Wonder-world

2006 September 3
by David J. Ringer

PORT MORESBY, PNG — Since my first full day in this country, frogmouths have been a jinx bird for me. About two weeks ago, I realized that this day might be my only chance to see the birds before I go home in November, so I emailed Eric Katovai and said I wanted to bird at Pacific Adventist University.

I knew that tour groups tick the Papuan Frogmouth there, and so I was excited when I arrived. Eric had cautioned, however, that the birds had been scarce of late.

Eric left me in the hands of a biology major named Auldreen, and the first thing we did was look for frogmouths. Things looked pretty dismal for awhile, but if you want to know what happened, you’ll need to keep on reading.

Waterbirds are diverse and abundant at PAU; they accounted for nearly half of the morning’s 44 species. Yellow-eyed Australasian Grebes ducked in and out of the water. They are getting their breeding colors now, for spring is less than three weeks away. Ruddy Wandering Whistling-Ducks crowded on the shore and in the ponds near Pacific Black Ducks. Spotted Whistling-Ducks preferred a quieter roost in the trees with night-herons, cormorants, and three Radjah Shelducks, who tried their best to remain incognito.

Auldreen greeted new discoveries — like the shelducks — with excitement and wonder. He expressed a joy in birds that refreshed and delighted me. I thought later that he must be the first kindred birder-spirit that I’ve found since I came to this country.

Grey-headed Munias, endemic to eastern PNG, flocked in the tall grasses, where coucals also lurked. The munias’ heads were gray enough, but the rest of them was very dark, save for the yellow-orange tail. Kookaburras did not appear, but we did see plenty of the colorful figbirds, red skin bunched around their eyes.

We birded for almost four hours, and then I was sorry to see Auldreen go. I walked to the ponds one last time before the taxi came, and there, not much taller than the whistling-ducks, a Pied Heron stood erect and still. White breast plumes splayed across its green-black belly, and its dapper cap bore a little tail, just like Davy Crockett’s.

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PAU’s beautiful campus is nestled among the dry, jagged hills outside of Moresby. Many of the region’s waterbirds and passerines also occur in Australia. Some winter here and breed (primarily) in Australia; others have sedentary populations in both countries.

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Bulky and dramatic, Purple Swamphens were abundant in ponds, marshy areas, and even lawns.

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This swamphen had constructed a nest of vegetation fairly close to shore and appeared to be incubating eggs. And yes, I’m afraid that is a plastic bag sticking out of the water there.

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One Dusky Moorhen’s bright orange-yellow bill and frontal shield caught my eye. (Behind and to the left of the aberrant bird is a typical scarlet-colored individual for comparison.) I was grateful to the unusual moorhen, for when I stopped to examine it, I noticed a lovely Green Pygmy-goose lurking in the vegetation nearby.

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Comb-crested Jacanas would be fantastic enough in classy suits of black-brown, buff, and white, but dark teardrops and outrageous pink-orange crests give the little birds a sad-clown look. Their toes, particularly the hindclaws (visible here), are wildly elongated, like murderous stilettos.

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Harsh, unpleasant notes wafted out of a thicket. A bowerbird was putting on his show. Despite our attempt to sneak up quietly, he abandoned his post before we could see him.

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This is the bower of a Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, Chamydera cerviniventris. As we examined his masterpiece (and tasteful green decor), the bird made disagreeable noises somewhere above our heads. Auldreen told me that the avenue between the walls is always aligned precisely on an east-west axis, and that the bowerbird is an excellent mimic.

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And finally … when I saw Auldreen’s thumbs-up and big grin, I knew he’d struck gold. Sure enough, he was pointing at a Papuan Frogmouth asleep on her new nest. The bird’s massive bill and head astonished me, and her gray-brown plumage was dazzling in its intricacy. I didn’t want to walk away. What a bird!

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4 Responses
  1. Mike permalink
    September 5, 2006

    Wow. That frogmouth is a seriously striking bird.

  2. Trevor permalink
    September 14, 2006

    Can you send one of these down to South Australia? An amazing bird – I’m familiar with the Tawny Frogmouth – we sometimes have one in our garden. Its a great feeling to finally nail a bogey bird.

  3. Janet Crowell permalink
    February 19, 2011

    aptly named–Frogmouth indeed

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