West Papua: a birding paradise but get there soon
The first of two exclusive reports by intrepid birder/photographer Lynn Scott.
West Papua’s birds of paradise are astonishingly beautiful, but if you want to see them in the wild, you’d better get there soon.
There were times when I seriously questioned my sanity going to West Papua.
I constantly faced rough forest trails with sheer falls to the bottom. The only thing saving me from plummeting were tree roots and lianas. I learnt to swing like a monkey from sapling to sapling.
All that was usually in the pitch dark because to reach the mountain bird hides, we had to set out at 4.00 am to be at the jungle display court well before dawn.
I was in pursuit of birds of paradise (BOP’s) before deforestation and the cancerous spread of palm oil plantations doomed these charismatic birds to extinction.
The climb to see the Wilson’s BOP – the one every serious birder wants to see – was my introduction to birding in West Papua. And I immediately wondered if I would survive the three weeks. It really was a full test of my endurance, but I did it five times!
The trail up the 30-degree ‘slope’ had steps, but they were not steps as we Westerners know them. They were mud steps, hacked by the local villagers into the hillside, with a tree branch to stop them collapsing. But in the torrential tropical rain they were a serious hazard.
What a relief to reach the hide, despite knowing we will be there for nearly five hours, regardless of whether the BOP shows up. The hides are small, rudimentary huts made of palm leaves with a log serving as a seat.
Fortunately, the male displays on a ground court, making it much easier to see and photograph than some of the other BOP’s that display in tree tops.
The flash of red announced the arrival of the male Wilson’s and he immediately set about his housekeeping duties of leaf removal before romance. The horrors of the climb quickly subsided.
What a privilege to see this beautiful creature in the wild: the brilliance of colour, amazing feather transformation when courting a female, the obsession with removing every leaf and twig in the bare ground.
As the top male in the area, he had a reputation to maintain: the biggest and cleanest display court, and of course the best dance and feather colours.
The magnificent BOP
Just when I thought the jungle jaunts couldn’t get more challenging, the trail to the next objective – the magnificent BOP – was a 2000 m climb up mountain ridges with sheer 300 m drops to the bottom.
We had to rise at 3.00 am to be at the hide well before dawn. Any disturbance and the male would not come to his display court.
It is still pre-dawn when a black bird flies on to a branch overhanging the display court. The magnificent BOP is here! In the improving light, the brilliance of his colours becomes apparent: bright yellow, green, splashes of red and russet.
What a bird! And when he called, his lime-green gape lit up his mouth and the matching colours of his tail wires danced. The arrival of two females was a relief as I knew we were certain of a display dance.
The western parotia
Finally, there was the challenge of seeing the incredible but fickle western parotia BOP. More early starts, hard slogs up steep slopes and hours in the hide – just waiting.
Often, he would show up for a few minutes to remove leaves from the court and we hoped he would practice a brief display. But without the presence of a female, that wasn’t going to happen.
The only option was to keep returning until you cracked a display. And although momentarily brief, it was a sight to marvel at. The little black creature turns into the disco dancer of the bird world. His rhythmic shuffle with skirt feathers erect is mesmerising. Then there is the head tossing and his head wires twirl, putting human efforts at dance to shame.
Birding in West Papua is the hardest, physically and mentally, I have done. It requires a decent dose of madness, but the rewards far outweigh the hardships. Nowhere else could I have seen and experienced such incredible, awe-inspiring, utterly beautiful birds.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. And I would go back tomorrow.
More tourists who will pay for the privilege of seeing the birds of paradise of West Papua may be the last hope for the survival of the country’s incredible avian species.
The photographer agrees
Experienced wildlife photographer Ty Smedes, who kindly provided some images for this article, support’s Lynn’s warning that the West Papua BOP doesn’t come easily.
“I [repeatedly] climbed that mountain hand-over-hand, soaked in sweat, with glasses steamed over at near 100% humidity. And then I ‘chased’ the perpetually moving bird with the camera (much like a video game I’d guess).
“But it was worth it in the end! I have since been told the Wilson’s is the most sought-after bird on the planet. But to me, it was worth it just getting to see that indescribable display!”
(Part 2 of Lynn’s report will be posted on the Natural Images blog in May. It will focus on the ‘horrifying paucity’ of birds left in West Papua, and the environmental challenges the country faces.)
©Natural Images 2018