Sunday, 25 August 2013

WEST PAPUA Lake Habbema (20-25 August 2013)

This is the fourth and final part of a private trip to West Papua with Nick Gardner, Jon Hornbuckle, Rod Martins, Malcolm Oxlade and Nick Preston.   Royke Mananta (, made all the logistical arrangements and took us around very ably. Thanks to them all for such a great time. Thanks too to Jon and Royke for the use of their images in this blog.

20 August.  An early breakfast and a slightly delayed departure to Sentani Airport when initially only one vehicle turned up to take us there.  The other arrived just as we were about to give up on it and make two journeys with the vehicle we had.  In the event there was no rush as we were bumped off the first flight to Wamena at 06:30 and put on the third, at 11:30.  Trigana Air giving priority to a backlog of passengers from a couple of cancellations the previous day did not seem such a great policy when one was delayed by it!  Nick and I had a feeling of déjà vu having encountered similar problems at Sentani on our previous visit, that time with Merpati.  We eventually took off and after a short flight arrived in Wamena almost six hours behind schedule.  Jonas Wenda and his crew were waiting and soon we were in two 4WDs and heading out of town.  The road soon became dirt and a stop at some fields produced Black-breasted Mannikins with a male Superb Bird of Paradise and a pair of Ornate Melidectes nearby.  We had a rather late box lunch (cold rice, great) here and continued on the new road up towards Lake Habbema.  As warned by Frank Lambert, when we saw him in the Arfaks, there was a lot of recent logging and settlement along the road.  It was hardly the pristine forest we had hoped for.  We stopped briefly a couple of times towards the top of the road as first (one of the dullest races of) Island Thrush and then White-winged Robin flew across the road.  On arrival at Pondok Tiga (Hut Three) we found camp already set up for us – two man tents under a large tarpaulin.  We unpacked and wandered along the road back towards the pass but birding was soon curtailed by low cloud and drizzle.  The ground was hard and uneven, again making me wish for a bigger karrimat, and it was also a lot colder than I’d remembered – a warmer sleeping bag would have been most welcome too.
Trigana Air ATR-42 at Wamena, we were only six hours late arriving 
waiting for baggage - Wamena Airport was as modern as I remembered
market in Wamena
plenty of firewood for sale
21 August.  We spent the morning walking towards Lake Habbema.  Initially we spread out across the boggy moorland to look for Snow Mountain Quail and within half an hour Nick Gardner, leading the line, flushed one that gave good views as it flew right past us.  Closer in size to a small grouse than a quail, it was something we’d not seen on the previous trip.  The moorland was hard going and we cut up to the road.  Some of us saw a Macgregor’s Bird of Paradise feeding in a patch of woodland although I was late on the scene and only saw it briefly in my telescope before it flew out of sight.  It was much more timid than I remembered but with a local hunter walking around with a bow and arrows it probably had good reason to be.  We stopped at a roadside shelter from where we could scan the rather distant lake and avoid some rather spiteful showers while eating another cold-rice box lunch that had been brought up for us.  At least two Salvadori’s Teal were picked out on the nearest part of the lake which gave reasonable scope views.  Rod was the only one of us keen enough to head down for better views.  The route across the moorland to the lake’s edge looked too involve a river crossing and the rest of us opted out, having seen the species previously, choosing instead to slowly return along the road to Pondok Tiga.  We ventured a short way down the trail from the pass to Yogabema but increasingly heavy rain put paid to any chance of seeing a Greater Ground Robin that Nick G heard calling despite a vigil under umbrellas.  The weather did improve before dusk when some of us assembled at the top of the pass hoping to see New Guinea Woodcock.  One did eventually fly by calling a couple of times but my only view was a silhouette against the remaining light in the sky - woodcock do have a very fine silhouette though and it was another new bird for me.  Only nineteen species recorded by me today and seven of them were honeyeaters now that Macgregor’s Bird of Paradise has disappointingly been reclassified.  The following day Nick and I had hoped to go down to Yogabema for a couple of nights as there was a greater variety of species there and it would be warmer!  Unfortunately some of the birds around Habbema were playing hard to get so no-one else was interested at this stage and Jonas didn’t have enough helpers around to split the camp.  An altercation with what appeared to be a local wino/vagrant/shyster claiming we’d thrown rocks at his dog and demanding compensation might have been playing on Jonas’s mind in keeping his forces together?  Another cold night was in prospect and I made the mistake of having a warm drink before retiring, only to have to then get up in the middle of the night.

