Written by John Kinghorn of Birding Ecotours.
It was hot. Not the kind of hot which goes hand in hand with soft serve ice creams and a cheeky game of volleyball on the beach, but instead I use the word in the broadest sense possible and purely for the lack of a single word which encompasses the feeling of ‘am I dead yet?’. Lying on a thin mattress on the floor of a small man-made hut constructed out of nothing but reeds and suspended mere meters above the crystal clear waters and pristine coral reefs surrounding the Papuan island of Waigeo, I found myself in a constant battle against humidity so intense that I could have sworn it was visible with each restless shift of my position. Sleep was very much a necessity given my jet-lagged state but try as they may, the gentle crashing of the waves below me couldn’t aid in taking my racing subconscious off of what it viewed as more of a necessity at that moment in time. I was on the island for one reason and one reason only, a bird known by locals as Mankombon – the jewel that dances in the forest – but one which us westerners knew of by another name, one which had been made famous by Sir David Attenborough himself and one which is as good as legend among birding circles: the Wilson’s Bird-of-paradise.
It was only a matter of hours since I had battled my way onto a crammed domestic flight from Makassar in south Sulawesi to Sorong in Papua, arriving shortly after and somehow managing to navigate my way to the pelebuhan (harbour) with my broken Indonesian; unscathed and without having found myself horrendously lost or having been enticed into joining a local backstreet badminton team. Mainland Papua holds many avian gems, in fact one can stand a chance at finding roughly four different species of Birds-of-paradise simply by leaving the confines of the city and exploring some of the nearby forest patches and so it is understandable my sullen heart as I watched the prospect of potentially seeing these, disappear along with the very land on which they were to be found as the ferry slowly pulled away from the docks. It was imperative however that I kept my eyes on the literal prize, a little kaleidoscopic jewel which had a profound disliking of [leaf] litter landing on his front porch and that meant that I needed to make my way to Waisai, the ‘capital’ of the island Waigeo which forms part of the greater Raja Ampat Marine Protected area. It is here where I had my date with the Mankombon and if lady luck so generously allowed me, an opportunity to see another one of the islands extravagantly plumaged star attractions, the Red Bird-of-paradise.
Benny Mambasa was his name: an enthusiastic, stout Papuan with a grin so wide it could almost be classed as an adequate representation of a sort of cumulative attempt by all those in the nearby village to smile together at the same time. Benny is one of our company’s local guides on the island and we can safely say that his knowledge when it comes to his local feathered friends is unparalleled. We dropped my bags off at our homestay and I didn’t need much convincing to head out immediately to try our luck at finding some of the more common species which clearly weren’t as bothered by the humidity as I was. Hooded Butcherbird, Shining Flycatcher, Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Olive-crowned Flowerpecker, Blyth’s Hornbill, Yellow-faced Myna and Yellow-billed Kingfisher all found their way onto my rapidly increasing list of lifers- an avian buffet where marking a large ‘X’ next to each species’s name is what appeased my hunger. What made this even more unbelievable was the fact that we had only walked the equivalent of 2km’s up the road from my two day operation’s ground zero- the stunningly picturesque homestay and friendly faces who ran the whole shindig. My introduction to West Papua was off to a sizzling start and coupled with the prospect of what lay ahead in the morning as myself and Benny went in search of dancing forest jewels made perving over calling Papuan Frogmouth above the dinner table just that more unbearable. Inconsiderate runts!
03:30: Benny gently knocked on my makeshift door/barrier of reeds, almost half expecting me to still be in bed but alas the nerves, anticipation and raw, untamed excitement were simply all too much for me and I found myself up and ready to rumble a good fifteen minutes before my wake up call.
03:35: Unscheduled toilet stop. Nerves were getting real.
03:45: We were to tackle a pretty strenuous +-5km uphill hike under the cover of darkness in order to reach the first hide of the morning just in time for sunrise and unbeknown to me, to witness one of the most ludicrous, breathtaking avian displays I have ever had the privilege of being witness to. “Normally hike take 1 hour 45min, but you fit, we do quicker” stumbled Benny enthusiastically in his best English. I knew I should have succumbed to the wicked sorcery of those ultra-fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts six months ago rather than opt for the health kick. Damn you, self restraint, damn you.
04:02: My calves were quite literally on fire, my quads were more pumped than Arnold’s ever were during his ruthless leg day sessions and I had already polished off the first of my two bottles of water. I began toying with the concept of possibly having to pull a Grylls.
