Wednesday, 14 August 2013

WEST PAPUA Arfaks (8-14 August 2013)

This is part two (out of four) of a private trip to West Papua with Nick Gardner, Jon Hornbuckle, Rod Martins, Malcolm Oxlade and long time travelling companion 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 use of their images in this blog.

8 August (continued).  Once landed at Manokwari we and our gear was loaded into 2 rugged 4WDs that Royke had arranged to meet us and take us up to Mokwam although due to a misunderstanding we left Royke on the quay each vehicle thinking he was in the other!  When we realised he wasn’t with us we stopped and he soon caught us up.  After leaving town we ended up taking a very rough road up into the mountains and were very pleased to have 4WD for a river crossing and the very muddy track in Mokwam.  We had a brief stop on the way for a Gurney's Eagle but it soon started raining quite hard which put paid to any further birding for the remainder of the day.  At Mokwam we were dropped at Seth Wonger’s house where we were given very basic rooms for the night (just a floor).  The Syoubri Guest House was occupied but we’d be moved into it the following morning.  I knew that my old friend Frank Lambert had been leading a Bird Tour Asia group around West Papua and Seth confirmed this was the group currently here.  I scribbled a note for Frank and, as the rain was easing a bit and the light was only just starting to go, was thinking about wandering around the village when Frank and one of his clients came by.  Frank lives in KL but we keep in touch when he visits Brighton a couple of times a year to see his mum.  Nick Gardner had been at UEA the same time as Frank but had not seen him for 20 years while it was even longer since Nick Preston had seen him during formative visits to the Scillies, most notably in September 1979 when we, along with Richard Grimmett, found the first Thrush Nightingale for the islands.  Frank looked pretty drawn and in a quick conversation it became apparent that their trip had been adversely affected by bad weather and they’d not seen several of my target birds - Arfak Astrapia here and Victoria Crowned Pigeon and Blue-black Kingfisher at Nimbokrang were the most critical although only one of their group had seen a displaying Western Parotia.  I was expecting things to be tough but this was concerning.  Hopefully being able to spend time concentrating on specific targets would make a difference.  Somewhat dispirited we had a good meal and a decent night’s sleep although I was already regretting not having brought a thicker karrimat to give my hip bones some protection from hard floors.
leaving Manokwari, note my thin yellow karrimat in the back, soon I was wishing I'd brought a thicker one
Gurney's Eagle on the way up to the Arfaks.  Raptors are generally not my favourites so it is no surprise that Jon took this image.
9 August.  We were up at 5.30 and making our way down to the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise display hide.  It could only hold three but I was in the first group as, with Nick Preston, I had not seen a male Mag BoP before.  We had an hour in the hide, during which time we saw Emerald Dove and a female-plumaged Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise which was presumably an immature male as it was trying out some moves.  It was impressive in itself but somewhat disappointing not to be in male plumage.  We switched over and saw Green-backed Robin, a bird I’d previously missed in quite painful circumstances (I can see this really nice looking robin, it’s got a green back and …/I don’t care what it looks like just tell me where it is/oh it’s just gone).  The others had an hour in the hide with similar results so we all then tried a spot nearby for White-striped Forest Rail without getting a response.  We returned to Seth’s house as it started raining and oversaw the transfer of our gear to Syoubri Guest House, 200m further up the hill.  The rain persisted and the rest of the day was spent birding in the clearings above the Guest House, where Vogelkop Meledictes was new for me, and making several trips to see a superb roosting Feline Owlet-Nightjar just below it.  I lost two tripod feet on the first occasion - trying to set my telescope up far enough away from the bird to focus on it - and used looking for them as an excuse to get more views of the Owlet-Nightjar, even refinding one of the lost feet in the process despite it being an unhelpful black colour.  The day might have been severely rain affected but seeing just 14 species was disappointing even if they did include an owlet-nightjar, Mag BoP and Green-backed Robin).

