Takeoff

I am flying up at 10,000 ft on the long leg between Louisiana and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. By my calculations, I will have left my house at 8:00am on Monday and will not arrive at our field site on the Fly River until late on Tuesday night – one week and a day later.

This year I will be working with two other researchers interested in the effects of hormones on color and behavior in the White-shouldered Fairywrens.

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I am also planning on visiting the mountain village of Tari in the highlands where, if luck holds out, I’ll encounter some more King-of-Saxony Bird-of-Paradise! Come back for photos and mindless dribble from the field.

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Layover birding

One of the troubles with working in a country that is really, really, really far away from home, is that it takes an absurd amount of time to travel from my field sites to my front door. I left my site on Saturday, PNG time, and I wont arrive back at my house in Louisiana until Thursday PNG time! One of the contributing factors to this is spending time sorting permits and samples before importing the fruits of my research into the USA.

The only upside to this is an extended layover in some places with pretty neat birds and friends. On Sunday this week, I was taken by Jeff Crocombe up to Varirata National Park just outside of Port Moresby. This national park is PNGs best kept secret. It is the only park with maintained trails running through high quality habitat where you can mostly bird on your own. For this reason, there are some great birds to be found! We spent a full day hiking the trails here and managed a bunch of fantastic birds. Exciting for me, was this Dwarf Fruit-Dove, which I have looked for throughout my travels in New Guinea without success. The book calls them “surprisingly small,” which was an appropriate description.

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One of the appeals of Varirata NP is the presence of several major skulkers. Birders love ground dwelling birds that are impossible to see, because they’re a huge pain and apparently we’re all masochists. Three of these skulkers are the Chestnut-backed Jewel-babbler, Painted Quail-thrush, and Papuan Pitta. The former two are part of a colorful and secretive Australasian family and the names speak for themselves. They also sound surprisingly similar, but we managed to track down one of each that were each being quite vocal. Finally, the pitta was uncharacteristically vocal right smack in the middle of the day when any self respecting pitta should have been sulking quietly in dense thickets. None of my photos of these three are worth posting on their own, so I made a little composition.

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Chestnut-backed Jewel-babbler, Painted Quail-thrush, and Papuan Pitta

And a checklist of the other birds can be found here for the curious.
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28849767

After leaving Port Moresby, I took a short hop over to Brisbane in southern Queensland. I had to spend a day to pick up dry ice, so I met up with Nick Leseberg who was kind enough to show me around a few local birding spots.

There were a few rain forest species that I hoped to see near Mount Glorious, where we started the morning. In the parking lot at Miala we located a massive fruiting tree that was being visited by about a dozen Lewin’s Honeyeaters, as many Satin Bowerbirds, Barred Cuckooshrikes, Wompoo Fruit-doves, and best of all, a smattering of male and female Regent Bowerbirds. Several Rose-crowned Fruit-doves were in attendance, but remained just out of sight for the entire morning, outside of a few flyovers. Just down the road, Nick quickly picked up on a small group of Red-browed Treecreepers amongst a Bell Miner colony. Nick had done research with the latter species and explained to me about their aggressive habits. Apparently, a small colony will vigorously defend a patch of forest from all other birds in the area. They are so successful at preventing other birds from coming in that insects become plentiful and devour the foliage, leading to small scale forest degradation. We found the treecreepers foraging right along the border of the colony and enjoyed watching Bell Miners chase off those birds caught unaware passing into their territory.

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Nick and I spent the afternoon traveling through the Lockyer valley looking for open country species and waterfowl. Along the way, Nick spotted this bearded dragon striking an epic pose on someone’s lawn.

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One of the species I had hoped to see was the Speckled Warbler. Nick indicated that they are a bit uncommon here. Yikes, boarding my plane so got to post this a bit early! Nick delivered on the warbler and we encountered a small flock of these boldly patterned Australian warblers.

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Fuscous Honeyeater!

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Northern PNG

Following the events of my previous blog, Phil and I embarked upon a road trip to try to capture as many fairywrens as possible in Northeastern New Guinea. Our aim was to better understand the variation in female coloration in this area.

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There is a highway leading between cities of Madang (where we were) and Lae, which is in Marobe province in on the far side of the Huon Peninsula. The road is smartly dubbed the “Lae-Madang Highway” and as we quickly found out, defies any previously held understanding of what road qualities constitutes a highway. With the anticipation of the unknown, we loaded up a Binitang research station land cruiser with rice for a week, an entire branch of betlenuts (gifts for folks along the way), a driver, security man, and our local guide.

