Following in David Attenborough’s (And Other Giant) Footsteps in Search of the Birds of Paradise

 

A King Bird of Paradise

A King Bird of Paradise

 

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorites that I saw

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorite BOPs that I saw

Some of you have wondered why, of all places on Earth, I was determined to go to Papua New Guinea.  It’s one of the hardest destinations to reach; it has very little infrastructure once you’re there; it rains ungodly amounts up in the mountains where I spent most of my time; the food is awful; the lodging substandard; and there is always that age-old question about when cannibalism really stopped being fashionable there.  And don’t even get me started about the 27 leeches that I pulled off of myself in less than an hour just a few days ago.

So why did I go? Blame it on David Attenborough, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes.

Sir David Attenborough is my hero and has been for many years. He always tops my list of modern-day invitees in that hypothetical game of assembling the perfect roster of dinner guests.  He has taken me (and millions of others) around the world vicariously to see the most fascinating wildlife on this planet, and he does it with the most infectious wonder and enthusiasm imaginable.  The first time I saw Attenborough in Paradise (1996) and The Life of Birds (1998) I was hooked.  One day, I told myself, I’m going to go and see those Birds of Paradise for myself.

Attenborough eventually led me to the writings of Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned 19th century British scientist, scholar and explorer, a contemporary of Darwin’s and the author of  The Malay Archipelago, a brilliant work in which he describes in great detail, among other things, “…the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth – the varied species of birds of paradise.”

And then two years ago, my sister and I went to a lecture in Washington that was jointly sponsored by National Geographic and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The speakers that day were Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes and marked the publication of their book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds (2012), the culmination of their nearly decade-long project of studying and photographing all 39 species of Birds of Paradise.  Their talk and PowerPoint, and the exhibition that National Geographic mounted to coincide with the book’s publication, were riveting.  How much longer do I want to wait, I asked myself that day.  And the answer was, not long.

So it is thanks to all of those men that I have stood on a pass near Mount Hagen on a cold and misty afternoon and seen with my own eyes, perched in the distance on the top of a dead branch, The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, his yellow breast aglow, and his two head feathers, or “flags” and “head-wires” as they are known, waving in the breeze as he sat there regally for all of us to admire.  And the sublime Ribbon-Tailed Astrapia, his turquoise blue throat aflame as he flew across that same road the next, misty morning, trailing his four-foot long white tails like an ermine cape. And the astonishing Blue Bird of Paradise, preening his dazzling cobalt feathers, turning his black head and body upside down and displaying for the female who watched from above, seeing the virtual apron of feathers that he fluffed out for her benefit. And the more subtle, but still dazzling, Brown Sicklebill female as she came to the feeder at Ambua Lodge, pale eyes glinting, her long, curved beak open wide to receive the fruits that she plucked so daintily.  All of them, plus fifteen other species of these magical animals.

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

 

 

I have seen birds so beautiful that they stunned me into silence, so perfect that they moved me to tears, so whimsical that I shrieked with laughter, and so wondrous that I stood there slack-jawed with delight.

All of that and  leeches, too.  Really, what more could a woman want?

 

A Different World

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

 

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

 

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Of all the places I’ve now visited in PNG, the Highlands stay with me most strongly.  Perhaps it is my own Swiss DNA that resonates with cool, damp weather, high peaks and lush green valleys, but it is also that I admire the tenacity and grit of people and animals that live in and adapt to places of considerable, cold elevation.  Theirs is not always an easy life: no fish to pull from the sea for quick protein, no tropical fruit trees that practically plant themselves and groan with heavy fruit; no lightweight clothing or the ability to essentially live outdoors, as many people in hot and humid climates do.

Mountain dwellers work hard to survive in places like PNG, where the limited roads and bridges that do exist still routinely wash out, communities are stranded for days at a time, and even the most basic supplies like cooking fuel can be hard to come by. Hence, the Highlands people are self-reliant in notably different ways than in other parts of PNG.  Men harvest timber to build waterproof housing and dry for cooking fuel.  People raise animals like pigs and goats and chickens, which we didn’t see in other places, and their gardens are extensive and productive, with sweet potatoes mounds covering huge swathes of the region. Young girls stand knee deep in running water to cut big bunches of watercress, and women weave simple bags called bilums that they usually wear with the strap across their foreheads, carrying loads of varying weights.

