Papua New Guinea Highlights Jul 24—Aug 06, 2016

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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I have been leading tours to Papua New Guinea for 15 years now, and the magical island still keeps on giving amazing results. It is possibly the most electrifying birding destination on the planet, and hopefully this transcript of our adventures will let you know why.

We had a smooth flight and progress through immigration formalities so that we were able to schedule a pleasant afternoon birding stroll through the grounds of the Pacific Adventist University. In fact, we were accompanied by the Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Jeff, who happens to be keen on the birds as well. Port Moresby was still recovering from the severe drought of the previous year, and the university ponds were very low in water level. Interestingly though, we experienced a light shower during our visit. The birds were right on schedule, and we picked up some scarcer birds in PNG like Straw-necked Ibis and Plumed Whistling-Duck. The Papuan Frogmouth family was in good form, and Jeff was able to show us the extraordinary bower of the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird. Another major highlight was enjoying a pair of spectacular Orange-fronted Fruit-Doves feeding low down on some palm fruits. More traditional birds included Wandering Whistling-Duck, Comb-crested Jacana, Pied Heron, a cooperative Buff-banded Rail, Torresian Imperial-Pigeon, several Rufous-banded Honeyeaters, Helmeted Friarbirds, and Brown Orioles.

Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise

Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The next morning we found ourselves at sunrise in Varirata National Park at a pleasant 800 meters above sea-level in quality hill rainforest and tropical Eucalyptus savanna. It was calm and clear, perfect for us. First up was a perched pair of Red-cheeked Parrots, and then we tracked down a Rufous-bellied Kookaburra. Yellow-eyed Cuckooshrike and Hooded Pitohui soon followed. We headed to the lekking ground of the Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise and it has to be said, the display this year was awesome, a word I rarely use. We had seven males, two females, and some juvenile males at the stage trees, and when the females ventured in, the males erupted into ecstatic displays and were not overly concerned about us. It was the best display I had witnessed at this location and we enjoyed it for nearly an hour as they would rev up and give it both barrels before calming down to do it all again. After extracting ourselves we enjoyed some roadside birding where a male Growling Riflebird flew across the road through the group before we were distracted by a fruiting tree that produced excellent views of a Dwarf Fruit-Dove, Beautiful Fruit-Dove, a Coroneted Fruit-Dove, and a timid Crinkle-collared Manucode. Further into the forest, the faithful Barred Owlet-nightjar stuck his head out of the hollow to check us out somewhat blearily. Then a splendid male Yellow-billed Kingfisher rocked up, followed by a pair of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. We ventured along a forest trail clocking up fine Frilled Monarchs, a skittish pair of Rusty Mouse-Warblers, and more sombre birds like Gray Whistler and Little Shrikethrush.

Greater Bird-of-Paradise

Greater Bird-of-Paradise— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

I thought I would give it ten more minutes when all of a sudden we flushed a juvenile Forest Bittern. It caused an absolute panic attack because every time I would set the near invisible heron, it would climb further and higher up into the tree. By the grace of Orni it calmed down, we secured the angle, and there in the scope was a Forest Bittern, amongst the most difficult birds to see in the world, only my second sighting and one hell of a beast! Next we bumped into a pair of Painted Quail-thrush, another supreme skulker, but only one participant was lucky enough to spot them again as I lured them across a ravine. These are really tough birds to see. After lunch we made our second attempt and cracked a Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher and then battled with Rusty Pitohuis. An afternoon stroll along the forest edge rounded out what had already been a cracking day with Orange-bellied Fruit-Dove, Forest Kingfisher, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, White-throated Honeyeater, Leaden Flycatcher, Rainbow Bee-eater and, best of all, the rare White-bellied Whistler being added to the day’s takings.

The next morning an on-time departure had us arriving at Kiunga by lunchtime, and the wonderful kitchen ladies were feeding us prodigious rations. After a siesta we headed out to Kilometer 17 with Edward and Kwiwan. We found the male King Bird-of-Paradise in record time, and he performed well in the scope showing his tail discs, blue feet, false eye, and scarlet attire. The lads had discovered the nest of the ultra-shy Thick-billed Ground-Dove, but unfortunately the chick had died overnight and the nest was abandoned. We turned our attention to the Greater Bird-of-Paradise display and had a scintillating performance as several males went into full ecstatic mode and were joined by a male Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise.

Little Paradise-Kingfisher

Little Paradise-Kingfisher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

By sunrise we were positioned in a banana boat captained by Samuel himself and found ourselves watching a male Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise perched on top of his display post, a palm stump protruding above the sago palm forest. We could easily make out the wires protruding from his canary-yellow pantaloons as he cawed to attract a female. Eventually he dropped off his perch and we boated along to the Elevara River. There were a lot of new birds, and by 10 am we had racked up some high quality birds like displaying Palm Cockatoos, plenty of Blyth’s Hornbills, Long-tailed Buzzard, Large Fig-Parrot, and Golden Myna. By mid-morning though, the rain had settled in and it was not brilliant, just enough to be annoying. We proceeded on and eventually it eased off and the sun began to emerge. Just when I was beginning to give up, we spotted a super Southern Crowned-Pigeon that gave the most stellar view including the wings up display repeatedly. An extraordinary bird! Plenty of more good birds came our way ranging from White-bellied Sea-Eagle; Azure Kingfisher; perched Great-billed Heron; excellent Pinon and Collared imperial-pigeons; hundreds of perched Dusky Lories, gorgeous with their toffee and scarlet morphs and pure white rumps; perched Black-capped Lory; and the scarce Yellow-eyed Starling. We wandered into the flooded forest and had instant success with Little Paradise-Kingfisher, but the Common Paradise-Kingfisher proved much more skittish and refused to settle. After catching a Long-billed Honeyeater and Yellow-bellied Gerygone, it was time to head home.

