Wednesday, 2 August 2006

PAPUA NEW GUINEA 2006: Varirata & Tari (25 July-2 August)

Introduction. This is the first of several blogs recounting a private trip the late and greatly missed Jon Hornbuckle arranged to Papua New Guinea. I had been to PNG with Jon in 2004 and loved it but had missed a few key birds on the main circuit. Janos Olah and Mike Watson stayed on and visited Manus, something I had not been able to do at the time, and speaking to Mike when he returned made me really regret that. Nick Preston, who hadn’t come in 2004 as the trip was in term time, was keen to visit too. Two years later Jon put together another PNG trip and Nick and I signed up along with Ashley Banwell, Carlton Collier, Pete Gammage and Mike and Stephanie Brown. This account of the trip is based on my rather inadequate notes and sometimes vague memories. It relies heavily on a report Jon wrote when we returned while the photos included are Jon’s (most birds and some views) or Nick’s (most views and some birds). Thanks to both for sharing them.

23 July 2006. We met at Heathrow and flew direct overnight to Singapore. As usual I didn’t sleep well.

24 July 2006. We arrived at Changi Airport early morning, found a left luggage office to leave our bags and headed for Sentosa where we saw White-bellied Sea Eagle, Black-naped Tern, Black-Nest Swiftlet and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. At the Botanical Gardens the hoped for Red-legged Crake failed to appear and we had to leave for the airport before dark so saw no owls. A pair of escaped/feral Tanimbar Corellas at a nest hole was some consolation as were a Pink-necked Green Pigeon and two Grey-rumped Tree-Swifts. In the airport we met the late Ian Burrows who was leading a Sicklebill group to PNG and he gave Nick and me some really useful information on Manus. This was particularly welcome as our efforts to contact a local there in advance of our visit had come to nothing after what turned into an angry exchange with a supposed intermediary accusing us of being opportunists and academics when we questioned the need to send him a large payment in advance for unspecified services. This had left us somewhat uneasy and the information from Ian Burrows about how to make contact was very reassuring. Sitting on the plane Nick and I were talking about trip reports and one of us mentioned how impressed we were with those by Henk Hendriks. The chap I was sitting next to turned to me and said did I hear my name? It was Henk, who we only knew from his reports, who was on the Sicklebill trip. It was good to meet him in person, otherwise it was another poor night in flight.

25 July 2006. We were late arriving at Port Moresby, checked in to the Granville Motel and set off for Varirata National Park. Stops on the way at a roadside pool produced Blue-winged Kookaburra while the approach road to Varirata held Rainbow Bee-eater and a few other dry country species including White-throated Honeyeater but we were keen to get into the park and did not linger. Varirata proper was expectedly brilliant and I saw a pair of Beautiful Fruit-Doves, Brown-headed Paradise, Yellow-billed and Forest Kingfisher, Red-cheeked Parrots, four female Raggiana Bird of Paradise, Black Berrypecker, male Dwarf Whistler and Frilled and Golden Monarchs. On the way back to Port Moresby we stopped at the WW2 Koroda Monument where we saw Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds, Yellow-faced Mynas and eventually two Grand Munias, a new bird for me, amongst a flock of at least 50 of the much commoner. It had been an excellent start to the trip although a flight view of a probable Red-bellied Pitta had been very frustrating. Back at the hotel the manager had been so worried about our “late” return that he had called out the police to look for us! This further brought home the ongoing personal security issues in PNG and particularly Port Moresby, although the fortress-like nature of the hotels (and many other buildings) in compounds protected by guards and razor wire didn’t allow one to forget it easily.
Yellow-billed Kingfisher at Varirata. This was a female with black on the crown just about visible
Brown-headed Paradise Kingfisher at Varirata
smarter than its name might suggest
female Red-cheeked Parrot
26 July 2006. A pre-dawn departure for Varirata and the Raggiana Bird of Paradise lek where several males were actively displaying when we arrived. After watching them in improving light we drove to Varirata Lookout and walked a section of trail looking for Riflebirds but drew a blank. Back at the picnic area a nearby roost hole in a hollow tree was checked and a Barred Owlet-Nightjar looked down at us. It was most welcome as I’d only heard one on the previous trip. Other birds seen included Wompoo, Pink-spotted and Orange-bellied Fruit-Doves, Papuan King-Parrot, Black, Boyer’s, Yellow-eyed and Black-shouldered Cuckoo-shrikes, Mountain Drongo, Grey Crow, Mountain Red-headed Myzomela (another new bird) and another superb Yellow-billed Kingfisher and Dwarf Whistler. We also heard a Chestnut-backed Jewel Babbler but disappointingly it didn’t respond as I’d hoped to improve on my previous views. We left the Park mid-afternoon and drove back towards the edge of Port Moresby and the  Pacific Adventist University. Here excellent views of two Papuan Frogmouths roosting in the Albizzia trees. Marshland species included Rufous Night-Heron, Spotted and Wandering Whistling-Ducks, Green Pygmy-Goose and Comb-crested Jacana while the savanna held Black-backed Butcherbird, Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, numerous Green Figbirds and a Singing Starling. 
male Yellow-billed Kingfisher at Varirata
absolutely stunning but then several of New Guinea's kingfishers are