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

 

The Highlanders’ isolation has slowed the adoption of the latest technology and the casting off of traditional ways. Communities are still closely knit, and like the old tribal societies that they are, they even have their own legal justice system, as we found out one rainy day while passing through a small village. There, dozens of people were gathering in an open field under a sea of umbrellas.

“This is a village gathering to decide a compensation,” our local guide explained to us. ” A man just killed another man here, and now the elders will decide what restitution must be made to the family that has suffered the loss.”

He went on to explain that both families – the perpetrator’s and the victim’s – would be there, along with most of the village, for whom the gathering took on an air of gossipy excitement familiar to any small town dweller.  The elders appoint someone to negotiate for each family in the matter of compensation, going back and forth until there is a proposal and then an agreement that the elders and both families must agree to.  If a great deal of compensation is owed the victim’s family and the accused cannot make good on that restitution, then his extended family must assume the responsibility for paying the compensation, no matter how heavy a burden it imposes upon them. Honor – and the elders – requires that. The police are not involved and the word of the elders is never challenged, according to our guide.  That is how things have always been done up here, and the system works. Compensation can take the form of animals or cash or land, he explained, and it can also include banishment from the village, if the elders feel it justified. In the end, with all of the affected parties involved, justice seems to be served to most people’s satisfaction.

That same afternoon, we traveled to see a group of traditional men known as Wigmen, a small and dwindling group of elders who dress and live in keeping with ancient traditions and who hope to instill those same values in a new generation of younger men. The Wigmen are so called because of the human hair wigs that they make and wear for important ceremonies.  It takes eighteen months for a man to grow out his hair long enough that it can be harvested for wig making, and as part of their practice, the Wigmen run a school that houses and feeds and educates the men while their hair is growing.  During that period, the men must be celibate, live away from their families, and learn and adhere to the highly ritualized practices that the elders impart to them, including sleeping against a wooden post that is specially constructed to keep their hair from being flattened.  Visiting with the Wigmen, I could not help but feel both admiration and sadness for their valiant efforts.  Without the money of visiting groups like ours, I wonder whether the Wigmen would even still exist today, much less whether they will still be there in ten years’ time, Birds of Paradise feathers and Hornbill beaks lavishly and yet reverently decorating their headwear, just as they have for hundreds of years.

But they are men of the mountains, and no one should underestimate them. Certainly, I do not.

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen

 

 

The Highlands

 

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Well, my adventures continue apace, as we travel to some of the most remote and isolated places on Earth.  Truly, there is nothing quite like this country, which extends from the ocean and wet tropics to mountains higher than the Alps, and deep valleys where it is downright cold at night and the suspicion among tribes – even those in the next valley – runs as deep as it has for centuries.

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

When we landed in Tari up in the Highlands of PNG, there were throngs of people at the airport.  When we inquired why, we were told that they were waiting for the delivery of The Post Courier, the daily newspaper which our plane carried and that had news of the continuing corruption scandal with the Prime Minister and some of his cronies.  To see some men with headdresses and skirts made of leaves, sporting bare chests, machetes and partially painted faces waiting for the daily paper was a juxtaposition that captures one of the many mysteries about PNG.  Add to that the fact that even the most desolate stretch of road has little stands to top up your minutes and data plans for your cell phones that even the most traditional people have, and you begin to understand this country that I am traveling in, a place at once a throwback to decades, if not centuries, ago, and yet one where little smart and bright eyed village girls chat you up and share their dreams of becoming lawyers and scientists.

PNG is a richly diverse country culturally, with over 800 spoken languages, many of them used in just one village due to the extreme difficulty of getting anywhere, and especially in the mountains.  The first white men came to The Highlands only in 1930, led by three Australian brothers named Leahy, who came and did what most colonizers do: they looked, they took and they profited handsomely at the expense of the local people, irrevocably altering the course of their lives in the process.  A fascinating 1982 documentary called First Contact details that era in the Highlands, and it interviewed local Highland people who were alive at the time of the Leahys and knew and worked for them, or in the case of the women, were sometimes literally sold to the brothers as common law wives and bore mixed race children with lighter features and hair, some of whom we saw as we passed through villages.  The film also interviewed the two surviving Leahy brothers, and the difference in perspectives is not only fascinating, it is deeply disturbing. A group of us watched it on a rainy afternoon at Ambua Lodge (it rained almost all of the time we were up there- and this is the dry season), and I recommend it highly for anyone who plans to visit this part of PNG.

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural hair ornamentation

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural head ornamentation. This is Thomas, one of our local guides. 

