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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Indonesia: West Papua

2023 Narrative

We started our tour on the opposite side of the vast Indonesian archipelago, in the (soon-to-be former) capital, Jakarta. After a brief meeting and an enjoyable dinner at our hotel, we returned for the evening to prepare for an early morning on day two.

JAKARTA: Our flight to the province of West Papua in Indonesia’s far west was scheduled for the irritating hour of 10 pm so we needed something to fill our day. So of course, we went birding. Jakarta is a huge city located on Java’s northwest coast and amazingly some small natural areas remain, albeit heavily used for fishing and commerce. We had an outstanding boat trip in the Muara Angke area, managing to locate some excellent birds including Sunda Teal, Sunda Collared Dove, the gemlike Small Blue Kingfisher, the scarce Javan Plover, and the endemic Bar-winged Prinia. Best of all though was a healthy population of Milky Storks. This endangered stork is thought to have a population of only about 2000 individuals, due mainly to habitat destruction and hunting pressure. Later, we returned to our hotel in the afternoon to prepare for our overnight flight to the island of Biak on West Papua’s north coast, a journey that took us via Udjung Padang (formerly Makassar) on another famed Indonesian island, Sulawesi.

PULAU BIAK (ISLAND): We arrived at Biak somewhat bleary eyed, collected our luggage and met our drivers, drove to the hotel, and collapsed! After a welcome couple of hours of sleep, we headed out for a full-on afternoon of birding. After all, some very exciting birds awaited. Highlights of our first day of Papuan birding included great views of Biak Flycatcher, the first of many sightings of Long-tailed Starling, Geelvink Fruit-Dove, and Biak Scops Owl – a very nice collection of Biak endemics. Our stake out for the owl worked like a charm, with the bird dutifully appearing on his favorite perch in a prominent stag. As we made our way back to the vehicles we were serenaded by a pair of Large-tailed Nightjars – a lovely end to an excellent first afternoon.

Settling into a more typical birding routine, we departed early to be on location as the forest came to life. As we enjoyed our al fresco breakfasts, we were frequently interrupted by Biak Paradise-Kingfishers and rollicking Great Cuckoo-Doves – such a dramatic bird. After a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, we headed out again, adding better looks at the gorgeous Biak Paradise-Kingfisher, an excellent Gurney’s Eagle, and more Biak endemics – Biak White-eye, Biak Whistler, Biak Monarch, and the diminutive Geelvink Pygmy-Parrot. During a particularly heavy rain squall we pulled up stumps from the forest and headed to the so-called Tsunami Mangroves. In a somewhat surreal landscape of tsunami-devastated forest, we were delighted to find Great-billed Heron, our first Moustached Treeswifts, a glittering Beach Kingfisher, amongst others. The east coast of the island was hit by a tsunami in 1996, 160 lives were lost but it would have been considerably worse if the mangroves hadn’t absorbed much of the impact.

When we returned to our hotel one afternoon, we found the town celebrating the end of their annual cultural festival. What an amazing sight to see all the people marching through town in traditional dress!

NIMBOKRANG: Basing ourselves at the famous Alex Waisimon property, we had some outstanding birding in the excellent forest here. We began our explorations of the lowland forest in the excellent trails crisscrossing the Waisimon property. Right outside our accommodation, we were introduced to a pair of roosting Papuan Frogmouths, and later found a Marbled Frogmouth not much further up the trail.

We visited Twelve-wired and King Birds-of-Paradise leks with varying degrees of success - the King BoPs put on a great show for us, but the Twelve-wired would require extra effort. Stationing ourselves on a ridge overlooking some prime lowland forest we connected with many of our wanted birds, including Blyth’s Hornbill, Meyer’s Friarbird, Lowland Peltops, Yellow-billed Kingfisher, and Coroneted Fruit-Dove. The nearby so-called Korea Road was also very productive. We at last spotted a Twelve-wired BoP here, chased a lovely Ochre-collared Monarch around, and waited until dusk for Papuan Nightjar to appear.

We had a lot of fun with the incredibly sneaky White-bellied Thicket-Fantail - what an infuriating bird! Another notoriously infuriating bird is the Hook-billed Kingfisher, and it definitely lived up to its reputation when we attempted one evening to lay eyes on a close-calling bird. Eventually, we had to admit defeat – kingfisher 1 vs birders 0! We spent one morning in a canopy tower with brilliant results. Our patience was rewarded with sighting of some legendary birds – Jobi Manucode, Pale-billed Sicklebill, and many Lesser BoPs. But there were also Orange-bellied Fruit-Doves, Grey-headed Goshawk, Black-capped Lory, Long-billed Honeyeater, Boyer’s Cuckooshrike, Grey-headed Cicadabird, Yellow-faced Myna, and Red-capped Flowerpecker, to name but a few. Taking our leave of Nimbokrang, we made one last stop at a hide set up specifically to attract pittas. We spent a couple of hours here with somewhat disappointingly fleeting views of Papuan and Hooded Pittas, but at least we saw them! 

