Papua New Guinea Sep 19—Oct 12, 2009
Posted by David Bishop
This was one of those tours you just dream of: a fabulous group of sharp-eyed, charming, and entertaining participants, and some truly spectacular birds. This was arguably THE most comprehensive tour ever offered to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the enormous birdlist reflects this, coming in at a whopping 435 species of birds and at least 10 species of mammals identified. But the list and numbers can never really convey the wonder of such a journey; yes, we did see 23 species of birds-of-paradise and 18 species of kingfishers, but any trip—and especially this one to PNG—is so very much more. Despite PNG's sometimes insalubrious reputation, the people are undoubtedly among the most friendly and fascinating on our planet.
Thunder literally did "rumble across the heavens," and from the early hours the skies deluged our mountain fastness—Kumul Lodge—with rain Australia can only dream of. Not, you might think, a propitious beginning to our one full day in the high mountains of New Guinea. Think again. Despite the rain, which did relent now and again, we were absolutely in the right place at the right time. Kumul Lodge hosts one of the finest bird feeders in the world (ironically it is the only bird feeder in all of PNG) and is host to some of the world's most spectacular birds. With a delicious breakfast under our belt, our entire group repaired to the large verandah overlooking the feeder. Birds came and went; more food was added by our obliging and thoughtful hosts; some of us took up vigil on the lower floor; and all the while our local guide Max wandered around looking for anything to add to our already sumptuous feast. Imagine sitting, coffee and cake in hand, leisurely watching a full adult male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia or Brown Sicklebill just a few yards away—and then suddenly Max is yelling (in a hushed voice) to come look at a male Crested Satinbird behind one of the cabins.
The rain continued, so it was back to the feeder, and gradually this absolute gem of a place began to share its secrets. First it was the female Archbold's Bowerbird, pugnacious and not very attractive, nevertheless providing prolonged and unparalleled views of a bird that is normally very difficult to see. Then it was Brehm's Tiger-Parrots, Belford's Melidectes, Common Smoky Honeyeater, and occasionally a male Regent Whistler—how dapper is he! The normally secretive Rufous-naped Whistler pottered to and fro, providing a never-ending scene of fascination. Cameras continued to click, the rain puttered on, and another break saw a White-winged Robin at the nest. Much to everyone's delight, a speckled dasyure—one of New Guinea's elusive carnivorous marsupials—arrived at the feeder and foraged assiduously for maggots buried in the table of mosses that now covered the feeder. What a charmer! Then, just a moment before lunch, a female Chestnut Forest Rail wandered into view beneath the feeder. Simply unbelievable!
Again the rain continued, so after lunch most of us maintained our watch, although a halfway decent break in the torrent permitted a short leg-stretch into the lodge grounds to enjoy Crested Berrypeckers. Sadly, the Painted Tiger-Parrots seen earlier by Max and Dion had disappeared. Back at the feeder things were really hotting up, and much to this leader's astonishment a Bronze Ground-Dove had put in a brief appearance. Fortunately we had a very quiet and patient group, and within 30 minutes he was back—and so confident that he actually hopped from the ground right onto the feeder before being poked at and driven off by a pesky Belford's Melidectes! To see any Gallicolumba is exceptional, but to see one repeatedly and so well is nothing short of astonishing.
To conclude this "rained-out" day, at dusk we all trooped down into the forest (happily the rain had finally stopped) to a clearing where Max had discovered a spot where we could actually see the almost mythical New Guinea Woodcock. Barely had we settled into position than we heard the strange calls of a woodcock roding; one bird briefly dropped into the forest and clambered along an angled trunk before disappearing again. Was that it? Fortunately not. Just as Max had predicted, this fantastic bird called again and flew in and perched right in front of us on a clear, exposed tree limb, permitting us the most wonderful views of this very rarely encountered endemic. As always, we had inquired about the resident owlet-nightjars, but Max shook his head and said they had been too disturbed by some visiting birders and were now very difficult. Well, the goddess Orni was with us, and those who persisted were treated to some exquisite views of this most un-avian of birds!
This was just one of the many remarkable days on our 2009 tour of Papua New Guinea. I have lived in and visited PNG (and West Papua) for 34 years, and yet there is still so much new to see and be excited about. Just a handful of this tour's highlights for me included:
* Returning down the mighty Fly River as the sun set; I have never seen skies so immense, gilded in the most fabulous colors from horizon to horizon—a fitting tribute to one of the finest days of birding I have ever experienced in 34 years in New Guinea, and many would agree one of the finest sunsets they have witnessed.
* Exceptional views of the very poorly-known Little Paradise-Kingfisher.
* A male Buff-tailed Sicklebill (bird-of-paradise) that granted me my first sound recording of this very elusive endemic, and some wonderful views as he displayed and foraged in the high canopy of the montane forest.
* A pair of Chestnut Forest Rails feeding young at the Kumul Lodge feeder.
* A pair of the rarely seen Doria's Hawks attending a huge nest deep within the forest.
* Good looks at a New Britain Buzzard as it floated right over our heads one morning.
* Fabulous views of Southern Crowned-Pigeon and male Blue Birds-of-paradise; for a lucky couple, three New Guinea Flightless Rails trundling down the track; and…oh yes, a hunting New Guinea Harpy Eagle!
It is always a privilege to return to New Guinea, which has become in many ways my second home during the thirty plus years I have lived and visited there. To return to this spectacular continental-island with such a wonderful group was sheer joy. Thank you one and all.
Thanks too, to all the people in PNG who helped make this trip so much fun and so successful: Stephen, Anton, Leonard, Jenny, Jimmy, and Gary in Port Moresby; Sam in Kiunga and Tabubil, plus all the girls at the Kiunga Guest House; Benson and all our Huhli and Australian hosts at Ambua; Lyn, Max, and Daniel, and everyone at Kumul Lodge, Florence, and Walindi.
This remarkable country never fails to astonish me. New Guineans are undoubtedly some of the finest and most interesting people on our planet, and they, together with the continuing vastness of this island-continent's forests, its birds and other wildlife, combine to not only produce an outstanding tour, but one that literally rejuvenates the soul. Who will ever forget that flight from Tabubil to Tari over thousands and thousands of square miles of tropical forest wilderness? There really is still hope for our planet. What a place!
Some of you may be surprised at just how many species we saw well AND were able to study through the scope! While a report such as this tells something of what we saw and heard, it only tells part of the story and can never really convey the wonderful overall sights and sounds of New Guinea, its forests, and its people.