BEST OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Port Moresby, where we will stay for two nights. Later we will begin our exploration of the surrounding area.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 2 The eucalypt savanna of the Port Moresby region is an ecological ‘island’ with strong affinities to northern Australia, and beyond lies the tropical rainforest that covers so much of New Guinea, rising steadily from the lowlands up into the Astrolabe range.
Small ponds on the edge of the city hold such species as Australasian Grebe, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants, Eastern Cattle, Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, the attractive Pied Heron, Nankeen (or Rufous) Night Heron, Wandering and Plumed Whistling Ducks, Raja (or White-headed) Shelduck, Pacific Black Duck, Dusky Moorhen, Australasian Swamphen, the pretty Comb-crested Jacana and Masked Lapwing. If we are fortunate we will also see one or more of the more uncommon visitors, such as the rare and crepuscular Spotted Whistling Duck, Grey Teal, the pretty Green Pygmy Goose, Australian White Ibis or Australasian Darter.
The adjacent eucalypt savanna, ‘kunai’ grassland and gardens hold a broad range of species including Black, Whistling and Brahminy Kites, Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves, Orange-fronted Fruit Dove, Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Pheasant Coucal, the impressive and vociferous Blue-winged Kookaburra, Sacred Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater, Australian Hobby (uncommon), Coconut Lorikeet, New Guinea Friarbird, Yellow-tinted and Rufous-banded Honeyeaters, White-breasted Woodswallow, Black-backed Butcherbird, Black-faced Cuckooshrike, Grey Shrikethrush, the entertaining Willie Wagtail, Australasian Figbird, Torresian Crow, Singing Starling, Pacific Swallow and Grey-headed Mannikin.
We also have a good chance of finding the huge, reptilian-looking Papuan Frogmouth at its daytime roost. Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds are quite common in the area and if we find one of their remarkably complex bowers we may be rewarded by hearing the bird’s strange repertoire of hisses, gurgles, pops and burps.
We will spend much of our time in the Port Moresby region exploring Varirata National Park, which is situated in the foothills above the city. The park is dominated by dry eucalypt forest and moister evergreen hill forest, and a good system of trails allows easy access to this excellent area.
Varirata holds many widespread lower altitude species that we will see elsewhere during the tour, so we shall be concentrating on birds that we are only likely to see here, or which are typically easier at Varirata than elsewhere.
Varirata will give us our first chance to see some of New Guinea’s fabulous birds of paradise. The exotic Raggiana Bird of Paradise, one of the ‘classic’ birds of paradise, is quite common here and we may find them displaying. Growling (or Eastern) Riflebirds are very vocal, but quite shy, and can sometimes be seen flying between ‘song’ perches.
With persistence we should get views of the handsome Chestnut-backed Jewel-babbler and with both persistence and luck we will see one or two of the more difficult skulkers, which include Painted Quailthrush, Piping Bellbird (formerly known as Crested Pitohui and a species with a magical song) and Papuan Scrub Robin.
We should also encounter a few other more uncommon or harder to find birds of the area, which include Pygmy Eagle, Gurney’s Eagle, the retiring Pheasant Pigeon, White-faced Robin and White-eared Catbird, as well as the intriguing Goldenface (formerly known as Dwarf Whistler, but now reclassified as an Australasian warbler) and Drongo Fantail (formerly known as Pygmy or Mountain Drongo, but now reclassified as a fantail and related to the interesting Silktail of Fiji).
In the mid-storey we should come across the unobtrusive Brown-headed Paradise Kingfisher. Indeed, kingfishers are well represented at Varirata, with Yellow-billed, Forest, Azure and Papuan Dwarf Kingfishers all quite likely here. This is also a good place for finding the exquisite Barred Owlet-Nightjar.
Other species we may well encounter at Varirata include Pacific Baza, Long-tailed Honey Buzzard, Amboyna Cuckoo-Dove, Wompoo, Pink-spotted, Superb and Beautiful Fruit Doves, Zoe’s Imperial Pigeon, Large-tailed Nightjar, Glossy and Uniform Swiftlets, Oriental Dollarbird, Papuan King and Red-cheeked Parrots, the smart Black-capped Lory, Tawny-breasted and White-throated Honeyeaters, Elegant and Mimic Honeyeaters (or Elegant and Mimic Meliphagas), Rusty Mouse-warbler, Pale-billed Scrubwren, Yellow-bellied, Green-backed and Fairy Gerygones, Black Berrypecker, Dwarf (or Spectacled) Longbill, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Black and Hooded Butcherbirds, Stout-billed, Barred (or Yellow-eyed), Boyer’s and White-bellied Cuckooshrikes, Black Cicadabird (or Black Cuckooshrike), Varied Triller, Grey and White-bellied Whistlers, Little Shrikethrush, the shy Rusty Pitohui, the poisonous Hooded Pitohui, Brown Oriole, Spangled Drongo, Chestnut-bellied Fantail, Spot-winged and Black-faced Monarchs, the splendid Frilled Monarch, Leaden Flycatcher, Lemon-bellied Flyrobin, Black-fronted White-eye, Yellow-faced Myna, Pied Bushchat, Red-capped Flowerpecker and Black Sunbird.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 3 This morning we will fly far to the west, to the town of Kiunga, and then drive up the winding road through the foothill forest to Tabubil, situated at the base of the Star Mountains, for a two nights stay.
