Monday, November 29, 2010

Encountering the Warrior

Monday, November 29, 2010
Warrior, of the Huli people in Papua New Guinea.

On an afternoon trip from Ambua Lodge to a nearby roost site of a sooty owl, our birding group got its first encounter with a member of the local Huli people. The roost site was in a cavity in a tall eucalyptus-like tree in the middle of some hand-planted crop fields.

I wish I had photos of our initial moments with the man I came to know simply as Warrior. He was a Huli wigman who appeared in the middle of the road as we were trying to execute a too-tight turn in our combi-bus. He initially waved and smiled, and beckoned us to drive after him down the road. He was running barefoot down the road in front of us, feathered headdress waving with his movement, a bundle of leaves covering his backside.

That's Warrior on the right, walking in front of our bus.

As our bus started to follow him, he suddenly whirled, notched and arrow and aimed it at us through the windshield. I must admit that I jumped and dodged behind the seat back in front of me. A palpable surge of momentary fear had gone through our group. And just as quickly, the man smiled and laughed, turning to resume his trot down the road.

Fewer than 100 yards later, a washed out bridge prevented our further progress, so we dismounted and continued on foot. The wigman immediately came up to me to show me his bow and arrows. I was fascinated, and he could tell. Our conversation went like this:

"I sell you all 75 kina!" he said.
"No thanks. Please tell me your name!"
"Is that really your name?"
"Yes, I warrior. What name bilong you?"
"My name is Bill."
"Beel! My fren!"

Warrior tried once or twice more to sell me his arrows, but each time I politely declined and asked him another question. Despite our language difficulty—he did not speak much English and I could only discern certain phrases in Pidgen, the language most common in Papua New Guinea, a mash-up of English, German, and various local tongues—we learned a lot about each other. The land where we were going to find the sooty owl was owned by him and his clan. He did some farming, but mostly hunting and guiding people. I asked him is this was how he dressed every day, and he confirmed it. Looking closely at his headdress, I could see cassowary feathers, two sulphur-crested cockatoo feathers, fresh plant stems and leaves, and a carefully folded and pinned-in-place label from a food product. A long tan reed was centered beneath the tip of his nose, inserted through a hole in his septum. Elaborate patterns were painted on his face in red, yellow, and black.

We'd be instructed to ask for permission to take photographs of the people we would encounter—this is only common courtesy after all. But we'd also been asked/advised not to pay money for this privilege, since PNG is trying to maintain a spirit of friendly hospitality for visiting tourists. The concern being that if every photo-taking tourist is made to pay to take photographs, the local culture and customs could devolve into mercenary commerce, opening the door to more of the problems caused by so-called "rascals" who commit crimes against tourists and travelers.

It can be a rare thing to enjoy an authentic encounter with someone native to a country you are visiting. Sometimes a place and its people are so inured to tourists that they have little interest in answering the same handful of questions from yet another busload of visitors ("Do you really live here? What do you eat? Did you make that yourself?"). Or, and this is becoming much less common in our modern world, you visit a place where few outsiders go and the people are very shy and reticent. Either way, it can be difficult to get an authentic feel for the people and place.
Waiting for the owl.

I suspect that Warrior could easily rev-up his guiding "act" for a bunch of oblivious tourists. He shot several bamboo "arrows" for us—at a cloud, at a distant tree. He did not shoot any of the more finely made arrows he held in his hand. As we walked along, talking, he seemed to enjoy getting to know me as much as I did him.

We crossed through a farmyard and over a series of creeks, then through planted fields, trying our best to avoid stepping on the vines of the plants growing from the ground. Once at the roost site, one of the local men went forward and used a 30-foot long pole to scratch the side of the tree. This was meant to get the owl to peek outside, which it did. But the owl was startled enough from his daytime slumber that it flew off to a nearby copse of trees.

The roost tree, with the cavity (on the upper left fork)

I had been videotaping the tree scratching, but when the owl peeked out I went for my binoculars and completely missed getting any shots or footage.
After-owl group photo with the local family and our guides.

Our group posed for some photos with the local family and our guides at the owl roost.