04:11: It was at this point which I began to question my existence. Benny stopped, looked at me, and with the same rate of inhalation as if he had done nothing more than walk to the bathroom and back asked me “you doing okay?” I promptly coughed up a lung and wheezed an unconvincing response to which he replied: “Okay good, we go on!”.
Finally at 04:28, Benny signalled for us to stop. He dropped his backpack, ran up to me and whispered “Papuan Boobok!” Hearing them was one thing but as always, seeing them was another. We spent the better part of fifteen minutes working to get decent visuals of the pair and ended up doing so just as the sun began to lighten up the horizon. To my relief we had stumbled upon the Booboks at the entrance to the first hide and from here on out things became physically a lot easier, whether this was thanks to my overwhelming sense of euphoria that would soon follow or simply because my muscles had lost all feeling in them, I’m still not quite sure to this day.
We positioned ourselves on the edge of a small clearing with the towering canopy above us ever so slightly open thanks to a single tree which seemed to have no leaves. It wasn’t just a random coincidence though and soon the characteristic piercing call of a Red Bird-of-Paradise dominated all other local forest species who had already begun their dawn chorus. Leaning ever so slightly forward whilst tying our best not to make any noise we were able to get visuals on the bird, sitting ever so peacefully in the higher reaches of the canopy busy preening his elaborate yellow and maroon plumes in preparation for what came next. All of a sudden, a female flew into the leafless tree and this sent the male into a full on frenzy as he burst out from his somewhat concealed preening spot, landed near the female, opened up his wings, fluffed out his plumes and began to dance up and down the barren branches by throwing his ‘hips’ from side to side, making a u-turn at the top simply to then make his way back down the length of the branch but this time with two wire-like, red tail plumes dropping down the birds side. We must have sat and watched this spectacle for a good 20min before being politely told that it’s best we continue hiking to our next hide. Reluctantly we bid farewell to this sexually frustrated male Red BOP and his tease of a lady friend and quietly made our way back to the main path. Papuan Pitta, Western Crowned Pigeon, Moluccan King Parrot, Frilled Monarch, Raja Ampat Pitohui and Yellow-bellied Longbills were all worthy distractions along the way and certainly warranted time for their enjoyment!
Because the local guides spend so much time taking clients into these forests they have taken it upon themselves to construct makeshift hides for birders to make use of. These hides are fantastically well hidden and strategically placed right on the edge of the active display sites for the best possible viewing of the birds whilst having almost zero impact on them. Wilson’s Birds-of-Paradise are weird little characters at the best of times, refusing to display to any females who may be in the vicinity unless their performance arena is nothing short of slick and span, rid of any leaves and debris which may have fallen the night before. This is thought to be distracting for interested females who view the male displaying from top to bottom during their elaborate dance on a single vertical twig- the last thing these guys want are females confusing their plumage with nearby leaves!
Walking into the hides as quietly as possible we took our seats and waited. It wasn’t long before the resident male began advertising to all in a 1-2km radius both his presence and his willingness to do the house cleaning in the name of romance. Bouncing around the branches above our heads, he called from perch to perch when all of a sudden- silence. Anxious moments began to elapse and I couldn’t help but find myself scanning the leaf litter in the hope that he would somehow appear as if on cue with my silent prayers. “Hang on a minute…”, before I could truly process what my binoculars were highlighting, the sight of jumping leaf litter most definitely caught me off guard! Then all of a sudden out of the drab browns appeared two coiled luminescent blue tail plumes, then a red and yellow back followed and finally an equally luminescent blue head popped up and looked straight in the direction of the hide. Then almost as if telling us to snap out of it, a sudden flick of his head as he discarded yet another leaf from his display arena and hopped over to the next untidy corner with renewed enthusiasm.
All of this added up to showcase a species that is without a doubt nothing short of avian perfection and it is no wonder that Sir David Attenborough likewise found himself absolutely speechless when first being witness to its raw beauty. The local name of ‘Mankombon’ which means ‘the jewel that dances in the forest’, couldn’t be more accurate and more true- this is the perfect example of an avian jewel if any. Sitting there in the hide, having my legs absolutely bitten to pieces by mosquitos, muscles still on fire and now feeling the effects of lactic acid build up and a grand total of +-100ml of water left to last me the hike back, nothing could have transported me away from that moment in time. No worry, no concern and certainly not the appealing prospect of a hearty carbo-loaded lunch and a cold shower. I was frozen in the moment as I joined a group of very few birders who have been fortunate enough to say that they have seen the famed Mankombon of Papua.
To make sure that you too can experience the remarkable wonders of Papua then make sure to visit the Birding Ecotours website and check out the itinerary for this bucket list destination!