‘A DECENT DOSE OF MADNESS’

Magnificent bird of paradise calling
Magnificent bird of paradise calling
When he called, the Magnificent BOP’s lime-green gape lit up his mouth. Photo: ©Lynn Scott

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.

Cancerous spread

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.

West Papua expedition group
The West Papua expeditions group – Lyn Scott and Ty Smedes, front extreme right

Rudimentary huts

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.

Wilson's bird of paradise
The Wilson’s bird of paradise – the world’s most sought-after bird. Photo: ©Ty Smedes

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.

Magnificent bird of paradise top view
The extremely complex plumage colours of the magnificent BOP include bright yellow, green, splashes of red and russet. Photo: ©Lynn Scott

Awe-inspiring beauty

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!”

Lynn Scott’s West Papua adventure was organised by Papua Expeditions.

(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

WORLD’S RAREST WADER

Hybrid New Zealand stilts
Hybrid New Zealand stilts
Cross-bred New Zealand stilts on the Miranda Wetlands mud south of Auckland. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

But maybe not for much longer

The New Zealand black stilt is the world’s rarest wading bird. And from a country with such a woeful history of native wildlife losses, you might expect the bird’s future to be bleak.

At last count (2017) there were just 106 black stilts (kaki) left in the wild in New Zealand.

But thanks to a half-million-dollar breeding aviary project funded by the Sangreal Foundation of the US, those numbers will soon rise rapidly.

Up to 175 extra birds annually are expected to be released to the wild from the new breeding facility, which opened late 2017 at Twizel in New Zealand’s South Island.

Cross-breeding problem

Nevertheless, there lurks another problem for the black stilt: hybridisation. Interbreeding with the much more populous black-winged (pied) stilt has diluted the black stilt gene pool and produced some undesirable mutations.

While photographing at two of the North Island’s best shorebird sites in early April, crossbred stilts were evident (pictured).

Attractive though they are, we were told by local birders that the hybrids’ days would be numbered. They will be ‘eliminated’ to preserve the genetic purity of the kiri.

Footnote: New Zealand has the dubious honour of having all four of the world’s rarest waders (according to Wader Quest): #1 black stilt (pop 106), #2 southern New Zealand dotterel (160-190), #3 shore plover/dotterel (156-220), #4 Chatham Island oystercatcher (50-249).

©natural images 2018

Stilts roosting on pond
Black-winged (pied) stilts share their early morning roost with incoming non-breeding bar-tailed godwits. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

NEW ZEALAND ODDITIES

leucistic New Zealand pied oystercatcher
leucistic New Zealand pied oystercatcher
A leucistic New Zealand pied oystercatcher, Manukau Harbour. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Special site produces several surprises

A recent trip to New Zealand revealed a few odd-ball birds and behaviours.

The most striking, for me anyway, was a leucistic (not albino but close-ish) oyster-catcher on the shell banks of Manukau Harbour in South Auckland.

Access to this outstanding wader site is tightly controlled and closed to the general public. We were there thanks to Birds NZ chairman David Lawrie, who lives nearby. I was also in the company of Cairns birder and mate Norton (Norty) Gill, and Jo Jo Doyle, a visiting birder from the US.

David kindly ‘gave up’ a day at the office to guide us across private land and mudflats to the sweeping shell banks and tidal pools. After five hours of great photography and birding, the tide was well in and a bit of wading of our own was required.

Sea gulls skimming water for fish
Unusual activity – juvenile black-billed gulls skimming for bait fish. Photo ©Tony Neilson

Melanin production

Leucistic birds lack the cells responsible for melanin production. Although the condition is inherited, the extent and positioning of the white colouration can vary between adults and their young.

Leucism causes feathers to weaken and be more prone to wear. Being more conspicuous, the ‘affected’ birds also have greater risk of predation. (The bird we observed was clearly not in premium health.)

Skimming gulls

Perhaps more unusual were the feeding techniques of a flock of largely juvenile black-billed gulls. They were flying low over the shallows and ‘skimming’ for small bait fish – a la the more specialised American black skimmer.

