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.


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


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!).


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!


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


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:


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!


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


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


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).


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


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




Thanks for reading!


Arrivals from abroad

This week we welcomed Phil and Remi to Porotona where they will be helping with the research over the coming months. Both are biologists who have been working with fairywrens and other Australian birds over the past year. We are lucky to have them on board!

Here they are knocking star fruits from the trees for an afternoon snack.


Much of our time lately has been focused on constructing small cages for our upcoming aviary experiments with the fairywrens. We’ll hold them in captivity briefly while we study the aggressive and mating behaviors of both sexes. Local biologist Doka has taken a lead on constructing an impressive construction for this purpose using only various materials cut from the bush (and some copper mesh).


We have also spent time locating fairywren nests and have logged a dozen for the year so far. Despite high predation rates, we are able to collect some useful data from the nestlings and by using cleverly disguised Go Pros to document feeding rates from the adults.


Our meals here consist of almost exclusively locally grown veggies, fresh caught fish, and coconut flavored rice. Preparing these meals takes quite a long while and effort. Here is Serena flavoring a few saucepans of veggies with coconut.


Recent collections from the garden has resulted in an abundance of tapioca, which the locals laboriously prepare and bake bread-like food items.


Finally, we have begun to see some rain over the past two weeks! The river that runs by the house has started to trickle by and we are all crossing our fingers that it will fill up and become a raging torrent soon.


I’ll end with a shot of Phil and the enormous Blue-tongued Skink he found on his first night here:


Village living


Over the past week and a half I’ve begun to settle in at Serena’s in the village of Porotona. Porotona is a small village on the northern slope of Milne Bay Province and is not our primary study site in the area. For the past five years we have worked in a nearby village, Garuahi, but El Nino has shaken things up here. This part of the world has been subject to a particularly harsh drought over the past year and Papua New Guinea is facing the worst drought since 1997 (another El Nino year where apparently ~7% of the country’s population died). If you google Papua New Guinea drought, you will see a long list of stories describing villages that are running out of water and food.

For a little perspective, the last time that I visited Porotona in 2014 there was a raging river right outside the house that would occasionally rise so high it would block traffic from the road. This year there is only a dry riverbed and the local residents inform me that they have not seen the river empty since 1997. The river and springs in the area provide the water for drinking, cleaning, and bathing and this year most of these are dried up. In nearby Garuahi, there is only one small water source that is supplying the entire village (several hundred people) with water. Here in Porotona there are still several springs with water and water is tight, but readily available. Notably, there is a communal spring where the locals go to bathe and do their laundry.


The main pool you see is where people go to bathe and the water is slightly discolored from soap. The small holes you see in the front left are where the spring water emerges and you can fetch drinking water from here. Amazingly the pool is teaming with crawfish, shrimp, freshwater eels, fish, and crabs, at least at the points where fresh water is coming out of the spring.

This is the first visit I have made at this time of year, which apparently is the season of the mangos. I’ve noticed before that mango trees are quite common here, but I have never seen them bearing fruit (during my visits May-August). This time mangos are literally raining out of the forest around me. Local kids often gather to throw rocks at mangos that haven’t fallen yet and everyone is eating mangos right now.


I enjoyed Christmas with Serena and her family. There wasn’t too much excitement, but she did bake a big loaf of delicious bread Christmas morning!


This post is lacking in biology and bird related items. In brief, I am enjoying being here this time of year to see Palearctic migrants coming through. Each night large groups of White-throated Needletails (50-60) gather over the village and forage amongst the local swiftlets. Oriental Cuckoos are also a common sight right now. Of local interest, I flushed a group of King Quail this morning, which is a tough to come across bird just about anywhere they occur. Here is a baby Large-tailed Nightjar to top things off tonight!






Christmas New Guinea Style

There was some lapse in blog posts and I apologize for it! Last week my phone failed to upload the post, lets hope its better this week.

I am just over a week into the beginning of the field season. I will be on site here in Milne Bay Province for the next five months or so. I arrived via the coastal town of Alotau where I was greeted by some Christmas flair.


I will have to keep this short, because I must catch the transport back to town. But things are moving along quickly on the project and we’ve begun preparing for our experiments and have found a few nests. Here is the first fledgling fairywren caught in the 2015-2016 season! Hopefully there will be many more…



More soon!

Brisbane layover

After three flights and >20 hours on airplanes today, I finally arrived in Brisbane! I do this layover a couple times a year on my way to Port Moresby, because there is no sensible straight-through itinerary. Fortunately for me, this means I can have some time to explore Brisbane. After crashing at my hotel room, I headed over to the Kedron Brook Wetlands with the hope of seeing some dotterels and other shorebirds. I found it to be quite dry compared to my expectations, but there were plenty of things to look at. If I studied these Superb Fairywrens (or Red-backs for that matter), this would be the end of my trip, as they are everywhere. Lots of them were carrying around nesting material, so hopefully this suggests my birds will be too!


According to information I got from local birder Dez Wells, this is a key breeding area for Black-winged (Pied) Stilts. Many of them had young and I spent the day with them flying over my head calling in agitation.


A small group of Red-necked Avocets were a highlight for me.


It seemed for a long time that I would miss out on the dotterels completely, because the habitat was scarce. At one point I was watching some of the stilt chicks (fluff with huge legs) and I noticed that there were several other tiny shorebirds mixed in – Black-fronted Dotterel! This species has eluded me on all previous stopovers.


After hours of wandering the paths out here I was starting to fully embrace the exhaustion I was feeling after flying all day (days?). I wondered the fields aimlessly for a bit in hopes of encountering the local Australasian Grass Owls and eventually came across a small group of Brisbane birders and another foreigner. Turns out it was Noah from over at Birding Without Borders who was steamrolling through Brisbane on his world big year (http://www.audubon.org/features/birding-without-borders). I have followed the blog enviously from afar and it was exciting to join in looking a few last birds before he moves on to Melbourne. The owl sounded like a bit of a long shot, but shortly after dark we had one owl cruise in low over the grass and pass us by close. Not a bad lifer and another new one for Noah (looks like #5834 for the year on his blog!)!


On to Papua New Guinea!


Ideally, this will be the dullest blog post of the year. Nevertheless, it serves a purpose for declaring my departure and beginning this blog. In approximately six airplanes, one taxi, and one cattle car I will be at my field site in Alotau, Papua New Guinea. Here is a fairywren for last year to keep this post colorful (of the lorentzi ssp)!