Papua New Guinea Highlights Sep 01—14, 2014

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Our first full day of birding on this great tour was an example of why Papua New Guinea offers the most exciting birding on the planet. Leaving Port Moresby at 5 AM, we found ourselves at first light in the hill forests of Varirata National Park. It was a gray, cloudy start to the day: misty and cool, perfect birding conditions. A fruiting fig tree attracted Boyer’s Cuckooshrike, Orange-bellied and Pink-spotted fruit-doves, the dapper chestnut and black “poison-plumaged” Hooded Pitohui, and the nondescript Plain Honeyeater. We moved to the lek of Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise and scoped a splendid male who was in a holding position between odd bouts of calling, the gray weather subduing the collective display fervor. Moving further into the forest we spotted the Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher, a stunning forest cryptic with motmot-like tail pennants. Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Red-cheeked Parrot, and Black-capped Lory, all spectacular, carried the momentum. While positioning ourselves to view a displaying Growling Riflebird, a casual sideways glance revealed a Dwarf Cassowary adult male with chick on the forest trail next to us. This was an extraordinary stroke of fortune—the flightless cassowaries are extremely difficult to see in the jungles of New Guinea. A Barred Owlet-Nightjar poked its head out of a hollow Eucalypt, looking more like a mammal than a bird with all of those whiskers and giant brown eyes. By the time the day had finished we had more than 100 species on the list. Amongst the other interesting species seen well were Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove, Papuan Frogmouth, Comb-crested Jacana, and a trio of vagrant Straw-necked Ibis.

Yellow-billed Kingfisher, female

Yellow-billed Kingfisher, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our good luck continued with smooth logistics and we were ensconced in the Kiunga Guest-House, a comfortable location in this frontier town. In the afternoon we had two major target birds. The first, the Greater Bird-of-Paradise, displayed with gusto, and we even observed a mating in the telescope. The next target bird, the diminutive King Bird-of-Paradise, took quite a while to pin down in its vine tangle kingdom. With patience we scoped the “King,” complete with tail wires and emerald discs. It was off to bed early for our full day of birding along the river.

Flying into Kiunga, it became apparent that the Fly River was at a flood level. This would make for some interesting birding, and we scored three species rarely or previously unrecorded in the Kiunga district due to the flooding. It also made it impossible to bird the flooded forest interior by foot and this cost us a few species. Loading up in our banana boat, we motored upriver, taking a shortcut across to the Elevara River. At 6:30 AM a large shape flew out of the forest ahead of us and landed next to the boat in a tree. My god, the Forest Bittern, one of New Guinea’s most elusive birds and arguably the most difficult heron to see on the planet. And a lifer for the leader! We had a minute to take it all in before it disappeared from view. Next up, Jimmy had the Southern Crowned Pigeon staked out at a nest on a massive horizontal bough of a rainforest giant. We admired the filigree crest of this pheasant-sized pigeon, the largest in the world. In fact, it would be a great day for this iconic species, enjoying no less than five birds today. Every bend on the river threw up new birds with male Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise, perched Palm Cockatoo, and good views of the scarce Large Fig-Parrot. Exploring the forest interior we were tantalized by the shrill, peevish call of a Southern Cassowary chick, the footprints of adult and chick clear on the trail. A beautiful Purple-tailed Imperial-Pigeon provided excellent scope views. The ultra-elusive Thick-billed Ground-Pigeon flew right through the group like a partridge with a whirr of wings. Flowering trees produced Greater Streaked Lories combating with Helmeted Friarbirds for access rights to the flowers. Obscure passerines like Pygmy and Yellow-bellied longbills gave some good views. After lunch we drifted downstream, spotting a hatchling New Guinea Crocodile, glowing Golden Mynas, the scarce endemic Yellow-eyed Starling, and the shy endemic White-bellied Pitohui. Beyond the Blyth’s Hornbills and huge diversity of pigeons, parrots, and riverine jungle birds, there is no doubt this is one of the greatest birding days on offer anywhere.

Southern Crowned Pigeon

Southern Crowned Pigeon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Bowerbird Hill on the Boystown Road was our morning stakeout. As luck would have it, a male Flame Bowerbird flew right towards the group and perched out in the open for a good couple of minutes, allowing everyone to view in the scope one of the world’s most luminous species. Nesting Double-eyed Fig-Parrots, the stunning Emperor Fairy-wren, and the elusive endemic Long-billed Cuckoo were amongst some of the many species on offer here, an excellent site for a “Big Sit.” In the afternoon we moved into the forest and had great views of the rufous New Guinea Babbler and Rusty Pitohui. The thunderstorms rolled in and washed us out of the forest. We returned in the evening to try our luck with nocturnal birds. A Marbled Frogmouth was our big reward, giving a great view. The elusive Wallace’s Owlet-Nightjar came in very close, but we could not pin it down in these giant forests.

We squeezed in an hour-and-a-half of morning birding the next day, scoping the Variable Pitohui and enjoying a pair of Gray-headed Goshawks. At the airstrip, while awaiting our charter flight to Tari, a scan of the airstrip produced a flock of munias. Not just any munias, the ultra-elusive Black Munia, endemic to the southern Transfly and not previously recorded at Kiunga. It was a new bird for everyone including the local experts Sam and Jimmy. We watched the flock of 20 birds moving through the airstrip grass in the scope. The flooding had produced Forest Bittern, Thick-billed Ground-Pigeon, and Black Munia, quite a result for birding these forests.

