Backyard birds in PNG

2006 March 19
by David J. Ringer

UKARUMPA, PNG — They say that if you sit still long enough, every bird in the forest will pass you by.

I don’t know about that, but having gone down pretty hard with a virus this week, I’ve done a lot of quiet (except for the coughing) sitting on the porch. These are the birds that passed me by:

Black Kite (Milvus migrans) — At home, any fairly large raptor is a Red-tailed Hawk until proven otherwise. Here, the Black Kite holds that honor. Black Kites soar on bent wings, alone or in small groups, and give a wailing, whinnying cry. Their tails are long with shallow forks, and the birds’ plumage has enough shades of brown that they can appear almost black or surprisingly pale depending on the light. When one pauses for a moment in a eucalyptus tree, you can see a narrow, dark eyeline that gives the bird a roguish flair.

Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus) — I had no idea that these birds ranged into the mountains. I saw them in abundance on the north coast last year, and I thought they were a lowland species. But yesterday, two striking adults circled high overhead, and today I saw one with the morning sun shining through its red-brown feathers. The birds have white heads and breasts, and when they are close enough, you can discern black tips to their flight feathers. Says “Birds of New Guinea,” “sea level-1,000 m (rarely to 2,200 m in disturbed habitats)….” And so this is another case in which our cleared, grassy valley supports species normally found only lower down.

Eastern Marsh-Harrier (Circus spilonotus) — Harrier! The slightly upturned wings told me immediately that the bird was not a Black Kite, and then I saw the patches of white. I watched it soaring at a distance, noting the bird’s black head and throat, white underparts, and black, gray, and white topside. It even had the classic harrier rump patch, though the white diffused gradually into the tail feathers. A small prey item dangled from the bird’s talons, and it dropped altitude once, stretching its legs downward. I wondered if its mate flew below it, but it seemed to be alone. It flew higher, and I finally lost it behind the house. Today, I saw the bird closer, and I saw a few streaks running from the black throat down onto the upper breast. I had not been able to see those before, which puzzled me because “Birds of New Guinea” says that Eastern Highlands birds are streaked but Central Highlands birds are not. This harrier, it seems, isn’t rare, but nobody knows what to do with it. It’s part of the marsh-harrier complex, which has been split apart over the years. Evidently, no one has studied the New Guinea member of the clan in much depth — a few years ago, researchers were still looking for DNA samples. I don’t know if they ever got them. Today, the “Papuan” Harrier is classified as a subspecies of Eastern Marsh-Harrier by most, though Simpson and Day’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Australia” mentions that Ferguson-Lees and Christie consider it a race of Swamp Harrier in a recent publication on raptors. Others believe that the bird may in fact be a separate species. Whether or not we know where to place it, the pied male is a striking and beautiful raptor, and for now it’s going on my list as Circus spilonotus spilothorax.

Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus) — Heard often, and occasionally seen at a distance.

Pygmy Lorikeet (Charmosyna wilhelminae) — Heard flying over.

Unidentified psittacid — I heard their calls, and then I saw the tiny pair zooming across the sky. But I need more than that even to make a guess.

Unidentified swiftlet (Aerodramus sp.) — They flutter singly or in fast-moving flocks, sometimes high, sometimes very near the ground. They glide on downward sloping wings, and they are silent.

Rainbow Bee-eater (Merops ornatus) — I hear them often, trilling somewhere across the stream that runs at the bottom of the hill. Yesterday I glimpsed their angular silhouettes cruising the skies. The bird I saw best did not have projecting central tail feathers, so I suppose it was an immature. I couldn’t see their colors, which is true more often than I’d like.

Pacific Swallow (Hirundo tahitica) — A pair usually sits on the wires running to our house, darting across the yard from time to time. Some of their calls are Barn Swallow-like, but they make a wide variety of other sounds: hisses, rattles, squeaks, chirps, and whistles.

Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata) — A sharp-looking male made a brief appearance today, showing off his glossy black feathers as he perched in the sun, and displaying his three white patches as he swooped down on his prey. He wagged his tail while he perched.

Willie-wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) — If you are in this country for more than 10 minutes, you will see a Willie-wagtail. Several, probably. The black-and-white songsters seem to thrive everywhere, and even if you are out of eye contact, you will probably be able to hear them somewhere. I watched a youngster begging its parent for food, and the adult bird obliged unhesitatingly, despite the fact that its offspring has attained full adult size. The youngster still showed buffy edges to some wing feathers, and its eyebrow hasn’t yet gone from buff to white. A frizzy feather or two stuck out of its head, giving it that baby look. The inside of its bill was bright yellow, which I had several occasions to observe as the adult kept returning with little bugs.

