Sunday 28th and Monday 29th August
A mixture of reunions and first time introductions are the order of the afternoon as Ian Merrill, Martin Kennewell, Graham Finch, Andy Deighton, Simon Colenutt and Andy Bunting rendezvous at Heathrow Terminal Three. Is this the first ever birding trip to be undertaken by both a Finch and a Bunting, we muse? Surely a good omen?!
A 22.00 Singapore Airlines flight carries us east, through the usual time-zone disorientation, delivering us to a Singapore meeting with Volkert van der Willigen in the luxurious Changi Airport. After another six-and-a-half hours at the mercy of Air Niugini, on top of the twelve hours already endured, we finally reach Papua New Guinea.
Tuesday 30th August
As we descend towards Port Moresby a ridge of black mountain peaks, part of the Owen Stanley Range, project through a blanket of grey cloud. The outline of the jagged rocks is highlighted by an orange sunrise glow, in a breathtaking first encounter with the third largest island in the world.
Dropping through the low cloud we pass over a landscape of dry grassland and patches of scrubby forest covering the flat coastal plain on which the nation’s capital city is built. The streetlights and then runway lights of Port Moresby appear through the misty gloom to guide us to a surprisingly modern airport terminal.
Jon Hornbuckle, final member of the team, is awaiting our 06.15 arrival as planned, fresh from two-weeks-or-so of guiding a Naturetrek group around this birding Mecca. The trip has been conceived a year previously, after a brief Papuan appetite-whetting session in western Irian Jaya, and Jon has kindly agreed to arrange the logistics of our travels. His experience as a PNG veteran of no less than six previous visits proves to be invaluable in this country of ever-changing flight timetables and endless transport complications; Jon’s opening announcement of a completely amended itinerary, thanks to cancelled flights, certainly sets the scene for our impending travels. As we make our way to the waiting minibus we note the bright red blotches that pattern the pavement, early evidence of PNG’s ubiquitous narcotic betelnut chewing habit!
Bags are deposited at the nearby Granville Hotel, where rather basic but clean conditions are compensated for by the extremely friendly and helpful staff. We have not left the suburban hotel grounds before Rufous-banded Honeyeater has the accolade of first tick of the trip, rapidly followed by a Yellow-tinted Honeyeater that enlivens our petrol station visit.
Varirata National Park is today’s destination, approximately an hour’s drive inland from Port Moresby. Our minibus journey takes us out of the sprawling capital and through largely deforested lowlands as we head into the foothills. The route follows a steep-sided valley, where the brown grassland is dotted with eucalypts and strewn with huge dark-brown boulders. High limestone cliffs become a prominent feature of the landscape as altitude increases and the sparse eucalypt-dominated woodland gradually becomes more dense and dotted with wispy-topped casuarina trees.
The open savannah woodland changes to tall dry forest as the tarmac road winds and climbs steeply towards the park entrance. Our journey produces more new birds in the form of Forest Kingfisher, Yellow-faced Myna, Brown Oriole, Hooded Butcherbird and Blue-winged Kookaburra. We even stumble upon our first bird-of-paradise, a female Raggiana.
By the time we set off on a walk around Varirata’s Circuit Trail at 09.45 the temperature is already beginning to climb under a clear sky, though any sign of jet lag is soon dispelled as new species come thick-and-fast with adrenaline providing the necessary boost.
Hooded Pitohui, Yellow-eyed Cuckoo-Shrike, Frilled Monarch and Puff-backed Meliphaga are rapidly notched up, but much more elusive is the Dwarf Whistler which takes a good deal of taped persuasion before it’s dazzling yellow-and-blue Prothonotary Warbler-like form materialises in the mid canopy. The highly vocal Rusty Mouse Warbler, Yellow-breasted Boatbill and distinctive black, white and red Mountain Peltops soon follow.
It’s approaching midday and by rights things should be slowing down, but still new species appear on the narrow trail which snakes its way through the dry, undulating woodland. Wallace’s Fairywren, Olive Flycatcher, Rusty Pitohui, Black-winged and Spot-winged Monarchs, Chestnut-bellied Fantail, Yellow-bellied Gerygone, Black Cuckoo-Shrike and Black Berrypecker and all added to the notebook before we break for a bite to eat.
An assortment of Papuan biscuits, consumed in the shaded picnic area, refuel us for the afternoon session and soon we are off again, this time taking the more open Gare’s Lookout Trail. Not far along the path JH pulls out a real ace by relocating a roosting Barred Owlet-Nightjar. This exquisite little nightbird has chosen to spend the daylight hours on a dead eucalypt stump right next to the track and allows photographic scrutiny to within a few metres.
Red-cheeked and Papuan King Parrots frequent a fruiting tree alongside Helmeted Friarbird and Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise, but a loudly calling Eastern Riflebird refuses to show himself, much to our frustration. Finishing our walk back at the open picnic area JH’s Yellow-billed Kingfisher tape provokes an immediate response and within seconds a pair of these magnificent orange-headed and bright yellow-billed creatures are calling excitedly above our heads.
The action continues when a Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher begins to call from the forest nearby. After a little taping and an anxious search, as the light begins to fail in the dense understorey, we locate this gorgeous little endemic. It is often the case that birds appear far more spectacular in life than in the field guide and none more so than this beauty, whose subtle brown head contrasts with vivid red breast and blue wing coverts, topped off by a pair of exotic white-tipped tail streamers. What a finale to our first day in the forest!
Even the journey home does not disappoint, as we locate a rapidly drying roadside pool which supports a feeding group of thirty Pied Herons plus a couple of Australian Ibis and two fine rufous-backed adult Rufous Night-Herons.
The Granville Hotel is surrounded by a high chain-link fence and after dark the heavy iron gates are manned by a bevy of security staff; there are clearly a few undesirables in the neighbourhood and an evening walk beyond the compound is not recommended! Tuna steak and chips accompanies JH’s detailed explanation of our completely revised itinerary, necessitated by a number of cancelled flights and the double booking of Samuel Kepuknai, the indispensable bird guide in the Upper Fly River region.
Wednesday 31st August
Retracing yesterday’s route we are back at Varirata soon after first light, beginning the day at the Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise lek site. Raucous calls betray the birds’ presence as soon as we vacate the minibus and we are soon savouring mouth-watering views of these exquisite birds as they display in the low trees. Males are adorned with pale yellow head and contrasting emerald green throat, rich brown underparts and a fantastic train of bright orange-red plumes that trail from the flanks and are frilled and shivered in display.
The Circuit Trail is less lively than on the previous morning but still produces Crested Pitohui after a prolonged chase, Green-backed Gerygone, Purple-tailed Imperial-Pigeon, Azure Kingfisher and a very obliging Black-billed Brush-turkey. The latter is particularly welcome, after listening to this species’ distinctive calls echo through the forest for the best part of two days.
It’s another fine day and the temperature soon starts to soar, producing a corresponding lull in avian activity. After a cracker-and-peanut butter lunch we spend a short while at the viewpoint where our first Grey Crows and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are the only highlight. We then partake in another abortive chase after a calling Eastern Riflebird, before setting off for the Pacific Adventists University.
The distinctive outline of a Long-tailed Honey-Buzzard and pair of smart White-shouldered Fairywrens cause a couple of impromptu stops, before we breach the security fence which surrounds the short-mown lawns and ornamental shrubs of the PAU. Mike Tarburton, an extremely helpful Australian ex-pat academic who is now the only serious ornithologist in PNG, kindly shows us around his campus.
Ornamental lakes plays host to Pacific Black Ducks, Grey Teal, Rajah Shelduck and both Wandering and Spotted Whistling Ducks. Figbird, Variable Goshawk and Collared Sparrowhawk are new to the trip, while Fawn-breasted Bowerbird and Black-backed Butcherbird are new to all. MT’s tour takes us to an area of cultivated land to the rear of the university where small flocks of very neat Grey-headed and Chestnut-breasted Munias feed, via a huge fruiting fig that conceals a stunning array of Pink-spotted and Orange-fronted Fruit-Doves.
Our PAU evening concludes with two roosting pairs of Papuan Frogmouths, one of which is almost within touching distance, and a fascinating talk on the habits and bower-building behaviour of the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, a subject in which MT is a World authority. We really ought to take this opportunity to apologise to Mike for the schoolboy giggles that rippled through the minibus when he announced that the frogmouths were roosting in a golden shower tree!
Thursday 1st September
Our final day at Varirata commences with an Agile Wallaby bounding across the entrance road at an alarming rate, in the day’s first rays of sunlight. Gare’s Lookout Trail is our chosen route and soon we have Papuan Black Myzomela under the belt. We are following the ridge-top trail into more dense woodland when JH picks out the call of one of our most wanted species at this site. After a few tense minutes the dazzling form of a Chestnut-backed Jewel Babbler is located, feeding in the leaf litter close to the trail. A unique combination of rich chestnut back, deep blue underparts and a sharply contrasting white throat ensure that this eagerly anticipated species lives up to all expectations.
Slaty-chinned Longbill, Yellow-legged Flycatcher and Zoe Imperial-Pigeon are all added to the list before we go ‘off piste’, leaving the trail to descend down a steep valley side and into a dry stream-bed which JH has found productive in the past. A tall flowering tree is a magnet for small passerines and a short vigil here provides Red and Red-throated Myzomelas, Spotted, Dwarf and Pygmy Honeyeaters and Red-capped Flowerpecker, not to mention aching necks!
A thin whistled call alerts us to the presence of a Northern Scrub-Robin close-by in the valley bottom. After a short exchange with mini-disk player we are able to enjoy prolonged views of this boldly marked, long-tailed terrestrial species, which again proves to be infinitely better looking than the field guide would have us believe! Next a raucous call from the canopy allows us to home in on a female Eastern Riflebird, much to our relief after our earlier misfortunes with this elusive but highly vocal species.
When it seems that things cannot get much better the morning’s finale comes in the shape of a family party of White-faced Robins, which interestingly prefer to cling to near-vertical stems as they forage through mid-storey vegetation. Another little avian gem, they display a unique combination of sulphur-yellow underparts, an open white face, contrasting grey mantle and hood, plus bright orange legs. Sadly the closest we come to Dwarf Cassowary is a pile of droppings, but we cannot complain after an outstanding morning of some of the finest Papuan birding.
Another biscuit lunch is followed by a brief session on the Boundary Trail, which has produced Painted Quail-Thrush in the past, but all is rather quiet and we opt to spend the last couple of hours in the savannah woodland along the park entrance road. Tree-fern-like cycads grow in the sheltered valleys and white eucalypt trunks stand out boldly against lush green grass, revealing delicate shades from grey to purple in their peeling bark. White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike, Yellow-faced Myna, White-throated Honeyeater and Orange-bellied Fruit-Dove are all added to our list before the light fails and we head back to Port Moresby.
Final act of the day is to procure 96 cans of South Pacific Lager. Our next destination is Tari, which has apparently been designated a ‘dry’ town due to escalating alcohol-induced violence, and the thought of an evening without a celebratory beer cannot be contemplated!
Friday 2nd September
Rucksacks and our beer consignment are loaded aboard a 36-seat Dash 8 turboprop Air Nuigini aircraft for the seventy-minute flight to Tari, in the Southern Highlands Province. It is soon apparent that seat numbers on boarding cards are completely irrelevant and window seats are claimed on a first-come-first-served basis. JH reaches to fasten his seat belt and the strap falls off in his hand!
Considerable excitement ensues when an Australian Pratincole, a new bird for the majority of the party, is seen on the short grass next to the runway and all 36 passengers strain simultaneously to catch a glimpse of the cause of the frantic gesticulating!
We take to the air at around 10.00, initially following the coastline where a deep blue Gulf of Papua contrasts with dry brown scrubby lowlands, sliced by an occasional meandering river that joins the sea via dark green swathes of mangroves. Finally we turn north, inland, and almost immediately over a blanket of low white cloud from which distant dark mountains again protrude. Occasional breaks in the cloud reveal that we are travelling over unbroken forest which covers an undulating landscape, a phenomenon now incredibly scarce in a tropical world of logging concessions and plantation agriculture.
