Papua New Guinea Jul 10—Aug 03, 2008
Posted by David Bishop
Thunder literally did "rumble across the heavens," and from the early hours the skies deluged our frontier riverside township with rain Australia can only dream of. Not, you might think, a propitious beginning to our all-day river trip. Fortune though, smiles on the brave, and, as the first hint of dawn caressed the sky, the rain stopped and we were on our way. Cool and refreshing, the skies alone were something to behold, garnished with immense fruit-bats winging their way to roost. As dawn gilded the tops of the trees, clouds of dapper Collared Imperial-Pigeons graced most every treetop, while the distinctive wing sounds of hornbills announced the start of the day in New Guinea's magical lowland forests. This has always been my favorite day of the entire tour, and this year was to be no exception.
Comfortably custom-seated and coxed by arguably New Guinea's finest river-man, Sam Kepuknai, we plowed our way up the mighty Fly with judicious stops for a displaying Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise, more hornbills, and evocative mixed flights of gigantic fruit-bats and large numbers of imperial-pigeons. And all this under a sky of unimaginable colors and the delicious cool that only occurs shortly after dawn in combination with heavy overnight rain. Birds and bats were seemingly everywhere, and we were alone communing with nature; I recall feeling as though transported in time to the early days of D'Albertis and the white man's first exploration of these immense forests. Turning a bend in the river, Sam and I simultaneously spied a distinctive flash as a huge, soft-gray apparition flew low across the river; there, in all its glory, was the world's largest species of pigeon—the Southern Crowned-Pigeon. Perching low and apparently unperturbed, this most magnificent of creatures postured, pirouetted, and displayed, permitting several rare images to be garnered (see the front cover of my report!) before slipping away. Dawn was well upon us now, and the forest was raucous with gaudy Eclectus Parrots in flight and the first practice trill of a paradise-kingfisher. But Sam had "bigger" fish to fry.
Slipping into a sheltered cove and quickly alighting onto a narrow and somewhat muddy trail, splashing and sliding, grumbling and cursing under our breath, and all the while being hushed, we crept upon one of those avian visions I shall treasure forever. Not one but three male King Birds-of-paradise, attended by at least three females, crowed and cavorted just 20 meters above us. The intensity of the red defies even my "purple prose." Truly, what a bird! In 32 years of field work in Papua New Guinea I had never seen more than one male of this species at a display site, and even then they were high in the canopy and difficult to see. This was something, quite simply, spectacular beyond belief, and after nearly an hour of drinking our fill of this most gorgeous of birds-of-paradise, it was very hard to drag ourselves away. But there was so much else to see: great swaths of the forest clad in red-flowering vines; several large flocks of Blyth's Hornbills; two species of paradise-kingfisher including scope views of the little-known and enigmatic Little Paradise-Kingfisher; a Great-billed Heron in ponderous flight; displaying Crested Bazas and a magnificent White-bellied Sea-Eagle tilting on the wing in characteristic pose; a clear-wing day-flying moth of exquisite beauty; a New Guinea water-dragon—the list was endless.
The weather was glorious and we were in the midst of one of the world's last truly great untouched lowland forests. All too soon the late afternoon was upon us and it was time to head back downriver. After an hour of hearing nothing because of the engine's roar, we stopped, turned off the engine, and just relaxed and enjoyed the tranquility. As if on cue, a New Guinea Harpy Eagle glided across the river and landed deep in the canopy of a forest emergent. For the next half-hour we watched in amazement as this mega-charismatic species hopped and clambered around in the leafy canopy, apparently hunting the giant bats roosting in an adjoining tree. While widespread, this impressive forest-dwelling eagle is nowhere common, and this was the first time either Sam or I had ever seen it on tour in the lowland forests. What a coup! And just when we thought that was it, my favorite bird in the world, Palm Cockatoo, flew in and perched over our heads, screeching in the way only this fabulous species can, while at the same time raising and lowering its huge crest. As the sun set, I had never seen skies so immense, gilded in filigree gold, a fitting tribute to one of the finest day's birding I have ever experienced in 32 years in New Guinea.