Papua New Guinea: West New Britain Aug 06—11, 2016

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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The great majority of folks on our Papua New Guinea Highlights tour continued on to our extension of West New Britain, and we were joined by a new participant. The flight went well, and by lunchtime we were well set up in the lovely and very comfortable Walindi Dive Resort set on the coast at Kimbe Bay.  We had a super encounter with Buff-faced Pygmy-Parrots in the gardens, thanks to some sharp spotting by Janene. Four adults were feeding two fluttering recently fledged juveniles. After a break we walked up a hill behind a nearby village where local man Joel had a beautiful New Britain Boobook, a small endemic owl, roosting right out in the open. Typically they are more cryptic, so we enjoyed the unobstructed views very much. A thunderstorm caught up with us; we waited it out under our umbrellas and, as it fizzled out, a lot of birds perched out to dry off including lots of Eclectus Parrots, Blue-eyed Cockatoo, Coconut and Red-flanked lorikeets, Yellowish and Red-knobbed imperial-pigeons, Long-tailed Myna, New Britain Friarbird, Variable Goshawk, and a Pacific Koel. It had been a very productive first day.

Golden Owl

Golden Owl— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


In this tropical lowland location, we were in the field at dawn to get the most of the productive bird activity. The site for our birding was Garu, a protected forest area with geothermal hot springs. The constant heat generated by the geothermal energy is utilized by the Melanesian Scrubfowl, a species of megapode famous for its reptilian reproductive biology. At one spring we could find numerous surprisingly deep egg chambers dug by the scrubfowl, and we saw several of these timid birds in flight and perched. It proved to be a very good morning, and we saw four more quite difficult birds at Garu. Enormous and typically reclusive Violaceous Coucals duetted with their “whoop-whoop” signature vocalization in good view. The forest interior Finsch’s Imperial-Pigeon, a very attractively patterned species, was uncharacteristically scoped on the forest edge. The scarce Oriental Hobby flew around and over us and even perched briefly. Our final last hurrah of the morning was a fantastic Black Imperial-Pigeon perched out and looking splendid in the scope. This hill forest species is scarce in the lowlands.

After a siesta we ventured to the Kulu River and birded along the edge of the forest where it adjoins the enormous oil palm concessions. The ecotone is bird-rich. Our best discoveries were several shy Nicobar Pigeons, unusual large, greenish birds with a stark white tail and lanceolate neck plumes. We scoped a couple. A Melanesian Scrubfowl wandered out in the open for a particularly good view. There were plenty of other new birds ranging from Black Bittern to Stephan’s Emerald Dove and the distinctive subspecies hispidoides of Eurasian Kingfisher. That night we went spotlighting to follow up on a recent report of the extremely rare Golden Owl. Despite a big search effort we were not successful, although we had three highlights in the form of a beautiful Amethystine Python, the strikingly patterned Bismarck Flying-fox, and the amazing syncopated firefly displays.

New Britain Boobook

New Britain Boobook— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


The next day we were out on the boat, but our hoped-for deep sea pelagic had to be abandoned due to a developing stiff wind and rising swell. In fact, the rain had been developing consistently every day, and our umbrellas were put to good use. We visited both Restoff and Malo Malo Islands, protected from the swell in the sheltered bay area where, despite the less than ideal conditions, we had a good run with the small island specialist birds. These included the stunning Beach Kingfisher, Mangrove Golden Whistler, Island Monarch, Mackinlay’s Cuckoo-Dove, Sclater’s Myzomela, and plenty of Island Imperial-Pigeons. Snorkeling was a pageant of colorful reef fish including such psychedelic species as Foxface, Moorish Idol, Orange-tailed Triggerfish, and Imperial Angelfish. There were enormous flocks of Black Noddies in a feeding frenzy on a workup of baitfish. Other notable birds included Lesser Frigatebird, Black-naped Tern, Eastern Osprey, and the enormous White-bellied Sea-Eagle.

