This was a private Sicklebill Safaris tour to Papua New Guinea for Tom Gullick and Simon Albuquerque. It was designed to find a good selection of the 400 endemics on the island, home to some of the most spectacular and bizarre birds in the world. We did not target Australian species, or try to get a big list in terms of species recorded, the focus was very much on the endemics. Finding birds in PNG can be a real challenge, with some of the most difficult birding on earth, but we certainly recorded an outstanding selection on this trip, and visited out of the ordinary sites.
We began as ever in Port Moresby, with House Sparrow and Australian Pratincole as good trip ticks at Jackson's Airport. Grey-headed Mannikin was our first endemic en route to the attractive small lakes at the Pacific Adventist University, which gave lovely views of Green Pygmy-Goose, Comb-crested Jacana and Fawn-breasted Bowerbird. Then we made a foray up to the Sogeri plateau, netting a few savanna species for Simon.
Next day saw us heading over to Tari and Ambua Lodge, for what should have been one of the birding highlights of the trip. Unfortunately circumstances conspired against us and we arrived as a tribal war between the Huli and the next clan along was about to erupt.
Joseph was excellent as ever and we made a good start on finding our wants, with some nice bonus birds like the rare Yellowish-streaked Honeyeater and both Madaraszs and Modest Tiger-Parrots as well as the customary birds of paradise, which again included Black Sicklebill. The moss-festooned Antarctic beech forests below the Tari Gap, gave us unforgettable sightings of White-winged Robin, Lesser Ground-Robin, and very obliging Lesser Melampitta. Other excellent species included White-breasted Fruit-Dove, Blue-capped Ifrita, female Wattled Ploughbill, male and female Stephanie's Astrapias, and singing males of Superb, King of Saxony and Loria's Bird of Paradise.
Hassles with the Lodge did seriously mar things though, and when we were told that we were all being evacuated at 04.00 the next morning it was no great surprise, albeit disappointing. We had been meeting truckloads of painted and armed (shotguns, axes, bows and arrows, spears) warriors heading up over the Tari Gap all day, in great spirits ready to go sort out the group who had been blockading the main highway for several months. The Lodge were right to send us out as things were very volatile and could turn nasty very quickly, though the threats were not against us at all and everyone was very friendly still. We were flown to Mt Hagen on the TNT plane, the two pilots arguing the entire trip, which really made for a reassuring flight! There we were left to our own devices, but luckily I managed to get a message out to Elijah Hon of Paradise Adventure Tours and he met us at the airport. Leaving as we did cost us about 10 species, including Papuan King-Parrot Chestnut Forest Rail, Log-runner, Marbled Honeyeater, Black Pitohui, Torrent-lark, and Blue Bird of Paradise, all very unfortunate but one of those unexpected things that can occur.
We had to improvise and try to pick up some to the high altitude species we had not had time to get at Ambua, so Kumul Lodge and Baiyer River became the alternate venues. Our time at Kumul was unfortunately very limited, a decision that in retrospect we regretted, but getting to long out of bounds Baiyer River was interesting as this used to be a great birding site. The security situation has been sorted out and we passed unscathed on two consecutive days, so maybe this potentially world class venue will come back on the agenda. It is run-down but still worth a look, and we had bonus Yellow-breasted Bowerbird and Hooded Pitta from there, plus a marvellous Papuan Hanging-Parrot, gorgeous Lesser Bird of Paradise and what was almost certainly a Grass Owl along the road at dawn one morning.
We got back on schedule by flying over to the mid-altitude forests at the copper mining town of Tabubil in Western Province, and this proved rewarding with lovely looks at White-eared Bronze-Cuckoo, Dwarf Koel, Vulturine Parrot, Red-breasted Pygmy-Parrot, Red-bellied Pitta, White-rumped Robin, Obscure Berrypecker, Magnificent Bird of Paradise, and Carola's Parotia. The forest by the Dablin Creek track has regrown very well and proved very rewarding. The Ok Ma Road is in a shocking state, 4WD only, but still very good for birds. Here we as usual heard the mysterious and almost unknown Greater Melampitta calling, though getting a view again proved problematic, and a male Magnificent Riflebird gave terrific views, as did Great Cuckoo-Dove. A stop en route to Kiunga gave the local race of Little Ringed Plover, and views of the rare relict Golden-backed Whistler as we tried to dodge the rain.
We had another excellent few days at Kiunga (click here to read about this extra special site) which is becoming a sort of lowland forest version of Ambua in terms of great birding. It was fairly dry this year, and a quick foray around the airstrip gave us great views of the restricted range endemic White-spotted Mannikin and the scarce and irruptive Nankeen Kestrel from Australia. Samuel, our local guide, showed us around the rich lowland rainforest surrounding Kiunga, including the Boystown road, mercifully drivable again this year. We had lovely views of a stunning male Flame Bowerbird, two adults of the rare Long-billed Cuckoo, good looks at Yellow-capped Pygmy-Parrot, nice looks at Blue Jewel-babbler and plumed male Greater and Raggiana Birds of Paradise, plus species like Red-collared Parrot, Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, the rare and spectacular Vulturine Parrot, the local and uncommon Meyer's Friarbird and the beautiful Golden Cuckoo-shrike.
