NEW GUINEA BIRDING TRIP REPORT
2016 West Papua Scouting Trip
Papua Indonesia, better known in the US as West Papua, encompasses the western half of the island of New Guinea. It's less well traveled and has far fewer western-style accommodations than Papua New Guinea (the eastern half of the island). The mountains are steep and rugged, the interior is covered with rain forest, and it rains heavily during much of the year. The normal dry season is June to December, but in recent years rain can fall at any time of year. Any tour to West Papua is physically demanding and requires acceptance of sometimes primitive accommodations. This tour was no exception. I traveled with 5 other birders to West Papua during early October with the idea that the birds would be active and the weather would be good. The birds were indeed active, but the weather was not good. We experienced multiple rain showers nearly every day of the tour. We saw some good birds but also missed a lot due to the bad weather. Below is a summary of the tour.
Oct 3: I joined this tour after spending 3 weeks birding the islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera followed by a week birding Bali and Sumba Islands. I flew from Waingapu on Sumba Island to Denpassar Bali. From there I flew to Makassar, where I stayed at the Ibis Hotel at the airport for a very short night of little sleep. My flight departed Makassar at 3:15am and I arrived at 6:30am on schedule, where I was met at the airport by the tour leaders. Two other participants arrived from the US shortly after I did. We dropped our luggage at the hotel in Sorong and then drove southwest out of town to meet up with the other 3 group members, who had arrived the day before and were already out birding. We spent the rest of the morning birding along the road. Traffic was fairly heavy but the birding was decent. Upon arrival we immediately had a good scope view of Rufous-bellied Kookaburra back in thick understory. That was followed by brief looks at Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, a good view of Olive-crowned Flowerpecker, and scope views of Orange-bellied Fruit-Dove. We then walked a short trail into forest where we had good looks at Little Shrikethrush and Olive Flyrobin. We also saw a Rufous-bellied Kookaburra overhead, Gray-headed Cuckooshrike in a tree top, and a fleeting view of a Gray Whistler in flight. We returned to our hotel for lunch at mid-day before going out again at 1:30 north of town to where the early arrivals had seen King Bird-of-Paradise the day before. By the time we reached the trailhead an hour out of town, the intermittent light rain had turned into a downpour that lasted over an hour. As a result, we had no chance of seeing the BoP so did some roadside birding after the rain slowed down. Along the road we managed unsatisfying views of Palm Cockatoo, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Tawny-breasted Honeyeater, New Guinea Friarbird, Golden Monarch, and Black Sunbird in flight and Greater Black Coucal perched in a distant treetop. Near dusk we added scope views of Gray-headed Goshawk, Dollarbird, and Yellow-faced Myna (the latter very far away). We also saw an immature Metallic Myna. At 6:05pm the rain started up again so we drove back to our hotel for dinner.
Oct 4: After 6:00am breakfast, we drove from our hotel a short distance to the boat dock where we caught a covered speedboat launch to Waigeo Island off the northwest coast of New Guinea. It took nearly 2 hours to reach the island. En route we saw several Streaked Shearwaters. We landed on a sandy bank at the mouth of the Orobiai River. Around the sandbar we saw Little Egret, Common Sandpiper, and Gray-tailed Tatter as well as a wintering austral migrant Sacred Kingfisher. In the trees across the river we had scope views of Pink-spotted Fruit-Dove, Pinon's Imperial-Pigeon, Hooded Butcherbird, Torresian Crow, and Glossy-mantled Manucode. We also saw Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Eclectus Parrot in flight. Two people saw Brown-hooded Crows fly beyond the tree line. We then had to walk along the gravel bars and wade across the river, shallow enough for knee-high rubber boots, for several hundred yards upriver.. Sometimes the river is deeper and sandals are the best option rather than boots. We arrived mid-morning and set up camp at a prepared site another few hundred yards walk along a flat path from the river. The group slept under two large tarpaulins on a raised gravel bed that kept us dry. People brought various forms of equipment - tents, thermarest pads, sleeping bags, mosquito netting, and the like for the 3 nights we were to camp there. The crew slept in tents 50m away in a separate clearing from where we were. The toilet was an open pit surrounded by a tarpaulin barrier to give some privacy. Our tour leaders and a crew of Papuans from a nearby village across the straits did the camp shores and cooking. The campsite has access to the river via a fairly short, raised, gravel walkway. That's where people went swimming or bathing to clean up, mainly after dark each day. After lunch this day we hiked up a fairly steep hill to hides where Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise often displays. Two people went to a small hide up a very steep, almost cliff-like trail, where they saw a male Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise after about a 2½ hour wait in the hide. The rest of us went up a longer trail that is not as steep to a larger hide. We saw no Wilson's BoP. The only birds were a very fast fly-by of Common Paradise-Kingfisher near the hide and a brief look at Cinnamon Ground-Dove at the far end of the clearing and then very near the hide. On the way back down the trail we managed to get an obscured view of Red Bird-of-Paradise in the treetops. After dinner, we went out looking for night birds. We heard Marbled Frogmouth and Red-legged Crake but saw nothing. It rained all that night.
