Papua New Guinea: Paradise Untamed

No birder has seen the BBC’s “Attenborough in Paradise” documentary without feeling compelled to visit the magnificent island of New Guinea. Undoubtedly a high priority on any world birder’s agenda, the island offers a star-studded cast of quality birds. Beyond the famous birds-of-paradise, a typical tour yields jewel-babblers slinking away in the undergrowth, incredible gold-and-black whistlers, gorgeous parrots, rowdy cockatoos, bizarre bowerbirds, exquisite fairywrens, and a breathtaking suite of multi-colored doves and impressive kingfishers.

* See special notes for this tour, below.

 

Day 1: Port Moresby. After arrival, we’ll bird some Eucalyptus woodlands near the city. This area has a distinctly “Aussie” feel. Our main targets will be Fawn-breasted Bowerbird and Black-backed Butcherbird, and the first of many endemics, like Brown Oriole and Gray-headed Munia.

Day 2: Port Moresby to Tabubil. After a morning flight to Kiunga, we will travel overland to Tabubil, in the foothills of the Star Mountains for a two night stay. Flight schedules permitting we should have time to search for Pesquet’s Parrots and Emperor Fairywrens en-route.

Days 3-4: Tabubil. Our time on these days will be split between various sites around the Ok Tedi Valley, targeting foothill species. Two very shy birds-of-paradise are our main targets: the aptly-named Magnificent Bird-of-paradise and the secretive Carola’s Parotia. Other notable birds include Red-flanked Lorikeet and the diminutive Red-breasted Pygmy-Parrot. We’ll also visit a spot for the strange and crepuscular Shovel-billed Kookaburra. Other species in the area include White-eared Bronze-cuckoo, Golden and Stout-billed Cuckooshrikes, Mountain Peltops, and the rare Obscure Berrypecker. Late on day four we’ll return to Kiunga for another two nights.

PLEASE NOTE: Continuing loss of habitat in Tabubil in 2013 may soon render this site obsolete, and the itinerary would then be changed to reflect this, with extra time spent in the Kiunga area instead.

The massive Southern Crowed Pigeon roosts along the banks of the Elevala River
The massive Southern Crowed Pigeon roosts along the banks of the Elevala River (Nick Athanas)

Day 5: Kiunga. In the morning we’ll survey the forest edge for a profusion of parrots and pigeons, and a chance for the incredible orange-and-gold Flame Bowerbird. In the afternoon we bird some lowland forest not far from town where Attenborough’s BBC crew famously filmed Greater Birds-of-paradise displaying. Our afternoon visit will be timed for when these striking birds should be at their most active, with feathers fluffed and vocal chords used to full, dramatic effect. Other possibilities in this rich area include Red-cheeked Parrot, Trumpet Manucode, Orange-breasted Fig-Parrot, and New Guinea Babbler.

Days 6-7: Fly and Elevala Rivers.We take motorized canoes up the Fly and Elevala rivers, entering one of the greatest wilderness areas in PNG. Outlandish Palm Cockatoos cross the river, and considerable numbers of Blyth’s Hornbills and bright pigeons are sure to leave a lasting memory. We’ll stake out key areas for some of New Guinea’s most spectacular birds, including the pole-dancing Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise, and the elegant crimson-and-snow-white King Bird-of-paradise, replete with tail-streamers of coiled green ribbon. We will need much luck and some time to find some of the other more reclusive forest denizens, like the immense Southern Crowned-Pigeon and skittish Blue Jewel-Babbler. Working the swamp forest will give us a shot at both Common and Little Paradise-kingfishers, Hooded and Red-bellied Pittas, and Spot-winged and Hooded Monarchs. The first night will be spent upriver at a simple rustic lodge, and the second back in Kiunga.

On rare occasions the spectacular Crested Satinbird drops in to the garden at Kumul Lodge
On rare occasions the spectacular Crested Satinbird drops in to the garden at Kumul Lodge (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Kiunga to Kumul. A morning flight will be taken to Mt. Hagen in the highlands from where we drive to Kumul Lodge, our superb mountain base for the next three nights. There should be time in the afternoon to pick up our first highland species right around the lodge. Brehm’s Tiger-Parrots, Crested Berrypecker, and even Crested Satinbird are possible in the garden, and Brown Sicklebill and Ribbon-tailed Astrapia should make a dramatic appearance at their well-established feeding table.

