Papua New Guinea Travel
7 August 2002
For the past four days I've been in Herowana village in
the Eastern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. Herowana is part of Crater
Mountain Wildlife Management Area, run by the private Research and Conservation Foundation
(RCF). There are no roads to Herowana - I flew in on a single-engine Cessna with
Gilford Yune, an employee of RCF.
The village is a mix of traditional and western culture. Except
for clothes, bought second-hand in bulk lots in the town of Goroka, its people are mostly
self-sufficient. Houses are built by hand using wood, palm leaves and reed leaves.
The men hunt with bow and arrows. Gardens produce everything from sweet
potatoes to peanuts to pineapples; coffee is the only cash crop. Gilford and I lodge
in a guesthouse built for ecotourists near the house of Avit Wako, leader of the largest
of eight clans in the village. His house has three fireplaces, one for each wife.
Unlike Australia, one must work for every bird seen here - the montane
rainforest is dense, and millennia of hunting (there are no large tasty mammals in New
Guinea) have made for wary birds. Nice forest near the airstrip holds some of the
beauties here: Papuan King-Parrot, Western Black-capped Lory, Black-winged Monarch,
and the pretty Red Myzomela honeyeater. Avit leads us on a pre-dawn walk to a
display tree of Raggiana Bird of Paradise. The birds, however, perch high on a
shaded limb, and finish their remarkable song and dance before sunup.
9 August 2002
Yesterday Gilford, Avit's son Joshua, and I walked for an hour in pouring rain to the hut
of Avit's brother Simeon. The trail was a quagmire of mud, pig poop, and standing
pools. Mostly mud. Halfway there we came to a rain-swollen stream spanned by a
log. I held my breath as Joshua, who was carrying all the camera gear, nimbly walked
the wet slippery log.
The ground in Simeon's windowless hut is covered with fern leaves -
smoke from the fireplace gets out any way it can. One of his wives baked sweet
potatoes in the coals for supper, with sugar cane stems for dessert. Afterwards we
spent a cold restless night on a reed mat as the rains gradually abated. Our
pre-dawn breakfast today is another sweet potato.
A ten minute walk from the hut brings us to a bird blind that Simeon
has built near the display court of a male Magnificent Bird of Paradise. Birds of
Paradise are famous for gaudy colors and bizarre behavior, and the Magnificent is no
exception. The thrush-sized male has almost no tail except for two curving,
wire-like feathers. His mating court is about 20 feet in diameter - here he has
cleared the ground of all leaves and twigs.
He also removed certain leaves in the trees above so
that at mid-morning, the sun illuminates the court like a spotlight.
With this as a cue, two females today fly down and perch about a meter from the
male to watch his show. And what a show! Clinging
to a small sapling, he fans out his iridescent green breast shield; above it he
raises his golden yellow dorsal collar. As if that weren't enough, he
opens his colorful blue beak to reveal a lime-green gape. I expect this
display of avian beauty to send the females into fits of passion, but they seem
rather nonchalant. It clearly takes a lot to impress these girls.
Photographing the Magnificent presents an ethical dilemma.
Dozens of small trees fill the court - in fact, the male deliberately chose this
spot for his court because it has lots of saplings from which to display.
No matter where he perches, a sapling is in the way, obscuring all or part of
the bird. Should I remove some of them from my side of the court to get a
better photo? In the end I decide not to tamper with his court, and to be
satisfied with whatever photos luck provides. The court is essential for
these birds to mate, and the world needs Magnificent Birds of Paradise more than
it needs photos of them.