West Papua

 Birding’s Last Frontier 

by Dani Lopez-Velasco

West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) is still covered by the some of the largest tracts of undisturbed forest on earth, home to some of the most exciting birds in the world

West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) is still covered by some of the largest tracts of undisturbed forest on Earth, which are home to several of the world´s most amazing birds.

Several birding locations around the world rank amongst the most difficult ones to bird, for various reasons. Places like the Philippines, the Solomons, areas of West Africa and South America, etc… can certainly be hard work. However, none of them can probably beat the challenging and tough conditions of a serious birding trip to West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya)
Extreme and basic conditions for a month, camping deep in the field during most of the trip, temperatures ranging from 0 C degrees high in the mountains to 30 C and almost 100 per cent humidity in the lowlands, same food day after day, long hikes in muddy, slippery, narrow and very steep trails, or simply through the forest with the machetes, lots of mosquitos, frequent tribal wars, cancelled flights, sudden changes in the plans, etc… All these making it a highly demanding and tough trip. And, if not enough, the birds are usually extremely shy and secretive, more so than anywhere else I know of…
So, you could easily think, why would anyone in his right mind would want to go there? Well,  the reason is simple. Having said all the above, the birding in New Guinea (both in PNG and West Papua) will reward the intrepid birder with some of the most stunning and sought after birds in the entire world, and, above all, with Birds of Paradise.
Birds of Paradise (BOPs from now on) certainly rank amongst the most spectacular birds anywhere on Earth, and almost everyone who has seen Sir David Attenborough´s famous documentary “Attenborough in Paradise” has at least once wished and dreamt of going to the magical island of New Guinea to witness their displays and colors. More recently, Tim Laman´s amazing work with BOPs, highlighted by this video has been widely published and acclaimed, and has made even more people aware of how stunning BOPs are.
I´ve been in love with BOPs ever since I was a little kid, and I will always remember the day I got my Beehler´s et al “Birds of New Guinea” field guide as a Christmas present when I was 10, and read it over and over, only wishing to go there someday. Now, it turns out it was good to have bought the guide by then, as It´s been out of print for years, and getting a second hand one is  now reallydifficult and expensive.
The island of New Guinea is the world’s second largest island, and probably has the largest expanse of undisturbed tropical humid forest left in the entire Old World tropics. Many areas are still unexplored and probably hold several new species awaiting to be discovered.
In less than 60 miles, the land rises from the steamy mangroves and swamp forests of the coast through impenetrable rain- and moss-forests up to the open alpine grasslands and jagged snow-capped summits of the Jayawijaya (or Snow) Mountains.
Mt Trikora, part of the Snow Mountains range, is the second highest peak in

Mt. Trikora (4.750 m), part of the Snow Mountains range, is the second highest peak in the entire Australasian continent. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco

Here,  0.1% of the world’s population speak 15% of the known languages. Many tribes live much as they did before outside influences arrived, and plenty of locals still go naked, only wearing penis gourds. Even cannibalism was still frequent in some places not so long ago…
New Guinea is made up of the easternmost region of Indonesia (West Papua) in the west, and the sobereign state of Papua New Guinea, on the east.
west papua map
A trip to PNG is nowadays “relatively” straightforward, but going to West Papua is certainly a different matter…
So, after getting the guide, my interest in BOPs almost became an obsession, and, finally, I fulfilled my dream in 2006, with a month long trip to PNG. It was an unforgettable trip, with 20 sp of BOPs seen amongst many other highlights. However, some other very special species, including several endemic BOPs and what´s for many the best bird in the world, the Wilson´s
Bird of Paradise, only occur in the west,  so a trip there was number one on my priority future destinations.
And then,  the dream came true this past month, when I co-lead a Birdquest tour to West Papua with Mark van Beirs, one of the best, more experienced and knowledgeable bird guides in the world.

Mark van Beirs, on the left; myself, Dani Lopez-Velasco, on the right. Lake Habbema on the background.   July 2013

I´ve just got back home from this fantastic trip (to which, amongst others, acknowledged scottish seabird researcher, and BF reader, Mark Tasker, and mammal expert Gerald Broddelez, who were great company and fun, came along) to a region where very few people in the world has ever been. I thus feel very privileged,  my mind being full of incredible memories that I won´t ever forget.
Our 4 week tour covered all the main birding locations of West Papua, and was a great success, seeing almost all possible targets.
We started in the small and isolated, tropical islands of Biak and Numfor, in Geelvink Bay, well known for their coral reefs and palm-fringed beaches,  where several endemics occur.
biak
We recorded all of them, and amongst the highlights, We had great views of the stunning Numfor and Biak Paradise-kingfishers and also of the rare Biak Monarch. We also obtained what probably are the first ever photos of Numfor Leaf-Warbler.
Numfor Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera carolinae). Numfor Island, July 2013

Numfor Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera carolinae). Numfor Island, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco.  Probably the best of all Paradise-kingfishers, restricted to the small island of Numfor.