The farmer, including Warrior, are paid a fee each time a group of bird watchers visits. This is an excellent example of grassroots ecotourism. The local villagers know that by protecting the owl and its roost tree, they can earn money from visiting groups. We discussed ways to show the owl without spooking it from its roost, and the local folks assured us that the owl usually peeks out for a minute or so and then goes back down inside the cavity to sleep.
Walking through the cultivated fields.

On our way back to the road it began to rain quite heavily. Within minutes we were all soaked through and getting chilled. At the road, we parted company with Warrior and his family. I did buy an arrow from him and he told me about how he made it. He made a slit along one side of the arrow shaft. Into this shaft he inserted some small seeds. He told me that when this arrow goes into his enemy, those seeds will make it hurt more. Knowing how intense the fighting can be among rival clans in PNG, I did not doubt Warrior's sincerity or intent.

The arrow's construction was ingenious. It was designed to come apart mid-shaft. And it was beautifully carved and decorated with paint. The balance was perfect and though I will never shoot it from a bow, I am sure it would fly straight and true.

Before we left Warrior and his family I asked if I could take his photograph.

"Yes, Beel, you my friend! Take photo!"
Warrior posed for me to take his photo.

I did and we shook hands and turned to go our separate ways returning to our separate and very different worlds. I'm not sure Warrior will remember me, but each time I look at the red arrow, I surely remember him.

That's me with my arrow, wearing one of the traditional hats worn in PNG. This one is woven in the colors of the national flag.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Birding in Papua New Guinea: Ribbon-tailed Astrapia

Friday, November 19, 2010

Let's go back to Papua New Guinea for a post or two, shall we? In the afternoon of our first full day afield, the weather waffled between cool/cloudy and sunny/warming. We birded along the Highlands Highway as well as along some forest trails. While we saw quite a few new species, and more individuals of species we'd already added to the list, the most notable encounter was a foraging immature male ribbon-tailed astrapia—our third bird-of-paradise of the day.

Young male ribbon-tailed astrapia.

This young male foraged on the fruits of a tree alongside the road, at about eye level. Though the light was weak, I managed to get a few images with my digiscoping rig. Adult females show a dark brown body, and long dark tail feathers. Adult males have long white tail streamers and a glossy all-black body.

You can see in my video below that this bird is starting to show some white in the tail feathers.

After enjoying the astrapia show, we headed back to Ambua Wilderness Lodge, where the sun finally came out in earnest. We relaxed on the front lawn, enjoying the view and chatting about what we'd seen and what we were hoping to see in the days ahead.

Ambua Lodge view.

Our first full day of birding in Papua New Guinea was coming to an end. And what an incredible experience it had been.

Next PNG post: seeking the sooty owl.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Universal Truths of Birding #4

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How Birders Are Made. Here is the only look you will get at your life magnolia warbler. This experience frustrates you sufficiently to keep you coming back, hoping for a better look. Which may or may not happen. Congratulations: You are a birder.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Haiku for Autumn

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Left wanting summer
autumnal melancholy
burns off in colors

Thursday, November 11, 2010

More Birds and More King of Saxony!

Thursday, November 11, 2010
Scanning the forest for signs of bird life.

After birding along the Highlands Highway on that morning of King of Saxony magic, we drove down the dusty road to some land owned by the clan of our guide, Benson. He had cut some forest trails that ambled along to good vantage points for some other avian specialties.

Driving the Highlands Highway in our combi bus. Note the Obama sticker on the windshield!

We saw birds with truly weird names: yellow-browed melidectes, Belford's melidectes, rufescent imperial pigeon, Papuan mountain pigeon, Papuan lorikeet, canary flycatcher, rufous-naped whistler, regent whistler, Whistler's mother, blue-capped ifrita, crested berrypecker, lesser melampitta, mountain firetail, red-collared myzomela (some confusion over its pronunciation: myZOMela or MYzoMELa) and three small, active birds (the names of which sound like a game of "One of These Things is NOT Like the Others") friendly fantail, Willie wagtail, and dimorphic fantail. And, I must confess we didn't actually see Whistler's mother.

Mountain firetail.

Perhaps my favorite bird name of the day was certainly descriptive of the species, but even more, it sounded like the name of a sexy villainess in a James Bond movie from the 1970s: smoky honeyeater.