At Tari we descend over a flat valley bottom cleared for subsistence agriculture, with high forest-covered hills rising all around. Numerous thatch-topped huts dot the area, which clearly has a thriving population; it is amazing to think that these people were unknown to the outside world until the 1930s.
Coming to rest at the end of the gravel airstrip we are met by a totally unprecedented welcoming committee. Literally hundreds of people line the perimeter fencing, with wide betelnut grins showing from below a sea of colourful umbrellas which serve to deflect the powerful rays of the mid day sun. Closer inspection shows that many are still sporting elaborate traditional headdresses and there is even a sprinkling of Huli Wigmen in full ceremonial regalia. We wonder if word has spread that ‘Hornbuckle Tours’ are about to arrive, but local market day seems a more plausible explanation!
Steven Wari, our host for the next five days, soon appears to extend a warm welcome. Steven is a local entrepreneur who has developed an ecotourism lodge that is an affordable alternative to the absurdly expensive Ambua Lodge which was until recently the only accommodation close to the montane forest. We load our bags onto an open-backed lorry and set off on the bumpy unpaved road.
People throng the market stalls that line the roads and we are greeted by countless smiles and waves. It is rather surprising to note that the game of darts is incredibly popular and dozens of dartboards, each mounted on a timber stake, can be seen standing above the crowds!
Around twenty minutes drive beyond the town we come to a halt outside one of the fortified plots of land that line the road. A deep ditch has been dug and the excavated yellow clay soil used to build a steep embankment on top of which a row of sharply pointed wooden stakes is set. Apparently battles between opposing local clans are still not uncommon and the fortifications are not just there for display! Entering the enclosure via a strong timber gate we are taken to a small plot of forest where the BBC has recently been filming a Lawes’ Parotia lek.
The Parotias make themselves scarce, but Black Butcherbird, Common Smokey Honeyeater, Belford’s Melidictes and a female Superb Bird-of-Paradise are all new birds for us, as this is our first montane birding of the trip. Rather bizarrely we are accompanied in the forest by a local fellow with a bow and arrow and Steven Wari carrying a briefcase!
Continuing uphill on the red dirt road we finally reach Steven’s Warili Lodge at 15.00. Around two kilometres below Ambua Lodge, which is where the true forest begins, Warili consists of a number of recently constructed thatched huts surrounded by its own fortifications and entered via a wooded bridge that crosses a deep defensive ditch. Our clean and comfortable rooms are constructed entirely of thatch and a superb cooking/eating area consists of a large high-roofed hut with central fireplace; there is no chimney and the smoke simply percolates out through the straw roof.
Our tuna and avocado sandwiches are interrupted by the first Yellow-browed Melidictes of the trip, as this smart bird feeds in the garden that is viewed via the glass-less window! We are naturally keen to get into the field but learn that the minibus that had been booked for our use has broken down. We have already noted that transport is not a readily available commodity in this part of the world, but are still a little perturbed to discover that we are to be conveyed up the hill in the back of a tipper truck!
We bump our way uphill and into the mountain forest, stopping at the Lower Trail around a kilometre past Ambua Lodge. The trail leads into fairly open forest, where the prevailing wet conditions mean that every bough is draped in a thick blanket of bright green moss, and epiphytes sprout in abundance. The ground is springy with moisture in this tremendously atmospheric setting and despite heavy drizzle setting in we are soon enjoying some good birds. Red-collared Myzomela, Papuan Lorikeet, Friendly Fantail, Sclater’s Whistler, Grey-streaked and Black-throated Honeyeaters are all rapidly added to our trip list.
Blue-grey Robin and Loria’s Bird-of-Paradise present more problems, as they lurk in the lower vegetation, while a Spotted Jewel-Babbler does his utmost to remain hidden and in spite of frequent calls makes just a single dash across the open trail. Final surprise of the day comes as we reach the main road, where the distinctive tail-less form of a Short-tailed Paradigalla flies over the road to alight in an adjacent tree.
A walk back down the steep road to Warili Lodge avoids the discomfort of the tipper truck and produces a pair of Large-tailed Nightjars that sit on the road, now that the sun has set. The helpful kitchen staff have been busy in our absence and we dine on a three-course fine meal of soup, chicken curry and banana fritters, all washed down with our imported beer!
Saturday 3rd September
At 05.00 the generator splutters into life and we descend upon the warm and pleasantly smoky dining room where fresh fruit and fried eggs await us. The stove consists of half an oil drum, under which long logs are burnt, and here a large kettle is kept constantly boiling to fuel our early morning caffeine needs.
Some rapid dining room furniture-shuffling gives us the luxury of two timber benches which are lashed into the back of our tipper truck with thick ropes; this morning we will travel in luxury! As the lorry chugs up the steep and bumpy slope, so the height of the trees progressively decreases until we are deposited in the cloud forest at around 3000 m. Papuan Mountain-Pigeon, Tawny Grassbird and Island Thrush have all been notched up en route, under a very welcome clear blue sky. At our new elevation we are well above the cloud base, which stretches out in a rippled white blanket far below.
A whole new array of birds greets us at the higher altitude, the first being a Mountain Firetail that glows red in the low sunlight. Elegant Ribbon-tailed Astrapias, Large Scrubwren, Dimorphic Fantail, Regent Whistler, Grey Gerygone and Mountain Mouse-Warbler come next, followed by a pair of Brown Sicklebills that move along the boughs probing epiphytes with long, fine decurved bills. Expletives fly as we get our first looks at Blue-capped Ifrita, an eagerly awaited endemic that works its way along the mossy boughs to reveal a regular explosion of electric blue as its dazzling cap is angled to the light.
Leaving the dirt road we descend along a narrow trail through gnarled and stunted trees, in a landscape totally cloaked in lush green moss. Here we find Brown-backed Whistler, Black Fantail, Papuan Scrubwren and our first White-winged Robin that characteristically flits between low vertical stems. It’s been a great introduction to the delights of PNG’s montane birding and well pleased with our successes we take a slow walk down to the lower altitude of Benson’s Trail.
We have not been walking through the trees, here much taller, for very long when we here a distinctive metallic rattling call. Tracking down its source, we are confronted with one of the most incredible birds on the planet. On a relatively low perch, in the open forest, a male King of Saxony Bird of Paradise is in the full throws of his breathtaking display.
In most respects the plumage of the King of Saxony in fairly understated, with black head and upperparts and white underparts with a subtle yellow suffusion to the upper breast. It is, however, at the two huge pearly-blue castellated head plumes where things go mad. As the excited bird lets out his amazing electronic calls the two razorwire-like plumes are independently rotated around his head. They are swept sometimes forwards, then backwards or upwards, though not always in unison, in what is surely one of the most stunningly bizarre avian behavioural displays on earth.
Close by we manage to coax in the strange terrestrial Lesser Melampitta, with other new species on the trail taking the form of Canary Flycatcher, Rufous-naped Whistler, Fan-tailed Berrypecker and the handsome Black-breasted Boatbill. Still in a state of Saxony-elation we bump back down to Warili Lodge for a bite to eat, after which we decide to target a couple of lower altitude species.
So the tipper truck is pointed down hill, we take up position on the luxurious wooden benches and off we bump. Then it starts to rain. And it continues to lash it down for the next hour as we continuously strive to maintain balance on the wildly rocking chassis, keep a grip of an umbrella and desperately try to keep some parts of our anatomy dry. On the latter count we fail miserably and soon there is four inches of water sloshing round in the steel confines of the tipper, rapidly soaking any dry spot that the brolley has managed to shield.
In a thoroughly wet and bedraggled state we reach the first owl site, but in light of the continued downpour we retreat to a nearby straw-hut church for shelter (and some prayers for more clement weather!). After the best part of an hour, half-stripped and attempting to dry, we pick a less torrential interlude and set off across the cultivated fields where an incredible male Superb Bird of Paradise displays his metallic blue delta-shaped shield to an admiring female. A little further on our local guide proceeds to scratch and tap at the trunk of the allotted dead tree and to our amazement a superb dusk-grey Greater Sooty Owl appears from a roosting hole and looks just as amazed to see us! All too soon he flies off to a nearby tree, but what an absolutely stunning owl.
Capped White-Eye completes the additions to the bird list here and we then pay a brief visit to the area where we stopped two days previously. Here the Papuan Boobook is far less cooperative, zooming straight from his roosting tree and away. Never mind, we have the journey back uphill to look forward to!
Fortunately the rain subsides and the worst we have to contend with is a bogged-down lorry and associated bunch of inebriated Papuans who temporarily block our route. The sight of Warili Lodge is particularly welcoming and the raging fire is soon surrounded by steaming trousers as another excellent meal is eagerly consumed.
Sunday 4th September
Today’s action starts early, as we get within metres of an unseen calling Papuan Boobook and find our first flock of Hooded Munias just as we board the illustrious tipper truck for another ascent. A brief stop in the mist at the Bailey bridge produces a very cooperative Rufous-throated Bronze-Cuckoo before we continue, to eventually break through the low cloud and into the sunshine close to the top trail visited the day before.
Our slow walk down hill takes us through forest now alive with birds and soon we are savouring our first Crested Berrypeckers, absolute stunners combining mossy green back with grey breast, yellow vent, a back face and crown set off by vivid white supercilium. Sandford’s Bowerbird, the exquisite Plum-faced Parakeet and a totally unexpected Papuan Whipbird, a great rarity, follow in rapid succession while Great Woodswallows and Mountain Switflets hawk overhead.
Hooded Cuckoo-Shrike, Black-billed Cuckoo-Dove, Fairy Lorikeet and Black-mantled Goshawk are all added as we descend in a flurry of ticking action. A pair of Tit Berrypeckers are located feeding beside the road, the male resembling a dazzling abstract Great Tit and the female a diminutive Cutia; what a pair! Scarcely less inspiring is the Painted Tiger-Parrot that appears close by, to wrap up a phenomenal morning’s birding.
Our walk along Benson’s Trail is a rather half-hearted affair. As the rain has set in we opt for another soggy descent to Warili Lodge in the bloody tipper truck with which our patience is now beginning to falter! As is now tradition, the dining room fire is surrounded by steaming trousers and we take a leisurely lunch watching the rain cascade down. And so the cascading continues all afternoon. Eventually at 16.30 we crack and donning umbrellas set off on foot to the forest. The final hour of light around the Ambua Lodge entrance is actually quite productive, bringing a sodden Princess Stephanie’s Astrapia, damp Black Pitohui, dripping Black-throated Robin and waterlogged Yellow-billed Lorikeet.
Clothes are set around the fire to steam for the second time in the day and beers are cracked in celebration of another bag-full of fantastic birds. Surely we’re due some better weather tomorrow?
Monday 5th September
In recent weeks Steven Wari’s men have completed a brand new trail that leads down the hillside opposite the lodge to an excellent plot of undisturbed forest. At first light we set out onto the steps freshly cut into the dark brown loamy soil. Cloud is lying in dense blankets in the distant valley below and in the foreground trails of smoke percolate through the damp roofs of thatched huts and snake upwards into the still morning air. On a ridge-top bare tree a male Black Sicklebill is in full display, stretching his scapular ‘hands’ forward and over his head like a cloak, whilst the distance means that his bill strangely opens before the distinctive call is heard.
The trail takes us down to a valley cut steep into the hillside by a foaming white torrent of a stream, which we cross on a bridge only completed the previous day. A narrow and often muddy trail system leads us through some excellent woodland brimming with new birds. Lawes’ Parotia is the first success and after a few unsatisfactory views of flying birds we pin down a male that parades along a bough to display his weird wire-like head plumes each tipped with a black exclamation mark of quills.
Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo and the wonderfully named Modest Tiger-Parrot are next to appear, followed by Black Monarch and Papuan Treecreeper, a very brief Garnet Robin and Rusty Whistler. A McGregor’s Bowerbird bower is much easier to find than its builder but a very obliging Buff-tailed Sicklebill is a big bonus and real crowd pleaser. Last new bird of the morning is Island Leaf-Warbler, after which the rain typically commences and we head back for the cover of the lodge. It’s always exciting to visit an uncharted site and this one has certainly come up with the goods. What is also encouraging to know is that Steven’s Malua Clan have declared the area as a nature reserve and that they intend to protect it as the Malua Wildlife Area.