Biak Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera riedelii). Biak Island, July 2013

Biak Paradise-kingfisher (Tanysiptera riedelii). Biak Island, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Another beautiful Paradise-kingfisher, endemic to Biak, where relatively common at suitable habitat.

Numfor Leaf-Warbler (Phylloscopus poliocephalus maforensis). Probably first-ever photos of this sure to be split taxon, now treated as part of the Island Leaf-Warbler complex

Numfor Leaf-Warbler (Phylloscopus poliocephalus maforensis). Numfor, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Probably first-ever photos of this distinctive, sure to be split taxon, now treated as part of the Island Leaf-Warbler (P. poliocephalus) complex.

After a few days of relatively leisure birding in these islands, we set off for a tough week of trekking in the highlands of  the Grand Baliem Valley and the mythical Snow Mountains. During the first 2 days, we camped at an elevation of 3.300 m, near Habbema lake, at the base of Mt Trikora, the second highest peak in New Guinea,  where we explored a variety of habitats ranging from alpine grasslands to mossy forests.
 lake habbema

Lake Habbema, pictured above, and the alpine grasslands that surround it are home to several endemic species. The camp where we spent the first couple of nights is visible on the ridge in front of the lake, as well as several peaks part of the Snow Mountains range in the back.

Here, the highly sought after and little known Macgregor’s BOP (now considered to be a Honeyater, but it certainly feels like a BOP when you see it! ) showed exceedingly well.
macgregors bo

Macgregor´s Bird of Paradise (Macgregoria pulchra). Snow Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Recent genetic evidence on the Macgregor´s BOP/Honeyater confirms that it belongs to the Meliphagidae family, but as I, and many others, have known this almost mythical species as a BOP since I was a kid, I will still treat it as such on this post, even though it´s not scientifically correct.

habbema

The stands of Libocedrus pines along the ridges near Lake Habbema, depicted here, are the favored habitat of Macgregor´s BOP. Seeing this incredible and enigmatic bird in the early morning, as the mist clears up, while Splendid Astrapias sing nearby, and with some of the finest mountain scenery in the world as background, is an unforgettable experience. 

Other interesting species like  Salvadori’s Teal, Snow-mountain Quail,
Papuan Harrier, Mountain Nightjar, Alpine Pipit, Orange-cheeked Honeyeater, 
sa

Salvadori´s Teal (Salvadorina waigiuensis), Lake Habbema, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Endemic to New Guinea, the scarce Salvadori´s Teal, included on its own genus, is one of only four waterfowl species adapted to life on fast-flowing rivers, the other three being Torrent Duck, Blue Duck and Harlequin Duck.

Short-bearded Melidectes, Papuan Grassbird, Splendid Astrapia and Western Alpine Munia were also seen well.
As we descended along the Ibele valley, through primary cloud-forest, we logged some rarely seen species, including
Greater Ground-robin, Wattled Ploughbill and Archbold’s Bowerbird. 
Later, we spent 2  nights in the lower parts of the valley, camping at around 2.500 m. and exploring the surrounding forests,  where we had a nice assortment of species, including Papuan Creepers, Black Sitellas, Crested, Fan-tailed, Mid-mountain and Tit Berrypeckers, Rufous-throated Bronze-Cuckoos, Hooded Cuckoo-Shrikes, Grey Gerygones, Large and Buff-faced Scrub Wrens, Lesser Ground-Robins, the rare Yellowish-streaked Honeyeater, etc… were logged.
Amongst BOPs, King of Saxony and Brown Sicklebills, uttering their machine gun – like calls, were also encountered.
On the way down to Wamena village, and almost caught in the middle of a serious tribal war, we managed to see a few interesting species, including Ornate Melidectes, the endemic balim race of Golden Whistler, and Black-breasted Munia.
wattled ploughbill

Wattled Ploughbill  (Eulacestoma nigropectus). Ibele Valley, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. The only member of the monotypic genus Eulacestoma, the Wattled Ploughbill, a nice male pictured here, is endemic to the central mountain ranges of New Guinea.

