West Papua: Paradise Regained

The island of New Guinea has long been held with fascination among birders, for it holds the majority of arguably the world’s most dramatic bird family: the birds-of-paradise. Included among the possibilities on this tour of the western (Indonesian) side of the island are Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise, Red Bird-of-Paradise, King Bird-of-Paradise, Splendid Astrapia, Magnificent Bird-of-paradise, and Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise. The number of species we are likely to see from this remarkable family is expected to exceed 15. Wilson’s Bird-of-paradise has been named by none other than Sir David Attenborough as his favorite world bird, and one glimpse at an image of this stunner has caused many birders to immediately add this destination to their personal bucket list.



While birds-of-paradise will be hard to displace from center stage, the island of New Guinea holds plenty of other birds that are aptly described by adjectives like spectacular, gorgeous, and outstanding, such as Golden Cuckoo-shrike, Goldenface, Golden Monarch, MacGregor’s Honeyeater (long thought to be a bird-of-paradise), Papuan Pitta, Numfor Paradise-Kingfisher, Western Crowned Pigeon (one of the World’s largest pigeons), and a legion of parrots. Even birders that have visited the other half of the island, Papua New Guinea (PNG), look at the list of birds on this tour with envy, and often conclude that they need to return to ‘paradise’. With more than 300 species of island-endemic birds, West Papua outranks PNG in terms of New Guinea endemics. Any birder is sure to leave with a healthy list of lifers, and many spectacular ones among them. This tour covers a range of habitats, from mossy montane cloud-forests to tropical lowland forests, plus grassland, coastal environments, and secondary habitats.

Biak Paradise Kingfisher is one of the major targets on the extension
Biak Paradise Kingfisher is one of the major targets on the extension (Ken Behrens)

New infrastructure on Waigeo, and the opening of new guesthouses and construction of new roads in the Arfaks and Snow Mountains now means that camping is no longer required on this tour. Therefore, a destination that was previously very difficult and tough to visit is now comparatively much easier and open to a wide range of birders who would formerly have been reticent to go.

Visiting West Papua is by far the cheapest and most comfortable way of visiting the island of New Guinea. It also provides the best experience of the birds-of-paradise. However, it should be noted that PNG may be a better choice for keen family listers, as our limited time at middle elevations on the West Papua trip reduces our chances of seeing a couple of endemic families.

The following itinerary applies to the first 2019 set-departure tour. The second 2019 set-departure tour will visit exactly the same sites, but in a different order. It will go to the Snow Mountains, Nimbokrang, the Arfak Mountains, and finally Waigeo.

The Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise is found in swamp forest in the lowlands of Nimbokrang
The Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise is found in swamp forest in the lowlands of Nimbokrang (Phil Chaon)

Day 1: Arrival in Sorong (Indonesia). After arrival in Sorong, you’ll be transferred to a hotel in this small but modern and bustling city.

Day 2: Sorong to Waigeo Island. Some forest patches near Sorong offer a good introduction to the island’s huge range of lowland forest birds. Just a few of many species that we might encounter include Blyth’s Hornbill, Eclectus Parrot, Emperor Fairywren, Orange-fronted Fruit Dove, and Papuan Drongo. Later in the day, we take a fast and comfortable ferry to Waigeo island, where we’ll stay for the next three nights. This island located in the Raja Ampat archipelago, arguably boasts the most-wanted birds on the tour, and it will be good to start with a bang! Display sites of both Red Bird-of-paradise and the awe-inspiring Wilson’s Bird-of-paradise will be visited during our days on the island. To make it even better, these sites are easy to reach after short 10-minute walks, in contrast to the way it was as little as five years ago when a 2:30 a.m. wake-up was required to reach an uphill display site at dawn!