As our plane carries us across the southern lowlands we will begin to appreciate the immensity of the forest that even today covers more than 90% of New Guinea. Once the settled areas around Port Moresby are left behind hardly anything breaks the pattern of the forest, other than the meandering rivers.
On our way to Tabubil, we will begin our exploration of this exciting area, so we are sure to see a good number of new birds. In particular, we shall stop en route by the Ok Tedi River to look for the interesting resident papuanus form of the Little Ringed Plover and also at a lookout where the spectacular Pesquet’s (or Vulturine) Parrot can sometimes be seen.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 4 The Ok Tedi mine above Tabubil is one of the largest copper mines in the world and the town and its road network has been created as a result of the mine’s development, thus allowing us to explore the southern foothills of the remote Star Mountains. Many of the birds found here are of widespread distribution throughout the hill forests of New Guinea, but others are much more localized.
The hillsides are very steep and gaining access to good forest is a problem in the Tabubil area, particularly as accessible areas are often quickly cleared for ‘gardens’. Tabubil is also the wettest area that we shall visit and so we shall be hoping for good weather, as there are some special birds to look for.
One of the star specialities here is the dazzling and rather illusory-looking Queen Carola’s Parotia, and although adult males can be hard to find, we should at least see females or young males in a fruiting tree. Shovel-billed Kookaburras (or Shovel-billed Kingfishers) also occur in the area and we shall listen out for the calls of this crepuscular species, although it will take persistence and good fortune to see one now that a formerly accessible nest site is no longer accessible.
Two of New Guinea’s least-known birds, Greater Melampitta and the unassuming Obscure Berrypecker, are also to be found here, but both require luck, especially the melampitta. Easier specialities include White-rumped Robin and Magnificent Bird of Paradise.
We will also pay a visit to one of the many rivers rushing down from the surrounding mountains that has proved to be a reliable site for Salvadori’s Teal, Torrent Flyrobin (or Torrent Flycatcher) and sometimes Torrent-lark.
Other species we may well encounter at Tabubil, but which we are unlikely to see elsewhere during the tour, include Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, White-eared Bronze Cuckoo, Spotted Honeyeater and Southern Variable Pitohui.
There will be plenty of more widespread species that will be new for the trip and these may well include Papuan Mountain Pigeon, Papuan Boobook, Moustached Treeswift, Orange-breasted Fig Parrot, Papuan Black Myzomela, Long-billed Honeyeater, Mountain and Scrub Honeyeaters (or Mountain and Scrub White-eared Meliphagas), Mountain Peltops, Great Woodswallow, Capped (or Western Mountain) White-eye and Crinkle-collared Manucode (an atypical bird of paradise).
We should also encounter some of the more uncommon birds of the area, which include Doria’s Goshawk, Pale-vented (or Rufous-tailed) Bush-hen, Ornate Fruit Dove, Metallic Pigeon, Dwarf Koel, Brown Falcon, Red-breasted Pygmy Parrot, Blue-collared Parrot, Orange-fronted Hanging Parrot, Wallace’s Fairywren, Red Myzomela, Pygmy Longbill, Sooty Thicket Fantail and Magnificent Riflebird.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 5 After a final morning in the Tabubil area we shall descend to Kiunga for an overnight stay. The sparsely populated lowlands of southwestern Papua New Guinea around Kiunga are still one of the least disturbed areas in the country.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 6 We shall set off early in a small open-top fibreglass boat in order to explore the Fly and Elevala Rivers and their tributaries, spending one night at a very basic lodge deep in the depths of the swamp forest jungle surrounding the Elevala River. We shall be aiming to reach a display post of the amazing Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise in good time to see the male running up and down the pole in order to win his females. This strange behaviour lasts for a very short period just after dawn each morning and so we will rely on our local guides knowledge to get us there in time to witness the display. After a hopefully successful encounter, we shall be able to sit back, relax and watch the spectacle of the forest awakening.
