Papua New Guinea: West New Britain Aug 30—Sep 04, 2015

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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An unexpected flight schedule change saw us narrowly connect with our plane trip from Port Moresby via Lae to Hoskins, the largest town in West New Britain. Fortunately it all worked out well; just lucky we arrived at the airport early! After settling in to the comfortable Walindi Dive Resort, we headed out for an afternoon of birding at the relatively close site of Kulu River. Again the big dry was obvious. Max, owner of the resort who has kept rainfall records for 45 years, stated that this August was one of only two months on record that no rain had been recorded. Our afternoon went quite well, and we enjoyed quite a few new birds. We had good views of the endemic Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeon, Pied Coucal, Purple-bellied Lory, Long-tailed Myna, and New Britain Friarbird. A displaying pair of Variable Goshawks, numerous Stephan’s Emerald-Doves, Black Bittern, White-browed Crake, White-rumped Swiftlet, Melanesian Kingfisher (a split out of the Collared Kingfisher complex), Eurasian Kingfisher (here a very distinctive subspecies), Varied Triller, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, and an abundance of raucous and colorful Eclectus Parrots kept us well-entertained.

White-mantled Kingfisher

White-mantled Kingfisher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The next morning we were in the protected lowland jungle of the Garu Wildlife Management Area, about an hour’s drive from the hotel. On the drive in through the oil palm plantations, we made a surprise discovery of an Intermediate Egret, a rare visitor to New Britain. We had an excellent run starting with a fine pair of adult White-mantled Kingfishers, an uncommon and often difficult endemic. Then a trio of Violaceous Coucals turned on an excellent performance as they boomed at us from a vine tangle. In between we scoped the endemic Red-banded Flowerpecker, Ashy Myzomela, and our first perched Blue-eyed Cockatoo was a big hit. A flowering tree produced a pair of obliging Red-flanked Lorikeets, and then we scoped a lovely pair of Knob-billed Fruit-Doves. A shy male Velvet Flycatcher was lured into view, and later in the forest interior we had quite good views of this very shy bird. We could even compare it with the salmon-throated Shining Flycatcher, with its distinctive angular head. The forest interior was the usual hard work as we heard New Britain Dwarf-Kingfisher, Black-capped Paradise-Kingfisher, and Finsch’s Imperial-Pigeon, but they remained firmly hidden. Fortunately though, a Melanesian Scrubfowl decided to fly perfectly past the entire group, after a couple of flushed birds gave us the slip. Also of note was a Great Flying-fox roosting in a giant tree. With the heat building and the bird activity waning, we returned to the resort for lunch and a lengthy siesta.

After the break we walked uphill from a nearby village to view successfully a New Britain Boobook. This small compact hawk-owl showed well in the scope. We did not proceed further uphill, but went on to bird the area around the Numundo Cattle Ranch. Here we added a few new birds to the trip list like Tree Martin, Australian Reed-Warbler, Papuan Grassbird, and the endemic Buff-bellied Munia. Most amazing though was a flock of twenty Intermediate Egrets behaving somewhat like Cattle Egrets!

Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeon

Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A boat trip in Kimbe Bay is a staple offering on this tour, as it allows us to see a variety of so-called “supertramp” species of birds, a term coined by Jared Diamond for birds adapted to tiny oceanic atolls that shun the larger islands. We visited Restoff and Malo Malo Islands, on the cruise outbound enjoying a pod of bow-riding Spinner Dolphins. We quickly connected with numerous Island Imperial-Pigeons and Sclater’s Myzomela. We had almost immediate luck with both Mangrove Golden Whistler and Island Monarch. Our luck continued with the often difficult Mackinlay’s Cuckoo-Dove. Still, the star of the show was holding out—the Nicobar Pigeon. Exploring into the forest interior, we were lucky to find a flock of five birds that perched up and gave some really good views before they took off never to be seen again. We also had a good view of a perched Melanesian Scrubfowl. Snorkeling took precedence, one highlight being a superb scorpion fish with strikingly banded pectoral fins. The water clarity was amazing and the reef with colorful fish delightful. We enjoyed some tropical seabirds like Lesser Frigatebird, good-sized flocks of Black Noddy, with a few Black-naped Terns. A stiff sea breeze and rising seas made it unwise to venture further offshore for pelagic birding. In the afternoon we birded the gardens of the resort, but could not locate the hoped for Buff-faced Pygmy-Parrots.

With our last full day we had to work quite hard to squeeze the last possible birds out of the forest. At shortly after sunrise we were positioned on the forest edge at Boku. A pair of Black Imperial-Pigeons flew over us, giving a decent view. Into the forest Joseph found a small party of Buff-faced Pygmy-Parrots feeding down low that gave some excellent views before moving along. To my dismay, in this excellent site the local people had chopped down a couple of hectares of forest that was being burnt. The work of the bird tour leader rarely gets any easier on an increasingly degraded planet! Once we had picked our way through the maze of fallen trees and branches, we re-found the trail. Eventually a pair of Black-capped Paradise-Kingfishers started to call, and after a lengthy effort we finally located one calling bird, its white tail streamers pumping as it whistled plaintively. A pair of Northern Fantails was accompanied by a timid Black-tailed Monarch that was lured into view a couple of times. There were plenty of birds to see in the morning including Blyth’s Hornbill, Blue-eyed Cockatoo, Purple-bellied Lory, Eclectus Parrot, Knob-billed Fruit-Dove, and many more. The typically elusive Finsch’s Imperial-Pigeon “varooooomed” at us but failed to show.

Papuan King-Parrot

Papuan King-Parrot— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our final afternoon in New Britain was upon us, and the decision was made to revisit the Kulu River, but this time a different stretch. It was going fairly quietly until up flew a Nicobar Pigeon that perched close by for a lengthy study. It was the first time I had encountered this rare species on the main island. Then a Black-capped Paradise-Kingfisher flew in like a rocket and perched long enough for a much improved view. As it cooled down, we waited by the river to see if any birds might come out to bathe and drink. What happened next was most unexpected and the highlight of the entire trip to PNG. First a pair and then a single Pink-legged Rail came down to the river bank to forage. This flightless rail is almost never seen. We watched them in the scope for some ten or more minutes. Wow! I even managed a couple of poor digiscopes for what may be the first time this species has been photographed. Then out came a Rufous-tailed Bush-hen for a bath, complete with a Black Bittern, Rufous Night-Heron, and a pair of Spotted Whistling-Ducks. It had been an amazing afternoon.

Our early flight had us back in Port Moresby quickly. I arranged a bus to revisit Varirata National Park, and by 10 am we were in the field. It worked out very well, as we hit numerous mixed flocks and picked up some very good birds and, importantly, managed to convert several heard only species from our previous visit on the main tour to visual manifestations. Amongst the birds of the day were Black-billed Brush-Turkey (including a tiny chick found perched), Brown Goshawk, Wompoo Fruit-Dove, White-crowned Koel (an excellent scope study of a calling presumed male), Barred Owlet-nightjar, Azure Kingfisher, Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher, Papuan King-Parrot, Green-backed Honeyeater, Rusty Mouse-Warbler, Pale-billed Scrubwren, Goldenface (stunning), Sooty Thicket-Fantail, Spot-winged Monarch, and White-faced Robin. Tired but happy we returned to the Airways for a bit of luxury as our tour was coming to a close. We had recorded some 322 species in PNG all up on both tours. On this tour we recorded 88 species in New Britain and an additional 47 species in Varirata National Park.