 

A ribbon tailed Austrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we've seen so far

A Ribbon Tailed Astrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we’ve seen so far

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A Berry pecker

A crested Berrypecker

We stayed at Ambua Lodge, a series of thatched roof huts in a spectacular setting and, most importantly, with wonderful fruiting trees that drew all manner of gorgeous birds, including several species of Birds of Paradise.  To see these gorgeous birds up close, long tails fluttering behind them like banners on small planes that fly over beach towns, throats that turn iridescent shades of blue and purple when the light hits them, is to feel yourself part of something truly magical and mystical.  I forgot the rain, my worsening sinus and ear infection and the general discomfort of hours spent on buses, and just appreciated a beauty so ancient and sacred and, frankly, so designed to lure and woo (after all, what bird needs a four foot long tail?) that I understood in my bones why every female bird within miles was drawn to the males’ extraordinary displays.  We watched a male Ribbon Tail Astrapia fly across the road one morning and then settle in a nearby tree and preen himself, deftly swishing and tossing his pristine four foot long white tail.  I can only imagine the envy that all of the  men in our group must have felt just then.

 

 

The Bird in Paradise Sees Her First Bird in Paradise

A male Ragging Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

A male Raggiana Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

The day began at 5:15 a.m., (well, actually I was up at 4)  getting on the bus and heading off in the perpetually smoky and already hot Port Moresby morning, past the piles of plastic trash that plague this city, but which the dark discreetly obscured.  An hour later, up a rutted, steep and winding road we arrived in Varirata National Park, waking up the maintenance men who sleep there in tents during the work week. The park is up around 900 meters, well above the morning mist, and we savored the cool and fresh air that lacked the acrid bite of Port Moresby’s. Twelve of us stood around like a flock of drab house sparrows in our quick dry outfits, eating our boxed breakfasts while we waited for first light and the morning chorus of bird song to begin.

I confess that I’m still ambivalent about being a part of a birding tour, especially one with nine other people and two guides, none of whom I had met until yesterday.  It makes for a lot of people trying to see the same birds at the same time in often cramped spaces, and it means that just because you don’t want to stand in the same spot of forest for an hour waiting for a single bird, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to.  There are real trade offs to this kind of arrangement, but there are also great advantages:  meeting interesting people who share your interest, and having excellent guides who make all the arrangements for you and who know pretty reliably where a certain bird can be found. I signed up for this trip primarily because PNG is not a country that I would feel safe traveling in alone, and the logistics of a trip that includes all that this Rockjumper tour does would be pretty daunting. And besides, Rich and Clayton, our guides, are flat out fantastic at what they do.

So there we were.  The morning went by excruciatingly slowly for my taste.  The birding was slow, which meant lots of standing around or moving ten feet in one direction only to be told to move back ten feet because the bird that we had been hearing for thirty minutes in one spot suddenly was calling from behind us.  By lunch, I was feeling tired and grumpy, even though we had seen some terrific birds, like a pair of Brahminy Kites sitting on a nest, a Pink Spotted Fruit Dove, and a gorgeous Variable (Dwarf) Kingfisher (actually the first of eight species of kingfisher we would see today!). I was thinking it was going to be a long afternoon, and it didn’t help that we kept hearing, but not seeing, male Raggiana Birds of Paradise somewhere close by, the one bird that all of us really wanted to see.

But after lunch, rested, revived and rehydrated, we headed to a part of the park where Rich told us there had traditionally been a lek, or display area, although he warned us that of late the birds had been especially skittish in proximity to humans and not to get our hopes up.  Still, I know my heart wasn’t the only one beating fast as we walked up the hill that overlooked the lei, and not a minute after we arrived, a gorgeous male Raggiana Bird of Paradise flew into full view, calling loudly and settling on a branch about a hundred feet away. Seconds later, another equally vocal and gorgeous male appeared, and over the next ten minutes, they called, they preened, they flew past each other, and they swooped up into the air, only to drop down again just as quickly, like fighter pilots in an air show. I hope their females were watching.

It’s hard to describe the other-worldly beauty of those birds with their blue beaks, yellow heads, black throats and incredible russet and yellow  feathers that hang down in long arcs.  Back lit in the dim forest light, the birds glowed like sunrise and sunset all in one.  It was, and will always be, one of the most wondrous things that I have ever seen. We all stayed for a long while, but after my fellow birders had their fill and left to walk down the hill towards another target bird, I lingered behind to watch  them for another ten minutes, alone in the natural cathedral, filled with gratitude and awe.