After a siesta we ventured out to the Numundo Beef Ranch, an area of tall grass. It is a good site for finding Melanesian rarities, and I was amazed to see well the presumed same female Australian Hobby we photographed two years ago. Tree Martins were present in good numbers, and the rare endemic subspecies of Papuan Grassbird was reveling in the rainy conditions. Australian Reed-Warblers, the endemic Buff-bellied Munia, several Buff-banded Rails, and eight Common Sandpipers feeding in the cattle yard, were also interesting, but the two views of King Quail were brief.

Finsch's Imperial-Pigeon

Finsch’s Imperial-Pigeon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Those who were keen gave it another rev for the Golden Owl, and this time incredible success as we had three extended views of this legendarily elusive bird, even getting some half-decent photographs. The background of this owl is that there have only been three individuals seen in the past century! One was photographed in the day by David Bishop and Simon Cook in the 1980s; a specimen was found dead in a village near Kimbe in 2014; and a bird was seen by Joseph for several nights last year before it disappeared just in time for last year’s tour! For the past three years Joseph and I have been running around at night broadcasting recordings of other Tyto owl species and having no success. This year well-known world birder and friend Ashley Banwell, plus his travel companions, had been doing the hard yards and, thanks to their success with Joseph, we were able to thoroughly search the oil palm plantation where they made their sighting, and there it was. It was a great result and very gratifying after all the spade work all of us have contributed; a most beautiful owl as well.

On our final day of birding in West New Britain we were once again starting at Kulu River along a different stretch. Our main quarry was the Black-headed Paradise-Kingfisher that had been tantalizing us unseen in the forest interior, trilling plaintively. The first bird we worked on was a total nightmare, as four times we spotted it, and it flew every time! The next individual was perfectly behaved and gave close to walkaway scope views. Thank goodness for that! A New Britain Dwarf-Kingfisher was briefly seen perched, but also dashed off when it suspected it had been spotted. Another Nicobar Pigeon was located, this time inside the forest, and it posed comfortably for a lengthy view. Then we did battle with the recently split New Britain Pitta which, as usual, proved very difficult to show to a group, although the leader was lucky to get a decent view. We found Cicadabird, Shining Flycatcher, White-bellied Cuckooshrike, Olive-bellied Sunbird, and Bismarck Flowerpecker.

Barred Owlet-nightjar

Barred Owlet-nightjar— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


The afternoon session found us back at Garu. We had a lucky break when a flowering tree full of lorikeets feeding on the nectar turned up the Red-chinned Lorikeet, a small flock of six birds giving repeat sightings as they clambered through the blossoms. This is typically a hill species, but occasionally is located in the lowlands, with this my first sighting in West New Britain. We also had success with the elusive White-mantled Kingfisher. We said farewell to the Purple-bellied Lories, Eclectus Parrots, and Blue-eyed Cockatoos, plus many more species we had become familiar with over the past few days. After dinner we went out again for the people who had missed the Golden Owl the night before. They were lucky, as the owl was relocated and stayed perched for quite a while, although we could not get as close as the previous night and get any more photos. Lucky for them though—phew! We also had a great experience with the Ringed Python, a beautifully patterned species endemic to the Bismarcks.

It was time to leave this quiet piece of paradise, and our on-time flight allowed me to hatch a final plan to squeeze in a couple of hours of afternoon birding back at Varirata in the hills above Port Moresby. The plan worked exceedingly well as we added quite a few birds we had only heard or missed on our previous full-day visit. A mixed flock of smaller passerines included Chestnut-bellied Fantail, Spot-winged Monarch, Fairy Gerygone, Dwarf (Spectacled) Longbill, Black Berrypecker, and the scarce Spotted Honeyeater showed briefly. Further afield we taped in a fantastic White-crowned Cuckoo, a rarely seen species, and found a different individual of the Barred Owlet-nightjar. The last new bird of the tour was, amazingly, a Blue-winged Kookaburra, a fine blue-tailed male. It had been a cracking afternoon and an excellent finale to what had been a very good tour.