David said he had not previously seen gulls trying this fishing technique.

And then there were the New Zealand wrybills – the only bird in the world whose bill curves to the right. But more about that fantastic little endemic next month.

©Natural Images 2018

Bird watchers on shell banks
On the shell banks, from left: Birds NZ chair David Lawrie, Jo Jo Doyle from the US and Norton Gill (struggling with the bright New Zealand sunlight). Photo: ©Tony Neilson

THE CLOCK IS TICKING

Orangutan with baby in forest

Orangutan with baby in forest
Half the Bornean orangutan population wiped out in 16 years – and more to come. Photo: ©Shutterstock

Orangutan numbers take huge dive

Logging, forest conversion to oil palm and human conflict are blamed for half of Borneo’s orangutans being lost in just 16 years.

That’s nearly 150,000 of the apes gone between 1999 and 2015. (Figures sourced from 38 different research organisations and published in the journal Cell Biology.)

The study found the primates were disappearing largely from forested areas, leading the research team to conclude hunting, or intentional killing were driving a previously underestimated portion of the population decline.

By modelling future habitat loss—largely the result of forest conversion for palm oil, pulpwood plantations and agriculture – an estimated 45,000 orangutans could be lost in the next 35 years, the report predicts.

Killing statistics

And with killing and hunting factored in, the figures will be much worse.

Orangutans typically have only one baby every six or seven years. In Borneo, only 38 of the 64 total population groups have more than 100 individuals. That means only 38 groups are self-sustaining.

The slightly better news is that the Indonesian and Malaysia governments (which control Borneo) are working on conservation plans to establish more reserves for the orangutans.

Natural Images 2018

Palm oil plantation
Massive jungle loss to oil palm plantations is destroying orangutan habitat. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

NO SAFETY IN NUMBERS

Clouds of passenger pigeons - illustration
Clouds of passenger pigeons - illustration
Illustration of a 19th century passenger pigeon shoot. Photo: shutterstock

New take on why the passenger pigeon went extinct

The adage that there is safety in numbers didn’t help the poor old passenger pigeon.

New research reveals it was the birds’ vast numbers that eventually caused their total demise.

Four billion passenger pigeons once darkened the skies of North America, but by the end of the 19th century, they were all gone. Although the pigeons evolved quickly, they did so in a way that made them more vulnerable to hunting and other threats.

Pigeons’ extinction

Hunting and deforestation have long been held responsible for the pigeons’ extinction, but the birds were so abundant that they destroyed the very trees in which they nested.

So why did they disappear so quickly – and so completely?

Because their huge population and lack of genetic diversity made them vulnerable, according to Beth Shapiro, a paleogenomicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She says that although the birds were able to adapt faster to their environment, that also caused all of them to be fairly genetically similar.

Poorly suited

And when new threats like human hunters and habitat loss arrived, the pigeons suddenly found their physiology and behaviour were poorly suited for their declining numbers.

Their population went from being super-big to super-small so fast they didn’t have time to adapt – in part because they lacked the diversity to cope with this new way of living, says Shapiro.

A PARALYSING EXPERIENCE

Spider wasp and huntsman spider
Spider wasp and huntsman spider
The spider wasp has paralysed the huntsman for later consumption – ©Tony Neilson

For an arachnophobe like myself, a battle to the death between a large huntsman spider and a wasp would normally see me scurrying a safe distance away.

But the scene was playing out in the sand about 50 cm from where I was waiting for a great-billed heron to re-emerge from the mangroves near my house in North Queensland. So I toughed it out.

I found out later that the distinctive orange-and-black spider wasp of Australia specialises in paralysing arachnids of all shapes and sizes and uses them as live hosts to incubate their larvae.

Special favourites

Great-billed heron in mangroves
Great-billed heron, Yorkey’s Knob – ©Tony Neilson

Huntsman and wolf spiders seem to be special favourites, and these large wasps generally win the battle – administering a paralysing sting and dragging the hapless but still live spider away for later consumption.

