March 10th LANDING IN PAPUA
After a long night of traveling all the way via Singapore we arrived in Port Moresby - the capital of PNG - around 5:30 AM. There we were met by Daniel Vakra, one of the few local bird guides in the capital. We drove straight to Varirata NP, about an hour's drive from the airport, but considered one of the finest birding localities in the country. Daniel hadn't told us that he had brought another person along for the ride - namely a Canadian photographer named Alfred that only counted birds that he photographed in flight - so naturally I was a bit worried about all this, but the guy turned out to be OK and understood that we were busy with a record-attempt.
As expected the birding was spectacular with new species - belonging to multiple new bird families - lurking behind every corner, from the huge Blue-winged Kookaburra and the uncommon Coronated Fruit-dove to the gaudy Papuan King Parrot. One of the best finds along the edge of the park was definitely the Dwarf Koel that gave exceptional views after it had been whistled in by Daniel. And of course the first Birds-of-Paradise... we saw Raggiana BOP (not in full display plumage unfortunately, that is the downside of birding in the rainy season), Crinkle-collared- & Glossy-mantled Manucode and Magnificent Riflebird.
After birding along the edge of the Park we walked a couple of short trails, this materialized into sightings of Brown-headed Paradise-kingfisher, Frilled Monarch and Black Butcherbird.
At the viewpoint we had fantastic views of a huge Gurney's Eagle that drifted up from the valley below us while Palm Cockatoos called in the background.
When we left the viewpoint and drove down Daniel suddenly spotted something perching in a hole in a tree trunk, a Barred Owlet-nightjar, what a bizarre looking creature that is and I still don't understand how he managed to see it.
As dark rainclouds were packing over Varirata we decided to do our afternoon birding at the PAU university grounds. The definite highlight here was a huge Papuan Frogmouth with chick on the nest! Other notable sightings were Orange-fronted Fruit-dove, Rufous-banded Honeyeater a group of 20 Plumed Whistling-ducks and many new waterbirds. With 90 (!!!) new species today it was obvious that we had stepped into a world with a completely distinct avifauna!
Papuan Frogmouth Podargus papuensis (Vincent van der Spek)
Papuan Frogmouth Podargus papuensis (Max van Waasdijk)
Barred Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles bennettii (Vincent van der Spek)
Barred Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles bennettii (Max van Waasdijk)
Coronated Fruit-dove Ptilinopus coronulatus (Vincent van der Spek)
Brown-headed Paradise-kingfisher Tanysiptera danae (Max van Waasdijk)
Dwarf Koel Microdynamis parva (Max van Waasdijk)
March 11th THE LAST FRONTIER
At 07:30 AM we boarded a small propeller plane heading for Kiunga, a small town in the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. From here we would travel to the remotest location of my entire Biggest Year, the Kwatu Lodge, but first we would travel up into the foothills near the gold mining town of Tabubil, one of the wettest places on earth.
Samuel Kepuknai was waiting for us upon arrival at the 'airport' of Kiunga. Sam is the only person in this whole region who organizes trips like this and subsequently he runs all the tours for the big birding companies that visit the region. Luckily it is low season now which meant that we could organize this 4 day trip with him. It costs something, but then again it is about the most special birding adventure one can undertake. BIRDINGBREAKS was kind enough to sponsor part of this very special trip, otherwise it would not have been possible to make the necessary arrangements, so thanks a lot for that Laurens and Birdingbreaks!
The drive to Tabubil was uneventful since it was the heat of the day, but during a stop along a fast flowing stretch of river just before Tabubil we struck gold when we found the rare Salvadori's Teal.
We spend the last 2 hours of daylight at the famous Dablin Creek, one of the few places in the world to find the stunning Queen Carola's Parotia.
It was very quiet and at some point there seemed to be hardly any birds around, but in the end we did see some impressive species! We had brief views of a male Parotia, but that sighting was hardly satisfactory so we had to give that bird another try tomorrow. Probably our best sighting was a small flock of Red-breasted Pygmy-parrots allowing scope views while a Greater Melampitta called from a shaded gully, of course invisible for us.
After diner at our hotel Max and I did a small round to look for owls. It was very quiet besides a calling Papuan Frogmouth, but on the way back we suddenly found a stunning Papuan Boobook perching in a tree. Always great to finish with an owl!
