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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