Pied Herons at the Pacific Adventists University (PAU) outside Port Moresby 
Pacific Swallow at PAU
Black-backed Butcherbird at PAU
Helmetted Friarbird at PAU
Papuan Frogmouth roosting at PAU
Rufous-banded Honeyeater at PAU
27 July 2006. A last visit to Varirata before heading into the mountains. We started at the picnic area and spent most of the morning in the valley below Gare's Lookout trail. Here a male Eastern Riflebird was displaying but I always seemed to be unsighted, or maybe incompetent, as I only saw it in flight. We had brief (but for me better than last time) views of an elusive Chestnut-backed Jewel-babbler, four White-faced Robins and two Dwarf Honeyeaters. A Crested Pitohui came through in a feeding flock but I managed to miss it, fairly typical PNG birding - it is that sort of place. Nick, Pete and I stayed in the valley while the rest of the group tried elsewhere but we all found it quiet in the heat of the day. The other group saw Little Kingfisher, Rusty Mouse-Warbler, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Glossy-mantled Manucode and Black-winged Monarch but firmly believing that quality beats quantity we had the better of it as Pete found the Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler again. We had good views from a distance and soon realised it and its partner were carrying food to a nest. The nest was in the base of a tree between two buttresses and was padded with leaves. It contained two fluffy young. The light was beginning to go when we met up with the others but Jon was keen to see the jewel babbler nest and we took him back. He saw an adult come in to feed the young and remove a fecal sac but the light was rather dim for photography by then. We drove back to Moresby in the dark.
Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler's nest
with two downy chicks
28 July 2006. We had a morning flight to Tari and beforehand wandered down to a nearby hotel which had a few more trees in its gardens than we did. We also looked around a rough are opposite. Even in broad daylight we were aware we were attracting a few furtive glances and decided it was good policy to stick together. We saw few birds for our troubles with Yellow-tinted and Rufous-banded Honeyeaters best. We flew to Tari where the ‘welcoming committee’ of several hundred brightly dressed locals were peering through the chain-link fence. I’d found it quite intimidation on my previous visit but it hardly made an impression when I was expecting it. Steven Warili met us and escorted us to a lorry, the only transport available to take us the 20km to Warili Lodge. It was an uncomfortable journey in the back not helped by the road being in poor condition due to recent heavy rain. Warili Lodge had been built by Steven as an affordable alternative to the famous but very expensive Ambua Lodge. It offered basic but comfortable accommodation and simple food which suited me very well. It had been extended since my previous visit two years before and could now accommodate a couple of visiting groups. After lunch, we spent the afternoon in gardens below the lodge where there were a few fruit-laden trees. It was raining and very quiet from 15:00-16:00 but at 16:15 Lawes’s Parotias started to arrive to eat the fruit and were soon joined by Black Sicklebills and Blue Birds of Paradise. I saw at least five male and five female-type Lawes’s Parotias, three Black Sicklebills and male and female Blue and a displaying male and two female Superb Birds of Paradise. We also saw Little Eagle, Yellow-billed Lorikeet, Black Fantail, Yellow-browed Melidectes, White-shouldered Fairy-Wren, Sclater’s Whistler and Varied Sitella. A very good start to our time at Tari, we returned to the lodge to find a Rockjumper group with Chris Heard were also staying.
Tari Airport, blue terminal 'building' in the background
Tari welcoming committee
leaving Tari Airport
local darts matches, a popular sport