As we cruise up the murky and muddy river, hundreds of birds will be flexing their wings and voices and preparing for the new day. We can expect to see large numbers of Collared Imperial Pigeons, mixed with smaller numbers of Pinon Imperial Pigeons, as they erupt from the treetops as we pass by. Large flocks of Blyth’s Hornbills flap lazily from tree to tree and strange, spiky-crested Palm Cockatoos and Glossy-mantled Manucodes are a feature of the journey. Parrots are everywhere, with Eclectus Parrots and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos dominating the show. Shining Flycatchers skim low over the water and occasionally an enormous Great-billed Heron may be flushed from the banks. In particular, we shall be looking out for the huge Sclater’s Crowned Pigeon, one of the largest and most mysterious pigeons in the world. It may take us some time to locate one, but we have a good chance of success and the sight of this incredible bird is one that will surely last a lifetime.
We shall also be able to land at various locations where small trails have been made for us into the otherwise impenetrable forest. Here we shall be on the lookout for the gorgeous but diminutive King Bird of Paradise and we shall hope to find one of the staked-out males that are amazingly faithful to their display trees. Greater Bird of Paradise and Trumpet Manucode are also found regularly in the area.
Rarities such as White-bellied Pitohui and the pretty Little Paradise Kingfisher occur in these swampy forests and among the bird parties we shall hope to find difficult species such as Hooded Monarch and Papuan Babbler. Attractive Black-sided Robins sing loudly from the interior and Common Paradise Kingfisher, the stunning Rufous-bellied Kookaburra and the crepuscular Hook-billed Kingfisher are also major attractions here. There will also be a good opportunity to see the intensely-coloured Flame Bowerbird.
Southern Cassowary occurs in the area, but we would need to be very fortunate to see this shy creature. The raucous calls of Black-billed (or Yellow-legged) Brush-turkeys can be heard regularly, but we will need a lot of luck if we are to see this shy denizen of the area, perhaps near one of its large nest mounds. Recently hides (blinds) have been built overlooking suitable areas for New Guinea Flightless Rail, so there is a slim but real chance of seeing this peculiar and rarely observed bird.
Other birds that we may well see during our visit to Kiunga and the Elevala include Striated Heron, Variable and Grey-headed Goshawks, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Great Cuckoo-Dove, Stephan’s Emerald Dove, Orange-bellied and Dwarf Fruit Doves, Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeon, Pacific Koel, White-crowned, Brush and Channel-billed Cuckoos, Papuan Spine-tailed Swift, Yellow-capped Pygmy Parrot, Red-flanked Lorikeet, Double-eyed Fig Parrot, Yellowish-streaked (or Greater Streaked) and Dusky Lories, the lovely Hooded and Papuan Pittas, Plain, Green-backed, Streak-headed and Obscure Honeyeaters, Large-billed Gerygone, Lowland Peltops, Yellow-bellied Longbill, Grey-headed and Golden Cuckooshrikes, White-bellied Thicket Fantail, Black and Rufous-backed Fantails, Grey Crow, Golden Myna, and Metallic and Yellow-eyed Starlings.
This is a good area for Blue Jewel-babbler and with persistence, we should have a good chance of enticing one into view. We should also find a few other uncommon species, which include Ivory-billed (or Greater Black) and Black-billed (or Lesser Black) Coucals, Little Bronze Cuckoo, Little Paradise Kingfisher, Large Fig Parrot and Ruby-throated (or Red-throated) Myzomela.
Nightbirding is difficult and sometimes unrewarding here, but with persistence and good fortune, we have the chance to encounter such species as Papuan Hawk-Owl, Marbled Frogmouth, Papuan Nightjar, Wallace’s Owlet-Nightjar or even the rare and little-known Spangled Owlet-Nightjar.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 7 After some final birding in the Elevala River area, we shall return to Kiunga for a good shower and a comfortable bed for an overnight stay.
During our time at Kiunga, we will visit a mixed display ground of both Greater and Raggiana Birds of Paradise. Although the former is much the more numerous species here, males of both species can often be seen competing for the females and hybrids do occur. If there is good display activity, this will be a highlight of the tour.
We shall also listen out for the distinctive whistles of the localized Long-billed Cuckoo and hunt out the gorgeous Emperor Fairywren.
If we are lucky we will find one or more of the less frequently recorded species of the Kiunga area, which include New Guinea Bronzewing, Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher, Black-eared Catbird and Meyer’s Friarbird.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 8 We should have time for some final birding at Kiunga before we take a flight to Mount Hagen, the capital of the Papua New Guinea highlands. Our flight takes us over unbroken foothill forest, mountain ridges and eventually the rich cultivated valleys of the New Guinea highlands.
Until the 1930s, the highlands of New Guinea were thought to be uninhabited, and so the discovery by some intrepid European gold miners of a large human population numbering over a million people living in stone-age conditions in total isolation from the rest of the world was one of the great discoveries of the 20th century.