distant view of Lake Habbema
not quite so distant panorama of Lake Habbema,  this is as close as I got this time.  Note the new road on the far left hillside
me at Lake Habbema, cheer up Richard only one new bird left to see and it can't rain all day can it?
Short-bearded Melidectes, photo taken by Jon
Western Alpine Mannikin, photo taken by Royke
Orange-cheeked Honeyeater, common at Habbema, photo taken by Royke
Red-collared Myzomela, also common and also taken by Royke
22 August.  We were up before dawn and on site for another attempt at the Woodcock.  We had a couple of flybys which I only heard and then Nick G got one in torchlight as it flew past.  It looked as if it might land just as Malcolm appeared on the horizon.  Walking back for breakfast Jon heard a singing Greater Ground Robin and we quickly diverted up a very small side trail.  Here we got superb views of what has been described as the ‘New Guinea Antpitta’ as it circled us in response to playback.  It certainly gives that impression with its drab colouration, rotund shape and very long sturdy legs but its long slightly decurved bill gave it a rather more unique character - superb.  A second bird appeared and a brief bit of display was witnessed.  It was the species I’d most wanted to see on my return to Habbema and I was not disappointed.  He rest of the day I concentrated along the road and the upper part of the trail down to Yogabema.  After breakfast I decided to walk back up the road to its highest point where Alpine Robins had been seen, and was halfway there when Rod went past in a truck.  I continued on but was turned back by an unfriendly occupant of a hut who had unfortunately come out to see another passing vehicle.  He might have been the wino with the dog and the guide who’d tagged along with me was adamant that we should turn back, much to my annoyance.  My mood soon improved on the way down when I disturbed a Macgregor’s Bird of Paradise right by the road although it managed to fly into a nearby bush and promptly vanish.  Painted Tiger Parrot and Crested Berrypecker at the top of the trail were very nice as was Mountain Firetail in the first clearing but I didn’t manage to find the Chestnut Forest Rails some had seen a bit further down.  I headed back for another look at the Ground Robin with Nick.  Royke was there and told us he’d seen Lesser Melampitta nearby, a firm favourite of mine (anything with pitta in its name is going to be!!), and offered to show us where.  Nick hung on a bit for the Ground Robin which was being uncooperative at this time and was coming to join us when my whistle increased his speed.  The melampitta responded almost immediately Royke and I arrived at the site and gave stunning views as it circled us.  A brilliant end to the day.  Nick and I still hoped to go down to Yogabema the next day, but only for one night – anything for a bit of warmth!
Plum-faced Lorikeet, a superb small parrot which this image of Royke's, nice as it is, doesn't fully do justice to

dark morph Papua Lorikeet looking like a mythical raptor with crest and hooked bill
more clearly a parrot now, and another very smart one.  Both photos taken by Royke

the top of the trail to Yogabema
Crested Berrypeckers, photos taken by Jon.  A stunning bird that was common by the forest edge
female Painted Tiger-Parrot, photo taken by Jon
male Painted Tiger-Parrot, photo taken by Jon.  Another superb parrot.
another male Painted Tiger-Parrot, this one taken by Royke shows the red undertail well

near the highest point of the road, having been turned back.  Lake Habbema barely visible above the lone tree 
looking back at Pondok Tiga (just before the road forks in the centre of the picture), and Lake Habbema (even less visible through the cloud).  The new road is the left hand fork.
unusual shaped tree
23 August.  Another cold night and unwelcome need to go to the toilet in the early hours.  Most of us were up before dawn for another woodcock session and this time very briefly saw it on the ground, although it was off as soon as the light was on it.  Nick, Jon  and I had another look at the Greater Ground Robin which was performing very well.  Twice while circling us it stood on a mossy log in full view  for half a minute or more and we waited to hear Jon’s camera firing for the perfect shots but unfortunately he was unsighted.  Nick and I left Jon with it and paid another visit to the Lesser Melampitta which also gave more excellent views.  We then headed down the trail to Yogabema with a couple of Jonas’s guys taking our bags – a cook and a couple of guides had already gone down.  Nick and I slowly made our way down the trail which was quite slippery in places but the forest seemed very quiet, a responsive pair of White-winged Robins the main exception to this.  After a steep descent we came to the bottom of the valley and followed the river down, firstly along its course then on the steep hillside above it.  Birding got even harder, what with having to watch carefully where one put ones feet on the wet rocks of the riverbed and not being able to hear anything above the sound of the rushing water.  I had a flight view of a Torrent Lark further down the river but Nick did not hear me shouting above the noise of the water and missed it.  It was better away from the river but the trail was then crossed by fallen trunks and still needed care.  We eventually arrived at Yogabema early afternoon to find a small clearing with a tent set up next to a hut and an unappetising lunch waiting for us (I had a boiled egg I’d saved from breakfast the previous day).  I remembered the clearing and the palms surrounding it from our visit 20 years ago although I’m sure the hut was larger now?  In the afternoon we were guided along a trail to another bigger clearing where tour groups sometimes camped.  While crossing a fallen tree on the way there I slipped off one mossy trunk, landed on my back on another and fell six feet down a gulley bruising my ribs and fracturing a finger in the process.  That rather put paid to my desire to explore further and rather than continuing and looping back along another trail we stopped at the larger clearing and did not go much beyond it.  Here we had excellent views of Black-throated Robin and Splendid Astrapia while back at our clearing we saw Mountain Peltops and Papuan Treecreeper.  There were more birds down here but they were not proving any easier to find.  Being at a much lower elevation it was almost balmy at night and I slept with only one t-shirt, shirt and jumper on rather than two (or three) of each!  Yogabema and the trail by the river was the first place on the trip I was sure I’d been to 20 years before.  At Biak, the Arfaks and Nimbokrang we had visited different areas while the road to Lake Habbema was all new and this time I did not venture as far as the lake shore.
Common Smoky Honeyeater taken by Royke