Afterwards, our destination for the next few days were the lowland rainforests around Nimbokrang, at the base of the Cyclops Mountains, which host several exciting and rare species, such as Victoria Crowned-pigeon , known locally as Mambruk, or Blue-black Kingfisher.  After some hard work, both were seen very well.

palms
blue blac

Blue-black Kingfisher (Todiramphus nigrocyaneus). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the most sought-after and difficult of all New Guinea Kingfishers.


victoria g

Victoria Crowned-pigeon (Goura victoria). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. The best and most difficult of the 3 Crowned-pigeons, all endemic to New Guinea. A really impressive, and exceedingly shy due to hunting, bird;  After flushing from the ground, this one perched in a branch, pretty high in the canopy, and gave great scope views for 20 minutes.

They are also home to several BOPs, and we enjoyed great views of displaying Lesser, 12 Wired and King BOPs  just outside our tents, plus a good assortment of Fruit-doves.
les

Lesser Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea minor). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco.  An active lek of the species was located just outside our camp, and their calls could be heard all day long.

12 wir

12-wired Bird of Paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus). Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. This male, which had 10 “wires” on the tail instead of the classic 12, due to feather lost, displayed every morning at 6 am just a few metres from our tents. Not a bad way of waking up…

king

King Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus regius) Nimbokrang, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the most attractive members of the family, males of this tiny BOP spend most of their lives high in the canopy of their displaying trees, and are thus usually difficult to see well.

The very localized Pale-billed Sicklebill was also a highlight for all of us, as was the scarce although far less exciting Brown-headed Crow. At night, both Papuan and Marbled Frogmouths kept us entertained.
Papuan Frogmouth

Papuan Frogmouth (Podargus papuensis). West Papua, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Frogmouths are named for their large flattened hooked bills and huge frog-like gapes. The 2  massive-billed species that inhabit New Guinea, Papuan and Marbled Frogmouths, belong to the genus Podargus, and, unlike other tropical Asia taxa belonging to the genus Batrachostomus, can take even small vertebrates as prey.

The small islands of Batanta and Salawati, batantaisletto the west, are seldom visited, but the former is home to what many consider the best bird of the world, the Wilson´s Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus respublica). And obviously, no trip to West Papua would be complete without paying a visit to Batanta or Waigeo in order to see it.
Seeing this out-of-this-world bird doing its display on its courting grounds can easily be the top highlight of anyone´s birding career, as was probably my case. There are many bright coloured or fancy looking birds in the world, ranging from pittas to hummers, trogons to tanagers, but I doubt any can stand even close to a male Wilson´s. Even in the dark, as dawn breaks inside the forest, the bird seems to have a powerful bright light switched on inside it that lights up the whole bird. In fact, every single part of the bird is unbelievable, from the head to the legs.  I´ve never seen such bright blues, reds or yellows on a bird, ever. The bare bright blue head looks like some rare beetle. At certain angles, the odd-shaped, twisted tail streamers are bright blue and white, the inside of the mouth, seen easily when it displays, is glowing brigh green-yellow. Legs are also bright blue, and when in full display, all the throat and breast gets puffed-up, turns iridiscent green, and addopts a big inflated heart shape. Apart of course from the bright yellow neck and upper back and bright red lower back and wings. Simply out of this world. Words aren´t enough to describe it,  and a thing to see before you die, definitely.
wilso

Wilson´s Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus respublica). Batanta, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the best, if not the best, birds of the world. The brightness of this bird is impossible to describe, and it´s definitely a “must-see”.

Also in the island are endemic Red BOPs , which showed well in their display tree, and a visit to Salawati by boat gave us the secretive Red-billed Brush-Turkey, Western Crowned-pigeon, my last of the 3 Crowned-pigeons, and the mythical and extremely shy, due to local haunting, Northern Cassowary. Snorkeling in the reefs just outside our camp was great fun too.
Wester

Western Crowned-pigeon (Goura cristata). Salawati, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. One of the largest and most beautiful members of the Pigeon family, this species is evaluated as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list due to habitat loss, limited range and overhunting.

hoodedp

Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida). Salawati, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Most Pitta species have brightly-coloured plumages, and are well known for their skulking habits. Hooded Pitta is widespread through South East Asia and Australasia, and is the most common family member in New Guinea.

yellos bill

Yellow-billed Kingfisher (Syma torotoro). Salawati, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. New Guinea is Kingfisher heaven, with no less than 22 species occurring in the island. Unlike our Common Kingfisher, most species are not associated with water and do not eat fish, but inhabit forest and consume arthropods and small frogs.