market in Tari Valley

more darts in Tari Valley
Tari Valley from near Warili Lodge
Jon in Benson's Garden
male Blue Bird of Paradise at Tari
brilliant even in poor light
Lawes's Parotia at Tari
very dark in silhouette
 but it is mainly black anyway
until the iridescent green frontal crest catches the light
in a land full of strange birds Parotias are amongst the strangest
Brown Sicklebill at Tari
rather dull for a bird of paradise
but with a far carrying machine gun call 
29 July 2006. After an early breakfast we set off up the hill in an ancient Landrover with hard wooden seats. Reserving decent transport was a problem at Tari unless staying at Ambua and this, along with yesterday’s truck were the best Steven could find. Uncomfortable but better than walking we thought. We stopped at a ‘garden’ above Ambua Lodge where we found Short-tailed Paradigalla, Fan-tailed Berrypecker and Black-throated Robin. We continued up towards Benson’s Trail but our attempt to drive much further up the hill was foiled by bad road conditions and a not very good driver so we ended up walking anyway. It was a long walk up to Benson’s Trail and birds were a bit slow going but by the end of the day we had seen 60 species between us including some real quality birds. Best for me was a displaying male King of Saxony Bird of Paradise (one of three males seen). It gave amazing views bouncing up and down on a low wobbly branch about raising its ruff and throwing its plumes over its head. After 10 minutes displaying it flew onto a U shaped vine and hoped up to tear off a small leaf, returned to the bottom of the U to throw it away then back up for another leaf. All at eye-level and no more than 40m range. Amazing and an early Bird of the Trip contender. Almost as good was a female Lesser Melampitta Nick saw as it hopped ahead of us along the path. We quietly followed the melampitta for 50m until it hopped under a big fallen tree where it found a 40cm worm which it dragged out and proceeded to take chunks out of. We watched it mesmerised at 10m range for 10-15 minutes. It was between us and others who we were meeting back at the road and we had to disturb it to join them. It hopped off the path at our approach and although we gave it five minutes did not return and we ran out of time . Other quality birds I saw included a superb Lesser Ground Robin, female Wattled Ploughbill (a new bird for me), Brown Sicklebill, Stephanie’s and Ribbon-tailed Astrapias, Long-tailed Buzzard, Great Cuckoo-Dove, Rufous-throated Cuckoo, Great Woodswallow, Tit Berrypecker, Mountain Peltops, Blue-capped Ifrita, Black Sitella, Black-breasted Boatbill and Mountain Firetail. Spotted Jewel-Babbler was seen by some but I only heard it. In the evening we tried for Feline Owlet-nightjar without success but did see Mountain Nightjar.
Black-throated Robin at Tari
female Fan-tailed Berrypecker
very active female Wattled Ploughbill at Tari
Common Smoky Honeyeater at Tari
Benson's Trail at Tari
Papuan Mountain Pigeon at Tari
30 July 2006. We spent most of the day on Benson’s Trail. Highlights for me were seeing four male and three female King of Saxony Birds of Paradise, another female Lesser Melampitta, five Ribbon-tailed and a Stephanie’s Astrapia, Brown Sicklebill, female Loria’s Satinbird, female Macgregor's Bowerbird, Forbes’ Forest-Rail (new for me), Regent Whistler, Ashy and Blue-grey Robins and 20 Tit Berrypeckers. Again I heard Spotted Jewel Babbler but came no closer to seeing it. Late in the day we returned to the garden above Ambua and found a stunning pair of Wattled Ploughbills, the male dancing around a stationary female with his bright scarlet wattles inflated to look like an extended throat. New Guinea does have some really bizarre birds! In the evening we tried again for Feline Owlet-nightjar and this time heard one.
an open area near Tari Gap
forest near Benson's Trail
inside the forest at Tari
female King of Saxony Bird of Paradise at Tari
a smart bird in its own right
Stephanie's Astrapia by the road at Tari
31 July 2006. A Buff-banded Rail was walking up the road when we gathered at dawn to drive up to Tari Gap.  It was dull and cold at the pass with few birds in evidence although an Island Thrush was nice. Walking sections of the road on the way back down a female Sandford’s Bowerbird flew across in front of us but dived into cover and was lost. We continued walking down to Benson’s Trail seeing two Brown Sicklebills from the road and a pair of Logrunners on the trail, a new bird for me although I only had good views of the female. We soon split up as we often did and Ashley found three rarely seen Papuan Whipbirds. He quickly rounded up everyone but Nick and I were late on the scene and I only managed a flight view that sadly extensive searching failed to improve on. Fortunately Jon had seen them well as it was a new bird for him. We returned to the lodge for lunch by which time it was raining heavily. We decided to go down to Tari Valley where much to my relief a roosting Sooty Owl was soon found by Benson. We’d tried in 2004 with no success so it was a welcome new bird. Nearby Benson showed us a Papuan Frogmouth on a nest with a chick and we saw a Black-headed Whistler. Other birds seen during the day included male King of Saxony and female Superb Bird of Paradise, three Ribbon-tailed and a Stephanie’s Astrapia, female Crested Satinbird, male Wattled Ploughbill, two Mountain Mouse Warblers, Black Pitohoui, Black-throated Honeyeater, Hooded Mannikin and another heard only Spotted Jewel Babbler. Another great day although persistent rain put paid to further attempts to look for Feline Owlet-nightjar.
a clear morning at Tari Gap
Tari Gap
clouds never far away
Friendly Fantail
female King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, does any bird have more words in its name?
Regent Whistler at Tari
Ribbon-tailed Astrapia at Tari
showing its tail if little else