Arguably the World's Ultimate Bird: Wilson's Bird-of-paradise
Arguably the World's Ultimate Bird: Wilson's Bird-of-paradise (Keith Barnes)

Days 3-4: Waigeo Island. In addition to the aforementioned ‘BoP’s, the lowlands of this island offer a huge list of birds, including the localized Raja Ampat Pitohui, the incredible Western Crowned Pigeon, Great-billed and Moluccan King- Parrots, Claret-breasted, Orange-bellied and Dwarf Fruit-Doves, Palm Cockatoo, Coconut Lorikeet, Yellow-faced Myna, Papuan Pitta, elusive White-eared Catbird, Brown-headed Crow, New Guinea Friarbird, and Golden Monarch. At night, we can go in search of Marbled Frogmouth. The Waigeo Cuscus – a bizarre endemic mammal is also occasionally seen here.

One of the largest of its kind: Western Crowned Pigeon
One of the largest of its kind: Western Crowned Pigeon (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Waigeo Island to Sorong. After returning to Sorong via ferry, we shall have another afternoon birding the lowland forests in Sorong with a slew of different lowland forest specialties. Some truly breathtaking birds are possibilities for this afternoon’s excursion: King and Lesser Bird-of-paradise, Hooded Pitta, and Red-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher. The endemic Black Lory will also be a major target this afternoon and the following morning, before we depart for the Arfaks.

Day 6: Sorong to the Arfak Mountains. After a flight to Manokwari, and a jeep drive, we will arrive at what is arguably the premier birding site on this side of New Guinea, the Arfak Mountains, situated on the northeast of the Bird’s Head (Vogelkop) Peninsula. This part of the island has a rich set of endemics all its own, plus a huge variety of widespread forest species. Four nights will be spent at a guesthouse at an elevation of 5250ft/1600m, and we will bird a range of elevations above and below here.

The Vogelkop Lophorina, formerly known as Superb Bird-of-paradise
The Vogelkop Lophorina, formerly known as Superb Bird-of-paradise (Phil Chaon)

Days 7-9: The Arfak Mountains. With so much to see here, we will spend three full days birding the various forests, gardens and other secondary habitats that flank the mountains, and hold many of the tour’s standout birds. We will visit the display grounds of Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise, Western Parotia, and the bower of the Vogelkop Bowerbird, one of the great architects of the bird world, with an extraordinarily large and decorative bower that far outshines the dour bird itself! While these may arguably be the most famous targets in the mountains, the list of other birds is both extensive and tantalizing, and includes the likes of Vogelkop Lophorina, Long-tailed Paradigalla, and Spotted Jewel-Babbler. If we are extremely lucky we might catch up with Masked Bowerbird, Vulturine Parrot, or the New Guinea Harpy Eagle.

Sometimes extreme close ups are possible of
Sometimes extreme close ups are possible of "Mag BOP" at purpose built blinds (Keith Barnes)

Although some of these require long walks on tricky trails. Other possibilities include the elusive Spotted Jewel-Babbler, Papuan Treecreeper, Mottled Berryhunter (a monotypic endemic family), Blue-collared Parrot, Blue-grey and Green-backed Robins, Perplexing Scrubwren, Vogelkop and Ornate Melidectes, and if we are extremely lucky, Wattled Brush-Turkey. The nights will be spent at a community guesthouse. Sometimes owlet-nightjars can be found by day, but failing that we may venture out at night in search of Feline Owlet-Nightar, Papuan Frogmouth, and Papuan Boobook.

Magnificent Riflebird has one of the loudest and most distinctive voices among Papuan birds
Magnificent Riflebird has one of the loudest and most distinctive voices among Papuan birds (Ken Behrens)

Day 10: The Arfaks to Manokwari. After another full day in the Arfaks chasing the last of the best birds of the mountains we return to Manokwari where we overnight in a comfortable city hotel.

Day 11: Manokwari to Sentani. After taking a morning flight to Sentani, we head for Nimbokrang, and the lowland forests of the north for a two-night stay. In the afternoon we may stake out a clearing that is an excellent site for raptors, pigeons, and the bounty of parrots that grace the Papuan lowlands.

