOP would be there for awhile.  So we all enjoyed the pigeon with its frilly hairdo and then disembarked on a mud bar to watch from a distance a displaying 12-Wire Bird of Paradise.  His wires (he had only 11) were quite visible through the scope, dangling and bouncing from his tail as he displayed on a branch.  We then all trooped into the forest on a path that Kwiwon knew about and with playback managed to get good scope views of a Little Paradise Kingfisher, the most shy of the paradise kingfishers, and which is not often seen on birding trips.  We then returned to the lodge where the camp staff had prepared eggs, toast and baked beans for our breakfast.  We packed up and reboarded the boats to return to Kiunga.  Along the way, we stopped at Kwiwon's village, a neat assemblage of houses scattered through the bush.  It is home to about 200 people.  It was extremely pastoral in mood.  The little school, built of split bamboo as are all the buildings here, was in session and we could hear the teacher talking.  We went on down a carefully maintained trail through the village and out into their rubber plantation, where another of Samuel's trainee guides had located the bower of the Flame Bowerbird.  He had built a hide out of palm fronds, which we all crowded into, and we watched and waited for the bowerbird to return.  After about 1/2 hour, the bird came in, and we all took turns marveling at this incredibly beautiful red and yellow bird through the hide window.  Nancy managed to get a few photos.  Then back to the boat and on to Kiunga.  While waiting for the bus to arrive, a guy came up in a motorized dugout.  He had two huge catfish and four very large wheels of latex rubber which is how they consolidate their products for market.  We returned to the Kiunga Guest House for lunch and to hang out on the hot veranda until later in the afternoon when we would know whether or not the plane could land in Tabubil or in Kiunga.  About 3:30 pm we got word that our plane had managed to land in Tabubil, so we all piled on the bus and set off on the 3 hour drive up to the Cloudlands Hotel.  It was another long, hot, dusty ride. 

Friday, August 28
We were up at 4:30 am after a good night's sleep, had an early breakfast and went to the airport for our 6:45 am departure for Moro and Port Moresby.  At breakfast, we had chatted with the pilot, Mike Wilkins, who is an American living in Samoa and working for Airlines PNG.  He used to fly for Continental. We arrived in Moresby right on schedule and headed over to the international terminal, where we had to wait 2 hours before being able to check in for our flight back to Sydney.

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