Sooty Owl in the Tari Valley
wet villagers in Tari Valley
01 August 2006. Our last full day started at the Gap where we saw three Crested Berrypeckers, two Brown Quail, Garnet and White-winged Robins, Mountain Firetail and an Island Thrush. We returned to Benson’s Trail but failed to refind the whipbirds. Highlights included two male and three female King of Saxony Birds of Paradise, five Ribbon-tailed Astrapias, a superb White-breasted Fruit Dove, MacGregor’s Bowerbird, Blue-capped Ifrita, Black-breasted Boatbill and a rare Yellow-streaked Honeyeater. I actually found the later, a new bird for us all. A distant Mountain Kingfisher was the frustrating heard of the day. In New Guinea there is usually something good in this category.
Tari Gap
Crested Berrypecker at Tari Gap

Garnet Robin
Blue-capped Ifrita at Tari
male King of Saxony Bird of Paradise
amazing even in poor light
02 August 2006. Our final morning at Tari was spent at Benson’s gardens. The hoped for Mountain Kingfisher didn’t appear but we had excellent views of a male Blue Bird of Paradise as it flew past us. A male Lawes’s Parotia was almost as good while a female Black Sicklebill gave excellent views as we watched it “anting” on a horizontal branch. Continuing to Tari airport we stopped on the edge of town to look for an owl a local had seen roosting in tall trees by the road. We hoped it might be another Sooty Owl but were a shade disappointed to find an adult and full grown juvenile Papuan Frogmouth. An easy mistake for a non-birder to make. While we were waiting for our Airlink flight to Mt Hagen to arrive a Papuan Harrier flew over Tari runway. A fitting end to a very memorable visit.
Papuan Frogmouth near Tari

Tari Airport, not so many locals seeing us off
Spotted Harrier over Tari Airport

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