Oct 5: We were up at 4:45am. After breakfast, those of us who didn't see the Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise hiked back up to the same blind, arriving by 6:00am. We spent the next 4 hours there and saw no birds at all. The other two people went birding around the campsite. Notable birds they saw while on their own were Black-capped Lory and Tawny-breasted Honeyeater. Around 10:30am everyone joined up along a side trail into a canyon area where Western Crowned-Pigeon is most likely. We had a backlit view of Rusty Pitohui, brief views of Red Bird-of-Paradise, decent looks at Yellow-bellied Gerygone in the treetops, and good looks at Spot-winged Monarch and Pale-bellied Scrubwren. The guide saw Golden Monarch and a female Frilled Monarch, missed by everybody else. On the way back down the trail most people had decent views of Papua Pitta. Since I was behind everyone else, I only saw it as it flew. By 11:30am heavy rain had begun, and we hiked down a now very muddy trail in the rain. The bottom of the trail is basically a wide track, and it was flooded, as it was after every rain. Rubber boots were called for, and that's all I used while on the island since it was always very muddy. In addition to mud, we also encountered a lot of chiggers. This was true every day. The rubber boots pretty much prevented chiggers from getting to my legs below the knees, but by the time we left Waigeo a couple days later, I had a couple hundred chigger bites between my knees and waste. One woman in the group, who did not have rubber boots, was covered in bites all the way down her legs. She had an allergic reaction, with large blisters developing all around her ankles that got worse every day we were on Waigeo. That afternoon I went up the steep cliff-like trail to the other hide with one of the other men in the group, and I had a brief look at the Wilson's BoP as it perched in front of the peephole. The other person with me couldn't see it from his vantage point as his view was blocked by branches.
Oct 6: We were up early again and hiked back up to the first hide, where I hoped to get photos of the Wilson's BoP, arriving before first light. The guide joined us at 7:15am and tried playback. The other 3 people with me saw a female BoP, but it wasn't visible from the far end of the hide where I was seated. While in the hide, it rained another half hour. We left the hide at 8:45am to bird some forest trails. We saw a Pygmy Longbill flitting overhead and a male Gray Whistler copulating with a female. We spotted a meter-long Mangrove Monitor (Varanus indicus) along the trail. We spent quite a while looking for Western Crowned-Pigeon without much success. We did have a backlit view of Rusty Pitohui and a silhouette view of Variable Pitohui in bad light. After an hour waiting our heavy rain by sitting in a shallow cave limestone bluff, the guide parked us at a spot along the trail and went bushwhacking into the forest looking for the crowned-pigeon. After 20min or so, he came back to get us. He saw two Western Crowned-Pigeons. Unfortunately, they were gone by the time we reached the spot. We then bushwhacked our way up a steep limestone bluff to get back on the trail leading to camp. We arrived there about 1:00pm for lunch. At 2:30pm I went back up to the upper hide above the steep trail hoping to photograph the Wilson's BoP, arriving at 3:00pm. We heard the male singing nearby, and he came in briefly at 3:45pm. He appeared again at 4:30pm and then again 20min later, when he spent some time clearing debris from the display area. I never could get a decent photo. At 5:00pm heavy rain returned with a vengeance. We hiked down through mud and then along the flooded trail at the bottom, arriving at the camp by 5:30pm.