Our moaning about the state of the transport has prompted Steven to secure something a little more up-market. Now we have a rather larger lorry, complete with tarpaulin cover to keep off the rain, the only problem being that it seems to lack a starter motor and we have to push-start the bloody great thing every time we set off! Furthermore, our driver does not seem to be the full ticket; we later discover that his heavily bandaged hand is the result of losing a finger over the weekend in the course of a battle with an opposing clan!
Our afternoon’s birding takes us a few kilometres back down hill, from where we set off towards the settlement that is home to Henson, our bird guide while at Warili Lodge. The journey takes us along some steep and precariously muddy trails but is enlivened by a group of Buff-faced Scrubwrens and a Papuan Frogmouth sitting cryptically on it’s ludicrously tiny stick nest high on an exposed bough.
The cultivated slope on which Henson’s thatched hut stands affords magnificent views over the forested hillsides that stretch into the distance and the small settlements in the valleys below, where every hut is topped by a characteristic trail of wood smoke. We are not here just for the scenery alone, however, with Blue Bird of Paradise being the target for the afternoon. The Blue BoP has other ideas. In spite of much calling, in the manner of a lorry’s reversing siren, our quarry remains decidedly elusive apart from an occasional tantalising flash of blue iridescence through the trees.
We stick with our vigil for the rest of the day, with Dusky Lory, Stout-billed Cuckoo-Shrike and some magnificent Eastern Marsh Harrier flypasts paying some consolation for our efforts. Chewing sugar cane and AB’s efforts to teach the local children to juggle provide further entertainment, before we retrace our steps back down the slippery trail this time with the bare footed local children assisting the progress of the less sure-footed!
Tuesday 6th September
The alarm sounds and we follow the routine of pulling on our slightly damp mud-caked trousers. The weather follows the same routine of depositing buckets-full of rain, so we decide to travel upwards in an attempt to climb above the adverse weather. The lorry is bump-started into life and chugs up to the Bailey bridge where a pair of Orange-billed Lorikeets are spied through the misty gloom.
We finally break through the cloud at Tari Gap, where the weather is still very grey but at least the rain has abated and a small party of Brown Quail on the road form a welcoming committee. At The Gap the dwarf forest gives way to a large expanse of lush grassland with tree ferns dotting the sheltered valleys to give a contrasting and visually impressive landscape, even though it supports a limited avifauna.
Our delight at losing the rain is short-lived, as the clouds sweep back in and the downpour recommences. We take shelter on the top trail, which proves to be a wise move as brolley-covered birding produces a ridiculously tame Chestnut Forest Rail. Resembling an overgrown African flufftail, this wonderful bird scrapes about in the leaves just a few metres from our feet.
‘Plan B’ takes effect as we try to descend and escape the showers, however our new location at the bottom trail produces an even more torrential downpour. Another Buff-tailed Sicklebill causes some excitement, but Mountain Kingfisher and Spotted Jewel Babbler fail to respond to the tape so we call it quits.
Trousers and fleeces steam next to the fire for an hour before we press on and down the hill, refusing to let a few buckets full of rain and soaking clothes spoil our enjoyment! A thoroughly grim afternoon is spent around a forested valley a little way south of the road, with Mountain Peltops and Marbled Honeyeater the only birds of note in the virtually continuous downpour.
Late in the day the rain does begin to ease and we make a masochistic march back up to the forest around the Ambua Lodge entrance. Just as we reach some decent habitat the cloud descends and turns every bird into shades of grey, forcing us to tick Blue-faced Parrotfinch in monochrome!
Surely we’re due some better weather tomorrow?
Wednesday 7th September
It’s still bloody raining! The pounding downpour has lasted all night and we have a depressing breakfast waiting for the sky to lighten. Starting the day in a down hill direction for a change we kick off at the ‘garden’ of Benson, one of Ambua Lodge’s birding guides. More an area of crop-filled fields and occasional stands of trees than a ‘garden’, it is a recognised birding site and soon a stunning pair of Blue Birds of Paradise make us forget all about the weather. Feeding in an eye-level fruiting tree, the jet-black male has contrasting white bill and eye-ring, iridescent blue wing coverts and an elongated pair of elegant tail-streamers.
Anxious to make the most of our newfound good fortune we drive uphill to Benson’s Trail, where the rain is now intermittent. First new species is a New Guinea Pademelon, or at least that is the only mammal that fits with the ‘small grey wallaby’ which grazes on the trail. Amazingly, as we are watching the pademelon a Speckled Dasyure wanders slowly along a log and within a few inches of the large grey beast. The latter is a small possum-like marsupial of a genus unique to New Guinea, having a pointed nose, dark grey fur with lighter speckling and a very distinctive white tail tip.
Moving into the gloomy understorey we have brief encounters with both Wattled Ploughbill and Ashy Robin, though a Lesser Melampitta is more obliging on this occasion and the odd black pitta-cum-tapaculo hops past so close that its red eye is clearly seen. Rufous-backed Honeyeater is another new bird, but the highlight of the morning is undoubtedly a pair of Spotted Jewel Babblers that respond excitedly to the tape. As they perch on mossy logs at minimum focusing distance every exquisite detail is soaked up, from moss green back with contrasting chestnut crown, royal blue underparts, to large white cheek-patch and clear-cut covert spots. Awesome!
After lunch we spend some more time on the lower trail in the intermittent rain. Josephine’s Lorikeet is the only new bird but we enjoy more looks at Blue-capped Ifrita and Papuan Treecreeper. Moving back to the road a Black-bellied Cuckoo-Shrike appears, but again the Mountain Kingfisher will only call from the dense canopy without revealing itself.
Our plan is to look for nightbirds this evening and Benson, owner of the Blue BoP garden, conveniently appears just as we are about to set off back up the hill. He agrees to give us the benefit of his local birding knowledge and we willingly accept his offer.
As we chug up the trail a couple of Mountain Nightjar silhouettes are spotted hawking over the trees, but as we reach his usual owlet-nightjar spot we are dismayed to find a broken down truck surrounded by rowdy locals. ‘Plan B’ is engaged and we walk back down the hill a little way, then slide down a slippery bank and across a stream, with headlamps picking out spots of drizzle in the darkness; it doesn’t appear the best of weather for nightbirds!
Mid-way across the water a call goes up from Benson, the spotlight is deployed and we are face-to-face with a totally stunning Feline Owlet-nightjar that is sitting on a bare limb at head height just ten metres away! It is a large bird, of the gorgeous bright-rufous phase, showing a stripy white face and mass of rectal bristles. Sadly it departs as we wrestle with flashes and cameras in the rain, so escapes being digitised for posterity, but it is certainly an image that will live in the mind’s eye forever.
Back at Warili we drink our celebratory beer with a smoky dining room full of locals who are totally enthralled by a DVD movie shown on the laptop computer of a Dutch photographer who is sharing our lodgings. It’s been a fantastic location from which to explore this amazing area and it is a great shame that this is our last evening in the rustic surroundings so pleasurably far from civilization.
Thursday 8th September
We hit the waterfall trail before first light to try for the Shovel-billed Kingfisher reportedly seen in the last few days. Our taped offerings draw no response and we spend the morning wandering the rather spectacular waterside trail cut through rock and bamboo, eking out Varied Sitella, Orange-crowned Fairywren, McGregor’s Bowerbird and a good flock of Blue-faced Parrotfinches, this time in glowing Technicolor!
Meanwhile JH has thrashed off up the hillside and into the forest close to Warili, guided by Steven. He returns late in the morning in a sweaty, but happy, state and shows us a photograph of the two huge green eggs of a Dwarf Cassowary that he has just glimpsed!
Today’s flight to Mount Hagen, necessitated by the cancellation of the Airlink direct run to Tabubil, is actually chartered with MAF and no one seems to know what time it will arrive or depart! To be on the safe side we have our kit packed and in the back of the lorry by 12.30, sharing our transport with what appears to be the entire lodge staff and most of the surrounding population!
The MAF facility at Tari airport is actually a small hut beside a gravel runway, seemingly run single-handedly by a pleasant young Australian. We are individually weighed-in on some ancient scales and allowed into the waiting room, which also serves as the store room and control tower! Here an elderly Australian lady does her knitting surrounded by shelves packed high with a selection of boxes and packing cases which appear to have stood in the same spot for the last fifty years.
Having ‘checked in’ we are free to wander across the runway and aircraft parking strip, where a group of Australian Pratincoles allow close photographic approach to help while away the time. The only Mountain Red-headed Myzomela of the trip visits the airport garden, after which the rain sets in again and we retire for a picnic lunch undercover. Rather apprehensively we listen to the MAF radio banter and regular crackling weather updates, conscious that if the flight can’t get in it will seriously disrupt our schedule for the next few days. Our Australian friend periodically walks outside to check the cloud base on the nearby mountainsides and the tension mounts. Eventually the sound of an aircraft engine is heard and eight pair of eyes anxiously look skywards for signs of its source. To our great relief the Twin Otter drops from the clouds to perform a perfect landing on the wet gravel and comes to a halt in front of us with engines and fuselage splattered in mud.
Strapping ourselves into the 18-seater aircraft the pre-flight briefing instructs us that smoking or chewing betelnuts is banned! We hurtle down the muddy runway then up into the clouds for a forty-minute flight to Mount Hagen over forested hills tipped with white wisps of cloud, all below a moody grey sky.
At Mount Hagen a taxi conveys us through the streets of the sparse but sprawling town that covers a flat plane, flanked on all sides by dark imposing mountains; it is interesting to note that the driver rapidly drops the deadlock when we pull up at a junction next to a crowded and rather raucous market gathering; does he know something we don’t? Passing through some steel security gates that wouldn’t seem out of place at Parkhurst we enter the Hotel Poroman; it seems like the Hilton after five nights in a straw hut!
There is no sign of our ground agent with tomorrow’s air tickets, which is a little disconcerting, but the beer is ice cold and a couple of laps of the buffet take our minds off such complications.
Friday 9th September
Black-headed Whistler in the spindly trees backing onto the hotel compound gets us off to a good start and even better news is that we have some tickets for today’s flight. At the airport we are told that the Airlines PNG flight has been delayed due to some difficulties in loading a coffin aboard at the last stop! As we wait for our flight a ‘Vladivostoc Air’ Hind helicopter sets down just as a cordon of heavily armed and particularly mean-looking security men throng round the perimeter of a section of hard standing. A large cargo of small and very heavy timber crates are unloaded, to be wheeled over to a waiting aircraft, which is stocked and away in a matter of minutes. It is apparent that the mystery cargo must be a consignment of ingots from one of the nearby gold mines.
Our aircraft appears and the coffin, complete with floral tributes, is unloaded. We are in the air by 09.30 and fifty minutes later are circling above Tabubil. This is another airport where the weather can be notoriously unpredictable and it takes some minutes before the pilot finds a large enough gap in the clouds through which we can safely drop. After flying low over the abraded and pebble-strewn bed of the Ok Tedi (‘ok’ being Papuan for river) we touch down gently on the dirt airstrip.
The temperature has already taken a noticeable hike at the reduced altitude, but it is nice that it isn’t raining. David Austen, the jovial ex-pat Australian proprietor of the Hotel Cloudlands is awaiting our arrival and ferries us back to his very well appointed establishment; it’s got a swimming pool and, more importantly, a stunning array of wall-roosting moths that are attracted by the lights. There is no time to wander around admiring the facilities, however, and within minutes we are heading out on the dirt road that follows the Ok Tedi upstream.
We have only been in the vehicle for ten minutes when a raptor gliding over the adjacent forested hillside causes an emergency stop. We all pile out in time to see the unmistakable outline of a huge New Guinea Harpy Eagle disappear into the mist. Fortunately, just as we dissect its identity with an open field guide, a pair of the extremely impressive raptors drops back out of the low cloud to skim the treetops as they descend over the hillside showing tremendously broad and powerful wings and deep chest to full advantage. Now that is the sort of luck you need!