We were told the first leg of the journey would take us 2 hours to the village of Walum and that the entire drive to Lae would take 6-7 hours. Clearly, our informants had not traveled the first 100km of road lately, which was in fact slowly, but steadily, falling off the edge of the Huon mountains and into a state of disrepair. What remained of the road was cake for the land cruiser, but became a 5 hour long ride of misery for the passengers neatly packed in the back of the vehicle. We made frequent stops for the transport buses which maddeningly drove this road and on more than one occasion we had to help pull them out of a pile of mud.

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This picture is just an example of the poor road conditions. Notice how the bridge just…ends.

The Markham Valley itself lies between the massive Huon and Owen Stanely Ranges. It is filled with a combination of palm oil plantation, sugar cane farms, cow pasture, and grassland. These different crops are mostly owned by the company Ramu Sugar, which thankfully maintains the road in the valley proper.

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Cacao is also grown in abundance on the periphery of this area and I am enjoying some recently bought chocolates that originate from here.

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We cruised down the road for a week, stopping at villages along the way each night, where we were always welcomed with open arms and a steaming pot of rice each night. Catching birds proved to be possibly more miserable than the Gewal adventure described before, but we managed some nonetheless. The trip was made more pleasant by the company of our Binatang staff and guides, who tirelessly taught us Pidgin and navigated local village politics to make sure we found places to safely search for birds.

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The teams all here

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Kui, our talented driver

We eventually washed up back in Madang where we enjoyed a much needed shower, before zipping off on an airplane to the far northwest of the country. My international flight was coming up and there was still one more population I hoped to visit this year so Phil and I wiped sleeplessness from our eyes and prepared to journey to the Vanimo surf lodge.

I hoped that perhaps in Vanimo we would be able to wind down a bit and stay in one location for a few days. The Vanimo Surf Lodge absolutely did not disappoint. With comfortable little beach houses located on a quiet stretch of coast, we found nothing to complain about.  Even better, we were quickly able to locate fairywrens right smack in the middle of town. Forget open stretches of healthy grassland, these birds were flourishing in miserable little pieces of grass behind homes throughout the city. I stayed for a couple days while we nailed down locations for catching, then left Phil to wrap up with catching as many birds as he could before he takes off next week.

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We also enjoyed a short hike into the hills that back up to the main road leading along the coast. The forest here is miraculously still standing tall (despite an unbelievably high rate of logging being carried out here) and held a number of species typical of healthy forest, such as bush turkeys and allegedly cassowary, and some specialties of the northern PNG coast. For example, this Ochre-collared Flycatcher (below). Here is the only spot we observed the somewhat poorly known Jobi Manucode, my personal last of this group of mostly glossy black birds of paradise.

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I am now transiting through Port Moresby and nailing down my last permit arrangements to depart for the USA. We have had a long and successful field season that has benefited from the enormous help provided by countless individuals. Phil and Remi were both incredible field assistants who carried the weight of the project with expertise and professionalism. Phil has had to put up with me throwing us into increasingly convoluted and frequently uncomfortable places to find fairywrens. None of the work would have been possible without the tireless and expert work of our biologist crew in Milne Bay Province made up of Serena, Dhoka, Gabriel, and Ela. In Western Province, we could not even catch one bird if it weren’t for the assistance and hospitality of Kipling, Aaron, and their families. In the bush north of Madang we had wonderful hospitality from Kotai and expert bush guiding from village man Bulil. Our trained field assistant Luda from Binatang was a pleasure to have working along through all our work in Madang and our trip to Lae wouldn’t have been possible without our driver Kui and security manager Jasper. Finally in Vanimo, Tori and Manu and the cooks provided invaluable advice and logistical help for catching birds up there.

 

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Much needed update!

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I’ll blow the dust off this blog to try to get in an update!

Phil and I have been busy in remote areas working with the wrens and haven’t had access to wifi to update.

The latest entry from Obo back in March briefly described our experimental work there, which I’m glad to say we completed! Using birds made out of card stock paper, we presented territorial pairs in both populations of fairywrens with each other’s phenotype. Concealed nearby, we dictated behaviors into a microphone which we will transcribe back in the US.

Following our trip down the river, we briefly visited a huge section of intact primary forest in the northern Fly River region. None of our grassland loving fairywrens here, but we enjoyed some birding including a few unusual observations, such as the New Guinea Flightless Rail. These huge birds are one of the relatively few remaining flightless rail species, which were once widespread through the southern Pacific island. Rails are notoriously difficult to see and this was no exception. Fortunately, this species has a habit of visiting recently chopped sago palm (a food source featured earlier in this blog) and the locals set up a blind for us to watch and wait for one to come out. 

After leaving Kiunga, we took a flight up to Madang on the north coast of PNG. Here, there is another subspecies of fairywrens that are distinct in appearance. This gives them a nice frosty pied appearance and I’ve wanted to visit a population of then for a long time.