A single egg will be laid inside the spider’s abdomen and once hatched, the larva eats the spider from the inside out. The vital organs of the poor old huntsman are consumed last so it stays alive to the very end, providing the freshest possible meal.

Large victims

The big female spider wasp is the one that always does the damage. Her hind-legs are long and have two prominent spurs, which apparently aid in dragging large victims back to their mud nest.

When my own ‘prey’ emerged from the mangroves, the heron spotted me immediately and hoisted its heavy frame into the sky. So I took a couple of shots of the proceedings to my left and scarpered before the wasp had worked out how to get the huntsman out of the hollow they were in.

©Natural Images 2017

THE BATTLE AT DUNN ROAD SWAMP

Sea eagle and black-necked stork battle

Sea eagle and black-necked stork battle
The sea eagle closes in on the stork for a strike – ©Tony Neilson

A rare aerial encounter

The situation was not unlike a scene from the Battle of Britain: an ungainly, heavy bomber in the hands of a novice pilot trying to get airborne as a deadly enemy fighter swooped in from the sun.

A little fanciful perhaps, particularly as the sun was behind heavy cloud and this was a bird fight, not a ‘dog fight’. But the confrontation was nonetheless breathtaking, and a new experience for me.

Dunn Road swamp, not far from my house at Yorkey’s Knob north of Cairns, is a favourite photography location. This day, I had taken a visitor from New Zealand in the expectation of seeing some waders, but the swamp was almost dry and only a few black-fronted dotterels remained.

Powerfully armed

We were about to leave when a previously unseen juvenile black-necked stork (jabiru) erupted from a patch of mangroves and lumbered – all wings and dangling legs – into the sky. Out of nowhere swooped a mature, powerfully armed white-belled sea eagle – unquestionably intent on bringing the young stork down.

Although about half the body size of the stork, the eagle’s heavy bill and massive talons represented a serious threat.

Repeatedly over several minutes the sea eagle got within a few centimetres and raised its talons to strike. Each time, the stork tumbled away, seemingly out of control, to the relative safety of the mangroves.

Classic raptor ruse

After a few slow circles the sea eagle would then move off as if it had given up the hunt. The young BKS would then re-emerged to make another dash for it – insufficiently experienced perhaps to know it was a classic raptor ruse to feign disinterest, and the sea eagle would swoop in once more.

In the final aerial exchange the eagle charged up and under the stork’s right wing. But the stork applied full reverse thrust, the eagle over-shot and the stork mounted a bold but optimistic retaliatory strike with its huge bill before plunging once more into the mangroves. This time it remained hidden until the sea eagle departed for good.

I would be very interested to know if there are any readers who have seen this kind of behaviour between these two species before.

FOOTNOTE: Since posting this, birding friend Graham Snell has recalled seeing an immature sea eagle (foolishly) attack a pair of black-necked storks with a juvenile at Kurrimine Beach (south of Innisfail). “It was years ago but I recall the adult BNS’s having it all over the eagle, which didn’t hang around.”

EXTRAORDINARY DEDICATION

Golden shouldered parrot
Golden shouldered parrot
Mature male golden-shouldered parrot – ©Tony Neilson

Six years to get one perfect shot

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the first-time visitor to New York struggling to find Carnegie Hall?

Seeing a woman carrying a cello, he approached her. “Excuse me, he said, “but can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Sure,” said the woman, “practice, practice and more practice.”

To be a good bird photographer you certainly need plenty of practice. But to be really, really good you also need luck, skill, a good ‘eye’ and, above all, dedication – bordering on madness!

The perfect shot

The most extraordinary example of commitment to ‘the perfect shot’ that I know of is that of Scottish wildlife photographer, Alan McFadyen. He spent six years and shot 720,000 frames getting the perfect, flawlessly straight pic of a diving kingfisher at the very point its beak touches the water.

At my own modest level, there are many such frustratingly elusive quintessential compositions. One is the iconic mature male golden-shouldered parrot (GSP), standing sentinel atop his termite mound nest.

