Papua New Guinea Highlights Aug 20—Sep 02, 2013

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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After a smooth transition from West New Britain, we found ourselves spending a very enjoyable afternoon at the campus of the Pacific Adventist University on the outskirts of Port Moresby. The lovely grounds and wetlands are home to a bunch of birds and this day was no exception. It is one of the only places where you have a chance to see all three species of whistling-ducks in New Guinea (Spotted, Plumed, and Wandering). We managed all three very nicely, plus some bonus ducks including a few Hardheads, Gray Teal, and a showy pair of Green Pygmy-Geese. Grasslands produced the endemic Gray-headed Munia—a delightful species of finch. Then we connected with a Papuan Frogmouth on a nest. This massive nocturnal bird, doing its best to look like a tree branch, is always a favorite with tour participants. Also of note was a recently arrived Pacific Golden-Plover still largely in its stunning breeding plumage. We finished with great scope studies of the beautiful Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove and a trio of Blue-winged Kookaburras.

Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise at Varirata National Park, August 2013

Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise at Varirata National Park, August 2013— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We arrived at Varirata National Park at first light. A fruiting fig in the picnic grounds produced Pink-spotted, Beautiful, Wompoo, and a bonus Dwarf Fruit-Dove. Hooded Pitohui was in fine form—the “poisonbird” showing repeatedly and singing tunefully. More birds popped up including Eastern Graceful, Mimic, and Plain honeyeaters; Yellow-eyed and Boyer’s cuckoo-shrikes; bold Yellow-faced Myna; Red-cheeked Parrot; Rainbow Lorikeet; and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. In the forest interior we hit flock after flock of mixed insectivores or “brown” flocks (the term used for medium large often rufous-plumaged insectivores). Brown flocks produced good views of elusive species like Rusty Pitohui, female Eastern Magnificent Riflebirds, and Stout-billed Cuckoo-shrike with more common species like female Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise, Brown Oriole, and Helmeted Friarbird mixed in. The insectivore flocks produced Frill-necked, Spot-winged, and Black-faced monarchs; Gray Whistler; Little Shrike-thrush; Chestnut-bellied Fantail; Yellow-bellied Gerygone; Black Berrypecker; and Spangled Drongo.

We found some truly elusive species as well including such megas as Pygmy Drongo-Fantail, Green-backed Honeyeater, Sharpe’s Cicadabird, and Sooty Thicket-Fantail. We also found a cooperative pair of Painted Quail-thrush that showed really well for this highly skulking species, and a few of us enjoyed a great view of Cinnamon Ground-Dove. Add to this a perched Variable Dwarf-Kingfisher and a stunning Barred Owlet-nightjar—we were on a roll! After lunch the pace quietened somewhat with a Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher making a vital appearance for a lengthy scope study. Perched Long-tailed Buzzard and Variable Goshawk also made appearances.  We finished up watching the outrageous male Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise cavorting and crowing loudly—intermittently displaying or playing hide and seek in thick forest tangles. On the drive back we spotted Forest Kingfisher and a Pheasant Coucal.

Friendly Fantail at Tari, August 2013

Friendly Fantail at Tari, August 2013— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We settled into the Kiunga Guest House, catching up with many of my friends here: Sam, Jimmy, Edward, Barbara, Sandra, and Anita—all part of our excellent support team. In the afternoon we visited the famous lek of the Greater Bird-of-Paradise at Kilometre 17. The “bops” were in excellent display form; we watched climax displays and even a mating. We also enjoyed the scarlet male King Bird-of-Paradise skulking around in his vine tangle kingdom. Throw in good views of Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise, Greater Streaked Lory, and Pinon Imperial-Pigeon and you have an excellent afternoon.

One of the major highlights of the tour is a full day of birding by boat deep into the jungle along the Elevara and Ketu Rivers, truly one of the great birding days on offer on the planet. The most sought after species is the enormous Southern Crowned Pigeon, the world’s largest pigeon. This species has declined in numbers recently, being vulnerable to overhunting. We were lucky to find one early and get a great view of its filigree crest, maroon chest, and blue-gray feathering with bold wing bar. We had an outstanding session in the flooded forest. First a Red-bellied Pitta flew towards us when a Common Paradise-Kingfisher tried to eat it! The pitta was cowering on the forest floor. Then a Hooded Pitta landed right in front of us and again the paradise-kingfisher came to predate it. White-bellied Pitohui, Hooded Monarch, Rufous-backed Fantail, Golden Cuckoo-shrike, Great-billed Heron, Gray-headed Goshawk, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Collared Imperial-Pigeon, Azure Kingfisher, Palm Cockatoo, Orange-breasted Fig-Parrot, Lowland Peltops, Yellow-bellied Longbill, and Golden Myna were all amongst the high quality lowland forest birds seen on this epic day. An unusual sighting was of an especially large New Guinea Crocodile—a big male at least three meters long, and easily the largest I have seen on any visit to this district.

The following morning we were back in the boat, this time on the trail of the bizarre Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise. We had success watching the male caroling from the crown of a rainforest emergent, even indulging in some display postures without a female present. Then we moved into the forest interior and had a great experience with the male King Bird-of-Paradise, studying his tail discs and epaulettes in the scope. He shared his vine tangle with a beautiful male Superb Fruit-Dove. The afternoon began slowly, but things went electric when a male Flame Bowerbird perched in scope range for a lengthy repeat view. This is a most cosmic bird. The scope came in handy time after time as we viewed glowing Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, obscure Streak-headed Honeyeater, and a wide range of parrots, pigeons, and assorted passerines.

