27 October 2013

Rain Stops Play?...PNG (2nd Oct.)

Departing in darkness we made it to a steep hillside, which we did not exactly fly up, but with the promise of one of the World's best birds, Blue Bird-of-paradise, possibly waiting near the end our pace was a little quicker than it might have been! After a nail-biting wait a full streamered male flew in and brought gasps all around. All were in agreement; it IS one of the world's best birds. 

In the afternoon we planned to visit the large mountain garden our local guide, who offered such delectable birds as Sooty Melidectes, Crested Satinbird (formerly Crested Bird-of-paradise), Dusky Woodcock and Crested Berrypecker. I mean, how could we resist with such an illustrious set of birds on offer?! We lunched at Kumul Lodge, with regular bird table companions such as Belford's Melidectes, Brehm's Tiger-Parrots for company. The orange blooms alongside shook with the visit of a scarlet and jet black male Red-collared Myzomela too, while a young White-winged Robin regularly launched attacks on insects from the legs of the bird table.
After lunch we departed for the mountain garden, which comprised of a large area of crops and natural grassland, surrounded by thick, mountain forest. Unfortunately, as we made our way to the area with our guide, Max, the heavens opened, and heavy rain began to fall. Undeterred, we continued to the site, arrived at the clearing, but quickly needed to take shelter under the eaves of Max's traditional hut. The rain was heavy and the clouds so low we could barely make out the trees at the edge of the clearing. Unsurprisingly, some of the group, feeling the chill and seeing little to promise of a change in the weather, headed back to the lodge for the remainder of the afternoon. Foolishly, it appeared, Chris and myself decided, with no further afternoons available to visit this spot, to stick it out until late afternoon and hope for a change in circumstances. Several hours passed, and then finally, the clouds lifted and the trees became visible once more, even if light rain continued to fall. We left the shelter of the hut, and made our way across the clearing to a large dense fruiting tree, where a movement led us to the first of our targets: Crested Berrypecker, which looks rather like a strange waxwing, but daubed in blue-and-white! We were pumped. Several hours in the cold, relentless rain had paid off after all. But the best was yet to come. Another rustle in the trees led us to a female Crested Satinbird. It may have been only the dowdy female version, but we had the bird for the first time on the trip and we were happy. Then Max alerted us to the first of three Sooty Melidectes which visited some blooms of white flowers in the clearing. Amazingly, this species has only recently been discovered in the area, with regular sightings only coming from this spot during this year only. We got some great scope looks as the rain began to finally let up. We shook off our umbrellas and soon after heard the calls of a MALE Crested Satinbird emanating from near the fruiting tree that had hosted both the Crested Berrypeckers and the female of this species. Incredibly, and dramatically a large fiery orange bird appeared in the tree. We had barely clapped eyes on this jet black and orange male Crested Satinbird, when it jumped up and landed on the crown of the tree, as if to say "have you got me now!!!" We could not have dared to dream of a better outcome to the afternoon which begun oh so poorly, with rain lashing down, and near zero visibility. Chris and I were flushed with our success and were beaming, and thankful that our long, and cold, wait in the rain had been very worthwhile. We decided to wait until dusk, and see if the hoped for Dusky Woodcock (a lifer for myself even on my 7th tour of PNG), would rode over the clearing. Amazingly, a short time after light had begun to fade, the distinctive calls of a woodcock drifted across the clearing to our ears, and moments later the woodcock was seen as it flew across a large gap in the forest. Life was chipper after a truly amazing afternoon, which will live long in my memory for sure! Once again it was proved to me that mountain weather is completely unpredictable from what your eyes see, and that the birds that live there are equally unpredictable. Something that makes birding so exciting.
More from PNG to come...

25 October 2013

A Flash of Lightning...PNG (1st-2nd Oct.)

...Continuing our time at Kumul Lodge in Papua New Guinea's highlands, we enjoyed the bird table as all who visit do. They are the sole lodge in the world that can boast birds-of-paradise at the table. In addition to the aforementioned Brown Sicklebills, were a regular flow of Ribbon-tailed Astrapias, which after the performances they gave at Kumul Lodge, were justifiably included in the top five birds of the trip, and shone through many more recent memories at the trip end to beat many other great birds seen later on the trip into that hollowed position. Astrapia means flash of lightning, and you cannot help think that they named the group after the male Ribbon-tailed with his lightning rod tail?! Several individual astrapias were seen with the white-tailed male creating a stir on each appearance, even appearing to "stalk" one of the group, Shannon, when she stayed back at the lodge one afternoon. I cannot think of a better afternoon companion!
Other great birds at Kumul Lodge included a visit to Tonga downslope, where the reverse signal calls of a male Blue Bird-of-paradise pricked our ears, and the sight of a male flying into a tree beside us will be burnt in our retinas forever. Quite simply one of the world's greatest birds. There are many choices which would need some thought; this one is an automatic, no quandary-inducing entry into any top ten list! A calling male Superb Bird-of-paradise almost felt like an afterthought in hindsight once the blistering male Blue had come in and stole the show in such an all consuming, absolute manner.
Our time at Kumul Lodge continued with another contender for a top ten birds in the world list (only in PNG can you have two entries into this list in two consecutive days)! 