During all our birding activities at Nimbokrang, we were ably assisted in the field by some impressive local bird experts and, behind the scenes, by our lovely hosts. Without a doubt, our stay here contributed to the local economy and by extension to the conservation of the forest and other habitats, and the wonderful wildlife that inhabits the region. Of course, this can be said for all the wonderful places we visited.

ARFAK MOUNTAINS: Next we flew to Manokwari, our stepping-off point to the Arfak Mountains. A much, much improved road was a pleasant surprise and we arrived at the remote Kwau Village and settled into our admittedly fairly basic rooms! But given the remote nature of the area and the amazing birds we are looking for, as well as the fact that we don’t have to camp here anymore, I’m sure we were more than happy. Our birding here comprised two main activities – short hikes to strategically placed hides in the forest and roadside birding through montane forest. Our first stakeout was at a location not far from the village where we waited patiently for some incredible birds. First to appear was the Western Parotia, which proceeded to clean his little display ground of unwanted distracting leaves before performing his ballet dance. A few less showy females soon turned up to check him out, and they were clearly less impressed than we were. At the same hide at various times we also observed Black Sicklebill, Vogelkop Lophorina, and Arfak Catbird. Right next door to the hide a bower was attended by a male Vogelkop Bowerbird – a great bird but its bower is much fancy than he is! We also visited a hide for the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise, which put on an equally amazing show. Our roadside birding was super productive, with birds like Garnet Robin, Goldenface, Papuan Mountain-Pigeon, Black-breasted Boatbill, Fan-tailed Berrypecker, and Orange-crowned Fariywren. One of the best birds of the trip was a fantastic Vulturine Parrot, which we watched at length as it fed on the berries of a fruiting tree.

WAIGEO: After driving back to Manokwari for a welcome overnight stay at a fancy hotel, we then flew to Sorong on West Papua’s Vogelkop Peninsula. Vogelkop is a Dutch name meaning “bird’s neck” deriving from the shape of the peninsula, a name that bodes well for some exceptional birding. We took the ferry over to Waigeo, one of the largest islands in the Rajah Ampat region, which is perhaps more famous worldwide for its incomparable diving. And in fact, our lovely accommodation located right on the white sand beach was a well-appointed dive resort that just happens to be surrounded by some very bird-rich forest. Of course, our most hoped-for bird was the Wilson’s BoP, arguably (because there is admittedly a lot of competition!) the world’s most amazing bird. Their preferred display grounds change frequently and unfortunately for us, this year the most active hide required us to make quite the hike! Nevertheless, the effort was duly rewarded with prolonged views of a very active male whom the ladies seemed to approve of. Words cannot adequately describe this truly awe-inspiring creature, but this quote from my hero, Alfred Russel Wallace, is not only prescient but to this day remarkably thought-provoking:

“It seems sad that on the one hand, such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man’s intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyment, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.”

At another hide, we were equally entranced by raucously entertaining Red BoPs as they worked valiantly to attract females at their lek high in the treetops. Waigeo proved to be a birders’ heaven with sightings of so many outstanding birds – Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Spot-winged Monarch, Yellow-bellied Longbill, Black-sided Robin, Long-tailed Honey-Buzzard, Palm Cockatoo, Gurney’s Eagle, Brown Oriole, as so on and so forth. Two other endemic birds were the Waigeo Shrike-thrush and the Raja Ampat Pitohui – an actual poisonous bird! The pitohui’s skin and feathers contain batrachotoxin compounds that are believed to be sequestered from their diet and may function both to deter predators and to protect the bird from parasites. Some nighttime forays yielded Papuan Boobook, and Hook-billed Kingfisher at last.

SORONG: Returning to Sorong, we based ourselves at another comfy Swiss-Belhotel from where we set out daily to track down more of this island’s very special avifauna. We made the long drive to Malasigi Village one morning and had yet more outstanding birding, the highlight being a performing Twelve-wired BoP – our best views thus far. But without doubt, the highlight of the day was our welcome-to-village ceremony that greeted us on our return. An unforgettable experience. At another site we found one of our sought-after birds, the subtle but gorgeous Blue-black Kingfisher.

What an adventure! Not an easy birding trip, but much more comfortable than West Papua was in the past. And worth every ounce of sweat for so many unforgettable birds. Thanks to you all for joining me on this inaugural WINGS tour of West Papua. I’d like to add my thanks here to so many who helped us make the trip a success -  especially to my good friends Roman and Poli, but also to all of our drivers and local guides, including Alex, Eliakum, Absolom, Rits, and many more.


Created: 16 October 2023