All of these birds were very nice. Some offered themselves generously for observation. Many did not. What did stand out, however, was another session with a wonderfully cooperative (or oblivious) King of Saxony bird-of-paradise. This one was singing and waving his ostentatious plumes from just inside the forest canopy. Here's a little clip of the late morning antics of yet another King Sexy bird-of-paradise. I apologize for all the camera sound in the background. It was a narrow trail with a small viewing window to the bird, so we were all clustered together trying to capture our images.

This day was only partly over, and we'd already had an embarrassment of feathered riches. We did not know it then, but the day had one final bird-of-paradise sighting in store for us.

Friday, November 5, 2010

King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise!

Friday, November 5, 2010
Male King of Saxony bird-of-paradise displaying.

We left things hanging earlier this week when I described getting my first look at a King of Saxony bird-of-paradise. I would have been back with the goods sooner but my trusty Mac laptop needed a brain transplant in the interim. But we're back now! And one of us has a new brain!

Somehow the gods were smiling on us that morning—perhaps to make up for the long journey we'd had the day before and the cold, rainy, late-afternoon arrival at our first bit of decent bird habitat. Now, standing along the Highlands Highway, with a singing male King of Saxony bird-of-paradise in front of us, we might not have imagined things could get any better. And then the sun came up behind us, illuminating the scene in a wash of golden color, burning off just enough of the morning mist so we could get sparklingly clear looks at this amazing beast before us.

He waved his head plumes back and forth, uttering the occasional song. We stood gob-smacked for a spell, and then came to life as we realized we had a chance to capture images of this aparition.

Imagine a large black, yellow, and white roundish bird with giant, spidery, iridescent feathers coming (seemingly) out of its ears. I struggled to find words to describe the head plumes. They were like pheasant tail feathers in length, but their bright metallic blue spots made them look like something from a Lady Gaga video.

One of our group asked "What King of Saxony was this bird named for?" I did not hear the answer ( it turns out it was Albert King of Saxony, whose full name was Frederick Augustus Albert Anton Ferdinand Joseph Karl Maria Baptist Nepomuk Wilhelm Xaver Georg Fidelis—a name as long as the head plumes of the bird that bears his moniker.) I guess we're lucky they did not pick one of his other names for this magnificent species. Nepomuk bird-of-paradise does not really cut it.

I thought of something different to myself, and apparently spoke this out loud: "They should just call it the King Sexy bird-of-paradise!" On this point we all concurred.

Here is the video I shot via my digiscoping rig. I apologize in advance for the background sounds of me struggling to pull another camera out of my waist pack. The King Sexy had me all shook up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Winner of Caption Contest #17

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: My pal Dr. Steve Banner (pictured above) was NOT nekkid in this photo, though it certainly looks like he is. He is a good sport for sending in this photo along with a note suggesting it as a caption contest image! I'm proud to have Steve, an accomplished birder/tour leader/photographer/nudist wear a BWD bino-harness , regardless of whatever else he is (or is not) wearing.

We got a laundry-basket-full of great captions for contest #17. You can read all of them via the captions link on the original post.

Our extensive and distinguished panel of judges has chosen a winner and it's: Christoph Lange who wrote this caption:

Please read the manual of your GPS device carefully before using it for navigation!

Congrats to Christopher! Please send me your address via e-mail (editor AT so we can send you your fabulous prize.

Several other captions tickled the ribs of our judges, including:

Birding is Fun! said..."Does this bino harness give me man-boobs?"

Zeke Watkins said...(cue Davis Attenborough Voice) "This is the rare elusive Naked Birder. This male individual is seen here bathing and using a tool to search for the even rarer Female Naked Birder. The female has never been documented in the wild. Note the male's solitary lifestyle."

Connie Kogler said...No Butts, No Lory.

cyberthrush said...The new Swarovski binoculars were absolutely superb, though the free thong strap they threw in pinched a bit...

Jeff Bouton said...Thank god for waterproof optics... hope those are Leicas!

Phoebe (: said...What happens when you keep birders out all day without a bathroom.

Rondeau Ric said...Ed Robinson, lead singer for the Canadian band, Bare Naked Ladies, takes up birdwatching.