Papuan King Parrot Alisterus chloropterus (Max van Waasdijk)
Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeon Ducula rufigaster (Max van Waasdijk)
March 12th A JOURNEY INTO A LOST WORLD
At first light we were back at Dablin Creek where we walked straight up the slippery metal staircase to where we had seen the Parotia yesterday. This time we had prolonged scope views of at least 4 males and a female bird, what an absolutely stunning BOP! The Greater Melampitta was calling again from the lush undergrowth, but again it did not show itself. As we walked down we suddenly heard the distinctive high pitched whistle of a Torrent Lark somewhere along the creek below us and just as we were about to continue 2 of these much-wanted birds flew past. Further down we saw a female Magnificent BOP while a male was calling in the background, but that BOP had to wait till the last leg of our journey across PNG.
After lunch we drove down to Kiunga again, where a boat should have been waiting to take us to the Kwatu Lodge, but due to a miscommunication - after all this is Papua, not Southern France - we had to wait for a frustrating hour before we could finally leave.
Finally we were on the mighty Fly River, the PNG equivalent of the Amazone! We were on our way to Kwatu Lodge, one of the absolute top ranking birding destinations in the world, not just because of the amazing birdlife, but also because of the whole experience. The feeling of complete remoteness and isolation, tribal folks in wooden canoes along the rivers' edge, untouched jungle as far as the eye could see and of course no electricity, Wi-Fi or cell phone reach.
We made our way upriver and as soon as we hit one of the smaller tributaries we found ourselves in a lost world. Giant Flying Foxes everywhere, huge Palm Cockatoos and snowy-white Sulphur-crested Cockatoos calling from atop fruiting fig trees while Imperial Pigeons, Fruit Doves, Parrots, Lories and Parakeets constantly zipped across from one forested shoreline to the other. What an amazing place!
The absolute highlight came just before dusk when suddenly 3 SOUTHERN CROWNED PIGEONS perched on an open branch along the river. I have seen these amazing birds before, 7 years ago - with my dad and a Birdingbreaks group led by Laurens - along this very same river, but for Max this was the undoubted highlight of nearly 2.5 months of intensive birding in Asia.
Kwatu Lodge is the most basic of basic, but that's exactly what makes this place so special. While you have a rice/noodle/ketchup diner by the torchlight you are eaten alive by hundreds of mosquitos, but those hardships are soon forgotten when - as the sun sets behinds the rainforest canopy - Hook-billed Kingfishers, Papuan- and Marbled Frogmouths start calling from every direction and huge Flying Foxes glide overhead by the hundreds...
After diner we took the boat upstream where Samuel turned off the engine. For me this was the most awesome experience since the start of my Biggest Year. Under a crescent moon and a sky littered with thousands of stars we slowly drifted downstream and while we were in awe of this magical moment a Forest Bittern started booming from somewhere in the darkness, probably one of the most special sounds I've heard in a long while...
Southern Crowned Pigeon Goura scheepmakeri (Max van Waasdijk)
March 13th THE LAND OF THE TWELVE-WIRED AND THE KING
The alarm was set at 4 AM and for good reason, we had 2 hours of night birding around the Kwatu Lodge ahead of us! The night birding at Kwatu basically starts when you are still in bed, safely tucked away under your mosquito net. Papuan- and Marbled Frogmouths call continuously throughout the night and there is nothing more than a thin bamboo wall separating you from the forest.
Once we set foot into the rainforest surrounding the Kwatu Lodge things really got interesting when Orange-footed Scrubfowls and Black-billed Brush-turkeys started to wake up and produced their bizarre morning duets. Suddenly our target bird starts to deliver its distinctive 3-note song, a Starry Owlet-Nightjar! We played hide-and-seek with two birds for almost 1,5 hours, but despite these efforts we could not get these weird crossbreds between an owl and a nightjar in the torchlight.
At the crack of dawn Sam took us 10 minutes upriver to a display-site of the incredible Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise, which is not much more than a dead branch sticking out from the riverside forest canopy. A displaying Twelve-wired BOP is one of the true wonders of the avian world. The tailless black-and-yellow male creeps up and down the log and flicks his 12 wires - bizarre wire-like structures made from keratin that stick out from its rear - across the face and bill of a female bird, which looks completely different and far less spectacular than the male bird. Meanwhile the male produces a spectacular spooky growl that echoes across the river.
