Tuesday, 24 August 1993

IRIAN JAYA August 1993: Arfaks and Batanta

12 August.  Back at the airport for our delayed flight to Manokwari and things were getting fraught with that day’s departures already fully booked and no immediate sign that the only plane had been fixed.  After further delays we were put on the first flight, apparently benefiting from a ‘tourists first policy’ introduced by the government.  It was the sort of thing that would cause outrage in the UK but something we were unashamedly thankful for.  We arrived in Manokwari, made our way to the local WWF Office to find our ex-pat contact, who we’d written to in advance, had tragically died.  His replacement was absolutely brilliant in contacting a guide to put together an Arfak Trek for us at short notice.  It was a complete blur to me but we got food, porters and a vehicle to drop us in Wamare in time to walk for a couple of hours to the forest edge below Inat Beab where we camped.  Few birds were seen, the best being Papuan Hornbill and Variable Pitohoui.

13 August.  We slowly walked up to Ciroubrei where we camped.  It was a fairly easy day in lowland and sub-montane forest during which half of the 22 species I saw were new.  Highlights were the immaculate Dwarf Whistler, Black-chinned Robin, Frilled and Golden Monarchs and Lesser BoP.

14 August.  From Ciroubrei at 1000m in altitude we had the option of diverting to the village of Mokwam in the hope of finding bird guide Seth Wonger who lived there.  We had not been able to contact Seth in advance and Mokwam was quite a detour, including losing precious altitude before regaining it, so we decided our limited time would be better spent higher up in the Arfaks.  In hindsight this would only have been a good move if Seth hadn’t been around.  We climbed steeply for 3-4 hours up to Gunung Umsini.  For me it was probably the toughest day of the trip being a very steep climb on a muddy trail.  Birding was particularly tough, and often I’d fall behind the others, see them stopped to look at something and it would be gone by the time I caught up.  The rest of the day was spent on the ridge trail and around Bini Bei where we camped.  A tough day but some excellent birds seen including Black Sicklebill, Magnificent BoP (although sadly only a female), Tit Berrypecker and Cinnamon-browed Melidectes.

 15 August.  All day along the ridge from Gunuing Umsini as far as Gunung Ngribbou and in the Bini Bei area, much of the time on my own.  Best birds I saw included Garnet and Ashy Robins, White-breasted Fruit-Dove, Vogelkop Bowerbird, Black Sicklebill and Western Parotia (again sadly just females).

coastal view from the Arfaks
 16 August.  A long day.  It started with a return to Gunung Umsini then much of the morning walking along the ridge to Gunung Ngribbou and back before the steep walk down to the road at Tana Mera.  Here it didn’t take long to get a bemo back to to Manokwari where we paid our guide and porters, checked into a hotel (Losmen Mulia) for two nights and went for a meal with the WWF guy.  Highlights to day were White-faced and Ashy Robins, Mottled Whistler, Black Pitohoui, Vogelkpop and Flame Bowerbirds, male Superb BoP and female Western Parotias.  I found the Arfaks particularly tough.  We probably should have spent longer up there and would definitely benefitted from having a bird guide.  Although I saw lots of good birds some of the best were only females (Magnificent BoP, Western Parotia) or brief views (Flame Bowerbirds).  I also missed a lot seen by others, much more than on the rest of the trip together.  The most painful of these were Green-backed Robin (Nick was next to me watching this one but by the time he’d stopped telling me how good it looked and started on directions it had moved out of sight – I’ve never let him forget that!), Spotted Jewel-Babbler (fortunately Nick was on his own for this one as a closer miss would have been too hard to take), Long-tailed Paradigalla (Barry) and Lesser Ground Robin.

similar view to above but clear

lower forest 
17-18 August.  We had a day trip to Warkapi, an area of lowland rainforest about two hours along the coast from Manokwari.  We knew this was where Birdquest had seen King Bird of Paradise and we managed to find the guide they used.  Hopes were high but it was to prove a very frustrating experience.  It was hot and birding was slow.  We tracked down a calling Yellow-billed Kingfisher but failed to see it despite spending over an hour peering from all angles into the tree it was sitting tight in.  What a wind-up!  On the way back I stumbled into a pair of Blue Jewel Babblers by the trail.  Brilliant, but unfortunately only Garry, who was directly behind me at the time, got onto them before they slipped away.  Nick, just behind, took this particularly hard, as I would have done in his position as Jewel Babblers are stunning birds.  To add insult to injury I then saw a Magnificent Riflebird that no-one else got onto, although it was only a female.  Other birds seen included Ornate Fruit-Doves, Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Lowland Peltops, Glossy-mantled Manucode and female Lesser BoPs.  Back in Manokwari we were told that the fortnightly overnight ferry to Sorong was scheduled to depart the following evening.  This seemed a much more certain option that the following day’s Biak-Manokwari-Sorong flight, a route/plane that we’d already had issues with.  Plus we could have another crack at King BoP at Warkapi in the morning.