Upon arrival, and after climbing out of the fertile valley around the town and into the subalpine forest, we will continue to Kumul Lodge in Enga province for a four nights stay. We may arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Days 9-11 Kumul Lodge is situated on a high ridge covered in pristine montane forest and the bungalows, which each have their own veranda with a view out over the surrounding valleys, are surrounded by 67 acres (27 hectares) of private grounds.
A feeding station has been set up outside the dining room and, because of the no-hunting policy adopted by this community-run project, the birds have become incredibly tame. A ‘sit and wait’ policy can be productive here. Belford’s Melidectes and Common Smoky Honeyeaters are numerous, and these are joined by huge Brown Sicklebills (their deafening rattles sound just like a machine-gun), graceful Ribbon-tailed Astrapias, Brehm’s Tiger Parrots and sometimes Archbold’s Bowerbirds. At Kumul these wonderful birds, that are so shy elsewhere, can be watched from only a few metres away and so the photographic opportunities are often superb.
Island Thrushes hop around the lawns, Red-collared Myzomelas feed from the flowers and Friendly Fantails, White-winged Robins and Rufous-naped Whistlers (or Rufous-naped Bellbirds) are all common garden birds, while Grey-streaked Honeyeaters are often present.
A star attraction of Kumul is the ghost-like Lesser Melampitta, one of only two members of its family, which we can expect to see as well as hear. Additional star attractions are the gorgeous but poisonous Blue-capped Ifrit, now a monotypic bird family, and the strange Wattled Ploughbill (likewise now treated as a monotypic family). We also have a second chance here for the rare Mottled Berryhunter.
Another special bird at Kumul is the rare Mottled Berryhunter (the former Mottled Whistler, now treated as a monotypic family). We will definitely be making an effort to find this key species and we have a fairly good chance of an encounter while at Kumul, with an equally good backup chance at Rondon Ridge.
Other specialities of Kumul include Crested Satinbird (there is often a male that frequents the lodge), Rufescent Imperial Pigeon, Mountain (or Elfin) Myzomela and Ornate Melidectes
The nightbirds that frequent Kumul Lodge are another prime reason for our visit. As the day draws to a close we have a good chance of encountering the pair of New Guinea Woodcocks that shuffle out from their daytime hiding places to feed around the camp. There is sometimes a pair of Mountain Owlet-Nightjars in residence and Greater Sooty Owl may also be found. Archbold’s (or Mountain) Nightjars used to perch on the lodge buildings and could start doing so again, or be found not far away.
Kumul is a wonderful place for birds of paradise and we should also encounter Loria’s Satinbird and the amazing King of Saxony Birds of Paradise with its fantastically long head-plumes that look like strange antennae. We will also visit a patch of remnant forest in order to see Lesser Bird of Paradise and visit a hillside where Blue Bird of Paradise can be seen and where Superb Bird of Paradise can be watched fanning its strange collar. In addition, we will check out grassland areas that are favoured by Yellow-breasted Bowerbirds.
Amongst the many other birds we may well find while based at Kumul, as we search the mossy forest, gullies with epiphyte-encrusted trees and rocks, and grasslands and mixed agricultural habitats, are Papuan Harrier, Bar-tailed (or Black-billed) Cuckoo-Dove, White-bibbed (or Mountain) Fruit Dove, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Mountain Swiftlet, Plum-faced, Papuan, Yellow-billed and Orange-billed Lorikeets, White-shouldered Fairywren, Rufous-backed, Black-throated and Marbled Honeyeaters, Mountain Mouse-warbler, Large and Papuan Scrubwrens, Brown-breasted Gerygone, Fan-tailed, Tit and Crested Berrypeckers, Black-breasted Boatbill, Long-tailed Shrike, Black-bellied Cuckooshrike, Brown-backed, Regent and Black-headed Whistlers, Dimorphic and Black Fantails, Black Monarch, Black-throated and Slaty (or Blue-grey) Robins, the cute Canary Flyrobin, Island Leaf Warbler, Papuan Grassbird, Papuan White-eye, Mountain Firetail, Blue-faced Parrotfinch, Hooded Mannikin and Australian Pipit.
We should also come across some of the more uncommon or more difficult to find species of the area, which include another bird of paradise, Short-tailed Paradigalla, as well as Brown Goshawk, Brown Quail, Forbes’s Forest Rail, Rufous-throated Bronze Cuckoo, Modest Tiger Parrot, Goldie’s Lorikeet, Mountain Kingfisher, Macgregor’s Bowerbird, Yellowish-streaked Honeyeater, Olive Straightbill, Mid-mountain Berrypecker, and Ashy and Garnet Robins.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 12 After a last morning around Kumul we will take an afternoon flight back to Port Moresby for an overnight stay.
Best of Papua New Guinea: Day 13 There may be time for some final birding in the Port Moresby area this morning before our tour ends at Port Moresby airport in the late morning.