Drifting in a boat along the opposite shore we witnessed this spectacle, unfortunately difficult to see and even harder to photograph due to the leaf coverage in front of the display-site so you guys have to do with only the story this time. While waiting there a Bare-eyed Rail was constantly calling from the forest interior and Parrots, Lories, Doves and Pigeons of multiple different varieties flew overhead.
Next took the boat further upriver and right into a flooded forest. Due to hard rains in the mountains the water level had risen more than 3 meters (!!!) over the course of only two days, this made walking in the seasonally flooded forest impossible. Somehow the boatmen found their way through the forest and on to dry land. From here we walked to a display site of the King Bird-of-Paradise, while literally being eaten alive by a humming cloud of hundreds of mosquitos. The pain - more so the itch - was well worth it because moments later we had frame-filling scope views of a glowing red male King Bird-of-Paradise! This day was coming along nicely!
After lunch, packing our bags and an hour on a trail we boated back to Kiunga, feasting our eyes one last time at the beautiful rainforest all around us.
We had Lunch in the Kiunga Guest House and from there we drove to a lookout point along the road. From here we saw our last Kiunga mega, a male and two female Flame Bowerbird, what a finish!
King Bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus regius (Max van Waasdijk)
March 14th TO THE HIGHLANDS!
We had planned to spend our last morning at famous km 17 to look for displaying Greater Bird-of-Paradise, but heavy rain made that mission impossible (luckily we had seen an adult male Greater BOP in full display flying past at the lookout point the day before).
Around 10:30 AM we boarded our plane to Mt. Hagen, the gateway to the PNG highlands. Upon arrival we had to arrange transportation to the fabled Kumul Lodge. We ended up in the back of a pick-up truck paying way too much and while driving up into the highlands we were constantly wondering whether we would end up at the lodge or somewhere along the road stripped from all our valuables :)
All was good when we drove up the driveway of Kumul Lodge where we were greeted by Vincent vd Spek, one of my best friends and travel companion for the next week! Vincent's flight from Hong Kong to Port Moresby had been cancelled so the journey to PNG had taken him 24 hours longer. This gave him only a 2 hour window to catch his connecting flight to Mt. Hagen and his transfer to Rondon Ridge. Long story short he made it there and he saw a displaying Black Sicklebill, so all was good.
After being welcomed at the Kumul Lodge - Kumul is the local name for Bird-of-Paradise - by the very friendly staff including our guide Wilson we rushed to the balcony overlooking the most fantastic bird table in the world. Imagine a 5 meter long moss-covered table adjacent to the forest edge. Fruit put out there by the staff attracts some of the most stunning birds known to men. Two of these are Birds-of-Paradise, the ridiculously cool Brown Sicklebill and the bird with the longest tail in the world, the stupendous Ribbon-tailed Astrapia. These stonking birds are joined by two huge honeyeaters, Belford's Melidectes and Common Smoky Honeyeaters, the latter has the amazing ability to change colour. Yes you read it right, it can actually change colour like a chameleon. Via very fast blood circulation it can transform the colour of its orbital skin from yellow to bright red in a few seconds. How cool is that!
The Kumul Lodge and surroundings offers unparalleled access to New Guinea cloud forest birding, but most if not all birders visit this magical place during the peak season (June-September). Over the course of our visit we found out that Kumul is just as good in the low season! We were the only ones there, the birding was spectacular and we were very well taken care of by Wilson and the other staff members present.
Within our first minutes at the bird table we already found one of the absolute star birds, the amazing Tit Berrypecker, later it turned out to be our only sighting. Till dusk we birded the premises and notched up 22 new species for my Biggest Year list. After dusk we played hide-and-seek with a Mountain Owlet Nightjar, but best we could do were brief flight views of this elusive night bird.