Our destination is Dablin Creek, now one of the few readily accessible sections of forest in the area, following the collapse of the bridge leading to the Ok Ma Road. At Dablin Creek a large diameter steel water-intake pipe ascends the steep hillside and a parallel gravel track allows access into the montane forest.
It is noon when we start our ascent and the weather is warm but overcast. As ever a new site brings a flurry of new birds, with Obscure Berrypecker, Brown Oriole, Mountain Meliphaga, Orange-breasted Fig-Parrot and Papuan Drongo filling the notebook in rapid succession. All seems to be going wonderfully when a sudden cry of pain comes from the rear of the group. MK is on the floor writhing in agony and clutching his shin. It clearly hurts as even his everyday repertoire of expletives is exceeded tenfold. There is a three-inch long gash in his lower leg, deep enough to show what’s going on well below the flesh, from where large spurts of blood pump out in time with his heartbeat. It doesn’t look at all good. In fact it looks so far from good that IM keels over, thus ending a promising future in medical care!
Martin’s injury has been inflicted by an eight-inch high rusty metal pole with a razor-sharp burr at its top, where it has been hammered into the track. He is actually losing a lot of blood and it takes all the skill of our resident GP, Dr van der Willigen, to stem the flow with the only first aid kit we have at hand, namely a wad of toilet roll and a camera strap! GF and JH immediately set off down the hill to summon help and the rest of the party, including a horizontal MK, tick of a pair of Torrent Larks which have seemingly popped out to investigate the commotion.
Miraculously JH appears around twenty minutes later to report that he has flagged a passing security truck from the nearby Ok Tedi Gold Mine and that an ambulance has already been summoned by radio. We support a one-legged MK half way back down the track before a 4WD ambulance appears with GF and a couple of medics. Within seconds he is strapped in and whisked off, with VW travelling in support, leaving us to thank our lucky stars that the incident has occurred so close to well equipped medical support and not in the middle of nowhere, exactly where we are spending the majority of the trip.
The remainder of the team spend a rather subdued afternoon at the top of Dablin Creek, where new birds take the form of Tawny-breasted Honeyeater, Pale-billed Scrubwren and White-eared Bronze-Cuckoo. The weather breaks and precipitation varies between light, cloud-induced drizzle and heavy rain. At 16.00 we call it quits and return to the Hotel Cloudlands via Tabubil’s well-stocked supermarket where we obtain provisions for the next day.
We are both surprised and relieved to find a grinning MK already consuming his second medicinal beer on our arrival at the hotel. He has received nine stitches for his troubles, some of them placed internally, but doesn’t seem to have fared too badly for his ordeal.
A slap-up meal and a fair quantity of SP bring a rather eventful day to a close.
Saturday 10th September
At 06.30 we are back at Dablin Creek, retracing yesterday’s footsteps but carefully noting the location of the said iron bar. Brolleys are almost constantly unfurled but the birds don’t seem to be put off by the weather, with Black-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Glossy-mantled Manucode, New Guinea White-eye, White-rumped Robin and Mottled Whistler providing the early entertainment. Both Carola’s Parotia and Superb Bird-of-Paradise sadly only appear in the female form, but Torrent Flycatcher and Ornate Melidictes provide some visual stimulation.
A Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler appears very briefly then flies across the track after a bout of persistent calling. Our descent is enlivened by Spot-breasted Meliphaga, Chestnut-bellied Fantail, Grey-headed Whistler and Mid-mountain Berrypecker, after which cheese and salad cobs are eagerly consumed in the minibus.
Mid way between Dablin Creek and Tabubil we spend some time scanning the surrounding hillsides in glorious sunshine from a suitable vantage point, picking out at least three Long-tailed Honey-Buzzards and a Little Eagle. From here we take the road back through the comparatively affluent suburbs of Tabubil and on southwards, following the winding course of the Ok Tedi. Turning east we head away from the main river and via a long and ill-repaired road tunnel, through the forested hillside, we arrive at the Ok Manga. Around forty-five minutes drive from Tabubil, the hydroelectric water intake from the Ok Manga is a well-known site for the endemic Salvadori’s Teal. This species favours fast-flowing boulder-strewn rivers and we spend an hour scouring the bubbling water, but to no avail. Scrub White-eared Meliphaga is no real consolation, though both Torrent Flycatcher and Torrent Lark are always worth a look.
A nearby gravel-extraction site on the banks of the Ok Tedi keeps us occupied for a while, being the only reliable site for the distinctive dubia race of Little Ringed Plover. This resident species shows a startlingly bright orange-yellow orbital ring and, to our ears at least, subtly different vocalisations from our familiar British curonicus birds; predictably, we muse over the future split. Greater Bird of Paradise is another tick at this site, but it’s just a female so we manage to retain our excitement.
Arriving back at the Ok Manga site at 17.00 we are instantly greeted by a wonderful pair of Salvadori’s Teal, riding the white water just like their South American counterparts, Torrent Ducks. They pull themselves out onto the rocks for us to admire their intricate markings just as the heavens open in a torrential downpour and both ducks and birders dive for cover.
Wet but happy, we take a steady drive back and JH suggests a spot to stop and look for parrots flying in to roost. This proves to be the call of the day as we have scarcely extracted ourselves from the minibus when a pair of Pesquet’s, or Vulturine, Parrots is located high on the opposite hillside. The light could be better but we get prolonged views of the huge bareheaded beasts that proceed to indulge in a bout of courtship feeding. Now decidedly hard to come-by, these very odd birds apparently favour extracting seeds from cassowary droppings to supplement their diet.
As we watch, another more distant Pesquet’s Parrot flies past over the ridge with a distinctive flap-flap-glide motion before an excited shout of ‘tree kangaroo’ has us all running. The source of the commotion proves not to be a kangaroo at all, but the Common Spotted Cuscus feeding in the canopy on the opposite side of the valley is an awesome beast nonetheless. The huge white marsupial, with a long prehensile tail, clambers through the branches in a rather ungainly manner and is visible from a great distance due to his largely white fur. Although basically creamy white, he shows ginger cap, face and rear neck stripe, plus ginger forearms. His flanks show Dalmation-esque black spotting, creating one very odd creature, seemingly a conglomeration of spare parts! It’s been quite an afternoon.
Sunday 11th September
A final morning at Dablin Creek, this time with the sun shining. On the mountainside high above our position we can make out the rather ominous outline of the huge Ok Tedi Gold Mine, clear of the cloud base for the first time during our stay. New birds are thin on the ground, but we do get better views of Ornate Melidictes and yet another pair of Pesquet’s Parrots which fly over calling loudly. At least two Magnificent Birds of Paradise are heard calling, but frustratingly do not show themselves, thus accounting for our biggest miss of the trip. Samuel Kepuknai’s brother, who had been helping the BBC film Magnificent BoP, had offered to help us find this species but fails to turn up; we subsequently find out that getting totally pissed the previous evening has taken priority over his commitments to us.
Highlight of the visit comes on the walk back down, when a fly-past raptor lands in a tree to show the black mask and long profusely-banded tail unique to Doria’s Hawk. At least one adult and one juvenile bird remain in the area for twenty minutes, providing what is a very good breeding record of a rarely encountered endemic raptor.
With the site pretty much exhausted we pack our bags and set off south for Kiunga, or at least we set off when our hired minibus has managed to secure a source of fuel in a town apparently gripped in some sort of shortage. The next three hours are spent traversing the winding dirt road, with views across forested hills that stretch as far as the eye can see. It really is a pleasure to find a tropical country still so well blessed with pristine forest at all altitudes and covering a huge area; long may it remain so.
We eventually come to rest at a site known as Km 17, not unsurprisingly some 17 kilometres short of Kiunga. Much to our dismay there is a large busload of bird-tour types already at the site, as it transpires, Nik Borrow and his Birdquest minions. What is of greater concern is that they are being guided by Samuel Kepuknai, who we had understood was booked to guide us for the next few days. JH has a quiet word with Samuel who promises that he will sort things out later, however this fails to allay our concern.
The next couple of hours are spent in the forest at this lowland site, where we encounter Lowland Peltops, Trumpet Manucode, Lesser Black Coucal, Variable Pitohui, Mimic Meliphaga, Australian Koel and Purple-tailed Imperial-Pigeon. A huge and gaudy Rufous-bellied Kookaburra is located perched in a roadside tree, but best of all are the male Greater Birds of Paradise that gather at their treetop lek, calling loudly. On this occasion we keep our distance as Birdquest have the prime viewing spots, confident of a return visit in the next few days to soak them up at our leisure.
Kiunga is a lively little town, pretty much at the end of the road, having grown up as the port on the navigable Fly River into which supplies for the Ok Tedi Mine are shipped. There is also a pipeline to the town, direct from the Ok Tedi Mine, down which copper and gold laden slurry is pumped to be tankered away for processing and refinement. Our accommodation is at the decidedly mediocre Kiunga Guest House, whose rooms lack the space in which to swing a cuscus!
JH has booked and paid for Samuel many months previously so he has no excuse for the double booking with Birdquest, but it would seem that such performances are by no means unusual. Unfortunately the services of Samuel are pretty much essential, in order to catch up with some highly sought-after species, so visitors have no alternative but to put up with his annoying antics. The compromise reached will see our two groups sharing Samuel for the next day and then splitting the two following days. Presumably our guide also earns twice the cash with such convenient oversights?
Monday 12th September
Breakfast at 05.00 should be followed by a 05.30 departure but the bus, which Samuel is supposed to have arranged, does not arrive until 06.00. At 06.30 the bus gets bogged down in a muddy depression on the Boys Town Road and twenty disgruntled birders disembark. As it transpires, we have actually timed our mishap quite well as a pair of delightful iridescent blue Emperor Fairywrens appear beside the road, soon after which a flock of Greater Streaked Lories and a huge black Palm Cockatoo fly over.
Crinkle-collared Manucode, the extremely impressive Golden Cuckoo-Shrike, Little Bronze Cuckoo and Yellow-capped Pygmy Parrot keep up the flurry of birding activity in what is clearly an excellent lowland forest site. The bus is dug out of the mud by the bus crew and our attendant pickup, complete with half a dozen shovel-equipped locals, and we move on. In spite of one more attempt to bury the bus in a muddy hollow we are at the all-important ‘grassy knoll’ by 08.00.
The site in question is the only known spot from which Flame Bowerbird is regularly seen and it consists merely of a raised earth bank at the side of the track, maybe only three or four metres higher than the surrounding ground. All intently scan the surrounding area for bowerbirds, but the first bird to be found is a rather impressive Long-billed Cuckoo. A shout goes up as the first Flame Bowerbird flies across the road, to be followed by another two or three over the next half hour. The views are somewhat distant and no birds are seen to land, but even so they appear as an explosion of orangey-yellow as they pass by. The pressure is off!
Trumpet Manucode, Streak-headed Honeyeater, Rufous-backed Fantail, Yellow-gaped Meliphaga and Meyer’s Friarbird all follow from the grassy knoll. Later we start to walk back along the track but the temperature is climbing rapidly and bird activity has all but ceased. The bus ferries us back to Kiunga where we eat lunch and have a brief air-conditioned siesta away from the oppressive tropical heat, before returning to the Km 17 site visited on the previous evening.
This is actually the spot where David Attenborough filmed the Greater Bird of Paradise sequence for the legendary documentary and naturally these birds are our main targets for the evening. Display actually takes place in the very crowns of the taller trees and finding a good viewing slot through the thick canopy takes a little time. With a little patience, though, the views and photographic opportunities are amazing as the male birds rotate around branches, spread their wings and seemingly turn themselves inside out in an explosion of yellow and red. Both Greater and Raggiana Birds of Paradise are actually present, and also some orange-coloured hybrids between the two, leaving a section of the forest alive with their loud calls.