This is a young male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia; his tail is not yet fully developed!
This is a young male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia; his tail is not yet fully developed! (Sam Woods)

Days 9-10: Kumul Lodge. This lodge offers comfortable rooms in a beautiful mountain setting. We’ll make excursions to seek out Blue, King-of-Saxony, and Lesser birds-of-paradise (subject to the road being operational for the latter, which is weather dependent). A mixture of trail work and road birding is required to go after Tit Berrypecker, Wattled Ploughbill, Blue-capped Ifrita, Garnet Robin, and Black-breasted Boatbill among a long list of other highland birds in the area.

Day 11: Kumul Lodge to Tari. We’ll swap one mountain lodge for another, as we make a lengthy journey overland to the legendary Ambua Lodge in the Tari Valley. Remarkable birds right in the garden can include Superb Bird-of-paradise, Lawe’s Parotia, and Great Woodswallow. Compared to Kumul Lodge there is much more intact forest at lower elevations, providing an additional suite of birds that are difficult or absent at Kumul. We’ll spend four nights at Ambua Lodge.

Regent Whistler is regularly encountered in the highlands
Regent Whistler is regularly encountered in the highlands (Sam Woods)

Days 12-14: Tari Valley. Tari is world famous thanks to easy access to a range of elevations. The lodge grounds are spectacular, and a great place to watch for odd Short-tailed Paradigallas. Tari is rich in birds-of-paradise, and it is not unheard of to record eight species in a day. This is one of the better places to go after the dazzling Blue Bird-of-paradise, and the weird Black Sicklebill with its bizarre “spaceship” display. Other cool montane species in this area include Lesser Melampitta, Stephanie’s Astrapia, Yellow-browed Melidectes, and the notoriously skulking Forbes’s Forest-Rail. Ambua is a parrot-lover’s paradise and here we’ll look for Papuan King-Parrot and several lorikeets and tiger-parrots. There are also many rarer birds here, and we will need some luck to find the likes of Papuan Treecreeper, New Guinea Harpy Eagle, Northern Logrunner, and the skittish Sanford’s Bowerbird.

You can see Crested Berrypecker in PNG's highlands
You can see Crested Berrypecker in PNG's highlands (Iain Campbell)

Day 15: Tari to Port Morseby. After breakfast we fly to Port Moresby, where we spend the next three nights.

Days 16-17: Varirata. In this park near Port Moresby we should find our last birds-of-paradise: Eastern Riflebird and Raggiana Bird-of-paradise (the latter at a spectacular lek). Other key species include Brown-headed Paradise-kingfisher, Barred Owlet-Nightjar (at a day roost), Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Chestnut-bellied Fantail, Dwarf Whistler, and the poisonous Hooded Pitohui. Like other forested areas of PNG, this park is home to many extremely shy birds, including Painted Quail-thrush, White-eared Catbird, Pheasant Pigeon, and Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler.

PNG's flashy national bird: Raggiana Bird-of-paradise
PNG's flashy national bird: Raggiana Bird-of-paradise (Sam Woods)

Day 18: Port Moresby to Brisbane. We jet back to Australia, connecting with flights home, or head to New Britain for the post-tour extension, and yet more endemics.

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

New Britain Extension (5 days)

The extension offers tens more birds to the list, many of which are regional specialties and endemics not possible on the mainland. Like many small islands in this region, large, flashy bird groups like kingfishers, pigeons and parrots are well-represented on New Britain, although there is a distinct lack of smaller songbirds. For the extension we are based in a single, high-end, dive resort for the entire time, and so we stay in comfort, and make day trips to forests areas from there. On one day we will also take a boat trip out into Kimbe Bay, and search for small island specialists. This is the perfect, relaxed, antidote, to the main tour, where the conditions, and birding, are significantly more demanding, so that you have the real chance of adding species like New Britain Kingfisher, Purple-bellied Lory, and Red-knobbed Fruit-Dove to your list, while staying in the beautiful surroundings of the resort, perched right on the edge of tranquil Kimbe Bay.

The handsome Knob-billed Fruit-Dove is a target on New Britain
The handsome Knob-billed Fruit-Dove is a target on New Britain (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Hoskins (New Britain). On this day we’ll fly out of Port Moresby, on mainland Papua New Guinea, to the tiny city of Hoskins, on the island of New Britain. After arrival we’ll be transferred to our extremely comfortable dive resort, perched on the edge of the beautiful Kimbe Bay. Before we even arrive at the resort, the drive in could produce our first endemics like Bismarck Munia, and the strange, blue-eyed, Bismarck Crow. After a break at the resort, where more specialties, like Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeon or New Britain Friarbird might be found, as well as Red-flanked Lorikeets, which can also be around in good numbers if any trees are bearing fruit, we will take an afternoon drive out to search for more endemics closeby. This will give us our first shot at species like Blue-eyed Cockatoo, Red-banded Flowerpecker, Long-tailed Myna and “Black-capped” Paradise-Kingfisher. The next four nights will be spent at the excellent Walindi Resort.