Oct 7: We were up at 5:15am and had breakfast at 5:30am. Three people were up an hour earlier to go owling and had no luck. After breakfast, one of the tour leaders and the crew broke camp. While this was happening, we went down to the river by the camp with the guide. There we had a very distant view of a female or juvenile Dwarf Fruit-Dove. We had scope views an immature Gray-headed Goshawk and a Red Bird-of-Paradise. In the treetops we saw Pinon's Imperial-Pigeon, Eclectus Parrot, Hooded Butcherbird, and New Guinea Friarbird. Once camp was packed up, we birded our way through forest along the trail back toward the river mouth. One person had a brief look at White-eared Catbird, missed by everybody else. The river level was higher than when we had arrived 3 days earlier, but fortunately it had receded substantially from the raging torrent it had been the night before. I was able to cross in my rubber boots without getting wet. We then took the boat 2 hours to an atoll in the Dampier Strait, arriving about 11:10am. The tide was going out when we arrived, making it very shallow above the coral reef. The boat dropped us near shore, where we could wade ashore in rubber boots ok. However, we were concerned about having to walk across the reef to get back to the boat later, so I left my camera with the boat. As a result, I missed the best photo ops of the entire tour. Once ashore we soon had very good looks at Pink-spotted (Moluccan) Fruit-Dove, Pied Imperial-Pigeon, Beach Kingfisher, Varied Honeyeater, Island Whistler, Arafura Fantail, Torresian Crow, and Metallic Starling. We also had scope views of Spice Imperial-Pigeon and Moluccan Starling. We worked a scrub area for Dusky Scrubfowl and had brief initial looks at a pair followed by quick by very good looks as it scurried across an open area in the scrub. That was followed by good looks of White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Violet-necked Lory, and Olive Honeyeater topped off after circling much of the island with stunning views of an ever elusive Beach Thick-knee. While we were on the island with the guide, the other tour leader went across the straits and recruited some villages to ferry us back from the shore onto our boat in their outrigger canoes. As it turned out, we could have had our cameras on shore, but we just didn't know until it was too late. We then returned to Sorong for a night's stay in the hotel there. When I turned on the TV in my room, a rare opportunity during this tour, I learned that category 5 Hurricane Andrew was barreling along the Florida coast and projected to hit my current home town of Jacksonville in the next few hours. I couldn't reach my wife, who I later learned had evacuated and was staying with a friend in Venice across the state.
Oct 8: We were up again at 5:00am. We took a morning flight to Manokwari, arriving about 8:00am. We then spent an hour at the hotel while our tour leaders were getting organized and buying food for the Arfak Mountains. We were just about ready for departure to the Arfak Mountains when my wife was finally able to reach me on the guide's cell phone. She had talked to our neighbors and assured me that our home was fine. The hurricane's strength had gone down to a category 3, and the eye stayed offshore around Jacksonville. Daytona Beach 50 miles to the south was hit much worse, as was St Augustine 20 miles from where we live. The main problem in our area was tidal flooding along the coast and near the St Johns River. We fortunately live inland enough to not be affected by flooding. It was a great relief, as I was going to be out of touch with any news or phone contact for the next 4 days while in the mountains.
Oct 9: We were up at 4:15am for 4:30am breakfast. We left at 5:00am to hike up many steep steps to the hide located by the Western Parotia display site. We were in the hide until 9:00am and had fabulous views of the bird displaying. The male regularly flashed iridescent waves of red and yellow on his throat by inflating his chest in a wave-like pattern and fanning his wings into an umbrella-like circle. We were all simply entranced! From there we hiked up more steep steps to reach a blind near a Vogelkop Bowerbird bower. The bower is quite amazing, with sorted piles of orange and black seeds and fruits along with red and black leaves and white fungi all sorted into six separate piles in front of the bower. Unfortunately, the bowerbird never showed. We did have good looks of Vogelkop Scrubwren and Black Fantail in the area. We hiked back down to the road, picking up Vogelkop Melidectes, Papuan Treecreeper, and Blue-gray Robin along the way. Back at the road we saw a female Mid-Mountain Berrypecker and the western race Smokey Honeyeater. We also saw Black Monarch and Green-backed Robin in flight. Back at the guesthouse we saw Gray Thornbill, Sclater's Whistler, Dwarf Whistler, Hooded Pitohui, and Island Leaf Warbler around the gardens while standing on the front porch. The guide also saw Brown-backed Gerygone and Superb Bird-of-Paradise, missed by everybody else. After lunch some of us went up to a bowerbird blind closer to the lodge, still a bit of an uphill hike. We sat there until 3:20pm with no activity. This bower was not well ornamented or maintained so maybe wasn't currently being attended. By 3:30pm fog had rolled in. We tried birding along the road but saw nothing. By 3:50 it was raining, so we took an hour's break until the rain stopped. At 4:45pm we went back up to the road but still saw nothing of note.