Hooded Pitta is seen after a search away from the track and just as the light fades both Magnificent Riflebird and Spotted Catbird become very vocal but only provide frustratingly brief glimpses in the dark understorey.
Tuesday 13th September
A pre-dawn breakfast is followed by a five-minute bus ride down to the Fly River, where we cross the muddy shoreline to board a small fibreglass boat, illuminated by the bright lights of the adjacent container port. There is scarcely enough room to squeeze in eight passengers plus associated baggage and we soon find out that the single outboard engine has scarcely the power to propel us forward at any reasonable rate of knots.
As the sky brightens we find ourselves on a slow flowing dirty-brown Fly River, some 300 metres from bank-to-bank at this point. White-faced and Striated Herons soon add to the trip list, while the very smart Collared Imperial Pigeons are a tick for most on board and a large dark New Guinea Bronzewing which flies low over the river is a tick for all! Unfortunately the combined outcome of a rather late departure and a particularly slow boat mean that we only get to view Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise from our watery vantage point as it has already departed from its display tree by the time we scramble up the muddy bank and on to the usual viewing spot.
Clambering back aboard our boat we chug upstream, mainly though primary forest but also past a few subsistence plots and one large logging concession. Eventually we reach a fork in the Fly and take a right turn onto the narrower Elevala River, where smiling faces greet us from the bankside and dugout canoes. New birds on this section of the journey take the form of Golden Myna and Great-billed Heron. The tributary gets narrower as we progress upstream until after a full three hours of travel we take to the land on another slippery riverbank. Ascending some rough-cut steps in the high bank we find ourselves in a large riverside clearing in which two substantial timber huts have been built. At first inspection they look rather inhospitable, but our two boatmen deploy clean sheets and mosquito nets and soon our overnight accommodation is looking ship-shape!
A brief walk around the trail to the rear of the huts, built by Samuel and officially known as Ekame Lodge, reveals that all is fairly quiet in the mid-day heat. The main excitement is a pair of rather deadly-looking snakes which are courting on the trail and that JH comes unwittingly within six inches of standing on! For half an hour we watch as they twist and writhe, photographing them from every angle. Our guide is clearly very wary of them and later research shows them to be Smooth-scaled Death Adders Acanthophis laevis, which carry venom capable of causing death to humans within six hours!
After a sandwich and a brew we reboard the boat and take a rather hot cruise upstream, via a pair of Channel-billed Cuckoos, in the hope of a rendezvous with our unreliable guide. To our relief Samuel and the Birdquest group are just emerging from the ‘King BoP Trail’ to dine on the riverbank, so we are able to prevent his escape!
With Samuel at the lead we take to the trail, seeing the wonderful little Blackburnian Warbler-like Golden Monarch within a couple of yards of the river. Large-billed Gerygone, Yellow-bellied Longbill another Golden Cuckoo-Shrike and the handsome Black-sided Robin follow, plus an extremely obliging pair of Hooded Pittas which bound through sunlit forest-floor patches in an explosion of black, emerald green, red and azure blue. A Hooded Monarch appears only briefly, but the certain highlight of the afternoon on the trail is the endemic Little Paradise-Kingfisher, a long-awaited tick for JH, that is skilfully tracked down to its low perch by Samuel. Here we soak up the shining blue upperparts and contrasting white breast, blood red bill and long spatulate-tipped tail of this gorgeous little bird, noting the blue outer tail feathers that separate it from its more common counterpart.
Back on the river we cruise upstream a little way where we encounter a flock of around a hundred endemic Yellow-eyed Starlings, always a tricky bird to connect with, feeding in the riverside vegetation. On a personal level there is just one big target bird at this site and a little apprehension is starting to set in about its absence as we turn to head back downstream. The light is beginning to fail when Samuel casually announces that we have just passed a Southern Crowned Pigeon perched beside the river. The boat is almost turned by the sheer willpower of the occupants, and there it is! Low on a thick bare bough sits my PNG dream bird, totally oblivious to the boatload of slobbering idiots just below, and it is absolutely bloody amazing! At a whisker under 30 inches in length it is the largest pigeon in the world, though its awesome rear-heavy frilled grey crest give it a very un-pigeonlike appearance. Its grey face bears a black mask from which a fierce red eye stares, while underparts and lesser coverts are deep maroon with white greater coverts creating a broad contrasting wingbar. I can go home now!
We drift back downstream and into the sunset on a fantastic high, ticking Papuan Nightjar above the river close to the lodge. Here the improvised showers are the perfect antidote to the sweaty heat and our paraffin lamp-lit meal of rice, fresh veg and tinned fish tastes like a la carte cuisine! All is topped off with a large tot of JH’s secret reserve of Peruvian rum, consumed below a misty half moon and to a chorus of chirping frogs.
Wednesday 14th September
It has been a surprisingly comfortable night under the mosquito nets, though it is has become apparent that chiggers have penetrated both leech socks and sulphur to leave a telltale ring of itching red dots around many an ankle. A pre-dawn breakfast of eggs on toast is interrupted to chase an unseen Hook-billed Kingfisher around the compound perimeter, before we again take to the river.
It is incredible to see just how much the water level in the Elevala has dropped since we first arrived and how a large expanse of mud and numerous tree skeletons are now visible on either bank. Our ride up river is interrupted by a Little Kingfisher perched on one such dead bough, a pair of treetop Twelve-wired Birds of Paradise and a White-bellied Pitohui which crosses the river beside the boat. We have just nudged the bank with the bows in an attempt to get better views of the pitohui when a White-eared Catbird, known as an extreme skulker, pops up in the tree above us and remains in the open for a good two minutes!
When another Hook-billed Kingfisher begins to call we moor the boat and Samuel sets off through the undergrowth in hot pursuit. We follow but there are so many annoying distractions. First a fantastic Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher appears at eye-level in a nearby tree and a matter of seconds later a Common Paradise-Kingfisher is on an open perch just as close! Although he continues to call loudly, the Hook-billed Kingfisher plays much harder to get and it is the best part of an hour before he finds a visible perch. Our persistence pays off though, and some fantastic digital images are secured of this spangle-crowned and hook-billed brute of a kingfisher.
After this kingfisher-fest a walk along the King BoP Trail has a tough act to follow. A Variable Kingfisher whizzes past, the cracking red-and-white male King Bird of Paradise is eventually pinned down after a little call-chasing and another pair of Hooded Pittas brightens up the dull forest floor. A perched New Guinea Bronzewing allows us to study just why it is so named but a Blue Jewel Babbler pops out for a split second that frustrates more than pleases. Beside the river a small group of White-spotted Munias flit through the scrub.
Back at the lodge we dine on eggs and spaghetti before striking camp and taking a rather uneventful boat ride back down the Elevala and then Fly Rivers to set foot in the mud of Kiunga at dusk. At the Guest House we learn of a rumour that tomorrow’s flights will be cancelled due to Independence Day celebrations and again an air of uncertainty and unease reign at the dining table; why is nothing straightforward in PNG?!
Thursday 15th September.
By breakfast time the all-night Independence Day party in the adjoining sports ground is dying down and our bacon and eggs is accompanied by the good news that there seems to be a flight to Tabubil today. When we get to the tiny airport no one knows what all the fuss is about and it seems that there was never any danger of the flight being cancelled. And we’ve wasted an early morning in the field. Bugger!
Keen to get at least some birding under the belt we take a stroll down the runway and find a pair of the Trans-Fly M. s. dogwa race of White-shouldered Fairywren for our troubles, and nearly get cleaned up by a Cessna that sneaks craftily onto the runway! We are just about to depart on our aircraft when the Captain’s voice crackles over the intercom, “Sorry about the slight delay, there is a stranger strolling down the runway”. At least we are not the only guilty parties!
Our Airlines PNG flight takes just fifteen minutes to whisk us to Tabubil, though the connecting flight is delayed by an hour and a half. A Landcruiser is awaiting our arrival at Mount Hagen and we set off immediately for Kumul Lodge, via the bustling town centre and a banana stall to stock the bird table.
Clearing the suburbs, we start to climb on the well-paved but winding roads that pass through the cultivated foothills. Our first stop is an abandoned quarry, close to the road, at Tapuka. A small area of woodland covers a hillside and quite rapidly we find Ornate Melidictes, Yellow-breasted Bowerbird, Papuan White-Eye and a lone female Lesser Bird of Paradise. The latter brings our trip BoP total to a very healthy twenty-three species! Low-flying Great Wood-swallows against a blue sky also provide some good photographic fodder.
Continuing our upward journey, it’s no surprise to find that the weather remains fine to within ten minutes of our destination and then just as we reach the cloud forest it starts to hammer it down! Having read very little about Kumul Lodge we are quite taken aback by the size and quality of the establishment and also the birds that seem to throng the grounds. Luxurious chalet-style rooms are reached by thatch-roofed walkways and each has a fantastic balcony-view of the adjoining cloud forest. At the centre of the site is a huge three-storey open-plan timber building that serves as a bar/kitchen/lounge/dining room and we are the only guests!
No more than six metres away from the removable glass window slots is a regularly stocked bird table, where papaya and bananas attracted a gob-smacking array of montane species to point-blank photographic range. Although mist and rain drift in and out at will, the photographic opportunities are by far the best of the entire trip and Compact Flashcards are filled at an alarming rate! Ribbon-tailed and Stephanie’s Astrapia’s vie with Brown Sicklebills for the tastiest morsels as Belford’s Meledictes, Common Smoky Honeyeater and Island Thrush fly to and fro.
When a huge steaming pan of the most wonderful vegetable soup is delivered it is difficult to know when to slurp or snap! A group of surprisingly smart Brown-throated Gerygones passes through the nearby bushes and then a stunning Brehm’s Tiger Parrot descends to the bird table to display his gorgeous tiger-striped black, green and yellow back. Max, the resident bird-guide, seems very clued-up and with our hit-list in mind suggests that we walk down the entrance track now that the rain has eased off. His intuition pays off and soon we are watching a group of smart little Goldie’s Lorikeets, the only ones of our trip.
Max saves his piéce de résistance until the light is starting to fade. Spotting some movement in a damp patch of the lodge gardens, he shoots off round the back of the bushes and slowly makes his way back towards us. A large bird flies low through the undergrowth a couple of times and though we know what it is, the views are terrible. Suddenly, after flying up for a third time, it decides to alight on a mossy bough at eye level and about fives metres in front of us. The spotlight is deployed and we are face-to-face with a Dusky Woodcock! This montane species, recently split from its congeners in Sumatra and Java, is known to be extremely scarce and difficult to observe. Panic sets in as I attempt to juggle with camera and flash, which are still in the bag, but thankfully the boy stays put just long enough to be illuminated by the Speedlite for a couple of definitive shots. Another fantastic stroke of luck and definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Our three course evening meal in the spacious dining room is predictably superb, though our attempts to coax a Mountain Owlet-Nightjar to the tape seem to fall on deaf ears. When we retire to bed we find that paraffin heaters are running in our rooms; it’s hard to believe that we were relying on an air conditioning unit to keep us cool in the intense lowland heat just one day before.
Friday 16th September
At 05.15 we are standing in the cool misty darkness of the entrance road again playing our tape. This time our quarry is listening and with a little persistence we coax the wonderful little Mountain Owlet-Nightjar into view, to call from a dew-laden mossy bough. Incredibly we have now seen the set of all three possible owlet-nightjars, surely the most astounding ornithological feat of the trip.
After breakfast we follow Max onto the system of steep, narrow trails that crisscross the dwarf moss-covered cloud forest close to the lodge. Although the habitat appears fantastic the birding is incredibly slow and we actually fail to add to our lists. Highlights take the form of Blue-capped Ifrita, Chestnut Forest Rail and a highly photogenic Crested Berrypecker.
Returning to the lodge we console ourselves with ‘scones’ and coffee beside the bird table that continues to attract the full range of high altitude beauties, now in better light. Here we remain for the rest of the morning and after lunch load the kit in the van for the return to Mount Hagen, sadly leaving this mountain-top haven of tranquillity after all-too-short a stay.