King Bird-of-Paradise, a prize in the Nimbokrang area
King Bird-of-Paradise, a prize in the Nimbokrang area (Ken Behrens)

Day 12: Nimbokrang. This lowland site may be hot and sweaty, but it is loaded with special birds – a major theme on this tour! King Bird-of-paradise, Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise, Hook-billed, Shovel-billed and Blue-and-black Kingfishers, Vulturine Parrot, and Blue Jewel-Babbler, are just some of the birds on offer, though all of these species require a combination of luck and effort. Other notable species include Salvadori’s Fig-Parrot, Hooded Monarch, and Beautiful, Superb, and Wompoo Fruit-Doves.

Day 13: Nimbokrang to Sentani. After another full day in the lowland jungles of Nimbokrang we return to Setanti for another night of hot water and a little luxury. In the afternoon, we will bird the area around Lake Sentani, where an area of grasslands and secondary forest patches is rich in birds. Within the grasslands we will search for four handsome finches: Chestnut-breasted, Grand, and Hooded Munias, and Crimson Finch. We will also search the wider area for Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, Glossy-mantled Manucode, and Whistling Kite.

Macgregor's Honeyeater is the top avian drawcard of the Snow Mountains
Macgregor's Honeyeater is the top avian drawcard of the Snow Mountains (Ken Behrens)

Days 14-17: The Snow Mountains. On the morning of day 14, we will take a flight to Wamena, where we will be based in a hotel for four nights. A variety of habitats will be covered, including grasslands and highland forests close to the treeline. This area is home to a number of restricted range species, most notably, Orange-cheeked Honeyeater, Black-breasted Munia, Snow Mountain Quail, and MacGregor’s Honeyeater, long classified as a bird-of-paradise, but now recognized as the most magnificent of the sprawling honeyeater clan; a regal resident of Papua’s most lofty heights.

Blue-capped Ifrita makes up its own family, which is endemic to Papua
Blue-capped Ifrita makes up its own family, which is endemic to Papua (Ken Behrens)

Birding between Wamena and Lake Habemma will give us a wide range of species to search for, including Crested Berrypecker, Splendid Astrapia, Greater and Lesser Ground-Robin, Subalpine Robin, Alpine Pipit, Orange-billed Lorikeet, and Short-bearded and Belford’s Melidictes. The New Guinea Woodcock and rare Archbold’s Nightjar will be looked for at dusk. Other birds we’ll be on the lookout for include members of island endemic families, like the black-and-orange Crested Satinbird, the funky Wattled Ploughbill, and the nuthatch-like Blue-capped Ifrita. However, note that we won’t be descending the increasingly treacherous Ibele Trail, limiting our access to middle elevations, and reducing our chances for some of these species. Nights will be spent in a comfortable hotel in Wamena.

Please note that our exact program in the Snow Mountains will depend on the accessibility of certain sites, and will be at the discretion of the guide leading the tour.

Day 18: Wamena to Setanti. We return to Setanti for a final night and a farewell dinner for those not joining the extension.

Day 19: Departure. The tour ends this morning except for those joining the Biak Extension.

Crested Berrypecker, likely a new family for many, is found in the Snow Mountains
Crested Berrypecker, likely a new family for many, is found in the Snow Mountains (Iain Campbell)

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

Biak and Numfor Extension (4 days)

Paradise-Kingfishers and Island endemics

While the main tour can be said to have a clear focus on birds-of-paradise, this short extension undoubtedly focuses on the flashy paradise-kingfishers, with each island boasting an endemic species. These islands off the northwest coast of New Guinea, in Geelvink Bay, are also home to many other specialties, many of which can only be found here; there are 17 shared endemics.

Numfor Paradise Kingfisher is our main reason for visiting the small and remote island of Numfor
Numfor Paradise Kingfisher is our main reason for visiting the small and remote island of Numfor (Ken Behrens)

Day 1 (day 19 of the main tour): Sentani to Biak and Numfor. We shall fly to Biak, then take a speedboat to the smaller Numfor island to the west, where we spend the night in a basic guesthouse with shared bathrooms.

