This was a custom tour. Guided by Lisle Gwynn.
When the words ‘Papua New Guinea’ are uttered, what springs to mind? Birds of Paradise? Interesting cultural groups? Thick humid forests? Idyllic sandy beaches? Pristine coral reefs? ‘PNG’, as it is affectionately known, is all of these things and so so much more. This tour was special in its specificity; we had custom organized this tour for a client interested in two main things – attending the Mount Hagen Show, a huge gathering of tribes and clans in the highlands to sing and dance, and to see his penultimate bird family – Mottled Berryhunter (a.k.a. ‘The Rhagologus’). Seeing the show would be easy enough, but the berryhunter is a notoriously low-density, rare, difficult and shy species. Finding it would require a lot of effort and a heavy dose of luck.
This is a tough country to work in, with travel delays, flight cancellations and other logistical mishaps that frequently bend the limits of imagination being a common occurrence, and it is a country where travel must be undertaken with a good sense of humor and patience. By PNG standards the tour ran blissfully trouble free. All of our flights ran on time, our ground transport was trouble free, our accommodation was as expected and even the birds decided to behave exceptionally well. With the show and berryhunter in mind, the itinerary was quite different to that of our normal set departure tour. We opted to spend a few days at Varirata National Park near Port Moresby first of all, where a decent list of possible lifers was whittled through quickly, followed by 5 nights at Kumul Lodge an hour or so west of Mount Hagen in the central highlands. This was further followed by 6 nights at the spectacular and luxury Rondon Ridge Lodge where we spent 3 days at the Mount Hagen Show, and 3 days birding and relaxing. The show itself was equally as spectacular as any of the birds of paradise we saw and we spent two days watching, listening and enjoying the dances and songs, but it was being able to interact with the groups on a personal level that really struck us. We were able to sit with the children and chat with the parents and learn their stories, myths and legends. The photography was also, to be frank, obscenely good.
All in all, the birding was as spectacular as it is often touted to be, but also as difficult as it is renowned to be. Here, you have to earn every bird you see; hunting is widespread and a basic fact of life, so birds are wary and mammals near non-existent. In spite of this, places like Varirata, Kumul and Rondon Ridge provide small havens where birding is both excellent and incredibly rewarding. The highlights of the tour bird-wise were endless and extreme in quality, from the diminutive Pygmy Drongo-Fantail (a rumored family split), jewel-like Papuan Pitta, Painted Quail-Thrush, Chestnut-backed Jewel Babbler and Barred Owlet-Nightjar at Varirata, to Crested Satinbird, New Guinea Woodcock, Spotted Jewel Babbler and the iconic Blue Bird of Paradise at Kumul. In fact, we managed 13 species of bird of paradise on this tour, with a further two heard only – not bad considering only Blue and Lesser were really targeted. We also managed 10 species of kingfisher heard and seen, and perhaps more impressive 6 species of Accipiter as well as some very good birds of prey indeed including the rarely recorded Black-mantled, Meyer’s and Chestnut-shouldered Goshawks. Overall, we saw 190 species of bird and heard a further 17, but did we see Mottled Berryhunter? Read on to find out…