At the airport we have the usual ticket and flight cockups and dilemmas to overcome; Air Nuigini have cancelled the direct flight to Port Moresby so we have to travel via Lae and end up spending rather longer than we would prefer in the grotty departure lounge. At Moresby we are booked in at the now familiar Granville Hotel; it’s like coming home! First job is for Dr van der Willigen to remove MK’s stitches with a Swiss Army Knife; our time in the sweaty heat of Kiunga hasn’t done the wound the world of good. After reacquainting ourselves with the resident cockroaches we join in the Independence Day celebrations, which take the form of a very loud disco playing 1980s Brit Pop hits and some cheesy Euro Techno!
Saturday 17th September
After the rare luxury of a late breakfast we call into town for medical supplies for MK’s dodgy leg and then report to the airport for a 10.45 flight to Hoskins on the adjoining island of New Britain. The Prime Minister has just flown in and our arrival is greeted by a twenty-one-gun salute! The sixty-five minute flight takes us first over mainland Papua and then a deep turquoise Solomon Sea. From above, New Britain can be seen to be essentially flat and swathed in endless gridded oil palm plantations, but with a spine of forested mountains running through its centre.
As we make our approach the unique positioning of the runway becomes visible, running perpendicular to the coast and ending just a few metres short of the salty blue waters. Across the bay can be seen the black outline of a symmetrical volcanic cone, testament to the island’s lively volcanic history. We have only been on solid ground for a matter of seconds before the first new bird is under the belt, in the form of a flock of the attractive orange-rumped Bismarck Munias that are feeding on the lawn adjacent to the terminal building.
Bob Prior, the ageing British ex-pat owner of the unlikely named Queens Head, an inn established in 1560, is at the tiny terminal building to greet us. Our mountain of bags is piled into his rather undersized and similarly ageing pickup and we climb on top for the hour-long journey to our accommodation for the next three nights. A good tarmac road takes us through plantation-after-plantation of oil palms, though this form of agriculture has clearly made New Britain a much more prosperous island than its large neighbour to the south, as can be seen from the relatively luxurious brick and timber houses dotted along our route.
Just west of the small town of Kimbe we turn off the tarmac and down a dirt road which leads to The Queens Head Hotel, Bob’s custom-built three-storey timber residence. The spacious, clean rooms are equipped with insect mesh and fans, together with the bonus of occasional glimpses of Bob’s gorgeous daughter, Angela! What is more, all is located in a coconut plantation within 100 m of the breaking Pacific swell.
The environs of the inn provide a few more ticks, in the form of Blue-eyed Cockatoo, New Britain Friarbird and ‘Island Crow’ depending on ones taxonomic tendencies. Keen to expand our lists still further we regroup in the pickup and head back east on the main road for around 5 km before turning up the Tili Road, a rough unmade track through the oil palm plantations. We continue to bump along, stopping at occasional blocks of remnant lowland forest, and manage to amass quite a selection of birds.
Whiskered Treeswifts perch in the dead roadside trees at regular intervals and White-rumped Swiftlets form small flocks overhead. Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeons, with their outrageously swollen nasal protrusions, are relatively numerous and flock to fruiting trees. Similarly Knob-billed Fruit Doves are easy to find and are very attractive with a swollen bill extension that matches a bright orange belly patch. Bismarck (or Red-banded) Flowerpecker, Purple-bellied (or Eastern Black-capped) Lory, Buff-faced Pygmy-Parrot, Black-bellied (or New Britain Red-headed) Myzomela and Ashy Myzomela are all recorded as we slowly travel down the road making regular stops. Not only getting the names of birds correct is a problem; there is no fieldguide specifically covering New Britain and identifying them in the first place can, at times, be a rather interesting process of elimination!
Our afternoon pigeonfest is completed with the gorgeous pastel-washed Yellowish Imperial Pigeon and Finsch’s Imperial Pigeon that has a call like the wind whistling through a letterbox! Final new birds in the intensely humid pre-storm atmosphere are Pied Coucal and Long-tailed Myna, before we head back to an accompaniment of distant thunder and spectacular fork lightening which illuminates the western sky.
After a welcome shower we travel a few kilometres west to the Walindi Dive Resort for dinner, as Bob’s arrangements do not include food. The seafood buffet is outstanding, but with a slight drawback of being served in a room full of brash and outspoken Australian dive tourists.
Sunday 18th September
We’re up at first light and straight out in the pickup, back east and then inland again, amongst the oil palms. Bob has allegedly done a recce for this morning’s destination, but somewhere we take a wrong turn to end up lost and rapidly loosing valuable early morning birding time. Our detour does have some benefits in that it bumps us into a group of four sunbathing Violaceous Coucals, and we try to maintain our composure as the old fella is trying very hard to keep us happy.
We ask directions at the plantation accommodation blocks and by 06.30 we are in place at the Garu Wildlife Preservation Area. Garu consists of a large block of seemingly primary lowland forest and the birding turns out to be really quite good. Black-headed Paradise-Kingfisher is heard calling soon after our arrival and we head into the forest in pursuit of this major target bird. Views are frustratingly brief before the bird stops calling and we have to admit defeat.
As we emerge back onto the main track a distant kingfisher is sighted low in a tree and we all strain to discern its mantle colour. Fortunately it maintains its position to allow close photographic approach and confirm that it is a fantastic New Britain Kingfisher, with distinctive white mantle and beautiful two-tone blue wings and crown. We are now on a kingfisher roll and minutes later JH pins down an infinitely more obliging Black-headed Paradise-Kingfisher (the one on the front of the Helm kingfishers book) that is even happy to allow photographs! This bird completes an amazing set of five paradise-kingfishers for the trip and it is an absolute stunner with orange breast, black cap, red bill and blue wings, plus a white rump and long spatulate-tipped tail.
A White-breasted Fruit Dove, a species we missed on the mainland, flies low over the track before we continue onwards in search of the megapode nesting ground that allegedly lies ahead. When we emerge from the far side of the protected forest it is clear that we have missed our goal, so we call over a betelnut-chewing local who agrees to guide us to the spot. Our man even brings his basket, as it seems he doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to procure some eggs for lunch! He soon gets us onto the right trail and we instantly start to see the characteristic deep holes which pot-mark the ground in such a megapode nesting area; this family uses warm volcanic ground to incubate the eggs which are abandoned once laid in an excavation in ground of precisely the right temperature. A fluttering of wings and crashing undergrowth announces that we have flushed a bird and our man soon locates the Melanesian Scrubfowl perched on a low branch. As we admire the sooty-black, red-billed megapode JH manages to fall down one of the nest holes!
En route back we spend some time around a couple of fruiting trees but it is getting ridiculously warm and seventy-plus Bob is starting to flag, so we set off back to the Queen’s Head. Here we picnic beside the ocean on some food we have purchased in transit and Bob arranges for his eldest son, Peter, to be our chauffeur for the afternoon session.
This time we set out on the Kulu River Road, which again passes through oil palms for the vast majority of the route. Rain sets in, giving a reassuring Tari-like feel to the open-backed pickup! At the river there is just a narrow corridor of half-decent habitat and the timber bridge has fallen into such a state of disrepair that it is no longer passable. This was our site for the endemic woodswallow but it is clearly not going to happen and an Osprey is the only addition to the trip list. We return via the Tilli Road sites visited on the previous evening but our searching is fruitless and we fail to add a single new species.
Again we dine on a very tasty meal at the rather too touristy Walindi Dive Resort, and then spend a good chunk of the short night chasing an unseen New Britain Hawk-Owl around the plantation adjoining Bob’s house. Highlight is spotlighting Bob’s young waster-of-a-son Tony, as he staggers home in the early hours in an inebriated state; there is no chance he’ll be driving in the morning, as arranged.
Monday 19th September
An 03.45 alarm call is never a good way to start a day! We catch a flight in the afternoon so take the luggage with us on a moonlit drive to Hoskins Airport. Here we dump the bags with Bob’s daughter Angela and his housemaid who have the bum job of minding the kit until we return for our flight.
From the airport we head east along the Lavege Track, a site referred to in all the old birding trip reports but which seems to have been neglected in recent years. Bob claims to be familiar with the area, but it transpires that he hasn’t been down the road in ten years so we have to make it up as we go along! The road follows the coastline and in its initial tarmacked stages is lined by numerous dwellings. After about forty-five minutes it turns to a heavily rutted dirt trail through forest that is clearly heavily degraded and secondary in nature. Birding is correspondingly poor and we struggle to locate a single notable species.
After an hour-and-a-half of walking and driving through the empty forest we are surprised to encounter a large group of locals who tell us that we have reached the hot springs. Apparently a village that we had expected to encounter is some distance back and has been relocated away from the road! Trying to make the best of a dire situation we take up the very friendly locals’ offer of a tour of the hot springs. A sweaty half-hour on a narrow trail brings us first to a very extensive megapode nesting area, where dozens of people are actively digging for eggs; not a good sign for the Melanesian Scrubfowl, one of which performs a low flypast.
The forest then ends abruptly and we find ourselves standing on flat limestone deposits, in a huge palm-fringed clearing that is dotted with bubbling and steaming pools of clear water. A strong smell of sulphur hangs in the moist air as we wander between hot springs and a number of gushing geysers which reach two or three feet in height; it really is a very impressive and totally unexpected sight.
Our return journey is almost as birdless, though a few megapodes on the trail and a single endemic Black Tailed (or Bismarck Pied) Monarch provides brief diversion. As the morning progresses the oppressive humidity builds until a huge thunderstorm breaks, just as we leave the forest. Pausing in the cultivated land here, we add the attractive yellow-headed Singing Parrot to the list before continuing in the back of the open truck, dripping wet, as is now a trip tradition!
Passing back through the many small settlements the excited cries and waves from groups of young children signify that western faces are still a novelty in this part of the world; judging by our experiences this morning they are unlikely to see any more birders for a long time to come! At the airport the girls are understandably relieved to see our return and we all thank Bob for his valiant efforts to meet our exhausting demands over the last few days. We also part company with SC for the next leg of the trip, as he has plumped for the option of the Walindi Dive Resort for the following couple of days.
The wait for the flight is enlivened by chasing a flock of attractive Bismarck Munias around the airstrip until a security man intervenes! Our flight to Rabaul, New Britain’s provincial capital located at the eastern end of the island, takes just twenty minutes. The descent brings us close to three volcanic peaks. The smallest of the group, Taburbur, is obviously extremely active and throws out a high plume of sooty black ash as we pass.
To our astonishment there is a very smart air conditioned minibus awaiting our arrival and soon we are speeding through the outskirts of a large and rather civilised town; it’s a totally different world from the backwater village life of Hoskins. The journey to the Club Mill Hotel (E-mail email@example.com) takes around forty-five minutes and here Rachel Benny, the proprietor, greets us warmly. It’s almost dark but we can make out that the clean and well-appointed establishment is built beside a sizable river and just a stone’s throw from what appears to be undisturbed forest. JH and MK drive up the hillside with Rachel, to recce the possibilities for the following day.
Tuesday 20th September
After a quick breakfast we are ferried over the river bridge and then steeply uphill and into the forest by Darius, our well-spoken and very helpful guide, in his extremely plush Landcruiser. Simply sitting in a comfortable air-conditioned seat is an immense pleasure after the rigours of our transport over the last few weeks!
The undulating tarmac road gives way to a red dirt track, which heads upwards through largely cultivated land retaining large blocks of forest in the less accessible valleys. We are told that this area was designated for cultivation by former residents of Rabaul, who were displaced by major volcanic eruptions in 1994. Leaving the vehicle behind we continue to climb through an alternating landscape of cultivated land and blocks of native forest. In spite of the obvious degradation many birds seem to be hanging on and we soon find Golden Whistler, Black-headed White-eye and Finsch’s Imperial-Pigeon.
Moving on to a ridge overlooking a large tract of forest we count at least three distinctive Black Honey-buzzards soaring over the adjacent hillsides and a more distant pair of Oriental Hobbies. Singing Parrots are much in evidence here and the long overdue appearance of a cracking pair of white-mantled Bismarck Woodswallows causes a small celebration.