Greater Ground Robin, for me the highlight of our time at Lake Habbema.  Very nice bird, very evocative photo of Jon's.
muddy trail through moss forest, wellingtons were pretty essential on this trip!
my rucksack being taken to Yogabema
Nick studying the Field Guide at Yogabema
we saw Splendid Astrapia from the campsite clearing although this image of one was taken by Jon near Lake Habbema.  He and the others opted to stay at Pondok Tiga, something I'd wished I'd done immediately after my fall.
24 August.  I had a reasonable night despite my back being painful whenever I moved it – fortunately the side I slept on was least affected. We had a look around our clearing before packing our bags, for one of the guys to carry, and breakfast. I was concerned about the return journey which had some very steep sections and did not want to leave it too late before starting. I was also keen to see King of Saxony Bird of Paradise but our guides, with whom we didn’t have a common language but clearly knew the bird, were a bit vague as to where they might be found and how long it would take to get there. Believing it was probably at least an hour in the wrong direction and having had superb views of a displaying male in PNG we reluctantly decided to slowly head back up the trail. We stopped in an area of more open forest and palms about an hour above Yogabema where one of our guides tracked down a male Brown Sicklebill that was calling intermittently and in the same area a male Splendid Astrapia gave good views. BoPs seem to like feeding on the palm tree’s fruit. Otherwise the walk back up to the top of the river was hard going physically, for me at least, and pretty birdless – Nick seeing Torrent Lark this time. I took a rest (one of many) at the top of the slop above the river and saw a Macgregor’s Bird of Paradise fly across the valley below. Nick had the energy to return to look for it but with no success. In the mossy forest as it started to climb up to the pass another Lesser Melampitta gave excellent views along the path and we saw a male Mountain Firetail. We were back at Pondok Tiga, me very exhausted, mid afternoon and decided to wander along the road towards the lake for an hour or so – it being fairly flat was a bit attraction for me. Here I finally caught up with good views of the dark morph Papuan Lorikeet, very smart. Dusk was spent woodcocking again although I did not improve eon my earlier views. Another cold night was in prospect but it would be our last.
male Mountain Firetail - nice bird, nice photo by Jon
aptly named male Splendid Astrapia, another photo taken by Jon

above the river on the way back up from Yogabema.  I had just seen Macgregor's Bird of Paradise fly across the gap in the bottom of the valley 
Alpine Pipit taken by Jon.  A very distinctive pipit with, presumably, origins closest to Water Pipit

