Monday, 14 August 2006

PAPUA NEW GUINEA 2006: Tabubil and Kiunga (7-14 August)

This is the third of four blogs recounting a private trip the late and greatly missed Jon Hornbuckle arranged to Papua New Guinea in summer 2006. Jon, Ashley Banwell, Carlton Collier, Pete Gammage, Mike and Stephanie Brown, Nick Preston and I had visited Varirata, Tari and Keki and were about to fly to Tabubil. This account is based on my rather inadequate notes and sometimes vague memories. It relies heavily on a report Jon wrote soon after returning while the photos included are mostly Jon’s with some of Nick’s views. Thanks to both for sharing them.

07 August 2006. We departed from Madang, changed planes in Port Moresby and continued our journey to Tabubil. We landed at noon with no issues (low cloud can often cause difficulties landing planes) and on time. We checked into the comfortable Cloudlands Hotel and used their bus to take us to Dablin Creek where we spent a rather wet afternoon. Despite the weather birding was good and we saw female Carola’s Parotia, Mountain and Yellow-billed Kingfishers, Red-breasted Pygmy-Parrots, Orange-breasted Fig-Parrot, and Mottled Whistler.
approaching Port Moresby

aerial view of river near Tabubil, presumably the Ok Tedi?
aerial view of hill forest as we prepared to land at Tabubil (nice not for it to be covered in cloud)
me and Jon on the pipeline catwalk at Dablin Creek, we'd seen Mountain Kingfisher sat on the hand rail on the way up
female Grey-headed Cuckoo Shrike at Dablin Creek
08 August 2008. We awoke to a clear sky (and it remained dry all day) but the hotel bus that was taking us back to Dablin Creek failed to materialise. We wandered around town for a while looking for transport and Jon eventually accosted a local couple and persuaded them to loan us their Toyota Hilux which they very kindly did. We returned to Dablin Creek but it was somewhat quieter although we did see male Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler, two female Superb Birds of Paradise, female Carola’s Parotia, Rusty Pitohui, Yellow-bellied Longbill and Pygmy Honeyeater. After lunch we took the Hilux across the river, the bridge having collapsed and been repaired since my last visit, to the Ok Ma Road where we saw two female Magnificent Birds of Paradise, Magnificent Riflebird, Crinkle-collared Manucode, male Raggiana Bird of Paradise, Greater Melampitta (poorly in my case), Shovel-billed Kingfisher (two heard, one seen in flight), Palm Cockatoo and White-rumped Robin.
pipeline road at Dablin Creek

09 August 2008. We left Cloudlands in the Hilux before dawn, arriving at the Ok Ma Road at first light. There were three Shovel-billed Kingfishers calling and one flew across the road twice. Most of us went into the forest and Ash found one that appeared to be nesting 20m up in a big tree. We twice watched it take a beak full of food (small reptiles or amphibians) to the tree but could not see a nest hole that was undoubtedly there. Nearby a Greater Melampitta was calling and this time I had good but brief views as it moved down a hillside. Back on the road Nick found a White-eared Catbird feeding in a fruiting bush that we all saw. Other highlights were small flocks of Golden and Grey-headed Cuckoo-Shrikes and two Golden Mynas. We returned to town for lunch then drove on to Km 121 and quickly found the local form of Little Ringed Plover. We continued to Ok Menga hydro station where Ash spotted a distant Salvadori’s Teal that disappeared round the bend of the river before the rest of us saw it. We had a long walk around the dredging works before locating the Teal stood on a rock. On the river we saw six Torrent Flycatchers but failed to find the trickier Torrent-Lark. Back at Tabubil Jon had arranged for us to have a meal as guests of the Golf Club, he is good at that sort of thing. Even I enjoyed fish and chips and apple pie!
Shovel-billed Kingfisher on the Ok Ma road
10 August 2006. Kwiwan, our guide for the next section of the trip, had arrived in Tabubil the previous evening and joined us for our final morning in Tabubil - another early start to the Ok Ma Road. Ash circumnavigated the Shovel-billed Kingfisher tree and found the nest hole as an adult came in with food. We watched from a suitable distance seeing an adult come in twice more in about 75 minutes. After one visit the large rear of what looked like a half-plucked chicken was stuck out of the nest hole to defecate. Nice. Kwiwan found a window onto a displaying male Magnificent Riflebird that had until then been winding us up while calling unseen. We returned to Dablin Creek for a two hour vigil at the fruiting tree. Here we saw Dwarf Koel, Yellow-capped and Red-breasted Pygmy-Parrots, high flying Blue-collared Parrots, female Raggiana Bird of Paradise, Mountain Peltops and Stout-billed Cuckoo-shrike and Pete found a Madarasz’s Tiger-Parrot nearby. After checking out of Cloudlands and grabbing a quick fish and chips, we drove to Km 17 near Kiunga, reaching it in just under three hours. Half a km along the track Greater Birds of Paradise were displaying enthusiastically with at least five males and six females seen. A male Raggiana Bird of Paradise was caught up in the excitement too. Other good birds in the area were displaying Trumpet Manucode, Australian Koel, New Guinea Babbler, Lowland Peltops and Golden Monarch with Blue Jewel-Babbler heard. We continued on the 17 kms to Kiunga and checked in and dined at the Kiunga Guesthouse.
Shovel-billed Kingfisher at nest hole
with unspecified prey item
displaying Greater Bird of Paradise at Kiunga