Pleased with the result to date and keen to get inside some good forest we press our guides to take us down the valley. Big mistake! There are no trails beyond the patches of cultivation and Rachel’s boys have to physically cut their way through by machete. All the noise, combined with fiercely undulating terrain, is hardly conducive to good birding and it’s not surprising that we see very little. In fact brief views of Black-tailed Monarch and Dull Flycatcher are all we have to show for a totally sweat-drenched and exhausting three-hour slog through the forest.
When we finally emerge it seems that our vehicle has made different arrangements to us and we end up making a waterless forced march back down the hill under the scorching mid-day sun. Thankfully a local taxi driver takes pity on us and we are delivered back to the Club Mill where cold showers and gallons of chilled fluid soon sooth away our woes, as does the magnificent buffet lunch.
Mission for the afternoon is to suss out access to the fabled Wild Dog Gold Mine, an area of excellent montane forest that has been visited by a few birders in the past but to which entry has been barred in recent times. Darius, who we have now discovered is the Australian-educated son of a local parliamentary minister, is again at the wheel of the Landcruiser. We head west and after a couple of wrong turns start to climb through some excellent forest habitat.
It takes just thirty-five minutes from the Club Mill to the entrance gate defining the limits of the mining concession land. Just beyond the gate a large gang of workmen are regrading the road, every one of them totally ‘nutted up’ and displaying wide red grins. Darius manages to secure our passage after protracted negotiations and we continue upwards through what is easily the most pristine forest we have seen on the entire island.
We are dropped off at the summit of the road at an estimated height of around 1000 m, and from here we take a slow walk down, taking in the breathtaking views across a vista of forested hills. The dark green trees stretch inland for as far as the eye can see, while many of the low lying valleys support pockets of contrasting white mist. All is framed by a broad and vivid rainbow, to form an idyllic setting that we can only hope will not be too adversely affected when the imminent gold mining commences.
Pigeons predominate the evening’s viewing, with Papuan Mountain-Pigeon and Yellowish Imperial-Pigeon being relatively common and just a single sooty Bismarck Imperial-Pigeon making an appearance. Black-tailed Monarch and Pied Coucal complete the rather limited bird list, but we are not disappointed to end the day in such a magnificent setting and are keen to return at first light. Back at the gate the shift has changed and a rather officious fellow has applied chain and padlock and refuses to let us through. It takes twenty minutes of Darius’s hardest bargaining and a small exchange of Kena to get us through, but more importantly he has also secured our return passage for the next day.
Evening meal is another superb buffet, the centrepiece of which is a whole Red Emperor fish, all consumed with relish and the obligatory South Pacific lager.
Wednesday 21st September
A brief 04.00 breakfast and we’re back in the Landcrusier and heading uphill. We get through the gate with minimum effort to reach the summit just as the rising sun has turned the whole eastern sky a dramatic shade of deep orange as a stunning backdrop to the superb forested landscape. The first of the morning’s five New Britain Kingfishers are a pair with an active nest in a treetop termite nest right next to the track. Pigeons are again well represented, with Bismarck Imperial Pigeon seeming fairly numerous at this altitude, though just one flock of ten Red-chinned Lorikeets is seen.
A pair of Oriental Hobbies rate amongst the star performers as we first watch them mating in a treetop and then enjoy one bird devouring a White-rumped Swiftlet at very close range. Cicadabird is new to the trip list and we add another two Black Honey-Buzzards and four more Bismarck Woodswallows to yesterday’s totals.
We continue our walk down the slope as the day really starts to heat up, with the last new bird at this site being a Meyer’s Goshawk that flies low over the track and then appears high in the sky to form a wing-clapping display. It’s time to make the most of the air conditioning at our disposal and we drive back to the Club Mill for a shower and a sandwich before packing our bags.
Our target for the afternoon is to get to one of the small offshore islands that are known to harbour a number of specialist species and after lengthy conversations with the locals we have singled out Watom, just off the north coast, to the west of Rabaul. It takes the best part of an hour on winding roads through the plantations to reach the coast, where we find ourselves driving past a couple of local holy men dressed like human pompoms whom we are told have blessed us for our impending journey!
The beach from which the boats run out to Watom, situated some three or four kilometres offshore, is part of an idyllic palm-fringed bay. A line of fibreglass boats are pulled up onto the dark volcanic sand and after a brief haggle over the fare and some hasty bailing of water we set off towards the dark green mass of the island in the near distance. The slotted wooden seats are actually surprisingly comfortable and the very calm waters mean that we are actually keeping dry!
About three quarters of the way across, a large pod of Long-snouted Spinner Dolphins are spotted and the boatman hits the throttle to drop us right amongst them. We estimate that there are up to one hundred animals present, porpoising, jumping and spinning in all directions and at times virtually touching the boat. The thirty minutes we spend in their midst in an incredible experience, made totally all the more unique by virtue of the fact that we are steadily being covered in ash deposited from an unseen volcano as we gently rock on the calm sea!
The dolphins simultaneously disappear as quickly as they arrived and we continue our voyage, via Greater Crested Tern and Lesser Frigatebird, to our island destination. Watom is a steep-sided island, made green by almost all-encompassing cultivated coconut palms. We land in a sheltered bay beside the small village of Nabil, where the locals spill out to greet us; a boat full of whiteys is obviously a great novelty in these parts!
We have ticked Sclater’s Myzomela before we have even set foot on the sand and within a few paces on dry land we clap eyes on an exquisite pair of Yellow-bibbed Fruit Doves feeding in a palm top. The green male is adorned with a pastel purple crown and belly and a custard yellow bib and vent, surely making it one of the most attractive pigeons in the world.
Moving just a few metres behind the group of wooden shacks that comprise the village, and accompanied by a small and cheerful entourage, we quickly find two more island specialists in the form of a pair of McKinlay's Cuckoo-Doves and a pair of handsome Island Monarchs. Grey (or Island) Imperial Pigeon and a family party of Mangrove Golden Whistlers appear almost simultaneously to totally complete our shopping list in thirty minutes flat. Never before have we experienced such unqualified success in such a short period of time; clearly the pompom blessing has paid off!
We wander back to the village grinning from ear to ear, accompanied by our ever-growing escort. Our boatman appears with an arm-full of fresh coconuts that are cracked in our honour and we drink their milk in celebration of our achievement! Someone is dispatched for extra supplies and scampers up a nearby palm for more coconuts. We are then passed strips of fresh coconut flesh which we chew as we are given an impromptu tour of the copra-drying facilities so vital to the existence of the village.
Numerous images are taken of smiling children and we take down addresses, promising to send photographic reminders of our visit. When we board the boat to depart it seems that the entire village is lining the beach to wave farewell; it really is quite emotional and certainly one of those memories that will be retained forever more.
After briefly continuing around the island’s perimeter we head back towards the mainland. A change in direction and stiffening wind mean that the majority of us get a good salt water soaking on the return leg, but by now we are on a real high and totally oblivious. Darius is awaiting our return and suggests a tour of Old Rabaul, largely abandoned after the 1994 volcanic eruptions, and we are keen to take up his offer for the last hour of daylight.
As we near the town we note a thin veneer of grey volcanic ash on the roads, which progressively increases in depth. Our route takes us between a mixture of boarded-up and occupied houses, all dusted in a gloomy grey carpet of ash. At one point we see a man with a brush sweeping his rooftop! Moving beyond the town and towards the active volcanic cone of Tarburbur, we are driving through four to six inches of grey dust in a landscape more akin to The Moon than Planet Earth.
The vantage point from which Taburbar is viewed brings us around two kilometres away from it’s base, with a wide bay separating the two positions. Across the bay the grey ash cone rises abruptly from the water, built up in perfect symmetry but sharply truncated some two thirds below the point where the natural apex would lie. From this flat top, which clearly conceals a crater of immense proportions, huge billowing clouds of charcoal-black ash are sent spurting at regular intervals, accompanied by a thunderous roar. The ash clouds reach hundreds of feet into the clear sky, rising almost vertically in the windless conditions.
The eruptions are repeated in cycles of around ten minutes, with some being accompanied by a shower of large volcanic rocks which are clearly visible as they crash down the flanks of the steadily growing cone. As the light fails we are able to see that some of these emissions are of glowing red embers or perhaps lava. It truly is an incredible demonstration of the immense power that is locked within our planet and certainly qualifies as the most impressive natural phenomenon I have ever been privileged enough to witness.
Just as we are about to leave an ash-grey boy appears from nowhere, in the otherwise deserted lunar landscape. He is covered from head to toe in dark volcanic dust, with just eyes, teeth and freshly-dug megapode eggs standing out in the rapidly fading light; it’s just a final surreal touch to one of the most unearthly places imaginable.
We drive the short distance to our hotel, passing a series of caves that were apparently used by the Japanese who occupied the island during World War Two. The Taklam Lodge is ‘adequate’, if uninspiring, and here we say our thank-yous and farewells to Darius and Willy who have looked after us magnificently over the last few days.
Our final group meal, a very mediocre Chinese creation, is consumed with numerous beers and much reminiscing; tomorrow some of us go our separate ways, as JH is flying straight back to the UK.
Thursday 22nd September
After a late breakfast we pack our belongings for the last time in Papua New Guinea (well for this year, anyway!). The taxi ride to the airport pulls in a photo call of Tarburbar, still angrily erupting, but this time from a fresh angle. A singing Australian Reed Warbler beside the terminal buildings turns out to be the only notable bird in a day largely spent in travel.
Our short flight back to Hoskins includes some spectacular views of coral formations that stand out clearly in the turquoise waters as we make our final approach. At Hoskins SC returns to the fold, happy to exchange his Hammerhead Shark experiences for our ticks and volcanoes, and we travel onwards to Port Moresby. Here we have four hours to kill before connecting with our Singapore flight and this time is split between purchasing souvenirs and a final meal and beer at the good old Granville Hotel.
At 15.00 we are in the air again, with our six-hour flight providing some excellent panoramic views of the Moluccas. Singapore’s Changi Airport is an incredible, shiny, space-age creation and it really is a culture shock after our experiences of the last four weeks. The efficiency is frightening and after our farewells and thanks to Mr Hornbuckle we are whisked off into the neon Singapore’s night in a Mercedes ‘spaceship’ of a taxi.
Our rooms at the Sloane Court Hotel have been pre-booked and turn out to be outstanding value-for-money, in this rather odd ‘Old English’ hotel which nestles between blocks of high rise flats (URL: http://hotels.online.com.sg/singapore/sloanecourthotel/). A quick phone call to Raj, our guide for the next two days, confirms that all is set for our 05.00 departure in the morning. Raj, or Subaraj Rajathurai, has been booked following e-mail discussions some weeks previously. He has been employed purely on the strength of recommendations found in a couple of trip reports and we are keen to see how he will fare.
With the plan now in place we wander round the corner to the local ‘Spizza’ restaurant which is an excellent move; the choice and quality of pizza is outstanding, as is the ice cold Tiger Beer.
Friday 23rd September
We emerge from the hotel at 05.00 to be greeted by Raj, an instantly likeable, highly articulate and jovial Singaporean, whose bearded features are not dissimilar to a young Brian Blessed! We immediately hit upon a problem that is entirely our fault and nothing to do with our guide. Raj is expecting six people and there are actually seven of us. Somewhere along the lines there has been a breakdown in communication at our end, possibly somewhere between itinerary versions 68 and 94, and we have not included Andy D for our Malaysian daytrip. Our minibus will only hold six of us so with great regret we must leave Andy behind.
Our journey does well until we reach the immigration kiosk at the Singapore border and find that GF is missing a paper stub from his entry declaration that somehow seems to throw the whole system into disarray. It takes half an hour of paperwork and interviews to rectify the situation and facilitate our passage; future travellers be warned!
We cross the short causeway into Malaysia just as it is starting to get light and witness the immense queues of workers migrating across to Singapore in the other direction for the day shift. Beyond the Malaysian border control is Johor, a large city with all the associated traffic congestion, though clearly much less modern and clean than its southern neighbour. Worryingly the sun has appeared and we still have some way to travel to the morning’s destination, Panti Forest Reserve.