Oct 10: We were again up early, with breakfast at 4:30am. We climbed up the Arfak Mountain along a steep trail, continuing beyond the Wilson's BoP hide to higher elevation. Total elevation gain was about 1200m (some 3900ft). We had backlit views of a young male Western Parotia. We had good looks at Smoky Honeyeater, Cinnamon-browed Melidectes (missed by me), Black-bellied Cicadabird, Black Fantail, Friendly Fantail, and Ashy Robin. We saw a female Mountain Fruit-Dove fly out of a tree, had a very poor view of Vogelkop Scrubwren in flight, and had a silhouette view of a female Regent Whistler. We also heard Rufous-sided Honeyeater, Mountain Mouse-Warbler, a male Black Sicklebill (seen by one participant), and Lesser Melampittaa. We reached a grassy clearing at 10:50am, where we stopped for lunch. While there we had 10min of rain, which did not affect the birding. We hung out there for an hour before continuing along the trail back in the forest. The group saw a female Black Sicklebill perched on an open branch in a fruiting tree at the top of a steep slope, which I only saw as it flew because I was blocked by foliage. Some people saw an Arfak Astrapia in the same tree when we first got there. I missed that also since I was at the back of the line. Everyone had good looks at Papuan Lorikeets feeding in the same tree. Farther along the trail we had a backlit view of Vogelkop Melidectes and a good look at Smoky Robin. By 2:00pm it started raining again. Our Papuan guide set up a tarp over the trail, where we sheltered for an hour. We started back down the mountain once the rain stopped and soon picked up Mottled Berryhunter as it flew off, had a good look at Sclater's Whistler, and had a partially obscured view of a female Vogelkop Bowerbird in the canopy. We heard Regent's Whistler and, further down the trail, Black-billed Boatbill but couldn't actually see either one. At 4:45pm we reached a lower elevation site where White-striped Forest-Rail was calling quite close to the trail. We spent an hour trying to see it and kept hearing it quite close, but we never picked it up. We got back to camp shortly after dark around 6:00pm.
Oct 11: We left the camp at 4:00am for a trail leading to a hide near a Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise display area. The trail goes down a steep canyon to a creek bed and then up the other side so is a somewhat strenuous hike. In the first section of trail we ere able to call in a Papuan Boobook for good views. We reached the hide at 5:20am. There were five male Magnificent Birds-of-Paradise displaying vigorously on the lek, especially when females appeared. It was an extraordinary experience watching their courtship displays and even a couple copulations. While in the blind we also had a stunning view of a Black-eared Catbird, a quite secretive and normally difficult species to see. We also saw a female Pacific Koel, White-faced Robin, and Green-backed Robin while in the blind. We left the blind at 9:00am to bird the trail. One person saw a New Guinea White-eye, missed by everybody else. We did see Dwarf Whistler, Fairy Gerygone, Pygmy Longbill, Stout-billed Cuckooshrike, Black-bellied Cicadabird, Black-faced Monarch, and Yellow-legged Flycatcher. Farther along the trail some people saw Rusty Mouse-Warbler skulky in underbrush, missed by me. We also had a brief partial view of Hooded Pitohui in the canopy. After lunch, one person managed to see a Wattled Brushturkey before it disappeared in the underbrush. We picked up a mixed flock that included among other species Brown-breasted Gerygone, Dwarf Whistler, Vogelkop Whistler, and Sclater's Whistler. I then had a fleeting view of Rusty Mouse-Warbler. Farther down the trail we saw a flock of 8-9 Papuan Mountain-Pigeons fly past and then land in some trees. With some patience we finally got decent looks at them through the fog that was coming in by then. We arrived back at the lodge by 3:05pm,. By then it was raining as well as foggy. From the lodge veranda the group saw Mountain Fruit-Dove in a distant tree.
Oct 12: After 4:30am breakfast, we hiked back up to the Parotia hide, arriving by 5:00am. We were in the hide until 9:15am. During that time the male Western Parotia only showed once on a low perch for about 5 sec and then once on a higher perch for a brief moment. We were back to the guesthouse by 9:40am. That afternoon we did some final birding along the road, where we saw many Papuan Mountain-Pigeons feeding on fruits. We had a silhouette view of Mountain Fruit-Dove in flight, a good view of Vogelkop Melidectes, and a distant view of Black-bellied Cicadabird. The fog rolled in around 2:30pm but we stuck it out for a while and were rewarded with a Rufous-naped Whistler perched in the open but somewhat obscured by fog. Shortly thereafter, heavy rain began and our day's birding was at an end. We left the guesthouse at 4:00pm for the drive back to Manokwari. The road was fortunately open so it only took a couple hours to get back to town.
Oct 13: After breakfast at the hotel, we caught our flights out. That was the end of the tour. My flight was from Manokwari to Jakarta with a layover in Makassar. I reached Jakarta in late afternoon and spent one more night there before boarding my international flight back to the US the next morning.