Papua New Guinea Highlights Aug 17—30, 2015

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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Our annual tour of Papua New Guinea was the usual adventure in a fascinating country. This year a severe El Nino resulted in a widespread drought. The dry conditions made birding even more difficult in this country than is typical. Despite the remarkably dry conditions, we still enjoyed considerable success with the birds.

Papuan Frogmouth

Papuan Frogmouth— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We arrived into Port Moresby right on schedule (despite the printed e-ticket kafuffle) and found ourselves quickly birding the grounds of the delightful Pacific Adventist University campus. Literally the first bird of the tour was an enormous Papuan Frogmouth roosting cryptically in the tree over where the bus parked. We had a good run with ducks, seeing three species of whistling-duck (Plumed, Wandering, and Spotted) and a bonus Rajah Shelduck. Also of note were Comb-crested Jacana and a Painted Turtle. In the woodland areas we had great views of Fawn-breasted Bowerbird and Black-backed Butcherbird, and scoped the endemic Gray-headed Munia.
 
At sunrise the next morning we found ourselves in the hill forests of Varirata National Park. With a stiff breeze and overcast conditions, it was not looking good for the Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise, but as luck would have it, a stunning male flew in and gave a lengthy performance for the group. Back to the picnic ground and in quick succession we had superb looks at both Blue-winged and Rufous-bellied kookaburras, Crinkle-collared Manucode, Brown Oriole, Black Cicadabird, Boyer’s Cuckoo-shrike, the poisonous Hooded Pitohui, and a stunning Beautiful Fruit-Dove. After enjoying this rush of new birds, we headed onto a forest trail, disturbing a small herd of Rusa Deer along the way. Once in the forest we began the patience game of trying to sight birds in these thick forests. We had an outstanding performance from a pair of Yellow-billed Kingfishers. At a traditional stake-out for Barred Owlet-nightjar we found an emerald Green Tree Monitor sticking out of the hollow log. This is a rarely seen species of large predatory lizard. Needless to say though, there was no sign of the owlet-nightjar.

Green Tree Monitor

Green Tree Monitor— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Moving further along we started to encounter some mixed flocks complete with Frilled Monarch, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Yellow-bellied and Fairy gerygones, shy Growling Riflebirds, and the dapper Chestnut-bellied Fantail. We had three particularly excellent sightings of very elusive birds—the superb Goldenface (now considered an aberrant Australo-Papuan warbler!), a Great Black Coucal and, as luck would have it, two good views of the ultra-shy Black-billed Brush-Turkey. It had been a very good morning. After lunch we went straight to a Barred Owlet-nightjar that was showing well in a tree hollow, thanks to a tip-off from Leonard. We were fortunate to see this whiskery bug-eyed muppet in all its glory. Then we spent some time searching for the Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher, and at the last minute we made the breakthrough and studied this spectacular bird right down to its tail spatules. Along the way we picked up Stout-billed Cuckoo-shrike, Olive Fly-Robin, and another cooperative Yellow-billed Kingfisher. Driving out of the park we connected with Pheasant Coucal, Forest Kingfisher, Lemon-bellied Fly-Robin, and White-throated Honeyeater to add to the day’s takings!

An on-time departure saw us set up comfortably in the Kiunga Guest House in the center of remote Western Province close to the border of Indonesia. Here it is lowland rainforest dominated by sago palms, breadfruit trees, and giant forest emergents, 30 meters in stature. It is equatorial in climate, but in stark contrast to the floods we experienced in 2014, the region was in a drought this year.

In the afternoon we made a visit to the well-known site “Km. 17.” We were able to place a male King Bird-of-Paradise in the scope (after a lengthy challenge) for an extended view of this most extraordinary species. We moved on to try for Greater Bird-of-Paradise and were able to set two scopes on one calling male for a  couple of minutes, but after it flew off, the rest of the calling males proved timid and impossible to pin down in their jungle fastness. On the forest edge we had another rush of new birds including good views of Pink-spotted Fruit-Dove, Pinon Imperial-Pigeon, displaying Trumpet Manucode, and a pair of combative Yellow-streaked Lories that interacted in a hyper-aggressive fashion.