Thanks to all for playing (or just lurking)! Judging from the traffic that contest #17 received, I need to post more semi-nekkid images here on Bill of the Birds.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Birding Papua New Guinea Day 2, Part 1

Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Our birding gang awoke to a chilly, misty morning to start our first full day at Ambua Wilderness Lodge. Being so near the equator, one might suspect that the temperatures would be quite warm, but this was the highlands. At this elevation of 7,000 feet the weather here stays moderately cool all year long. We ate breakfast in the main lodge building in the darkness, our gear piled up near the front door.

The patio lights had attracted some spectacular moths overnight. While we awaited our transportation, we took some photos of these insects, and tried our best to see some birds in the pre-dawn light.

Still no bus, so I decided to run back to the cabin to drop something off. Just as I approached my door, I saw Mark Cocker standing farther down the path, looking up into the trees. "I've got a bird-of-paradise here, Bill!"

He may as well have said "I've finally found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Bill!"

I raced down the slippery steps to where he stood and followed his pointed finger into the dark, mist-enshrouded trees. Just then a black bird with a ridiculously long tail fluttered from one tree to another. "I think that's an astrapia," Mark said calmly, "Probably a Princess Stephanie's."

I was gasping at the spectacle, trying not to scream out loud or soil my boxers. Oh. My. GAWD!
Mark Cocker, astrapia conjuror and birding smock wearer.

Princess Stephanie's astrapia! My first-ever BOP! And I had Mark to thank for it!

It's here that I need to explain why there is no stunning photo of this bird. Due to the weight limitations for our airplane flights, I elected to take only three cameras with me on this trip: my digiscoping rig (a Leica scope, adapter, and camera), my new Canon G11 point and shoot, and my Canon Vixia video camera. I also knew from prior experience that it can be very hard to get keeper bird photos with a big rig/DSLR camera in the light-poor tropical jungle (read my posts on birding in The Philippines and Guyana for more on that).

Luckily, my scope and digiscoping camera were all back up at the main lodge. So I ran like the wind. Up and back. And here's what I got to show for it.

I also got one still (digiscoped) image of the astrapia's silhouette.

The whole gang came down when they heard about the bird. We did not get good looks at it—the light was horrible and the birds (there were two) were not particularly cooperative. Sensing this was a fool's errand, our guide Benson, who works out of Ambua Lodge, pulled us away from our astrapia stake-out, saying "We'll see many more of them where we're going!"

Our group watching for the astrapia's reappearance.

It was hard to leave a known site of a bird-of-paradise, but we needed to do so—the day was coming on. So we piled into the bus and headed out to the only major roadway through the area, the Highlands Highway.

Spreading out along the Highlands Highway.

The Highlands Highway is a wide gravel road running from the coastal city of Lae through the highlands, connecting the primary towns and cities of PNG to the ports of the coast. During our trip we used the highway many times. At places it was as rough as any road I've ever seen. In other spots there would be pavement and smooth sailing.

This morning, we stepped out of the bus onto the highway, and into the still-cool morning. A few jammed trucks or buses passed us over the next hour or so, but mostly we had the roadway to ourselves.

At the first stop, just as the sun began to make itself known, we formed a loose skirmish line of optics, tripods, and cameras facing the sunlit forest along one side of the road.

The sunlight came streaming through the forest and mist.

It was then that Benson called out what would become my favorite bird of the trip—and it was right at the start of the first day!

It was a displaying male King of Saxony bird-of-paradise! In full sun. Waving his long, opulent head feathers to and fro, oblivious to the gasps and exclamations of our group. Focus wheels were turned so speedily that smoke rose from our fingers. Our eyes strained to catch every glint of iridescence on the shimmering plumes. Our ears tuned to the male's long, sputtery, squeaky song—which was nowhere near as beautiful as his appearance.

Male King of Saxony bird-of-paradise.

This was heaven on a stick! My heart raced and sang a song of victory for I had, at long last, experienced a truly magnificent/incredible/sweetly awesome/mind-blowing bird-of-paradise. Sorry Princess Stephanie, but the King of Saxony rules!

A couple of my British travel companions agreed that this bird was "a crippler!"

In my next post, we'll go closer and grab the video camera!