18 August.  We returned to Warkapi and asked our guide to concentrate on King BoP.  He took us directly to a very tall tree covered in creepers in a different area of forest.  Despite his pointing we couldn’t see anything although the lack of a common language meant that we weren’t sure if he was saying ‘this is where Birdquest look’ or ‘there is one behind that branch’.  As four of us concentrating with binoculars couldn’t see anything we hoped it was the former!  Nick was feeling really rough and retired to the main road to lie in the shade.  We wandered along the road and back to where we’d heard the Yellow-billed Kingfisher the previous day but it was silent.  In desperation we offered our guide a bonus if he showed us King BoP and, although it galvanised him into action, the result was the same - a blank.  We left Warkapi mid-afternoon feeling quite dejected and with Nick barely able to walk.  A Variable Dwarf Kingfisher, nice as it was, was little consolation for not having seen King BoP.  Nor was a better view of female Magnificent Riflebird.  Back in Manokwari we collected our gear and went down to the harbour where we got tickets for a 4-berthed cabin.  Getting on the boat was not an experience I’d like to repeat in a hurry – it was still very hot and the whole population of Manokwari seemed to be trying to get through the one gate.  Nick could hardly stand and needed us to keep him going.  Once onboard and in our cabin things were quite different.  It was cooler, peaceful and Nick started to improve.  The only annoyance was an internal speaker that played canned music and calls to prayers.  Barry, who had worked at Swan Hunters, deftly disconnected it and we got an uninterrupted night’s sleep, although hit was just as well we did not hit an iceberg as we would have missed the call to muster stations, not that we would have understood it!
Manokwari, with ferry coming into the harbour
19 August.  We arrived in Sorong slightly nervous that our contact might have given up on us as we had not been able to alert him to our change of plan.  He was waiting at the quay although claimed to have made a wasted journey to Jefman Airport to meet our plane the previous day.  This seemed unlikely as the airport was on an island served only by ferries which came into this quay!  He didn’t persist with this story and we soon suspected he always hung out at the quay hoping to avail his services to any arriving Westerners.  We spent the morning getting supplies and hiring a motorised long-boat for four days to visit Batanta.  We set off on the 3-4 hour journey.  It was initially quite choppy as we crossed Sorong Bay and headed for the northern coast of Salawati but the channel separating it from Batanta was calm.  Both Batanta and Salawati appeared to be almost completely forested and looked superb.  Half way along Batanta we came to the small village of Wai Lebed, out destination.  There we found Anton Dei who agreed to guide us and arranged for our supplies to be cooked for us.  As the light was fading we were shown to the ‘guest house’, which consisted of empty rooms with matted floors.  We’d made it to Batanta.

leaving Sorong, the waves might not look much but it was quite choppy in a longboat
Batanta guest house
Batanta channel and Salawati (in distance)
20 August.  There was only one thing on my mind as we got up before dawn and were led up the mountain behind the guest house.  We climbed steadily for a couple of hours up to and along a ridge as Anton took us up to a display ground of Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.  We approached cautiously and settled behind a screen he’d made.  We could hear birds calling and then one appeared.  It was absolutely stunning.  We spent the morning engrosed and my most vivid memory is of Anton putting a leaf in the middle of the pristine display area.  The male flew in before Anton was out of sight and his anger was apparent.  Not content to merely remove the leaf he grasped it in one foot and shredded it into several pieces each of which was flung away.  Only when his ‘stage’ was immaculate again was he content.  Until that point a pair of Giant Pittas watched repeatedly in Borneo 6 years before were my best birds ever.  Now they had a very serious rival and had to settle for a share of that accolade (it became a three-way split in 1998 after I’d seen Kagu in New Caledonia, a situation that remains to this day).  On the way back down we saw a very unpleasant looking off-white snake that Anton was quite concerned by.  Barry then disturbed a pitta on the trail that he was sure was Red-bellied.  If one is going to dip on a new pitta it could be a lot worse than doing so after seeing Wilson’s BoP.  Likewise getting poor views of Pheasant Pigeon. All other birds paled into comparison but Common Paradise and Variable Dwarf Kingfishers, Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Hooded Pitta and male and female Red BoPs made it a very good day.  An evening listening to the small waves breaking on the shore while my mind replayed our encounter with Wilson’s BoP was about as close to paradise as I’ve come.