A morning “big-sit” at “Bowerbird Hill” on the Boystown Road about 13 km West of Kiunga led to a morning list of 70 species, although a lot, of course, are heard only in these big jungles. We had success with Flame Bowerbird, getting cracking views in the scope; the only problem was that they were lemon-washed females—not glowing males! Amongst the new birds we also enjoyed were Long-tailed Honey-Buzzard, Orange-bellied Fruit-Dove, Zoe Imperial-Pigeon, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, White-throated Nightjar, Orange-breasted and Double-eyed fig-parrots, Plain and Tawny-breasted honeyeaters, Meyer’s Friarbird, New Guinea Babbler, Lowland Peltops, Gray-headed Cicadabird, Golden Monarch, good comparative studies of three species of manucode (Trumpet, Crinkle-collared, and Glossy-mantled), Papuan Flowerpecker, Black Sunbird, and Yellow-faced Myna. We called in at the Kiunga Airstrip where we spotted four Australian Pratincoles and also found a Nankeen Kestrel. After a siesta we ventured back out in the afternoon to Km. 17 to try and see the Greater Bird-of-Paradise displaying. This time we were successful, and a couple of males wound themselves up into a frenzied display, clucking and climbing backwards and forwards and inverting themselves to show off their plumes. We re-connected also with the male King Bird-of-Paradise, but beyond a cooperative flock of New Guinea Babblers, the forest interior was hard work.

Blyth's Hornbill

Blyth’s Hornbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our full day on the Fly River and its upper tributaries, the Elevara and Ketu, proved to be more of an adventure than usual. The exceedingly low water level saw us have to take several participants out of the boat so we could clear some shallow “rapids” on two occasions. The drought had had an impact on several frugivorous species, with Great Flying-fox completely absent and numbers of birds like Collared Imperial-Pigeon way down on normal. We enjoyed some good sightings as we motored up increasingly narrower rivers, picking up great birds like a displaying Palm Cockatoo, raucous Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, several perched Blyth’s Hornbills, beautiful Golden Myna, Shining Flycatcher, and a fine Great-billed Heron. Walking in the forest interior produced a couple of high quality birds including a beautiful New Guinea Dwarf Kingfisher, some good views of the very shy Southern Variable Pitohui, some tame low-feeding Orange-breasted Fig-Parrots, and the lovely Golden Cuckoo-shrike. A mixed flock held several New Guinea Babblers, two female King Birds-of-Paradise, a Varied Triller, female Cicadabird, and a brief Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise. Our search for the Southern Crowned-Pigeon proved frustrating as we flushed three birds, and just as we were going to set them in the scope, they flew each time. Aaaaargh! On the return journey we added White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Australian Koel, and the scarce endemic Yellow-eyed Starling.

Regent Whistler

Regent Whistler— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our last morning in Kiunga we had some unfinished business.  A predawn departure had us in position and, thankfully, a male Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise was atop his display stump. In the scope you could see the wires, and it was a good result. Some folks managed to get some views (brief) of some timid Emperor Fairy-wrens, and motoring back to town we found a small flock of perched Channel-billed Cuckoos. Our charter flight arrived close to schedule, and 50 minutes later we landed at Tari Airstrip. We traveled by bus to Ambua Lodge, where we spent the afternoon exploring the lodge grounds. We enjoyed some excellent birds including a soaring Pygmy Eagle, excellent views of Great Cuckoo-Dove, a female White-breasted Fruit-Dove, Yellow-billed Lorikeet, Loria’s Satinbird, Short-tailed Paradigalla, female Lawe’s Parotia, and a fine male Superb Bird-of-Paradise.

Our first full day in the Tari Basin saw us start just below the lodge. First up though, we had a cracking male Black-breasted Boatbill in the carpark and an Atlas Moth, the world’s largest!  Our luck was in, and we scoped two male Black Sicklebills and two male Blue Birds-of-Paradise. Yes! We followed this with another male Superb Bird-of-Paradise. We moved up to the gap and taped in a splendid male Regent Whistler and enjoyed a trio of jaunty and colorful Crested Berrypeckers at a fruiting Schefflera. A forest trail produced a pair of the elusive Papuan Treecreeper, and a female Brehm’s Tiger-Parrot was popular. After lunch and a siesta we explored the upper waterfall trail. It was quite bird-rich with good views of a bunch of passerines. Best was a pair of the unusual Mottled Berryhunters, now placed in their own family. Other goodies included Blue-gray Robin, Canary Flyrobin, Sclater’s and Brown-backed whistlers, Mountain Mouse-Warbler, Large and Buff-faced scrubwrens, and Brown-breasted Gerygone.

