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Papua New Guinea’s extraordinary Birds of Paradise

The plumage and display of the birds of paradise is a visual extravaganza.

travel Updated: Jul 18, 2019 18:01 IST
Geetika Jain
Geetika Jain
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Papua New Guinea,extraordinary birds,birds
Highland tribes wearing dozens of colourful bird feathers.

It’s 6.30 am, and I’m being led up a narrow mountain path by two young boys, 5 and 7, who deftly lop-off plants and vines that come in our way with their machetes. Their father is behind us, as he’s tethering the dugout canoe that brought us here.

‘Bi kapu!’ shouts a boy, bidding me to be careful as my foot slips on the wet, slippery leaf cover. Now we’re on a hilltop above the serene Wagu Lagoon, off the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea, and the boys’ father, Matthew Kaka, is my host in this little-visited, pristine hideaway. I feel my pulse raise listening to birdsong that’s getting ever louder. Kwi kwi kwi kwi kwi! Weee hu!

Birding at Rondon Ridge lodge in the highlands.

Matthew joins us, and points to a branch overhead where three lesser birds of paradise are preoccupied with a display ritual that features a flurry of dance moves accompanied by jostling for space and petulant squawks. They scrunch their cream heads, brown tails and fan-out their long, resplendent peach feathers, showing off their best breeding plumage. They flit to other branches, calling over each other and quivering theatrically as they compete in front of hard to please females who inspect them closely. The males, I’d read, didn’t help an iota with raising chicks; they were merely colourful sperm banks.

‘In New Guinea,’ Matthew tells me with pride, ‘we have 38 out of the world’s 41 species of Birds of Paradise.’ With plentiful fruits, nuts and insects in the rainforests and no predators such as monkeys, squirrels or wildcats, they’ve had the luxury to evolve into creatures of fantastic foliage. Although they’ve been speared and shot for their feathers which embellish the elaborate headdresses, neckpieces and shoulder bands worn at ritual tribal performances, fortunately for the birds, much of the rugged, mountainous rainforest terrain is impenetrable and beyond the hunters’ reach.

A ribbon-tailed astrapia at Kumul Lodge.

Over the last few days, I’ve had sightings of innumerable sea eagles, fishing eagles, kites, darters and cassowaries sailing on the Sepik River, and now I’m determined to arise early and keep a lookout wherever I go in hope of viewing the phantasmagoric, endemic birds of paradise that can change shape, switch colours, make bizarre clicking sounds and dance backwards.

At the Rondon Ridge Lodge in the highlands near Mount Hagen, Joseph Tano, a birding expert hears a screeching call, and knows immediately that it’s a superb bid of paradise. Through my binoculars I spot it feeding on the round red fruits of the schefflera tree. From watching bird films I’ve seen it morph into a bizarre black, most un-birdlike oval with legs. Perhaps these very birds have shaped the locals’ belief that the ever-present spirits and sorcerers can switch form, turning from human to bird to animal as they please.

We watch for birds in silence, looking for movement in the branches. My keenness for sightings and lack of patience are conflicted. The sun is rising, we’re above the clouds and the shifting scenery is magnificent. A blue bird of paradise floats in and lands on branch nearby, and smoky honeyeaters show up next, the skin folds around their eyes changing from yellow to red within seconds. We climb higher, and find several bower birds in the treetops. I’m keen to see one of their enormous nests, and Joseph leads me up a punishing, squelchy narrow path blocked by thorny bamboo and sword like aloe waiting in position to pierce me. The nest eludes us, but I skip a beat with the glimpse of a Stephanie’s astrapia bearing twin, ultra-long black feathers that trail like a wraith of smoke.

Armed with pineapples and papayas we arrive the next day at the enormous, two-story bird blind of Kumul Lodge, famed for the relaxed birds that swoop into it’s viewing platform to gorge on cut fruit. I sit back and take-in a parade of intensely coloured iridescent feathers and patterns as tiger parrots, sicklebills, manucodes, and parotias nibble away at the spread. And now, a ribbon-tailed astrapia floats in from the forest, and I get to watch it to my heart’s content, and marvel at it’s frivolously long white tail feathers.

Papua New Guinea is where you come to smile at nature’s whimsy. Images of birds of paradise are all over the nation’s currency notes, the flag, Air Niugini’s flight logo, SP beer cans, the women’s dresses…it was a happy revelation that the birds don’t just feature in tribal headgear, myths and logos. Here, one can have front row seats, time and again, at one of the greatest avian shows on the planet.

To enjoy a spectacular 5-minute film on the birds of Paradise by Cornell University, click HERE

Best time to go birding in PNG- in the dry season, July to October, when they’re in full breeding plumage and in displaying mode.

Where to see the birds of paradise

-Varirata National Park, a short drive from the capital, Port Moresby.

- Rondon Ridge Lodge, near Mount Hagen. Joseph Tano, the local birding expert’s phone contact is 71896418.

-Kumul lodge in the West highlands near Mount Hagen

-Karawari Lodge in the middle Sepik River area.

-Nature Park in Port Moresby, the capital, has an aviary where you can see several species up close.

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First Published: Jul 10, 2019 16:03 IST