We spent two nights up at Akame Lodge on the Elevala River, a basic landowner lodge but in a great site where you can watch Yellow-eyed Starlings from the veranda and go to bed listening to the Hook-bills calling. Adult and immature Great-billed Heron were a nice sight on the way in. We were lucky to get wonderful views of Southern Crowned Pigeon, plus the impressive and comical-looking Palm Cockatoo, Large Fig-Parrot, Purple-tailed and Collared Imperial Pigeon, and an excellent dawn performance from the Twelve-wired Birds of Paradise. Common Paradise-Kingfisher performed well, though getting it's rare and almost never seen congener the Little Paradise was even better, with a White-tailed Paradise for good measure all within a few hundred metres. This river trip is certainly a highlight of the tour, despite the bites! A fly past of Fruit -bats added interest too. Another morning we had brief views of a flock of the rare and little known White-bellied Pitohui and a male King Bird of Paradise gave stunning views too.
We then flew over to Lae and explored the Boana and Sankwep roads, seeing some useful species including Dwarf Kingfisher, Edward's Fig-Parrot, Emperor Bird of Paradise, Streak-headed and Grand Mannikins and more Vulturine Parrots, though dipping on Silver-eared Honeyeater was a shame. Madang was beautiful as ever and we worked hard at Kau FR for relatively little, though Ochre-collared Monarch and Black-browed Triller were north slope species not seen elsewhere on the trip. Bird Island was very nice, with Beach Kingfisher, New Guinea Scrubfowl, Island Monarch, Mangrove Golden Whistler and unexpected Coroneted Fruit-Dove and Green-backed Honeyeater. The ponds at Alexishafen gave us Spotted Whistling-Duck and Grand Mannikin, plus Eurasian Little Grebe at one of its few PNG sites, the duck being particularly pleasing as it's got much harder around POM these days.
Our final mainland days saw us concentrating on the beautiful national park at Varirata, where we had lovely views of the spectacular Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher, the mega-skulking Northern Scrub-robin and Painted Quail-thrush. We had a good view on two separate occasions of the mega-tick Pheasant Pigeon, and saw Eastern (Magnificent) Riflebirds with their bizarre growling calls. The park yielded a few good species each visit, it's a place that definitely repays the time and effort. Other outings there gave us very nice looks at plumed male Raggiana Birds of Paradise in full display, Black-billed Brush-turkey, Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Yellow-eyed Cuckoo-shrike and the lovely but bizarre Wallace's Fairywren.
We said farewell to Simon, and Tom and I headed off for the islands extension, aiming again for as many of the 54 endemics as possible. We began at Walindi, coming off the plane and over to the lovely divers lodge there where we picked up a boat to take us out to Kimbe Island. This was specifically for Nicobar Pigeon and small island special Sclater's Myzomela, and we had very nice views of both plus Yellow-bibbed Fruit-Dove and Beach Kingfisher. We tried landing, but it is very steep and unstable and too risky, so we stayed on the boat and birded from there.
An outing up into the hills was noteworthy, as we picked up Black Imperial Pigeon, Song Parrot, my first Rufous-faced Thicket-warbler, Lesser Shining Flycatcher and Buff-faced Pygmy-Parrot. Next day gave us great looks at Melanesian Scrubfowl, a Black-headed Paradise-Kingfisher, a lovely pair of the very local White-mantled Kingfisher and a superb Pied Cuckoo-Dove. We found a good selection of the Bismarck-Solomon endemics, with excellent species like Pied (Yellowish), Finsch's, Grey and Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeons, Red-knobbed Fruit-Dove, both White-necked and Violaceous Coucals, Blue-eyed Cockatoo, Black-tailed Monarch and Buff-bellied Mannikin. Two Blue Quail flushed in damp grass along the Walindi road may be the first on New Britain since the mid 1930's!
We then risked a very tight timetable and flew across to Namatanai on New Ireland, spending the afternoon driving up to Kavieng and birding the new site that Chris Eastwood and I found back in June. This worked like a charm despite my worries about the tight timing, and we saw Forbes Mannikin, my first White-naped Lories, New Ireland Myzomela and Red-chinned Lorikeet, plus a very odd swiftlet near Namatanai that is I suspect Mayr's Swiftlet. Next morning we added Hunstein's Mannikin and Paradise Drongo, leaving just 2 of the 6 New Ireland endemics unseen in less than a day birding.
Manus was our final destination, and we scored well here with the help of Aaron, finding the Superb Pitta the first afternoon. We had good views of the Friarbird, Pygmy-Parrot and Monarch next day, and then tried to get out to Tong for the Manus Rufous Fantail. Unfortunately bad weather again made the long crossing inadvisable, so we put into Kowhae island in torrential rain for a recce and turned up the small island specials Mackinlay's Cuckoo-Dove and Bismarck Black Myzomela as compensation. Our final morning saw us with just a couple of hours to try for the Manus Boobook, and here again we succeeded with amazing daylight views of a perched bird after in began calling long after dawn!
It was a very successful trip, the small size being an added advantage, and we recorded 22 species of bird of paradise, 18 species of kingfisher, 39 species of pigeon, 36 species of parrot and some 40 species of honeyeater! We had not gone after a big list per se as we were targeting endemics, but we still came in at a grand total of 408 (410 if we include the 2 non-leader birds!), some 394 seen plus 14 heard. 230 endemics was a great start for the region. Tom's supplies of cigars held out, and we managed wine every night, whilst working out a compromise on the need to eat. My thanks to Tom and Simon for the chance to arrange the trip, and for their forbearance and good company in the field.