Marbled Frogmouth

Marbled Frogmouth— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

An hour later we were in the Tari Valley at the superbly located Ambua Lodge and immediately into the birds-of-paradise. A whole new different bird fauna had the tour participants in sensory overload. Who could believe that such birds as the comet-like Papuan Lorikeet or the Ribbon-tailed Astrapia could be for real! Crested Berrypecker, Short-tailed Paradigalla, Regent Whistler, Mountain Firetail, and the rare Spotted Berrypecker were amongst the many gems on offer.

Mindful of the heavy rain that had preceded our visits in Kiunga and Tari, we made sure we took advantage of good weather to not miss any birding time. Plum-faced, Orange-billed, and Yellow-billed lorikeets drank nectar from flowering trees, while the extraordinary male King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise, as ever the crowd pleaser, twirled its antenna plumes independently. The velvet-black Loria’s Satinbird, monotypic Blue-capped Ifrita, and Blue-faced Parrotfinch rounded out a bird-rich morning. The afternoon proved quite a contrast; it was decidedly quiet and we entertained ourselves with smaller, less colorful birds like Island Leaf-Warbler, Capped White-eye, and Brown-breasted Gerygone, as every other species was having the afternoon off. At the other end of the spectrum though, a male Stephanie’s Astrapia gave a good and close, but unfortunately all too brief view. Increased logging and traffic is taking its toll on the roadside birding in this area.

We were back into the thick of it the next morning. The Blue Bird-of-Paradise first gave lengthy scope views, and then a different male arrived at a fruiting tree for a lovely close encounter with this extraordinary bird. The equally bizarre male Lawe’s Parotia arrived near the same tree, perching right out in the open. The glowing Papuan King-Parrot also allowed lengthy, close scope views. Then we birded the alpine anthropogenic grasslands at the Tari Gap, the major highlight great views of the New Guinea Pied Harrier. After lunch we birded the forest interior and had good success with New Guinea Logrunner and a skulking Lesser Ground Robin. Having heard of the demise, sadly, of the male Brown Sicklebill at Kumul, we tried to find the male at Ambua. Joseph, our local man on the ground and good friend, was in good form; we positioned ourselves close to the machine gun call and then up he came. What a mega.

Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise

Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

With a couple of hours the following day we were keen to see the male Superb Bird-of-Paradise that was holding out on us, although we had seen an immature male the previous day. Near a valley where the male sometimes sits out early in the morning, we waited, hoping for a sighting. Then the bird stopped calling and a bit of scanning revealed a pale morph Meyer’s Goshawk sitting in ambush mode nearby. This was a rare sighting of this poorly known forest raptor. Needless to say that was the end for the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, but we located a male Black Sicklebill that, although distant, allowed the Zeiss scope to show its finesse, as the male fluffed himself up, preened, and practiced some display moves.

We were back on the charter flight and whisked away to Mount Hagen, where an hour later we were at the lofty cloud forests in the Central Highlands at Kumul Lodge. The afternoon was spent watching the feeder, enjoying the antics of Brehm’s Tiger-Parrot, Island Thrush, Ribbon-tailed Astrapia, female Brown Sicklebills, Smoky Honeyeater, and Belford’s Melidectes. Patience provided excellent views of a male Lesser Melampitta, the rather lovely Rufous-naped Whistler with its rather unlovely call, and, as a grand finale, a pair of Bronze Ground-Doves. Spotlighting produced a Pygmy Ringtail, a rarely seen marsupial foliovore.

Short-tailed Paradigalla

Short-tailed Paradigalla— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

With a full day at hand and having largely done the feeder birds, we dropped down the spectacular valley to check some hill forest locations. A fruiting tree produced several lovely Tit Berrypeckers and a good couple of views of the elusive Streaked Berrypecker, plus a male Loria’s Satinbird and a pair of Dimorphic Fantails. Then an old trick, but a good one: two flat tires left us temporarily stranded before a land cruiser was summoned and we returned prematurely to the lodge while the tires were repaired. We visited Max’s orchid gardens and were tantalized by a recalcitrant Wattled Ploughbill as the rain returned. With the wheels repaired we enjoyed a good birding session at Lai River. New birds came thick and fast with Torrent Flycatcher, Mountain Meliphaga, Marbled Honeyeater, White-bellied Cuckooshrike, and Black-headed Whistler leading the charge. We waited patiently for two more birds we were hoping to encounter, but they were proving inactive and elusive. Just as we were about to leave, up popped the Ornate Melidectes and the Yellow-breasted Bowerbird for great scope views. Marjean and Charlie were lucky to see the rare forest wallaby, Calaby’s Pademelon, near their room. A few years ago I had photos of this species taken near the feeder confirmed by leading New Guinea mammalogists Tim Flannery and Kristopher Helgen.  The rain returned with a vengeance, but it had been a good day.

A last morning proved quiet as there was a distinct lack of fruiting and flowering trees around the lodge. The major highlight was watching several male Regent Whistlers in display mode, elevating their golden napes into a spectacular ruff and indulging in a serious “sing sing.” Also good to see were two marsupial carnivores, the diminutive Black-tailed Antechinus and the larger, more predatory Speckled Dasyure. Logistically the smoothest ever tour of Papua New Guinea concluded in Port Moresby the next morning. No delays, dramas, or major rainfall events had interfered with this tour and the New Britain pre-tour. We had taken in the greatest birding show on earth in comfort and style.