Papuan Lorikeet at Kumul Lodge, August 2013

Papuan Lorikeet at Kumul Lodge, August 2013— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We squeezed in an hour-and-a-half of birding in the jungle before catching our charter flight to Ambua Lodge in the Southern Highlands. The rare Yellow-eyed Starling gave good scope views, a Great Black Coucal snuck across the road, and Yellow-capped Pygmy-Parrots buzzed around. We settled into the very comfortable Ambua Lodge, enjoying the crisp air and getting prepared for a whole new set of birds. We would begin our birding with more of a whimper than a bang as the heavens opened shortly after we commenced. Still, in this time we had great views of Loria’s Satinbird, Yellow-billed Lorikeet, Red-collared Myzomela, and Black-throated Honeyeater, plus more staple fare like clusters of Great Woodswallows, strident Yellow-browed Melidectes, and emotional Smoky Honeyeaters.

The following day we made our plans for a Tari “Big Day” and finished with some 63 species for the day in total. First were Blue Bird-of-Paradise and Black Sicklebill, followed by a beautiful male Papuan King-Parrot with a supporting cast of Black Fantail, White-shouldered Fairywren, Hooded Munia, and a rare heard record of the ultra elusive Lewin’s Rail. Driving uphill, a flowering tree delivered mega views of the scarce Little Red Lorikeet, along with its more frequently encountered comet-like relative, the Papuan Lorikeet. By lunchtime we had Regent, Sclater’s, and Brown-backed whistlers, the mysterious Blue-capped Ifrita, King-of-Saxony Bird-of-Paradise, and a magnificent male Stephanie’s Astrapia in the bag. The post-lunch session delivered Ribbon-tailed Astrapia, Crested Berrypecker, and Dimorphic Fantail to mention a few, while a Speckled Dasyure, a carnivorous marsupial, was a welcome addition to the mammals. The late-stayers turned up Short-tailed Paradigalla, White-winged Robin, and the predatory Black Butcherbird. What a cracking day!

Brown Sicklebill in display mode at Kumul Lodge, August 2013

Brown Sicklebill in display mode at Kumul Lodge, August 2013— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our second full day in the Tari Valley was equally extraordinary. We kicked-off with a male King-of-Saxony Bird-of-Paradise twirling its occipital plumes in the scope. We followed this with a male Stephanie’s Astrapia perched in the crown of a dead tree. Great views of Orange-billed Lorikeet, Hooded Cuckoo-shrike, Varied Sittella, Black-billed Cuckoo-Dove, Rufous-backed Honeyeater, Mountain Mouse-Warbler, Mountain Peltops, Large Scrubwren, Black Monarch, Blue-gray Robin, Black-throated Robin, and the scarce Papuan and more common Blue-faced Parrotfinch kept the list ticking over. After lunch we again opted to try and beat the afternoon thunderstorms by birding almost straight afterwards. We were in luck when we flushed the long-staying Sooty Owl from its tree hollow hideout just before the storms struck. Some folks opted to keep birding and were rewarded near the Gap with a male Brown Sicklebill giving its machine gun vocalization in the scope; it is an incredible bird-of-paradise. Working into the forest interior, we lured in a Lesser Ground-Robin and a stunning Ashy Robin that both showed beautifully.

With a final morning scheduled in Tari we again returned to the Black Sicklebill location. Our luck was in and this time we scoped two males, one of which went into display mode. We were made to move along by a jealous landholder and returned to the lodge. A New Guinea White-eye was new for the list and we observed many of the species we had become familiar with over the past few days. A superb male Stephanie’s Astrapia was one of the last birds we observed again in this great birding location. Now it was back into the trusty PAC-750 for our charter flight to Mount Hagen.

Having lunch at Kumul Lodge, we kept one eye glued on the feeder table. It was a great session with exceptional birds like two Bronze Ground-Doves, a Lesser Melampitta, Mountain Firetail, and a female Archbold’s Bowerbird showing extraordinarily well alongside more typical species like Brehm’s Tiger-Parrot, Ribbon-tailed Astrapia, and even a displaying male Brown Sicklebill. Some of the hardier souls went on a night walk and found a Silky Cuscus for their effort.

Forbes's Forest-Rail at Kumul Lodge, August 2013

Forbes’s Forest-Rail at Kumul Lodge, August 2013— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

With one full day at Kumul we explored down the valley hoping to crack a male Superb Bird-of-Paradise. We did find this species, but it was shy and flighty and overall a tad frustrating. While looking for the Superb we found a male Lawe’s Parotia and had a good scope view of a Crinkle-collared Manucode. Ornate Melidectes perched up well, and we found a very obliging Torrent Flycatcher. Just at this moment we had to turn around prematurely, which actually worked out quite well, as we had a stunning session in the cloud forest back at the lodge. A pair of Wattled Ploughbills fed over our heads, the male with bizarre pink cheek wattles unconcernedly eating a caterpillar. A male Crested Satinbird produced some group oohs and aahs as it fed in a fruiting tree, glowing orange, to be joined shortly by a pair of Sooty Melidectes—a very scarce high altitude endemic. We roused folks from their siestas for a pair of Forbes’s Forest-Rails that showed for all. At dusk the male New Guinea Woodcock lit on its display perch and despite persistent drizzle gave a decent scope view.

It was time to leave the highlands. Our final birding session produced a pair of Brown Quail, a scoped Rufous-throated Bronze-Cuckoo, a great view of Black-tailed Antechinus (a carnivorous marsupial) hunting for moths around the stairwell, and our final bird for the tour—a female New Guinea Harrier. What a great tour!