A cold morning and a patient wait at a fruiting tree produced little except for a female Blue Bird-of-Paradise and both New Guinea and Capped white-eyes. We explored an extensive trail that initially was slow-going. Things lifted though when we picked up a party of Orange-crowned Fairy-wrens. They showed very well for these elusive and quite rare little sprites. Then a Blue-capped Ifrita pair came right next to us for a close examination. The Ifrita, like the Mottled Berryhunter, is now placed in a newly created monotypic family. They are rumored to be poisonous like the Hooded Pitohui.  Much shyer was a Spotted Jewel-Babbler that made a couple of brief appearances. Then we worked hard on a calling Mountain Kingfisher, and our luck was in when it perched overhead for an outstanding view of this tough to see species. We had a final hurrah for the morning by locating a pair of dapper Torrent-Larks that were just at the right distance so they did not flush immediately and disappear before everyone present could see them well.

Blue Bird-of-Paradise, female

Blue Bird-of-Paradise, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

In the afternoon we explored a forest interior trail beyond the Tari Gap where extensive fires in the anthropomorphic grasslands were alight. In the forest we had some success with a pair of New Guinea Logrunners, the female with the orange throat even scratching unconcernedly for a short while. More frustrating was a restless Garnet Robin that flitted around and over us, but was difficult to pin down. The major highlight was a male King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise we set up in two scopes and enjoyed his antenna twirling antics for a good fifteen minutes. A local man drove by holding a live male King of Saxony, and he stopped to show us. It was a sad sight, and despite pleading with him to release it, there was no going back to the forest for this poor unfortunate individual.

Before we caught our charter flight from Tari to Mt. Hagen we dashed up the hill in the bus and caught up with a male Stephanie’s Astrapia. In a fruiting tree we scoped two male Tit Berrypeckers and a splendid male White-breasted Fruit-Dove. On the way to the airport we stopped to see a Sooty Owl that flew from a tree hollow. Back in the PAC-750 our flight went smoothly, and upon arriving in Mt. Hagen we were whisked away to Kumul Lodge in the lee of Mount Hagen. Again, fires were burning in the grasslands everywhere and frost damage to forest was evident. We had one of the highlights of the entire tour in the afternoon when after a patient wait, a male Crested Satinbird arrived and proceeded to display his typically concealed sickle crest feathers whilst producing an odd array of vocalizations. The performance continued for several minutes at close range. It was fantastic! The Crested Satinbird was accompanied by a lovely pair of Crested Berrypeckers that mutually preened each other in the fruiting tree.

Alpine Pipit

Alpine Pipit— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A new site for Lesser Bird-of-Paradise had become practical to visit, and after an early breakfast and an hour’s drive we were in situ. Two male Lesser BOP’s arrived at the lek, and one male put on an excellent performance, displaying repeatedly. Between outbursts of manic behavior from the birds-of-paradise, we could distract ourselves with other birds which included White-shouldered Fairy-wren, Mountain Meliphaga, Mountain Red-headed Myzomela, Ornate Melidectes, Brush Cuckoo, and Pied Bushchat. We moved on to the Lai River where Yellow-breasted Bowerbird proved frustrating in the warming conditions, a singleton being seen by only two participants. At the river, Torrent Flycatchers were in good form, a female Torrent-lark was handy for Sam who missed the previous ones, a single Great Cormorant flew over, and some dapper Hooded Munias were a popular addition. We returned to the lodge for a well-earned siesta. In the afternoon we tracked down a beautiful pair of Orange-billed Lorikeets and taped in a timid pair of Lesser Melampittas. The male Bronze Ground-Dove gave an excellent performance at the feeder.

On our final morning, after a late breakfast, we explored the cloud forest towards Max’s. We had luck with a female Wattled Ploughbill giving a good view in the scrambling bamboo. This is always a difficult bird to find, and is now placed in its own family; it is quite sought after. Max told me he had seen an unusual bird at his farm, and he tracked us down in the forest to tell us he had found it. It was indeed an unusual bird, an Alpine Pipit here at 2,700 meters. This species is almost never seen below 3,500 meters in the natural grasslands on the highest peaks. It was tame and allowed some documentary photographs. This vagrancy was no doubt associated with the drought and grassland fires. We found another high altitude specialty shortly after when we located a pair of New Guinea Thornbills that we could observe calling and foraging in the canopy. This was my lowest ever altitudinal sighting. A Black-throated Robin, however, reminded us of the difficulty of forest birding in New Guinea as it flew in on two occasions, but always seemed to land where we couldn’t get a clear view. In the afternoon we flew from Mount Hagen to Port Moresby. Most folks continued on to New Britain.