Pink-spotted Fruit-Dove at Kiunga
11 August 2006. We drove to “Manucode Mound” on the Boystown Road leaving before dawn and seeing White-throated Nightjars on the road on the way. Our main target was Flame Bowerbird. We saw four males, mostly in flight, and Kwiwan found a bower near the mound. Other good birds were somewhat frustrating with White-bibbed Ground-Dove (sadly not me), Hooded Pitta (five heard), White-eared Catbird (heard) and Blue Jewel-babbler (also heard only) although we had excellent views of a male and two female Emperor Fairy-Wrens and again saw Trumpet Manucode displaying and more Greater Birds of Paradise. We returned to the hotel for an early lunch after which we headed to the river and climbed aboard an outboard powered long-boat which was carrying us, our luggage and food for two days. We set-off up the Fly River at 13:30, turned off onto the Elevala River and arrived at Ekame Lodge three hours later. The journey was rather quiet although we did see a Great-billed Heron, Channel-billed Cuckoo and a crocodile. The lodge was very basic (candles, no running water) but in a superb location, on the river well into apparently untouched forest. We birded around the lodge till dark, seeing a pair of Yellow-eyed Starlings, our only Ornate Fruit Dove, Collared and Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeons, Stephan’s Ground Dove and Greater Streaked Lory. As the light started to fade we heard several Hook-billed Kingfishers and a nightjar, almost certainly Papuan flew over the clearing. We returned to the boat and took a 90 minute cruise on the Elevala River were we spotlighted one (in my case) or two Southern Crowned Pigeons roosting in a large tree, followed by a superb perched Marbled Frogmouth and two others in flight. We also heard Sooty Owl.
early morning Trumpet Manucode
Kiunga port, the Fly River is still navigable here (but not much further) 840km from the sea
leaving Kiunga
Fly River

although a canoe our boat was fortunately bigger than these
Papuan Hornbills

Great Cuckoo Dove
Elevala River
Elevala River
Ekame Lodge

Elevala River from Ekame
Golden Cuckoo-Shrike
12 August 2006. We were late heading up river from the lodge and as a result arrived too late at a display tree to see the resident male Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise performing, only seeing it fly across the river. We then left the canoe and followed narrow forest trails searching for Hook-billed and Little Paradise Kingfishers but only heard them, as we did Black-billed Brush Turkey and Hooded Pitta. Not a great start but two Southern Crowned Pigeons and a displaying male King Bird of Paradise improved things significantly and we also saw Common Paradise Kingfisher, Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Beautiful Fruit Dove on its nest, Palm Cockatoo, White-bellied Thicket-Fantail and Hooded Monarch. After a quick lunch I birded along a trail behind the lodge seeing two Blue Jewel-Babblers before we returned to the river to try again for Hook-billed Kingfisher. It had been notoriously difficult to find on my previous visit and was proving no easier this time although after a considerable effort we found two immatures. Other good birds were a male Flame Bowerbird which flew across the river, Large, Orange-breasted and Double-eyed Fig-Parrots and six White-bellied Pitohui (a species I’d only seen poorly before). We stayed out on the river until 19.30, seeing a Great-billed Heron feeding at dusk, a better view of Papuan Nightjar in flight, two perched Marbled Frogmouths and a White-bellied Sea Eagle flying in the dark. Again we heard a distant Sooty Owl. 
Southern Crowned Pigeons at Ekame


Elevala River at Ekame
Hook-billed Kingfisher
Marbled Frogmouth at night on the Elevala River
13 August 2006. We were back on the river early the following morning before returning to the lodge and birding the trails until lunch time. Highlights of an otherwise relatively quiet morning were male Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise (behaving better this morning), good views of Little Paradise Kingfisher (probably the bird we’d heard the previous day), two Black-sided Robins (also new for me), Greater Black Coucal, two Southern Crowned Pigeons (one was flushed in the forest and the other flew across the river), an excellent Hooded Pitta, three Blue Jewel-Babblers and four Rufous-bellied Kookaburras. After lunch Nick saw a Wallace’s Fairy-Wren that disappeared into a tangle of vines before I could get onto it. At least I’d seen one before. We could easily have spent twice as long at Ekame Lodge and still be seeing different birds. We returned to the boat and saw six or seven Channel-billed Cuckoos on our journey back to Kiunga. We’d realised that the river had dropped while we were at Ekame but it was only when we arrived at Kiunga that we realised by how much. It was now necessary to wade/slither through deep mud to reach the shore and washing off mud at the Kiunga Guesthouse took longer than usual.
Golden Myna at Ekame
Pacific Baza over the Elevala River
14 August 2006. We returned to Km 17 for the first hours of daylight having abandoned the Boystown Road as it was raining quite heavily. Greater and Raggiana Birds of Paradise were displaying despite the weather and we saw Trumpet Manucode and New Guinea Babbler but little else. After checking out of the Kiunga Guesthouse we went to the airport but the flight was late. We birded at the end of the runway seeing Lesser Black Coucal and White-spotted Munia but there was a certain amount of anxiety in the group as most were returning home and connections were quite tight as it was. The flight eventually came and we quickly boarded stopping briefly at Mount Hagen (seeing another Papuan Harrier) and landing in Port Moresby with only just enough time for the homeward flight - a close run thing. Jon, Nick and I waved them off and returned to the Granville Motel to reflect on an excellent trip and prepare for the next few days. A Naturetrek group was arriving the next morning which Jon was leading and Nick and I agreed to help with their first day at Varirata before going on to Manus.
Greater Bird of Paradise at Kiunga
male Raggiana Bird of Paradise at Kiunga
Kiunga Airport, Stephanie and Mike rear left

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