Trip report: Papua New Guinea (July 2014) by Tropical Birding

This was a set departure tour. Guided by Nick Leseberg.

The island of New Guinea is a place that most would agree deserves its seat in the pantheon of great world birding destinations. It is an island where evolution has gone mad; impossibly gaudy birds-of-paradise with bizarre antennae and ridiculously long tails, pigeons the size of turkeys, kingfishers that look like parrots, and parrots that look like vultures. While New Guinea is best known for these spectacular species, there are multitudes of other lesser known birds that make this island extra special. The secretive jewel-babblers, painted berrypeckers and the odd Wattled Ploughbill are just a few of the birds that may not leap out from the pages of the field guide, but which are equally deserving of the discerning birder’s attention. Papua New Guinea, the nation that covers the eastern half of this captivating island provides the most accessible birding, and so it is here that most birders travel for their New Guinea experience.

It is tempting to hope that you will step straight off the plane and onto the set of a David Attenborough documentary, with birds-of-paradise displaying in every tree, but those who have visited or done their research know that ‘PNG’ is perhaps one of the toughest birding destinations on earth. The forest here does not give up her secrets to the impatient, but for those willing to put in the time the rewards are tremendous. And so it was on this trip. Just a few of the highlights included knockout views of a crimson-and-white male King Bird-of-paradise after nearly an hour of frustration watching a vine tangle, while in Varirata National Park it took several hours of repeatedly straining our ears for the high-pitched contact call of Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler before we all had stunning views of one of these gorgeous skulkers. However, no trip to PNG is without its frustrations, and this one was no different. Late flights, blocked roads and rain all impacted the trip at some point, but thankfully did not have much impact on our overall efforts. We walked away with a total of 352 species recorded on the main trip, with a further 44 added on the New Britain extension for a grand total of 396 species, an excellent effort.

There were many contenders for bird-of-the-trip, but the clear favorite was the male Blue Bird-of-paradise who gave repeated and extended views over several hours one morning near Kumul Lodge. Second place went to Greater Bird-of-paradise; our afternoon spent watching at least half-a-dozen males furiously displaying to several females provided that quintessential PNG experience everyone is after, one that really was straight off the set of ‘Attenborough in Paradise’. Third place went to the impossibly blue Common Paradise-Kingfisher, with a last gasp effort by our local guide Edmund resulting in extended ‘scope views of one of these graceful kingfishers. Ribbon-tailed Astrapia and King-of-Saxony Bird-of-paradise tied for fourth place, while honorable mentions went to the enormous Southern Crowned-Pigeon, Brown Sicklebill, a dashing male Superb Bird-of-paradise, huge Blyth’s Hornbills, the gorgeous Brown-headed Paradise-Kingfisher, a bizarre Wattled Ploughbill, nocturnal Feline Owlet-Nightjar and finally, Raggiana Bird-of-paradise.

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