Surprises and at lasts
MADANG LODGE, PNG — I got up a bit after six and walked out to the waterfront to see what I could see. It was still fairly dark, and low clouds on the horizon told me there wouldn’t be a sunrise to speak of. Flying foxes streamed overhead from the west, heading into town to roost after a night spent feeding in the mountains.
Some of the bats flew out to sea and swooped low over the water before returning to the land. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. Can they drink saltwater?
As the light increased, I could see Willie-wagtails flitting around in the coconuts, chattering and singing.
I kept an eye on the trees. Yesterday, I caught glimpses of the yellowish-brown honeyeaters that I had seen in Madang town when we were here before. I determined that today was the day to solve that mystery.
It was almost too easy. Before too long, a bird flew in to a nearby coconut palm. It wasn’t a Willie-wagtail. It came out into the open, and I watched it as it foraged methodically in the tree, occasionally bursting into loud, musical song. The bird had a sharp, slightly decurved bill and a floppy, ragged tail. It was streaked below with traces of yellow-green in its wings and tail.
A few large sphinx moths rested on the coconut fronds. The Willie-wagtails and honeyeaters did not attempt to tackle them, but a Sacred Kingfisher did. Several kingfishers were present, and evidently their long, stout bills enable them to go after a juicy breakfast of moth.
I kept scanning the water too, and the sharp coral near the shore. I am still amazed by the lifeless waters along the coast — no gulls, no terns, no frigatebirds or tropicbirds, no herons. Surely there is ample food for all these and more.
But there was a heron! It glided across the water and landed on the reef. The bird was evenly gray, though its bill was orange-tipped, and its greenish-yellow legs brightened to yellow on the toes. It hunted actively among the jagged coral, snapping up what appeared to be small crabs. After a few moments, it flew on down the coast.
Flying foxes began calming down as the morning wore on, and Black Kites started to fly. Then I saw something different flying, coming straight overhead. It flew like an accipiter, and as it went over I saw its gray head and reddish underparts. It kept going and landed quite a distance away. A few minutes later, I saw it headed back my way. This time, it appeared to be clutching a small reptile in its talons. I haven’t been doing so well with raptors here, so I hoped I’d be able to identify it later.
A flock of munias kicked up onto a fence across the cove. “Hooded,” I thought dismissively. Of course, given that I know virtually nothing about distribution and habitat preferences, the thought was very foolish. Thankfully, I lifted my glasses anyway. “Whoa, they’re different!” The birds had frosty crowns and light brown breasts, separated from their pale bellies by a thin dark line. I noticed a few birds on the far end of the group that looked quite different. Their underparts were solid black.
Andy and Mark picked that moment to arrive and tell me it was time to leave for Ukarumpa. They wondered what I was doing, and Andy wanted to look at the munias through my binocs. “They’re tiny,” was about all he had to say.
The first leg of the road from Madang to Ukarumpa winds through mountainous jungle. Some sections were paved; some were not.
I saw several cockatoos as we drove, and once an enormous bird flew over the van. “What was that?” Krista asked. Hornbill! And this one counts.
UKARUMPA, PNG — Back in Ukarumpa this afternoon, I checked out the morning’s sightings in my field guide. Varied Honeyeater and Pacific Reef-Heron were easy IDs, but the raptor unfortunately was not. It was a goshawk, but PNG has several species, and more than one looks like the one I saw. The frosty-headed munias were Chestnut-breasted Munias, and the black-fronted birds were Grand Munias.
I went outside and sat on a fallen tree near the back fence, eating Skittles. The resident flock of Hooded Munias worked the fenceline, calling softly as they are wont. I really haven’t been able to think of a North American species with which to compare them. They feed in grass and weeds like sparrows, but they always stay very close together in flocks. Like marshmallow peeps in a cardboard box, they huddle up in tight rows when they leave the ground and perch on the barbed wire.
A familiar trilled call sent me off the log and up the hill, peering up into the trees above me. Rainbow Bee-eaters! I’d learned their call, but I’d never been able to see them to my satisfaction. Their calls are soft and mellow but have a peculiar far-carrying quality. I had seen them at the tops of very distant trees or seen them flying in small groups far away. But these sounded close.
One flew out in a loop, and I saw them in a snag — three or four, glinting gem-like green and blue in the afternoon sun. What exquisite creatures — and then they were gone, wings flashing cinnamon in flight.