The last week of the tour was spent in the remote Arfak Mts, located in the Bird´s Head or Vogelkop Peninsula in the northwest of New Guinea, which are home to some of the less known species in the planet.
moss-pk
A local with an immense knowledge of the area , Zeth, lives there, and has built several hides to see displaying bops. With his help, we witnessed one of the avian spectacles of the world, the ballerina dance of the male Western Parotia. As well as displaying Magnificent BOPs, a couple meters from us… The bowers of Vogelkop Bowebird must be one of the most amazing constructions in the animal world, and several were studied at close range. It was interesting to note the different building materials used related to how close to human settlements the bowers were. In the lower parts of the valley, the birds  used mostly bottles and taps, bags, and whatever colorful human dispose they could find. As one climbed up, the bowers found started to be adorned only with natural things, like beetles, different fruits, moss, etc… and then, on the highest parts, where even those materials were scarce, they simply used leaves and moss, but very neatly arranged.
bower-1-pk
bower-5-pk
dani vogelkop bowerbird arfaks
bower-3-pk
The endemic  Long-tailed Paradigalla was seen well, as were a pair of secretive White-striped Forest-rails , a Wattled Brush-Turkey and the beautiful and shy Spotted Jewel-babblers. In the higher parts of the forest, the poorly known endemic Arfak Astrapia, along with  Black Sicklebills uttering their estrange calls, were also encountered, even  around our camp. And the last of the world’s 4 sicklebills to be seen in the trip, the scarce Buff-tailed Sicklebill, was also found. Anotherk top bird, the prehistoric looking Feline Owlet-nightjar,

feli n

Feline Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles insignis). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Owlet-nightjars belong to a single monotypic family, Aegothelidae, and are mostly confined to New Guinea.

as well as Mountain Owlet-nightjar, were seen up close in their daytime roosts.

mt

Mountain Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles albertisi). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Check the length of those rictal bristles!

mag

Magnificent Bird of Paradise (Cicinnurus magnificus). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. The last of the 3 Cicinnurus BOPs to be seen on the trip.

And finally, on our last day, another rare species high on everyone´s list, the stunning and brightly colored Masked Bowerbird, performed well in the scope.
mas

Masked Bowerbird (Sericulus aureus). Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Dani Lopez-Velasco. Apparently, there are only a couple more previously published photos of the species in the internet. It took some time, but eventually we had terrific views of this adult male.

So, all in all, it was an amazing trip, well worth the effort, with definitely some of the best birding on the planet. Can´t wait to come back next year to lead the Birdquest tour again!
gru

The group, with Zeth, our local guide, in the middle, and Shita Prativi,who took care of all our arrangements while in the Vogelkop area, on the right. Arfak Mts, July 2013. Photo: Mark van Beirs.

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8 Responses to West Papua

  1. inavukic says:

    What a great showcase of nature’s beauties. Thanks for sharing

  2. Hi Daniel. Simply stunning! What a place… And a great write-up conveying the magnificence of the geography and the sense of adventure… I, too, vividly remember Sir David’s encounter with BOPs but I never thought I would ever get to visit… where do I sign up for the next trip!? Terry

  3. Andrew says:

    Amazing trip. I have been to PNG but Irian Jaya sounds even better. What a shame I’m not 20 years younger.

  4. Nigel Driver says:

    My, this brings back memories of a fantastic trip I did with Birdquest and the brilliant Mark van Biers in 2007. Wilson’s BOP is the best bird in the world as far as I’m concerned. Watching a male at such close range is firmly engrained on my memory. I need five BOP’s still, having been to PNG with Birdquest in the past. Great write up, thanks for reminding me of the lost world I visited.

  5. A great story…leaves me itching more than ever to experience the magic of PNG!!! Thanks.

  6. Sam Jones says:

    Brilliant Dani, totally up there in the expedition sphere for unknowns as well as you say! Earlier this year a trip to the Hindenburg wall came back with masses of discoveries! http://www.pngsdp.com/index.php/press-releases/110-scientists-return-from-hindenburg-wall-expedition

  7. Felicidades Dani! Happy to see that you experienced so many incredible birds and thanks for sharing the fantastic report! Yes, has to be a life highlight of any birding career. Lots of nice birds for me in Costa Rica but hard to compare to the birds New Guinea! Will get there some day…

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