Trip report: Papua New Guinea (Sept-Oct 2013) by Tropical Birding

This was a custom tour.

Guided by Sam Woods.

Birders are drawn to New Guinea for one simple reason: birds-of-paradise, the bird family that can rightly lay claim to holding some of the world’s most spectacular birds. David Attenborough showcased them in his infamous “Attenborough in Paradise” BBC documentary during the 1980s and an exodus of birders to this island has been occurring ever since.

Papua New Guinea’s national slogan is “Expect the Unexpected”, which is apt, as being a vastly underdeveloped country, things often go awry, where many unexpected things do occur on every single tour. This can range from canceled flights, which have dogged many recent tours; flooded airport runways, which caused chaos to bird tours earlier this year; to broken down vehicles and frequent delayed departures due to late drivers or fuel shortages; all of which have been experienced in recent times. However, I am relieved to say, that we were very fortunate to have little of these unwelcome and increasingly expected occurrences. Our flights largely left on time, and the worst we had thrown at us was a slight delay to our departure from the hotel one morning, a flat tire, and some roadwork-related delays. We were lucky indeed, with little birding affected at all.

The other challenge in PNG is the birding itself. While the birds-of-paradise are generally well staked-out, and relatively easy to see; many of New Guinea’s birds are not, due to a long (and recent) history of hunting, from the very largest species to the very smallest, leaving the birds extremely shy and difficult to see in an already tough environment, deep forest. The rule concerning the birds-of-paradise bore itself out, with 23 birds-of-paradise species seen by ALL. Among this illustrious group were some of the world’s most desired birds: the blood-and-snow colored King Bird-of-paradise that filled our scope for five whole minutes near Kwatu Lodge; an excited male Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise doing some intricate pole-dancing for an attendant female by Kwatu Lodge; several white-streamered male Ribbon-tailed Astrapias in the highlands; a male Blue Bird-of-paradise seen downslope from Kumul Lodge did a good job of convincing us that the species is truly one of the world’s best birds, as many have suggested before; a phenomenal showpiece from a handful of displaying male Greater Birds-of-paradise were a great 40th birthday present for Chris. The birds fluffed out their display plumes, wiped their bills excitedly on their display perches, and even mated with a female present; and I could not, not mention PNG’s national bird, the flambuoyant Raggiana Bird-of-paradise, which also put on a great show in Varirata National Park (photo below) with excited displays nearly at eye level which proved a great close to the tour.

Aside from the birds-of-paradise there were many other trickier species to find, and we found a goodly number of them. This included all three jewel-babblers, with at least one person getting great looks at all of them, and even a photographing one of the Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babblers seen, which performed exceptionally well at Varirata on our final day. Typically, there were some birds that only revealed themselves to some (e.g. Painted Quail-Thrush to a few, Buff-tailed Sicklebill to one lucky observer who stayed back at Ambua Lodge, and New Guinea (Harpy) Eagle which could only be seen by the lead vehicle at Tabubil); while less expected was a Forest Bittern seen by all, and even photographed, along the Ketu River in Western province. More memorable experiences included great looks at all three available species of paradise-kingfisher (Buff-breasted and Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfishers in Varirata, and Little Paradise-Kingfisher in the Kwatu area); great looks at two fiery male Crested Satinbirds in the highlands; such super looks at a deep blue male Emperor Fairywren which led to this species into contention for the top five birds of the trip for the very first time; an enormous Southern Crowned Pigeon roosting beside the river near Kwatu; and two separate good looks at Pheasant Pigeon near Port Moresby. As usual, we worked very hard for some of these birds, but the resulting rewards were more than worthwhile; some of the very best birds on Earth.

The tour had begun with a stint in the well-manicured gardens of PAU (Pacific Adventist’s University campus) in Port Moresby, from where we then visited two areas in the highlands: Kumul Lodge and Ambua Lodge. From there we moved to lower elevations, visiting the depressingly deforested forest patches near the mining town of Tabubil, before moving to the rich wet, lowland jungles surrounding Kiunga and along the Fly River. Finally, we day-tripped Varirata National Park near Port Moresby, where this whirlwind tour of Papua New Guinea’s most accessible birding sites, came to a close. A special note should be made of Tabubil, which, due to continuing and rampant deforestation is now a mere shadow of its former self, and which will probably be dropped off birding itineraries for coming years, unless new sites open up.

Click this link to view the full report in PDF format