view from the hide of the Magnificent Bird of Paradise display area.  Note Emerald Dove top centre.
immature male Magnificent Bird of Paradise (superb photo taken by Jon from the hide).  Unfortunately an adult male never came in to see it off.
leaf like roosting Feline Owlet-Nightjar, standard lens shot with poor light and heavy rain not helping
digiscoped image but light still very poor 
it didn't seem to be as pleased to see us as we were it
another brilliant photo of the same bird taken by Jon
and one by Royke

10 August.  We were up early again, climbing up towards the Garden House in light rain to an area where there were small hides overlooking a Western Parotia dance-floor and a Vogelkop Bowerbird bower.  The hides could hold 3-4 people so we split up but not a lot was going on.  Rather depressingly a pool of water covered some of the parotia’s dancing area and despite clearing some if it away an hour in the rain watching it fill up again wasn’t encouraging.  The bower was also a bit disappointing with no sign of its owner and a clear preference for brightly coloured rubbish.  The weather started to improve and a quick look around the Garden House, appearing in danger of collapse which was why we didn’t stay there, produced a superb roosting Mountain Owlet-Nightjar.  However disaster struck as I discovered my camera has steamed up inside the object lens, despite my keeping it in a plastic bag.  The owlet-nightjar was brilliant, even better than yesterday’s Feline, possibly, as it turned around several times to look at us angrily.  By now the sun was out, and lunch had been brought up to us from Syoubri.  Afternoon sessions in the hides were eventually rewarded on my third parotia visit when a male came in and did a few moves, jumping around a bit and stretching - its white frontal shield positively glowing in the gloom.  I’d only seen females in 1993 and had forgotten how big the species was.  Very impressive.  We returned to Syoubri as the rain started again.  I’m not sure I’ve ever recorded so few birds during a full day in the field even allowing for the poor weather for much of it – just six species seen and the bowerbird heard.  I also doubt a day had ever been salvaged as much by a single bird as this one was by the excitable parotia!
view from the parotia hide - does the display include swimming?
Vogelkop Bowerbird's bower.  They might like collecting our rubbish but it doesn't do much for me
remains of old bower - all valuables removed to the new location.  Seth told us tat the bowers were often moved every year.
view from the hide - pool now dried out
roosting Mountain Owlet-Nightjar, an unfortunate time for my camera to get really steamed up inside.  so much for keeping it in a plastic bag
Jon to the rescue again - another superb bird when seen well
it looks even better in this image of Royke's
view from the hide - third visit lucky wit the male doing a bit of tidying up, stunning bird despite poor light
11 August.  Another early start, today targeting Long-tailed Paradigala in the mossy forest.   Another climb up slippery trails – by now we were all using sticks as support – and another Feline Owlet-Nightjar roosting just off the trail.  We spent a couple of hours in the moss forest before Nick Gardner found a paradigala along an adjacent spur.  A mad panic ensued with me bring first on the scene and getting a brief view of it before it flew.  Fortunately it was soon relocated by Seth back along the main trail and I eventually got good telescope views although my digital camera was misted up again.  It was superb climbing up, down and around tree trunks and branches, a brilliant shape with a very bright yellow shield with a bright blue edge and two small red wattles on its throat, presumably used for display.  Lunch again was brought up to us and I decided to go back down to Syoubri and the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise hide rather than join the others on a hike across to the Garden House and hides (which now included a newly built one overlooking a Wattled Bush-Turkey mound).  It was a dull afternoon but the rain generally held off.  I sat in the Mag BoP hide for two hours before the same immature male came in at 4:45pm.  It did some moves including the sky-pointing display posture.  Pity it didn’t have the plumage to go with it.  A heady 24 species seen today, including Lesser Ground and Garnet Robins and Vogelkop Meledictes.