Common Smoky Honey-eater Melipotes fumigatus (Vincent van der Spek)
Brown Sicklebill Epimachus meyeri (Vincent van der Spek)
Brown Sicklebill Epimachus meyeri (Vincent van der Spek)
Belford's Melidectes Melidectes belfordi (Vincent van der Spek)
March 15th AMAZING KUMULS AROUND THE KUMUL LODGE
We had our breakfast at 4:30 AM, after that Wilson and driver David took us downhill towards a stakeout for Lesser Bird-of-Paradise. These classic BOP's display on private lands owned by a local clan, luckily we were granted permission to come here since Kumul Lodge has good relations with this clan. We knew our chances to see any displaying males were slim this time of the year so we were relieved when an immature male Lesser BOP perched in the open for half a minute, allowing for excellent scope views. As we slowly walked down the road - while being accompanied by group of local youth - we found two more BOP's, an adult male Superb BOP - showing off its fluorescent green breast shield - calling from the top of a tree and a female Magnificent BOP.
Back at Kumul we had lunch and spend the full afternoon working the excellent trail system surrounding the lodge. Just half an hour in we heard the unmistakable growl of a Crested Satinbird and moments later we found a pair of these most desired birds. The male has a fiery orange back contrasting sharply with jet black underparts, in my opinion this surely ranks this bird as one of the finest in the world.
Our next mission was finding one of the most bizarre passerines out there, the Wattled Ploughbill, a moss-green robin-sized bird with a very strange plough-shaped bill and even stranger pink wattles dangling from the base of its lower mandible. We obtained frustrating glimpses of a female bird, but we needed another 2 hours before we finally found a male showing its grotesque pink wattles. For me this was one of the birds-of-the-trip so far.
The grand finally to this fantastic day came just before dusk set in. I had wandered onto a trail while Max and Vincent were taking photographs around the bird table. Suddenly I saws a bird scurrying across the trail, a New Guinea Woodcock!! I took one good look and raced back to fetch the others, luckily the bird was still there and Max even managed to make some photographs.
Crested Satinbird Cnemophilus macgregorii (Vincent van der Spek)
March 16th EVEN MORE AMAZING KUMULS AROUND THE KUMUL LODGE
This morning we had a date with the Blue Bird-of-Paradise. This magnificent blue-and-black bird is an uncommon resident across a small elevation belt in the PNG highlands and it is voted by most world birders as the most beautiful bird in the world, I can 100 percent agree with that.
The place to look for the Blue BOP is just a 20 minutes' drive from Kumul. Here, on a forested hillside 3 males have their territories and every morning - if the weather is not playing tricks on you - Blue BOP's come down to forage on fruiting trees lower down the slope.
Tension rose as dawn broke, it is not every day that you have a chance to come face-to-face with the worlds' most stunning creature. Suddenly a large black blob landed in a fruiting tree, Blue BOP?! Wait a minute, it's a male Lawes's Parotia! We did not expect to see this BOP anywhere during our trip.
Not long thereafter a male Blue Bird-of-Paradise started calling high up the slope and didn't take long before I had it in the scope. What a stunning bird and thanks to my Swarovski ATX 65 scope and IPhone-adapter I could even make a video as the Blue BOP was calling.
Back at Kumul there was one important - if not the most important - target that we needed to find before our 4 PM transfer to Rondon Ridge, the Archbold's Bowerbird, one of the rarest birds of the PNG highlands. This bird used to be impossible to see, but since about 10 years back a female bird started to regularly drop by Kumul's bird table. Naturally our strategy was to wait at the bird table, but after 2 hour of waiting still no sign of the bird, so we decided to hit the trails again. This turned out to be an awesome gamble as we suddenly found a female Archbold's Bowerbird in a fruiting tree!
Our last highlight on the trail came in the form of an adult male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia with full white tail ribbons that were over a meter long, one of the most ridiculous birds I've ever seen.
After saying goodbye to the Kumul staff we headed for the Rondon Ridge, home of the King-of-Saxony BOP and the largest passerine of them all, the Black Sicklebill!
Rondon Ridge Lodge had given us a huge discount which meant that we could walk the footsteps of Sir Mick Jagger, Sean Lennon and other celebrities who visited this fantastic lodge situated at a ridge overlooking Mt. Hagen.
Ribbon-tailed Astrapia Astrapia mayeri (Vincent van der Spek)
Ribbon-tailed Astrapia Astrapia mayeri (Vincent van der Spek)
March 17th B.O.P. RIDGE
At 5 AM we met our guide Joseph at the reception and after a quick hello we went up the trail. Making our way up we now and then tried for Feline Owlet Nightjar and at our fourth attempt we got a response, but like a true Owlet Nightjar it of course did not show itself.
