Monday, October 29, 2012

Papua New Guinea's jungle beauties

By Fairfax NZ News

The Rondon Ridge Lodge is high up a mountain and at 4.30am the cloud
is low, sounds are muffled and the night is as black as sin. There is
no-one outside reception. I hear rustling in the bushes and worry
about being bait for a boa constrictor, so I call out. The night
watchman replies. He was as wary of my stealthy footfalls as I was of

A torch beam approaches. It's Joseph Ando, our birding guide. My
friend, Kelly, also a keen birder, joins us and three of us, in
crocodile file, torches bobbing, walk into the jungle and plod up the

There is not much Joseph doesn't know about the birds here. His father
was a bird hunter and Joseph spent his youth in the jungle learning
the ways of birds, catching or killing them. Bird-of-paradise feathers
were worth good money - still are - and the meat of bigger birds
provided a family meal. Joseph learned the names of different birds,
their calls and their habits from his father. He also learned to love
and respect birds and the pristine jungle they live in, so he was
happy to move from being a bird hunter to a guide. Rondon Lodge
sponsored him to get the Western ornithological training that birding
guides require.

Now, like a reformed smoker, he's vehemently against hunting and
hunters don't dare go near his patch of jungle.

By 5.15am there is a hint of dawn and the birds start up: trilling,
tweeting whooping, rasping and crying. One sounds like a machine gun.
We walk to a clearing where dewdrops hang on the tips of fairy bamboo,
and birds come to drink it. The clearing allows us to see clearly into
the canopy.

Kelly and I are keen photographers, but these birds are too high in
the trees for my telephoto lens and just when I get a decent shot
lined up they fly away. I give up on photography and relax into the
delight of seeing them up close with binoculars. It's truly thrilling
and soon I have had clear sightings of five different varieties of
bird of paradise.

Papua New Guinea has myriad extraordinary birds, but birds of paradise
are the stars. The family has 40 species in 14 genera, all but two of
which are found only in Papua New Guinea. The males have extraordinary
feathers, often bright and shiny, which they puff up and turn into
shimmering displays when they dance. This is done to attract smaller,
plain-looking females.
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Birds of paradise are fruit, nut and insect eaters and most often live
high in giant trees. Because they have been hunted for over 2000 years
for their fabulous feathers, they are wary of humans.

The gloriously named king of saxony is a small fellow with two fancy
feathers on the back of his head. These feathers are long and slender
with an iridescent blue tuft on the end and he sits on a high branch
waving them around his body like a cheerleader with flags. He's one of
the machine-gun singers and intermittently lets off a volley to
attract the girls.

A black sicklebill, so named because of his long curved bill, hops
about in the crown of a tree directly above our heads. He's over a
metre long with the longest part being his straight, shiny, black tail
feathers. When he displays he stretches to make himself tall, fans out
his tail like a peacock and flaps his wings.

We also see stephanie's astrapia, a purplish bird of paradise with a
glorious blue, green and purple head.

The best time for birding, that intermediate time between night and
day, is soon gone and so have most of the birds so we walk down the

The lodge's orchid garden is another of Joseph's passions. In his
downtime, Joseph gathers orchid plants from the forest and attaches
them to mid-sized shade trees. The garden is fenced to keep out pigs,
has a stream running through it and there are plenty of orchids in
glorious bloom.

At times like this I particularly love photography. It forces me to
notice the beauty of the often-overlooked details of flowers; their
throats with animal-like tongues and teeth, the hairy backs of buds,
fine iridescent patterns in bright petals and the sweet vanilla-like
perfume some orchids have. I'm awed by the diversity, delicacy and
beauty of these botanical miracles.

There are over 3000 species of orchid in Papua New Guinea, more than
in any other country, and new species are discovered every year. Papua
New Guinea is close to the equator and has complex geology and high
mountains, ensuring a variety of climate and topography, all of which
leads to this impressive biodiversity.

Next morning we are again up before dawn and bump down into Hagen
Valley in Rondon Lodge's little van. Joseph knows where raggiana bird
of paradise gather. Raggiana is one of the most beautiful and famous
of this species; its image is on the country's flag and is the
insignia of the national airlines.

In a row of casuarina trees three of them are busy dancing and showing
off their feathers. They put their heads down and a fountain of peach
plumage shivers along their backs. Their wings shake and flap. They
bob up and down and call the girls with shrill squawks. But there are
no girls around.

Eventually, they fly away, their long peachy feathers trailing behind
and undulating to the rhythm of their wings. As birding moments go
this is unforgettably paradisiacal.


Fly: Pacific Blue to Port Moresby via Brisbane. There are numerous
flights each day between Port Moresby and Mt Hagen on Air Niugini
( and Airlines PNG (

Stay: Rondon Ridge Lodge, on the hill above Mt Hagen, is the latest
addition to the five Trans Niugini Tours lodges in Papua New Guinea.
It's comfortable and cosy, the view is unbeatable and the food and
service are superb. Go birding at dawn and dusk and visit Mt Hagen and
the Waghi villages during the day. All five Trans Niugini Tours'
lodges are in areas with special scenic, cultural and ecological
interest and tailor-made tours, including transport, can be arranged.
Guides are part of the package and safety is not a concern. Further
information: Papua New Guinea Tourism,

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