Day 2: Numfor to Biak. Our major target on the small island of Numfor is obviously the Numfor Paradise-Kingfisher. While searching for the island’s celebrity bird, we may also encounter other specialties: Island (Numfor) Leaf-Warbler, Long-tailed Starling, Biak Black Flycatcher, and Yellow-bibbed Fruit-Dove. We’ll take a boat back to Biak, where we spend the next two nights.

Biak Black Flycatcher, a sharp-looking little endemic to its namesake island
Biak Black Flycatcher, a sharp-looking little endemic to its namesake island (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Biak. This island is home to palm-lined sandy beaches, although our attention will be focused on the patches of forest, where the island specialties can be found. Biak is home to the stunning Biak Paradise-Kingfisher, and our priority will be to seek out this beauty. There are other specialties of the archipelago, such as Biak Coucal, Geelvink Pygmy-Parrot, Biak Gerygone and the gorgeous Biak Monarch. Other species that we may see here include Spice Imperial-Pigeon, and the beautiful local subspecies of Golden Monarch. In the evening, we will be on the lookout for flights of parrots, including Black-capped and Black-winged Lories. After dark, we could find Large-tailed Nightjar or Papuan Frogmouth.

Day 4: Departure from Biak. The extension ends this morning; connections to Jakarta can be taken from Biak, and transfers will be arranged to meet these flights.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to Intense. This tour will require long days in the fields and early starts on most days. On some portions of the trip, especially those spent in the hot lowlands, we will have some time off in the middle of the day. At higher elevations, in the Arfak and Snow Mountains, the birding can stay active all day, and we will have a more intense pace.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate, occasionally difficult. A lot of the birding is on dirt roads and easy logging tracks and trails, although there will also be a few difficult hikes, some of which are optional. The physical difficulty of this tour has improved, but there are still some short but difficult hikes required in the Arfaks to get to the display areas of certain displaying birds-of-paradise and the feeding zones for the Long-tailed Paradigalla and other mid-altitude specialty birds. Although some of these walks are tough, this trip has never been easier to do than now, as the building of new roads, and the emergence of new guesthouses, means that long treks and camping are now unnecessary. In the Arfaks we shall not be overnighting at the very basic higher-altitude camp, nor attempting to walk up to the Japanese Camp – and therefore chances of seeing Arfak Astrapia and Black Sicklebill are reduced. There are no long drives on this tour (most are up to around 2-3 hours), but many of the roads are unpaved and in poor condition.

CLIMATE: Hot and humid in the lowlands (i.e. Sorong, Manokwari, Waigeo, Nimbokrang,Biak and Numfor), to cool or cold in the Arfak and Snow Mountains.

ACCOMMODATIONS: There is no camping on this tour. However, many of the guesthouses used are quite simple, and some of them only have shared bathroom facilities. Cold water for showers, and bucket showers may be the only options at some localities. In the Arfaks and on Numfor, there is only electricity for a couple hours each night. All other locations have full-time electricity. Very little wifi is available, even at the comfortable large town hotels.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas on arrival in Indonesia can be obtained for tourists from the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and EU countries for stays of under 30 days. There is a fee for this, payable in cash (in US Dollars). Travel requirements are subject change; we recommend double-checking entry requirements six weeks prior to the tour, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?:Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 18 (if not joining the extension); if joining the extension, accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 18 of the main tour, and nights of day 1 through to night of day 3 on the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 through to breakfast on day 19 (if not joining the extension) or through to breakfast on day 4 of the extension, if joining that too; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 18 (on the main tour), through to evening of day 3 on the extension, if joining that too; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary; domestic flights during the tour, ferry rides to get to Waigeo and the islands on the extension; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for optional luggage porters in city hotels; international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; visa fees (payable on arrival in Indonesia); departure tax when leaving Indonesia; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.