More road construction delays hamper our progress through the cultivated lowlands and it is 07.50 before we reach the first site at Panti. A narrow dirt road leads from the main highway through relatively intact lowland forest to a wide corridor of cleared earth. Piling out of the minibus we come face-to-face with a magnificent Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle perched on a dead stump in the clearing; not surprisingly it instantly takes flight. The forest seems alive with birds and it’s hard to keep pace with what’s happening when we are all so rusty on our Malaysian species. Little Green Pigeon, Brown-backed Needletail, Tiger Shrike, Short-tailed Babbler, Fluffy-backed and Striped Tit-Babblers plus an assortment of bulbuls set heads spinning! Roll on Great Green Leafbird, Blue-rumped Parrot, Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot, Raffles Malkoha, Green Iora, Red-rumped Trogon and a very welcome migrant Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. New mammals take the form of Plantain Squirrel and Common Tree Shrew.
We have a brief pause for breath and slice of cold pizza then onwards, to a stunning male Banded Kingfisher with coral-red bill, pale orange breast, chocolate face and tiger-striped black, white and blue back and tail. Japanese Sparrowhawks pass overhead, a Black Hornbill poses on a treetop and, after much effort, a calling male Rufous-winged Philentoma is tracked to his perch.
Returning to the main road we head north past two insignificant and decaying concrete bunkers which, in February 1941, failed to stem the Japanese advance and so lead to one of the most tragic incidents in British military history. The next trail we take is a wide and well-trafficked sandy track through low and rather dry forest. It is nearing 10.00 and getting very warm, but alternate bouts of walking and driving still produce a fine selection of birds. Changeable Hawk-Eagle and Silver-rumped Needletail fly above while Whiskered Treeswifts perch in dead roadside trees. Next come two dazzling black, red and yellow male Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers that light up a low treetop.
As we pass through a section of boggy peat-forest Raj picks up a low, whistled call and a sense of excited anticipation grips the air. We move into the forest, dodging bogs and leeches, slowly nearing the source of the call. For ten minutes Raj performs a perfect imitation of the drawn-out whistle, until a rufous shape ghosts into view between the moss-covered logs. We are watching one of the Holy Grails of Asian birding, a unique species both in terms of behaviour and appearance. The Malaysian Rail-babbler is a totally terrestrial passerine with long bill, neck and tail. Our bird has been located on a favoured songpost, where it lowers its head and raises its tail as it calls. Its rich rufous plumage is complemented by chestnut crown and throat, a thick black eyestripe that continues as a line down the neck and dazzling white supercilium. On its upper throat are two patches of bright blue skin that appear to inflate as it calls. It is certainly one of the most amazing birds in the whole of Asia, made all the more special by virtue of the fact that it has been missed on a number of occasions by the majority of the group. Simply stunning!
Although the Rail-babbler is an impossible act to follow, birds continue to appear. Bar-winged and Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes, Red-throated Sunbird, Maroon Woodpecker, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Fiery Minivet and Grey-bellied Bulbul are all notched up, along with Banded Leaf-Monkey, before the intense heat sees an end to play.
The drive back to Singapore is a tedious mixture of traffic jams and tropical downpours, exasperated by a seemingly over-zealous customs inspection upon re-entry into the island province. It is 16.00 by the time we are delivered to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, were Raj introduces us to the famous bird photographer Morton Strange who runs the Garden’s bookshop. Here Raj bids us farewell for the day and, after meeting up with AD, we set out in search of the Garden’s handful of target species. The Botanic Gardens are a marvel of magnificently presented specimen plants, shrubs, trees and soft landscaping. They are also frequented by a host of jogging oriental lovelies and it is difficult to divide ones attention between the large flocks of Daurian Starlings in the treetops and other ground level distractions! Moving beyond the boundary of the park, to where Raj has marked an ‘x’ on our map, we have to wait no more than fifteen minutes before a juvenile Red-legged Crake appears from the dense undergrowth to bathe in a secluded drainage ditch.
With just one more species to collect we return to The Symphony Lake where a tasteful modern stage sits as the centrepiece of a lily-strewn and reed-fringed ornamental pool. Stork-billed and White-throated Kingfishers entertain until the resident Spotted Wood-Owls begin to emit their deep calls. It is worth noting that no tape was necessary and that the use of the same should be avoided; these birds get enough disturbance already. In spite of our efforts to isolate a calling bird we only succeed in securing flight views of the large but elusive owls and eventually retire to our favourite pizza restaurant for another evening of fine cuisine and beer.
Saturday 24th September
Our 05.30 departure is preceded by farewells to Andy D, undoubted winner of the ‘sharpest eyes of the trip’ competition, as he flies back to the UK this morning. The remainder of our number head out to the luxury of the Singapore Country Club and are no doubt the only people to arrive without either golf clubs or running shoes on this particular morning!
Passing through the large security barrier before first light, both Grey and Large-tailed Nightjars are viewed close to the fairways. We take up position beside McRitchie Reservoir, which provides a great view of both the spectacular sunrise and the first birds of the day in the form of White-bellied Sea-Eagle and Grey-headed Fish-Eagle. As the day brightens Hill Myna, Banded Woodpecker and a flock of eighteen Long-tailed Parakeets are seen, while a Chinese Goshawk in hot pursuit of an unidentified passerine provides some impressive action. Large flocks of Daurian Starlings are now passing over, between roosting and feeding sites, and we count in the order of 1,000 of these impressive birds in the course of the next hour.
As the noisy leaf-blowers are cranked into life to clear the adjacent putting green we realise that it’s time to move on and walk back towards Sime Forest. Black-naped Oriole, Grey-rumped Treeswift, Coppersmith Barbet, Pink-necked Green Pigeon and Common Iora are new to the trip and Raj’s knowledge of the local odonata allows us to commence our Singapore Dragonfly lists with Tree Dragonfly Tyriobapta torrida and the gorgeous little Bicoloured Damselfly Ceriagrion cerinorubellum.
A climb to the upper level of the treetop observation tower gives a good view of the surrounding area, where Brown-throated and Crimson Sunbirds, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, Drongo Cuckoo and what Raj informs us is remarkably Singapore’s first ever documented Ruby-cheeked Sunbird are the highlights. Long-tailed Macaques are typically tame around the forest visitor’s centre, which is our last port of call before retiring for breakfast at a nearby café. A superb meal of rotis and chicken curry is served and while we dine we notice a local lady strike up a conversation with Raj. When subsequently interrogated, Raj reveals that he is actually something of a local television personality, having presented many natural history documentaries on Singapore TV! The lady in question has recognised him and stopped to report her morning’s mammalian find in some nearby woodland. We are very keen to follow up her information and are soon on a boardwalk, at Lower Peirce Forest, which takes us the short distance to where a Malayan Colugo is roosting at head-height and within a couple of metres of the track.
The Malaysian Colugo, or Flying Lemur as it is sometimes known, has just one relative that inhabits the Philippines. A unique genus, it is currently placed between treeshrews and bats in the taxonomic order but is reputedly a herbivore, making it far removed from any other species. The size of a very large squirrel, it possesses a gliding membrane that stretches between front and hind legs and encompasses the tail. The animal that we find is roosting flat to a tree trunk, where its mottled back provides perfect camouflage. An added bonus is that it is carrying a small youngster that periodically pokes its head out from below the folds of its mothers flying membrane in a particularly endearing manner. To see and photograph such an amazing mammal at such close quarters is a wonderful experience and certainly the morning’s highlight.
Our next stop is the site of the once prolific Serangoon Sewage Works, which has sadly degenerated to a damp football-pitch-sized field squeezed amongst a bizarre conglomeration of ‘pet hotels’! Despite the tiny area we find a small flock of Scaly-breasted Munias that includes a couple of their smart White-headed cousins and also a group of Baya Weavers. Unfortunately the Greater Painted Snipe fails to appear, but we do find the aptly named and rather comical Giant Mudskipper in an adjoining watercourse and further add to our dragonfly list.
At Changi Village we call for a cold one and to withdraw cash to settle Raj’s account. While we sit at the café Red-breasted Parakeets and Tanimbar Cockatoos put on a display in the adjoining trees. Both species are obviously feral but are apparently thriving in the area.
Our final birding with Raj is done at the Tampines Cycle Track, an area of mainly dry grassland and scrub frequented by various picnicking families and model aircraft enthusiasts! Birds are rather thin on the ground and our search for Savannah Nightjar gives us just a single flushed Barred Buttonquail and a Pintail Snipe. The site is worthy of a visit for the resident odonata alone, however, which are present in profusion around a series of pools and shallow floods. We spend some time photographing various spectacular species including the Tiger-winged Glider Rhyothemis Phyllis and with a little persistence Raj manages to locate the World’s third-smallest dragonfly, the dazzling little crimson Nannophya pygmaea.
En route back to the Sloane Court we drop off Raj. Our two days together have produced some incredible birds, mammals and invertebrates and we thank him warmly for all his help. He has been fine company, a magnificent bird guide and superb all-round naturalist; we would not hesitate to recommend his services to anyone. (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, URL: www.subaraj.com).
At the hotel we spend time packing and also sink a final Tiger Beer in the company of Volkert, whose medical prowess has been tested to the full on this particular trip; MK’s wound is now looking decidedly unhealthy and actually smells quite badly. The Dutchman departs to catch an evening flight to Amsterdam and we promise not to injure ourselves in the remaining few hours!
Our final act is to catch a taxi back up to the Botanic Gardens in the hope of better looks at the Spotted Wood-Owl. We arrive to find that Saturday afternoons produce a hefty influx of visitors and the appearance of an owl amongst the crowds looks decidedly unlikely. We are, therefore, extremely surprised when the owl begins to call from a stand of giant bamboo between The Symphony Lake and the park boundary. After much adjusting of angles a pair of Spotted Wood-Owls are located amongst the dense stems and then proceed to fly from their roost site to the road beyond. We take hot pursuit and cannot believe our final piece of luck when one bird decides to hold his ground and sit unconcerned on a bare, low bough adjacent to the live carriageway. The huge bird looks down on us totally oblivious, as the torch beam and Speedlite flashes illuminate his incredible deep brown facial disk and strongly barred belly. A scriptwriter could not come up with a better finale to the most incredible of trips!
A taxi takes us back to the hotel where we deposit optical kit before hitting the lively district of Holland Village for our final night out. Celebratory beer flows at our outdoor table in the Cha-Cha-Cha Mexican restaurant, as we take in the sights and sounds of this vibrant and diverse city. The lightweights return to the hotel by midnight and the more resilient party-on into the night; the latter are easily distinguished in the 05.00 taxi the following morning!
Sunday 25th September
All that remains is twelve-and-a-half hours of mile-high tedium and we’re back at Heathrow.
A birding trip to Papua New Guinea is expensive. It can, at times, be very difficult and occasionally physically demanding. It certainly comes with more than its fair share of frustration! At the same time this fascinating country can offer a cultural experience as far removed from our western lifestyles and values as it is possible to get, made all the more memorable by the warmth and friendliness of its people. It can also produce some of the most inspiring and memorable bird species to be found anywhere on the Planet and I cannot personally think of a destination that could provide a list of quality birds to rival those seen in Papua New Guinea in a trip of comparable duration; the birds in PNG are, quite simply, the best in the world.
Special thanks must go to Jon Hornbuckle for advising us on an itinerary, pulling together all the ground arrangements and sorting everything out every time it all went wrong! He is also to be commended for supplying all bird recordings, whilst generally entertaining us by juggling minidisk and Senhiesser and providing occasional squeals of feedback of which Jimi Hendrix would be proud! Finally, on behalf of all concerned, I would like to thank him for putting up with the countless moans, sarcasm and insults which were all part of daily life on ‘Tipper Truck Tours’.
A final epilogue to the trip comes in the form of MK’s week spent in Mansfield Hospital upon his return to the UK, on intravenous antibiotics after a large lump of his badly infected leg had been surgically removed under general anaesthetic; he may actually look where he is walking next time!
Ian Merrill October 2005