Wislon's BoP displays in here somewhere ...
No 50 from Brooke Bond Tropical Birds series I collected and not very carefully stuck in the album as a seven year old in 1961.  They were illustrated and described by C.F. Tunnicliffe.
forest on Batanta
descending the ridge trail on Batanta, one bit of forest up close looks much the same as any other ...
C.F.Tunnicliffe's Tropical Birds number 49.  Understandable why out of 50 species illustrated two were Birds of Paradise, they are just so good, but a bit surprising that both were West Papuan island endemics, not that I was complaining.
sunset on Batanta, rarely have I felt so at peace
21 August.  I decided to concentrate on looking for Barry’s Red-bellied Pitta but I wasn’t successful and ended up seeing just 14 species.  Although 5 sightings of Hooded Pitta were nice it wasn’t the one I’d hoped for and in hindsight I would have done better going back up on the ridge again.
the beach at Batanta with Wilson's ridge in the background.  The beach full of broken coral and quite idyllic although it was much hotter than this picture suggests.
my only 'wildlife' shot from Batanta, oh for the poor light capabilities of digital photography
22 August.  We crossed to Salawati as it was getting light and Anton took us to a good area of lowland forest.  Despite being less than half an hour away by boat much of the avifauna is surprisingly different.  Our target here was the enormous Western Crowned Pigeon and, as hoped, Anton flushed one which perched up in a tree giving us excellent views.  We then found a female plumaged King BoP.  It appeared to be displaying, tail cocked, vent and breast feathers puffed out, wings arched and fluttered, head pointed up and undulated - presumably it was a young male.  It was brilliant, especially after our massive disappointment at Warkapi, although an adult male would be absolutely superb.  Also on Salawati we saw 27 Papuan Hornbills before returning to Batanta for a final look round, adding Yellow-capped Pigmy Parrot, before returning to Sorong.  The journey started well, in the sheltered channel.  Our boatman cut across to the northern coast of Salawati to buy some cigarettes in a village there.  I don’t know how much of a detour this was but it was probably enough to cause us great anxiety.  Back in Sorong Bay the swell had got up and the light was starting to go.  A flotilla of fishing boats heading out for the night passed us and the lights of Sorong began to come on as they got closer.  Then our engine cut out and we drifted a bit before the boatmen got it restarted.  We’d hardly made any progress when it did it again and this time there was no restarting it.  It was now fully dark, there were no boats visible and Sorong still looked a good distance away.  The waves were big enough for a broadside to swamp us, the boat had no oars and it was starting to leak water.  Barry ripped up a couple of seats to use as paddles which were enough to keep us back on to the waves.  Much to the others amusement I got a travel neck pillow out of my bag and inflated it – I’ve never been much of a swimmer.  He boatman kept trying to restart the engine and even stripped it down but to no avail.  At one stage I felt confident we were heading for the shore but as we got closer, and could see cars lights on the coast road, I realised we were heading between an island and the shore.  Next stop South China Sea?  Should we bail out?  Before we could make any rash decisions we drifted within hailing distance of a fishing platform and roused someone.  They had a boat and came out to rescue us, although they’d only been towing us for a couple of minutes when their engine died too. What odds we’d be rescued by the only boat with an engine as dodgy as ours?  Luckily it soon restarted and we were towed into Sorong Harbour.  I’ve never been so pleased to touch the land, even if it was under a foot of water.  Note to self: next time make sure the boat has two engines!

preparing to visit Salawati
dawn departure to Salawati
23 August.  Our last full day and a late start after the previous evening’s ‘adventures’.  We chartered a taxi and spent the afternoon on a logging road at km 18.  It wasn’t the best time of day and was very hot but we did see the hoped for Black Lory and a nice selection of other parrots, of which Palm Cockatoo was the best.

24 August.  We said goodbye to Barry who had an extra day (he returned to the logging road and saw Forest Bittern there!).  We caught the ferry to Jefman Airport and started the long journey home.  We saw Lesser Frigatebird and Crested Tern from the ferry, Moluccan Kestrel on Ambon, Tree Sparrow at Ujung Pandang, Pacific Swallow at Surabaya and Long-tailed Shrike at Jakarta.  The flight to London was less eventful with a Gulf stop in darkness.

It was the toughest trip I’ve done, both physically and in terms of finding birds but I couldn’t have asked for better companions to go on such an adventure with.  The places and the birds we saw were tremendous and if we missed a few things all the more reason to go again … 

So thanks Nick, Barry and Garry, we made a good team.  And John Tabone and crew in Wamena for making the Habbema Trek so memorable and Anton Dei for the unforgettable Wilson’s BoP experience.  Every time I see Attenborough in Paradise I’m taken right back there.
[Dale Zimmerman plate from Beehler et al Birds of New Guinea]
I could argue that 8 (Wilson's BoP), 10 (King BoP) or 11 (King of Saxony BoP) was the best in the world although only seeing male Wilson's on this trip it has the edge.  With its white gape are there any colours it doesn't have?  Oh, and Dale, the blue on the head isn't nearly vivid enough.

[blogged June 2013] 

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