22 October 2013

The Land of the Unexpected...PNG (29th-30th Sept.)

We landed in the so-called "Land of the Unexpected", Papua New Guinea, the day before and soon set about picking up some easy birds right in Port Moresby. The city of notorious as one of the least attractive cities on the planet and I agree. However, the well-manicured grounds of the Pacific Adventist's University (PAU) provide a haven from the usual squalor and hustle and bustle of the capital. We enjoyed the usual haul of good birds there, which come with a distinctive Australian feel, many of them also occurring in the far reaches of northeast Oz. Highlights included a pair of bark-like Papuan Frogmouths hiding well within a massive Rain Tree on campus; equally inconspicuous Spotted Whistling-Ducks roosting within the trees around a hidden pond; a gorgeous Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove with its orange "headlamp" turned on full; and a veritable flurry of Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds which as common as I have ever seen them here (this was my 7th visit). Visting this late in the season also brought some surprises like Latham's Snipe and Pacific Golden Plover foraging on the lawns, and the newly established population of both Hardheads (White-eyed Ducks) and Plumed Whistling-Ducks were also of considerable interest to me.

On this day though our plan was to see our first of the very family which draws people in from all over the globe: BIRDS-OF-PARADISE. We had hatched a good plan for this: a three-night stay in Kumul Lodge in PNG's "BOP"-rich highlands. The only thing we needed to navigate was Port Moresby chaotic airport and even

more chaotic airlines. However, on this day our flight to Mount Hagen left pretty much on time and before we knew we were at the lodge with binoculars (if needed) focused firmly on the lodge's unique centrepiece: a long-established bird table (so long-established it is is coated in a deep layer of wet moss) which plays host to birds-of-paradise. This is the only lodge on Earth that can boast such a thing. Before long, the first of these dropped in and mouths dropped open, while cameras snapped into action. Brown Sicklebills came in over our few days there, with both several bar-breasted females and a super immature male which is daubed in way more colours than the brown of its name...

More from PNG's Kumul Lodge to come, including one of the contenders for bird-of-the-trip...

16 October 2013

Superb Birding...AUSTRALIA (16 Oct)

I returned from Papua New Guinea in the morning, having caught the "red eye" from PNG's infamous capital, Port Moresby. I had a great tour of PNG, with some 23 birds-of-paradise and even a couple of lifers, but enough of that for now, back to that later...
I landed in Brisbane and set about a plan for some final Aussie birding before I head back to my Andean home in Ecuador for a while. I decided to check out the Minnippi Parklands, as my great birding mate Stuart Pickering has this as his home patch. He was not around unfortunately, and all I had as an objective was to shoot some birds, no matter how common they are, they were appealing to me and my lens. Arriving at the lake the usual throng of waterbirds were around: Purple Swamphens, squabbling with Pacific Black Ducks and Noisy Miners (and later Crested Pigeons) for scraps laid out for them. 
The middle of the lake had some mud which had attracted both Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels, as well as a Comb-crested Jacana family. A couple of Australian Pelicans loafed, rather conspicuously, too offshore. On the island a Latham's Snipe scuttled around the muddy edges, probing deep in the mud with his well-adapted weapon, his long, long bill.
Working around the pond I heard the far from musical sound of a Rufous-tailed Bush-hen, a bird which I had not seen in Australia (only in Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia), and set about trying to see it, which proved typically futile. The bird likes the bush, as it name suggests, and that's where it remained; in a dense dark, impenetrable, bush! Still the habitat around the edges of the lake led me to two of my favourite Aussie birds; first Superb Fairywren, and then a trio (including two powder blue-headed males) of Variegated Fairywrens

Tawny Grassbird also popped up to make sure he made it on to my memory card too. Moving on, I admired both the sound and the size of a pair of Laughing Kookaburras, laughing at me from a eucalyptus tree, and then tried snapping a Sacred Kingfisher which alerted me to its presence through it's harsh yelps. 

Then I turned and was startled to come face-to-face with a low sitting Channel-billed Cuckoo; my best views and photos ever of this species. That was my highlight, the up close views of the world's largest cuckoo (it is considerably bigger than the fearsome Great Horned Owl), and yet more intimate encounters with that most lovely of Australian birds, the fittingly named, Superb Fairywren. Farewell to beloved Australia, a place I love coming back to. The birds are friendly, and the people too.

 Soon I will relay the best of my trip into deepest, darkest PNG, where birds-of-paradise loomed large...