Syoubri Guest House in the rain - as so often seemed to be the case.  It was as basic as it looked but served us well.  note how muddy the approach is, and the walking sticks that we were rarely without.
another Feline Owlet-Nightjar that I failed to get a decent photo of
another Feline Owlet-Nightjar that Jon got a superb photo of - what a brilliant species!
what Norfolk colleagues wear when they've lost their umbrella
not easy to reach anything though, photo taken by Jon
the dark shape in the centre might be the Long-tailed Paradigala which I was unsuccessfully trying to digiscope at the time
what I'd hoped my Long-tailed Paradigala photos might look like - another good one of Jon's
another of Jon's - very interesting bird!
local pig
12 August.  Back up the trail to the moss forest soon after dawn but this time we were continuing on to Camp Japan and the mountain ridge.  As luck would have it we saw a Long-tailed Paradigala as we were walking through the moss forest but other than good views of a Black Sicklebill further up it was rather quiet.  We arrived at Camp Japan to find our bags had already been brought up (by a different route) and a large orange tarpaulin had been spread over some makeshift camping tables.  Nick Preston and I thought we’d prefer to camp and squeezed Nick’s tent under the tarpaulin while Malcolm did likewise with his.  After lunch we headed up along the ridge seeing Arfak Astrapia in a regular fruiting tree just off the trail.  It was considered to be an immature male with a bright lemon yellow gape its most interesting feature.  It flew off after a few minutes and was the only one we saw.  Having seen their higher elevation targets Nick Gardner and Jon then decided to head back down to Syoubri to concentrate lower down, although I don’t think either was relishing a night at Camp Japan.  We saw Smoky, Ashy and Lesser Ground Robin in the area but despite hearing four Spotted Jewel-Babblers, all seemingly very close, I was unable to locate any of them – very frustrating.  My only consolation was that Nick Preston couldn’t be sure which direction their drawn out high-pitched whistle was coming from either, so it wasn’t entirely down to my hearing loss/aid.  Nick was sharp enough however to glimpse one that crept up behind us.  We saw three more bowers from (or near) the ridge trail including one containing no human rubbish at all.  It looked so much better without plastic wrappers or bottles no matter how attractive they were to Vogelkop Bowerbirds.  A comfortable and not too cold night at Camp Japan was rather spoiled by my having nightmares for the first time in years.  It wasn’t even as if Spotted Jewel Babbler was a new bird, although being so good they were something I was very keen to see again.
this Vogelkop Bowerbird gives pride of place to black plastic bags, either a punk or with Norfolk ancestors? 
Camp Japan, raining again,  Malcolm's tent squeezed under the tarpaulin on the left, Nick's on the right

Winner of the 2013 Best Bower award - lots of natural treasures and no human rubbish at all, that it was the furthest bower seen along the ridge might have been relevant 
Royke at the 'best' bower