The next dawn was a lengthy vigil at Bowerbird Hill, but despite two sessions the hoped for Flame Bowerbird was a no-show. The hill is one of the big sit capitals of the world, and we racked up some 70 species seen and heard from the grassy knoll. The morning session was very good with plenty of perched pigeons, like a fortuitous Ornate Fruit-Dove, and colorful parrots like Orange-breasted Fig-Parrot. There were some obscure passerines like great views of both Green-backed and Plain honeyeaters and the restless Yellow-bellied Longbill. Other well-behaved birds included Gray-headed Goshawk, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Zoe’s Imperial-Pigeon, Rufous Babbler, Lowland Peltops, and Golden Monarch. The afternoon was very slow, but we added a few things like Wompoo Fruit-Dove and, for two lucky folks, a Black-billed Brush-Turkey. One exciting sighting was when checking the airstrip for the White-spotted Munia we found five beautiful Crimson Finches, a new bird for my Kiunga list. Crimson Finches here are of the white-bellied subspecies evangelinae.

Buff-tailed (or Black-billed) Sicklebill

Buff-tailed (or Black-billed) Sicklebill— Photo: Ron Majors

 

We had a final morning in Kiunga and we spent it at Kilometer 17. Heavy overnight rain made for a slow start. A displaying male Trumpet Manucode was very handy and gave a decent scope view. We lured up a couple of neurotic White-bellied Thicket-Fantails, one even perching out quite openly a couple of times. The biggest surprise though was when a juvenile Lesser Frigatebird came flying past over the jungle 400 kilometers from the ocean! This was another new bird for my Kiunga list. Our charter flight was running a bit late due to the heavy cloud in Kiunga so we tootled around a bit more and had one last hurrah when a fine New Guinea Harrier appeared out of nowhere and buzzed over us for a good view. The plane arrived, piloted by Vanessa, and we were whisked away, flying over vast jungle to the Tari Valley, a different world from Kiunga.

Our first afternoon was an absolute blinder and we did not even leave the lodge grounds of Ambua. The famous “Butcher Tree” was in full fruit and absolutely heaving with incredible birds. The tree produced an astonishing list—a male Black Sicklebill, a female Buff-tailed Sicklebill (repeatedly), a male and female Stephanie’s Astrapia, Short-tailed Paradigalla, male and female Superb Bird-of-Paradise, a male and numerous female Lawe’s Parotia, a female Blue Bird-of-Paradise, female Loria’s Satinbirds, male and female Tit Berrypeckers, a flotilla of Black-billed Cuckoo-Doves, and an astonishing five Great Cuckoo-Doves. This was a roll call of some of the most incredible birds in the world, and we saw them well and repeatedly. It was exhilarating.

Stephanie's Astrapia

Stephanie’s Astrapia— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first full day and after breakfast we were back at the fruiting tree. A female Brown Sicklebill showed well, as did a female Mountain Fruit-Dove, a pair of Yellow-billed Lorikeets, and a male Loria’s Satinbird. Then we “swanned” about the gardens and racked up a trio of Mountain Peltops, Buff-faced and Large scrubwrens, Blue-gray Robin, Sclater’s Whistler, Black Fantail, Black Monarch, Mid-Mountain Berrypecker, and a pair of the elusive Spotted Berrypecker. After this we explored up the mountain and came to an abrupt halt for a full male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia that gave a very good view in the forest interior. We hung around for a while, and this was productive with male Regent Whistler, male Mountain Fruit-Dove, and an incredible performance from a flock of rare Black Sittellas feeding just overhead. Then a female Archbold’s Bowerbird rocked up (another rarity) and we knew we were on a roll. Having just explained how lucky we were to see the bowerbird, it was from out of the blue, we tracked down a calling male with his golden crest that gave some quite good views before evaporating. The male of this species is very difficult to see. We were distracted by glowing Red-collared Myzomela and singing Black-throated Honeyeaters when we spotted a high-flying Pygmy Eagle followed by a close Peregrine Falcon, here of the black-backed subspecies ernesti; time for lunch. After a break, due to impending rain we gave the King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise a concerted effort, but despite hearing it we could not get the breakthrough. We had success with a fantastic male Brown Sicklebill, like the King of Saxony now becoming increasingly difficult due to roadside habitat destruction and disturbance. We found quite a few new birds ranging from Papuan Grassbird to Papuan Mountain Pigeon and the dapper Black-bellied Cicadabird.