Black-headed Whistler (Pachycephala monacha) — I spotted the bird among a small flock of gerygones and myzomelas, and I kept my binocs trained on it until I finally got good looks. Its size caught my attention first — it was clearly larger than the tiny birds with which it fed. Try as I might, I couldn’t discern any field marks, and as it moved into the open I discovered why: It didn’t have any. It was dark, sooty gray all over, except for its white belly. Beyond that, it had not an eyering, not a wingbar, not a rump patch. Its bill was stout but fairly small, and its eye was black in its dark gray face. I hadn’t any idea what it was, so I started flipping through the passerines section, hoping I’d seen enough to make an identification. As it turns out, nothing else is quite so plain in just that way: She was a female Black-headed Whistler. The males, if you’re wondering, are black everywhere the females are gray.

Gray Shrike-Thrush (Colluricincla harmonica) — Here, at least, Gray Shrike-Thrushes are about as conspicuous and vocal as Willie-wagtails, though that is not true all across the country. They are stout, plain birds with loud, musical whistles and a fair share of spunk.

White-shouldered Fairywren (Malurus alboscapulatus) — A male popped up briefly in the tall grass down the hill, and I heard snatches of a tinkling song that I suspect belongs to this species.

Brown-breasted Gerygone (Gerygone ruficollis) — Not only did I get good looks at this hard-to-observe tree-top hugger, I actually saw some individuals with warm brown washes across the breast! These gerygones behave something like kinglets (without the flicking wings), but I’m pretty sure they’re even smaller. The lone individual I saw last year was brown above and white below, but I as I’ve already said, some of yesterday’s birds displayed the color they were named for. I even saw traces of white eye crescents and small white patches on the underside of their tails.

Mountain Myzomela (Myzomela adolphinae) — The glowing red head of a male brought me to my knees — not exactly because my nervous system gave out but because I wanted a a better angle to admire his brilliance. He was even more active than the gerygones, hovering frequently and delving into clusters after tiny invertebrates. When he hovered, I could see his red rump, but always there was his head, set off neatly from his drab gray-brown body and almost gem-like in the light. Like gerygones, Mountain Myzomelas are even smaller than the New World’s warblers and kinglets, and given their preference for tall trees, they are difficult to observe well. I thought I saw a female later, but she didn’t let me see for sure.

Unidentified meliphaga (Meliphaga sp.) — This honeyeater clan is something like our Empidonax flycatcher group. They are middle-sized and slender, with white or yellow patches on their ears. Some birds, the guide remarks helpfully, may not be reliably identified in the field. I saw one this morning, briefly. Its ear patch seemed small and white, though I never saw it in the sun. Mountain Meliphaga looks like a good bet, but it’s one I’ll have to wait on. Unlike empids, these guys don’t even have distinctive calls. But at least they don’t migrate.

Ornate Melidectes (Melidectes torquatus) — I had decent looks at one of these colorful fellows today. They have bright yellow skin around their eyes, but the population here does not have wattles at the bill base, leaving the small red patches exposed. They make a variety of querulous — though not unpleasant — calls.

(Hold it. Take a look back at the last four names: gerygone, myzomela, meliphaga, and melidectes! I’m glad all I have to do is write them for now — but can anyone come to my rescue and tell me how they’re pronounced?)

Yellow-breasted Bowerbird (Chlamydera lauterbachi) — These large passerines appeared only occasionally, flying across open spaces or hopping upward in distant trees. Once one bird pursued another, and one of the pair made hissing sounds.

Hooded Munia (Lonchura spectabilis) — A flock of several dozen munias hangs out in the tall grass and school yard, squeaking continually. “Birds of New Guinea” doesn’t illustrate or describe the immature birds, but there are large numbers of plain brown-and-cream birds that I take to be this year’s young. (Update: I did discover a brief note in the family description that says young munias are generally brown.)

Related posts:

  1. PNG bird songs, part two
  2. PNG bird songs, part one
  3. House Sparrows expanding range in PNG
  4. Two hours hunting mystery birds
  5. Birds in 60 seconds