13 August.  Up at dawn and the first three and a half hours along the ridge where I again heard close Spotted Jewel Babblers without seeing them, or much else apart from a Papua Treecreeper, before returning for breakfast.  Very frustrating.  We left Camp Japan, which had been packed up, at 10 am and slowly walked back down to Syoubri.  We were hoping for Buff-tailed Sicklebill along the first section as they regularly feed in the palms there but no luck.  Compensation was provided by finally seeing a Spotted Jewel Babbler as it stopped to feed in leaf litter while crossing the trail below us, very nice indeed.  We reached the area of the parotia hide and while waiting for a late lunch I had good views of a Vogelkop Bowerbird coming in three times with 12-15” sticks to add to his bower.  After lunch I did a session with Nick and Royke in the Wattled Brush-Turkey hide but I felt the tide was too close to the mound and poorly designed with only one of the three occupants it could accommodate able to overlook the mound.  After twenty minutes of seeing nothing Royke spotted a Bronze Ground Dove walking down his side of the hide.  Nick who was in pole position saw it walk in front of the hide, but it never came past me.  Pretty annoying as I’d only seen one in flight previously.  I decided I stood very little chance of seeing anything from the hide and felt I’d rather not be in it at all than be in a similar situation if a Brush-Turkey, which would be new for me, walked past.  I decided to leave for the parotia hide where I joined Malcolm.  The male had been present and soon returned jumping around quite a bit.  Royke then joined us and the parotia became more excited, especially when a female appeared on the scene.  He jumped around some more and repeatedly appeared to chase her away from the dancing ground but she kept returning.  This did not seem to be the behaviour of a bird seeking an audience but we stayed transfixed as he continued to jump around then dropped to the ground and started to peck at something small there, perhaps berries, and do a few stretches and other moves.  The female returned to look down on him and he now seemed content to ignore her.  Perhaps something would develop?  He adopted the spinning top position with flared ‘skirt’ and started twirling his head, spinning his six-wires vigorously.  After a short period of this he moved into the full spinning top dance although it only lasted 20-30 seconds before both they both flew off, appearing to be disturbed by something.  This display was something I’d been transfixed by since first seeing it on the BBC’s Attenbrough in Paradise.  To witness a bird do something so bizarre myself really was a dream come true.  Unfortunately Nick Preston appeared after an unsuccessful turkey stint about 20 minutes later.  For over twenty years we had shared our best birds ever – Giant Pittas in Sabah in 1987 being joined by displaying Wilson’s Bird of Paradise we'd seen with Barry Stiddolph and Garry Edwards on Batanta in 1993.  In 1998 I added Kagu in New Caledonia (with John Cooper and Garry Edwards again) to make a trio of ‘best ever birds’ it was very hard to choose between and Nick did likewise the following year having had to drop out of the previous year’s trip at short notice.  Western Parotia was now a very serious contender to expand my trio of best ever birds although I would feel a lot better about it if Nick had seen it displaying too.  I’ve never been so pleased to have missed a bird as good as Bronze Ground Dove as if I’d seen it I’m sure I would have stayed too long in the turkey hide.  We returned to Syoubri for our last night in the Arfaks just before it got dark.  What a difference a relatively dry day could make even though my species count was still only 18 for the day.  Quality always beats quantity.

breaking camp
another rubbish free bower
not sure how the plastic bottle was transported even if from not very far away
nice bower, shame about the treasures
the untidiest bower we saw, with the most rubbish as treasures
view from the hide - Western Parotia in residence
and getting excited (as were we)
 note the discs on the end of the wires coming out of the back of his head
 a female, his mate?, appears on the scene which ups the tempo a bit

male Western Parotia on his display ground with female in attendance

a continuation of the above video with more jumping about and pecking the ground

poor video clip of head spinning, a prelude to ...

 finally performing the amazing spinning-top dance

Royke took this much better image of the performer before he got completely carried away
happy old man of the forest - flash on camera stopped working a few years ago
14 August.  Our vehicles arrived soon after 6 am and we left Syoubri and took most of the day to slowly drive back to Manokwari, stopping frequently on the way.  We saw a selection of lower elevation species including Pigmy Eagle, Josephine’s Lorikeet, Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, Papuan Hornbill (including two which landed on a tree 50m from me), Rusty Mouse Warbler, Golden Monarch, Masked Bowerbird (two males briefly jumping around on dead branches), female Lesser Birds of Paradise and a male Magnificent Riflebird.  We arrived at the Billy Jaya Hotel in Manokwari at about 4.30 pm.  It had an impressive entrance but appeared to have seen better days with none of the a/c units in our corridor working.  After complaining we were moved to a smaller room with working aircon.  It also meant that Nick and I didn’t have to share with a large cockroach!  I’d seen 6 new birds in the Arfaks including those I’d most hoped for while Western Parotias were totally brilliant and had way exceeded expectations.  My main disappointment was still not having seen a male-plumaged Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise despite four trips to New Guiinea.  A disappointment made more acute when I later discovered that we’d not been told of a hide overlooking an apparently better display area for them quite close to the hide we’d used.
view leaving the Arfaks
our vehicles as the clouds come in and it starts to rain, again
pitcher plant -they seemed to enjoy the rain more than we did
Seth and Royke on a better section of the road

Jon and Malcolm under umbrellas, we probably lost a day and a half to heavy rain in the Arfaks
Jon and Seth watching another vehicle successfully negotiating the main river crossing

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