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Catching birds near Madang was not easy. The region is characterized by extensive forest, so grassland habitats are slim. Eventually we managed to catch sixteen birds in the swamplands here, but these were the result of hard 15+ hour days through some particularly miserable habitat. The data and samples we got from these birds will go towards a project more broadly focused on understanding the variation in birds throughout the island.

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The top picture is with the resident hornbill at Binatang Research Station who made substantial contributions to this blog post.

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Phil and I arrived in Obo last week. Obo is situated in the middle fly region of Papua New Guinea, or roughly halfway between the mountains and the ocean in Western Province. We’re a days paddle from the Indonesian border and a ten hour boat ride from the nearest town.

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Obo is a small village with locals who make a living selling either fish (barramundi and black bass) and crocodile skins (both fresh and saltwater). Compared to our other site on Milne Bay, they are also much more dependent on bush meat and most families regularly hunt wallabies, pigs, cassowary, or the introduced deer population.

Of note for our work, we enjoy the healthy Savannah here that is full of the lorentzi subspecies of White-shouldered Fairywren! In this population, females are brown and strongly contrast the male’s ornamentation.

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I am interested in why this population is so different than the birds in Milne Bay (see previous post!). This year, we are collecting samples and experimental data that will help us better understand this striking pattern of female ornamentation.

Down the Fly River!

Last week we said goodbye to these fairywrens in Milne Bay Province. Remi will stay behind with Serena and the field crew to continue monitoring the population for nests and banding birds.

IMG_2973 (2)In the meantime, Phil and I are off to Western Province where we will work for two weeks with a population of White-shouldered Fairywrens where the females are brown (unlike the photo above, where females, left, are black and white like the males!). My Ph.D. research is interested in why these differences occur and we are collecting observations and conducting experiments to try to understand this variation.

I will be keep this short, as we leave early in the morning and I won’t be able to update for a couple of weeks. Here are a couple of shots of birds in Western Province to tide you over until then!

Southern Crowned Pigeon from the forests around Kiunga were a surpise, as most of these have been eaten.

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Finally, I was able to see another fairywren species (the Emperor Fairywren) in which females are highly ornamented as well! Males are glowing blue and females maintain the blue head, but with an orangey brown body (below). These ones will have to wait for another Ph.D to study…

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January update

On my last blog post (two weeks ago!) I highlighted the arrival of two foreign field assistants to the field site. Remi and Phil are joining a field team that consists of myself and four local biologists. I’ll introduce a couple of them here.

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Serena Ketaloya is a biologist who worked with Conservation International for several years on outreach with environmental issues throughout the province, particularly on the islands. She first started working on this project in 2011 and has been pivotal to the success of our research ever since. She lives at the home pictured earlier in this blog with her three children and several other family members. Serena trained as a bird bander under Jordan Karubian when he first initiated this project and is proficient in all modes of data collection on the project. In addition to her skills as a field biologist, she coordinates all of our outreach work throughout the province and manages the local field crew year round. We’re lucky to have her as a part of this project! For some other recent neat news about Serena, see this blog post:

In Papua New Guinea, conservation efforts overlook crucial group: women

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Also pictured in this image is a bowl of sago soup that she recently made for us. Sago Palm is a local palm that is used for a wide variety of things here and is particularly useful for constructing roofs and walls and makes a filling meal when other veggies are scarce (such as years like this during a drought!).

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Doka is a biologist who first joined the project in 2014. Along with Serena, he manages the population of banded fairywrens at our Porotona field site year round. He is extremely proficient at identifying the local bird species and coordinates our monthly transects that record fairywren abundance and local bird diversity. This year I also learned that he is a remarkably skilled carpenter. In his free time, he is constructing a new house for his wife and kids and recently has been heading up construction of the aviaries that will house fairywrens for our experimental work. Here are some photos of the construction of these aviaries! More on these tests in the near future, but for now be impressed at the impressive cages that have been created almost entirely out of bush materials!

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Finally, I will end with a short selection of recent photographs taken by myself, Phil, and Remi (from Remi):

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We recently made the move down to our primary field site at Garuahi, where some small rain has filled up the water tanks, enabling us to spend time here. We are staying in a local government house that is quite comfortable. Here is a shot curtesy of Phil:

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The other day we tried to get offshore in the heat off the afternoon to check out some seabirds, but only minutes after leaving the shore the engine began emitting smoke and we had to paddle back to shore. Nice view of the field site from afar though!

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Serena with some of her various animals (from Remi)!

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Always take time to hang out with the kittens and puppies (from Remi):

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One of the benefits of working right on the ocean is an abundance of marine life right offshore. This may need a blog post of its own, but here is a nice shot of the reef that is just a short swim in the ocean away (from Remi).

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Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds are pretty common at our site and we regularly come across amazing bowers such as this (from Phil)!

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A Blyth’s Hornbill to round things out (from Phil)!

 

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Thanks for reading!