25 August.  I overslept and missed the early Woodcock showing.  One of our vehicles was coming to take us on a recce along the new road and it arrived early just as Nick and I were wandering in for a last look for Greater Ground Robin and Lesser Melampitta.  The new road trip was pretty disappointing although we mostly improved on our Macgregor’s Bird of Paradise views, but without getting any decent images.  It supposedly went up to 4000m but it didn’t get much over 3500 according to Jon’s altimeter with no higher rocky habitat nearby.  Seeing Snow Mountain Robin, given as occurring down to 3800m, was always going to be a long shot without a 4 day hike to Mt Trikora but it was worth a try.  We headed back to Pondok Tiga where the other vehicle was loading up and set off down to Wamena stopping first at the highest point of the road.  Hooded Cuckoo-Shrikes showed well here and Black Sitellas less so but Alpine Robins remained elusive adding to my annoyance at being turned back on my previous attempt.  Clear views of Mt Trikora teased us although it would probably have taken me a week to make the round trip given how much I was struggling coming back from Yogabema.  The Alpine Robin dip was thankfully short lived as we unexpectedly saw 4 about a mile further down the road.  It was to be the last decent bird I saw on the trip.  Another cold rice lunch was made worse by Royke gripping us off with a male Flame Bowerbird that promptly vanished, Jon, Malcolm and Nick Gardner tried a track behind a roadside settlement where Jon glimpsed a female Archbold’s Bowerbird before they were confronted by aggressive ‘villagers’ presumably not wanting their encroachment being witnessed by foreigners.  The Ornate Melidectes were in the same area as when we’d driven up from Wamena but we could not refind the male Superb Bird of Paradise, or much else lower down.  In Wamena we stayed in the comfortable Baliem Pilamo Hotel, although after five nights camping anywhere with a decent bed was going to look pretty good.  Royke came up with a final Magnum for each of us and mine was devoted to Greater Ground Robin, my 22nd and final new bird of a very successful trip.
adult and young Western Alpine Mannikins at Pondok Tiga
Mt Trikora from the new road.  Unfortunately it didn't go any closer
poor digiscoped image of Macgregor's Bird of Paradise.  Now considered to be a honeyeater but still rather special, and will always be a BoP to me!
unfortunately it was moving too much to get a decent picture and also seemed to prefer the far side of the tree.
this image shows the orange in the wings which are very obvious in flight (all primaries are orange with small black tips).
Macgregor's Bird of Paradise taken by Jon, the same bird as above was no easier to get a good shot of with a DSLR
probably as close as we got to Snow Mountain Robin which is likely to occur on the distant peak

the highest point of the Lake Habbema road
a final view back to Lake Habbema

Nick birding the road above Wamena, not distracted by traditionally dressed local
Jonas, Nick P, Jon, Rod, me, Nick G, Jonas's helper and Malcolom on the road above Wamena.  The closest we got to a group photo, taken by Royke.  My shirt and boots were amongst many old clothes I gave to my Yogabema guide at the end of the trip.  I told him the boots had been given to me by Pete Morris (in China) but I doubt he thought that pedigree made up for them leaking!
looking down on Wamena
back on the metalled road
26 August.  The trip was finished, all that was left was to get home, although Jon and Rod were going back via Sulawesi to look for (and see) Geomalia.  I didn’t even see a Tree Sparrow.  Our main concern was not to get bumped off our flight again but it was soon apparent that all the previous day’s had run and so this would not be an issue. It didn’t stop the flight being over two hours late arriving however, with low early morning cloud providing some anxiety.  The day then became rather a blur.  Trigana Air ATR-42 from Wamena to Sentani, several hours wait there (though fewer than if the flight had been on time), low cost Lion Air Boeing 737 from Sentani to Makassar and after an hour or two Malcolm, both Nick and I continued with them from Makassar-Jakarta.  Give me Sriwijaya Air anytime!  Back in Jakarta we got the yellow bus from the Domestic to the International Terminal and hung around for five hours before checking in with Malaysian Airlines at 3 am.  It was then a very smooth flight to KLIA and LHR, tube to Victoria, train to Shoreham and home 21:30 on 27th.
checking in at Wamena, it's the shed on the left not the Police Station to the right
waiting outside the terminal
leaving Wamena
over the Baliem Valley

Baliem Valley and Snow Mountains
lowland river geography lesson
back at Sentani, one flight down four more to go ...
Many thanks to Nick Preston and Jon Hornbuckle for sharing the original idea to revisit West Papua and sticking with it despite disappointments and cancellations.  Thanks to Nick Gardner, Rod Martins and Malcolm Oxlade for joining us and making up a feasible team. Excellent companions all.  Thanks too to Dance for finding us the fabled mambruk and a very special thanks to Royke Mananta for so ably organising the trip that for most of the time we forgot we were in West Papua, a destination known for hassle and delays.  Royke's arrangements went perfectly on almost all occasions and the one time they didn't (being bumped off the flight to Wamena) it was outside of his control.  We must have been the most demanding group imaginable and Royke managed to accommodate our changing demands without complaint and barely a hesitation.  Asking Royke to arrange the trip and travel around with us was an excellent choice and I would recommend him most highly. 

Goura Victoria 100 Rupia note from 1993, now worth less than 1p (0.01$), but to me more valuable than any in circulation.  Having said that the highest denomination note I saw was for 50,000 IR, worth about £3.50!  Mambruk rules!