Immature golden-shouldered parrot
Young male golden-shouldered parrot on termite mound – ©Tony Neilson

Numerous trips to remote areas where small populations of these seriously endangered birds exist have produced many sightings and some good studies . . . on the ground, in trees and flying. But when it comes to the brilliantly coloured male perched proudly on the termite mound – zippo!

The first to know

I’m not sure if my quest for perfection will match that of Mr McFadyen, but I will be back up Cape York next breeding season, and if successful, you will be the first to know.

Footnote: I’m reliably informed that in cases where an immature male GSP takes over from a dead mature male during nesting (which happens all too often it seems), the ‘replacement’ is not allowed to enter the nest. He feeds the female and she takes the food into the chicks until such time as he sires his own brood. (An lesson for the human race perhaps?)

 

 

 

THE GREY FALCON IS NO MYTH

grey falcon perched on tower

A dream come true

Those who know me will be aware that I regularly say I’m a photographer, not a birder, and I don’t keep lists!

But when it comes to Australia’s elusive – some say mythical – grey falcon, seeing one has been a longstanding dream.

grey falcon perched on tower
A grey falcon on the Lark Quarry tower, courtesy Rex Whitehead

And thanks to the guidance of a couple of real birders (Rob Shore and Rex Whitehead), and a planned road trip into likely GF territory, the wait is over.

A 240km round trip from Winton (Queensland) late one September afternoon produced good sightings of a pair servicing a nest high up on a communication tower at the turn-off to Lark Quarry.

As I arrived, one flew out, and almost immediately after, another flew in. It all happened very quickly, and that was that. I had left my arrival too late in the day.

Everything happened too fast to get decent pictures, but what a great thrill to see this rarely encountered raptor in the vastness of Australia’s inland spaces.

 

THE PLOVER WITH A ‘TWIST’

Abstracted image of wrybills roosting
Flock of wrybills and red knots taking off from Miranda
Wrybills, red knots and godwits  fly over shell banks at Miranda. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Farm expansion threatens unique New Zealand bird

Endemic bird species are no longer abundant in New Zealand, but those that survive include many interesting specimens. Take the wrybill, for instance.

Energetic, skilful, confident and decidedly pugnacious (when nesting), this little ‘pale plover’ (Anarthynchus frontalis) is unique in at least one aspect.

Known in Maori as the ngutu parore (‘tensed lips’), the wrybill is the only bird in the world with a beak that is bent sideways – always to the right.

If you want to see them, you need to pick your visit carefully because they conduct an annual mass inter-island migration to and from breeding sites – albeit within New Zealand.

Wrybill dashing off with large mud worm
Wrybills are expert extractors of mud worms. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Braided rivers

According to New Zealand Birds Online (NZBO) the wrybill breeds only in the braided rivers of the South Island, where it uses its laterally curved beak to reach insect larvae under rounded riverbed stones.

Breeding over, almost the entire population migrates north to winter in the harbours of the northern North Island, notably the Firth of Thames and Manukau Harbour.

Dense flocks

Between January and July the wrybills form dense flocks at high-water roosts, and by far the easiest place to see them is at the Miranda shorebird site an hour southeast of Auckland.

Finding them on their riverbed breeding grounds in the Canterbury area is much more challenging. All their life stages are predominantly grey, and they become ‘highly cryptic’ among the greywacke shingle of the riverbeds.

Front view showing bend wrybill beak
The wrybill is the only bird in the world whose beak bends sideways. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Threats and numbers

NZBO says counting wrybills is difficult, but estimates a total population of about 5000, and declining. More than 40% of them will winter at Miranda on the Firth of Thames.

As with so many of New Zealand’s shockingly long list of extinct endemic species, the main threats faced by wrybills are predation by introduced mammals, plus native birds. Nest flooding is also an issue.

Land-hungry farmers

But a big new danger to the nesting wrybills is ‘agricultural encroachment’ by land-hungry farmers. Environment Canterbury says some 12,000 ha of river margins were ‘taken’ for intensive farming between 1990 and 2012. And the practice continues.

NZBO now lists the wrybill at ‘nationally vulnerable’.

Natural Images © 2017