At daybreak we were at B.O.P. ridge, the fabled stakeout for Black Sicklebill. However this huge BOP is not the only attraction here and within 15 minutes after our arrival we had amazing views of two different displaying King-of-Saxony BOP's and a male Stephani's Astrapia. The former has long head plumes - 3 times the length of its body - crowing from the sides of its head. During display it can move these plumes separately from each other, this makes this bird one of the weirdest, extraordinary BOP's out there.
After waiting for an hour or so a male Black Sicklebill started calling (simultaneously with the machinegun-like calls of a male Brown Sicklebill)! Goosebumps all over, what a sound! We waited and waited for it to come closer, but the bird did not move. I figured I had just one chance for this mega-bird so I went kamikaze down a slippery trail toward the sound. After working my way downhill and off-trail for more than half a kilometre there was just 100 meters or so between me and the bird. The sound was now so loud it was just incredible, but suddenly the bird was silent. I gave it my all looking through the foliage from every angle possible, but I never managed to see it. Devastated I made my way back to the other guys who were still waiting at the ridge. Of course this is a tick for the Biggest Year list, but some birds you just want to see so badly. I guess that's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes, especially if your aim is 7000 species in a single year...
On the way down birding was good with highlights like Macgregor's Bowerbird next to its incredible bower, the rare Yellowish-streaked Honeyeater and the even rarer Papuan Parrotfinch. And I should not forget the supporting cast, female Blue BOP and Brown Sicklebill and several different Superb BOP's.
Rondon Ridge, you were good to us, but next time I won't leave till I see that Black Sicklebill...
March 18th VARIRATA AGAIN
Today we went to Varirata NP with a different guide we'd booked months before, Leonard Vaike and this time we focussed more on the trails. There was one disadvantage, it was very windy today in Varirata which made birding exceedingly difficult.
We started with a bang, 3 displaying male Raggiana Birds-of-Paradise showing off their amazing plumage. I've witnessed this spectacle before, 7 years ago, but again it was an awesome experience!
On the trails it was hard work and lots of mosquitos, but in the end we came up with a nice list of more skulking species like Painted Quail Thrush, Northern Scrub Robin, the beautiful Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler and 2 Black-billed Brush-turkey. We heard a Pheasant Pigeon frustratingly close for a long period of time, but we could not get on the bird. Another highlight were no less than 4 (!) different roosting Barred Owlet Nightjars.
Raggiana Bird-of-paradise Paradisaea raggiana (Vincent van der Spek)
Raggiana Bird-of-paradise Paradisaea raggiana (Vincent van der Spek)
March 19th GOODBYE PNG, YOU WERE AMAZING...
We spend our last morning in Papua New Guinea with Daniel along the Brown River, an excecible stretch of secondary lowland forest about 45 minutes' drive from Port Moresby.
For Max and me the main targets were birds that we'd missed around Kiunga, but for Vincent everything was new which meant lots of 'Oooo's' and 'Ahhhhs' when we saw Lowland Peltops and New Guinea Spine-tailed Swift. Highlights in the forest were multiple Common Paradise Kingfishers, Black-sided Robin, Blue Jewel-Babbler and a fantastic pair of Emperor Fairy Wren.
After being dropped off by Daniel at the airport it was time to say goodbye to Max and Vincent, an emotional moment since Max and I were like a married couple the past 79 days. Together we travelled through the deserts of the UAE, the jungles of Sri Lanka, the mighty Himalayas, the Rainforests of Southeast Asia and finally the last frontier, Papua New Guinea. Unbelievably enough we experienced hardly any setbacks, despite traveling through Indonesia and PNG during the peak of the rainy season we were never rained away. Together we encountered more than 1700 different bird species in 79 days, 1 of these days was spend in the Netherlands, the other 78 in Asia, nobody ever saw more species than us on this continent in such a short period of time... Max you are a good friend and I will miss your companionship the coming 9 months... OFF TO AUSTRALIA!!!
Blyth's Hornbill Rhyticeros plicatus (Max van Waasdijk)
Blue-capped Ifrit Ifrita kowaldi (Vincent van der Spek)
Common Paradise-kingfisher Tanysiptera galatea (Vincent van der Spek)
Eastern Crested Berrypecker Paramythia montium (Vincent van der Spek)