Days 2-4: New Britain. We will have three full days to search for a myriad endemics on the island, by taking day trips out from our comfortable resort. The order, and exact, locations visited can vary from year to year as new sites are found, so this will be decided at the time based on the best, up-to-date knowledge of where the best sightings are at the time. However, two of these days will be spent in lowland forest, where large flashy birds like kingfishers and pigeons are well-represented; we’ll be trying to track down Yellowish Imperial Pigeon (currently considered a form of Torresian), Knob-billed Fruit-Dove, and Finsch’s Imperial-Pigeon, and these sites will also offer us our best chances at Stephan’s Dove too. In terms of kingfishers, New Britain’s forests host the rare Bismarck Kingfisher, “Black-capped” Paradise-Kingfisher and New Britain Kingfisher. Other endemics we’ll be searching for include Volcano Megapode, two spectacular coucals: Pied and Violaceous; Black-tailed Monarch, Dull Flycatcher, Black-bellied Myzomela, Purple-bellied Lory, and Song Parrot. One of the most common birds on the whole island is Eclectus Parrot, and while we will have seen them on the mainland by this point of the tour, the extension is sure to offer the best views of all. If we are lucky, we might also track down one of the rarer endemics like Black Honey-Buzzard, Bismarck Imperial-Pigeon, New Britain Boobook, or Bismarck Woodswallow.

On the other day, we will spend time cruising the various small islands dotting Kimbe Bay, where we can search for a host of small island specialists, sometimes known as “tramp” species. These include Island Imperial-Pigeon, Island Monarch, Mackinlay’s Cuckoo-Dove, and Scarlet-bibbed Myzomela. However, targets like Nicobar Pigeon and Beach Kingfisher are also likely to steal the limelight here too.

Day 5: Hoskins to Port Moresby; to Brisbane. On this day we will transfer to Hoskins airport to connect with a short flight back to mainland PNG, and Port Moresby, arriving in time to connect with onward flights to Brisbane in Australia.
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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Hot and humid around Port Moresby and Kiunga. Generally pleasant in the mountains, but the early mornings at Kumul Lodge can be downright cold. Expect some rain, often heavy, at any time.

DIFFICULTY: Most of the walking is easy, though there are some short, steep trails at Kumul and Dablin Creek. The birding is very challenging, but fortunately the birds-of-paradise are usually not difficult to see.

ACCOMMODATION: At Kiunga and Tabubil, we’ll stay in fairly good hotels with air conditioning. In Port Moresby, Kumul, and Ambua, the lodges are excellent. All of these places have private bathrooms, hot water, and electricity. We do stay one night in very basic accommodation at Ekame lodge. It has simple thatched huts with cots. There is no electricity or running water. Staying here saves many hours in the boat and dramatically increases your chance to see several of the key birds of the region, so we believe it is worth spending one night here despite the poor accommodation.

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SPECIAL NOTE FOR PNG TOURS

  • Even though this tour starts in Port Moresby, we strongly recommend that our office staff book your international flight to Port Moresby, which usually departs from Brisbane. This makes it easier to book some of the internal flights and usually gives you an additional luggage allowance. We do not include the cost of internal flights in the tour price due to fluctuations in airfares and exchange rates, and possible schedule changes.
  • It is quite likely that the final itinerary for this tour will be different from the one given above. Flight schedules in Papua New Guinea are complicated and ever-changing. Most flights only operate only on certain days of the week, and the itinerary above is based entirely on those schedules. We will monitor the situation, and adapt our itinerary as necessary. Flights can even change on a moment’s notice based on weather conditions (or even the whims of the airline!), so last-minute modifications are also a distinct possibility.
  • Papua New Guinea is an underdeveloped country. While we endeavor to use the best providers possible, sub-par service (e.g. uncomfortable or poorly-maintained vehicles, fuel shortages, cancelled or redirected flights) can sometimes cause inconveniences to travelers. Every tour company running trips here has to deal with this, and we feel it is best to inform you beforehand, as it can be quite disconcerting considering the costs involved in visiting this country.