Black Sicklebill

Black Sicklebill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our second full day at Tari started with another unsuccessful attempt for the King of Saxony. We moved into some cloud forest trails and, as usual, it was quite hard work to get much to show itself in the skulking department. Both New Guinea Logrunner and Lesser Melampitta gave shy glimpses. We had excellent success with the elusive Papuan Treecreeper and, for some folks, the ultra-shy Ashy Robin. We caught up with some more common birds like Island Thrush and Mountain Mouse-Warbler.

After lunch we were after the King of Saxony, and after a tip-off from a friend we had eventual success—in fact, stellar views right down to the pale blue mouth lining, as this bizarre bird twirled its antenna this way and that. Mightily chuffed to have finally had success, Joseph steered us to a flowering tree. Here we had two excellent lorikeets that gave exceptional telescope views. The Little Red Lorikeets (now rebranded as Fairy Lorikeet) were stunning. It was, however, the exceedingly difficult Pygmy Lorikeet that was the bird of the day. This almost invisible when perched parrot gave repeat scope views where you could admire the streaked chest and pale blue cap. Late that night a friend told me he had found a Rufous Owl, a very rarely seen bird in PNG, in fact a PNG tick for my friend who is very well traveled in this land. Knocking on the participant doors did not get any response, which is understandable because by 10 pm everyone was tucked up in bed! The Rufous Owl stayed put, but remained a leader only unfortunately. It was interesting that I had found the same owl here about six years ago, the first record for Tari and the highest altitudinal record ever. That time the bird was very well-behaved; I found it three nights in a row, and all the participants saw it.

Brehm's Tiger-Parrot

Brehm’s Tiger-Parrot— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a final half-day to bird Tari and we explored along the trails. The fruiting tree was again going off, and the Buff-tailed Sicklebill came in once, as did a pair of Black Sicklebills, a catch-up for two folks who missed it the first time. We picked up some good sightings ranging from Black-breasted Boatbill to the low density Gray Thornbill. We motored down to Tari Airstrip where we found our first Singing Starlings. We must have been the first birders in the world to have racked up Forest Bittern, Buff-tailed Sicklebill, and Southern Crowned-Pigeon before having seen a Singing Starling! The weather was not great, but our experienced pilot weaved his way through storm cells up to a lofty height of 15,000 feet, and it was remarkably bump-free, but it was a bit longer than typical. Once on the ground at Mount Hagen we were whisked away to Kumul and spent the last bit of the afternoon at the celebrated feeder, where our first Brehm’s Tiger-Parrot was a big hit, and you can never get too much exposure to the Ribbon-tailed Astrapia. A night walk was a quiet affair, although Gordon spotted one of the elusive little Cophixalus Microhylid frogs.

We had a relaxed start the following morning and found ourselves at Lai River, where the target birds fell relatively quickly while the morning was still cool. We found a pair of Brown Goshawks building a nest, both birds placing sticks into the platform. Yellow-breasted Bowerbird perched up well a couple of times. Torrent Flycatcher, Mountain Meliphaga, Elfin Myzomela, and great views of both Ornate Melidectes and Superb Bird-of-Paradise meant we had done well, so we returned to the lodge. Exploring into the cloud forest, we had a hugely successful afternoon session when we first found a Rufous-naped Bellbird followed by a family of Wattled Ploughbills feeding a recently fledged chick. The male, with his pendulous wattles, gave a great show. Then a party of the rare Orange-crowned Fairywren gave some of the best views imaginable of this timid sprite. A pair of Crested Berrypeckers withstood the repeated aggression of Smoky Honeyeaters. Very beautiful birds are the Berrypeckers. We had one last hurrah when a glowing male Crested Satinbird came into a fruiting tree for a quite lengthy time, although it was still sneaky. It never returned after a patient wait, but we did relocate it one more time in a different tree. It had been an excellent afternoon. At night, the Black-tailed Giant Rat turned up at the feeder.

Lesser Bird-of-Paradise

Lesser Bird-of-Paradise— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

With one last morning left on the tour, it was an early start to head to Kama Village. With heavy overnight rain I was not certain we could get the van up a dicey section of road, but Kim gunned the van up and we arrived at the village where there is a lek of the Lesser Bird-of-Paradise. Our luck was in—the sole adult male was present and perched up in the open for more than thirty minutes. Yes! There were plenty of birds about, and we added a few more birds like New Guinea White-eye and enjoyed a male Elfin Myzomela and a very good Yellow-breasted Bowerbird. On the roadside near the lodge we found a young man with a recently killed female specimen of the Long-fingered Triok, a spectacular striped possum. I was able to show the participants the adaptations of this strikingly pied marsupial, such as the greatly elongated finger and chisel-like teeth that enable it to extract wood-boring beetle larvae and fulfill the ecological niche that woodpeckers utilize in the rest of the world. We finished in the cloud forest with a Fan-tailed Cuckoo and a Brown Quail in the grassland edge. We made it to the airport where thus ended the first part of our adventures on mainland Papua New Guinea.