Back to New Guinea … vicariously

2007 March 7
by David J. Ringer

DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Last Thursday, Brian and I attended Dr. Bruce Beehler’s lecture in Fort Worth. Dr. Beehler is an authority on New Guinea birds (he wrote the book) and took part in the now famous Foja Mountains expedition in western New Guinea.

That expedition, which documented potentially dozens of new species and garnered international media attention, was the topic of Dr. Beehler’s presentation last week. Dr. Beehler showed some of the photographs that have already circulated widely on the web and elsewhere (e.g., here and here), but coupled with his awe-filled and at times humorous narrative, the photographs seemed to take on a life and significance much greater than I’d experienced before.

We were looking at the first photographs ever taken of the Golden-fronted Bowerbird, and standing before us was the man who had taken them, and had even held the birds in his hands. He said the birds were so tame that he had sat a few feet away as a male displayed for a female at his bower.

As for the honeyeater the expedition described, Dr. Beehler is calling it Melipotes carolae after his wife, Carol. He’d long dreamed, he said, of getting to name a new species. He also used the English name Wattled Smoky-Honeyeater.

Dr. Beehler has wanted to visit the Foja Mountains longer than I’ve been alive. Several years ago, on a flight over the mountain range, he spotted a small interruption in the canopy, a boggy spot where there were no trees. He recognized that little bog as a place — perhaps the only place — where a helicopter could land. Sure enough, that’s exactly where a chartered helicopter dropped off the team in December 2005.

Much is made of the fact that the Foja Mountains forest is pristine and rarely visited. But Beehler’s book, “Birds of New Guinea,” has something to say about that: “What to any outsider’s eye is nothing but trackless rainforest is, to the Papuan, someone’s family property.”

Indeed, the Papasena and Kwerba Mamberamo peoples claim portions of the Foja Mountains as traditional lands, even though they do not appear to have ventured up into the mountains for decades.

In preparation for the expedition, scientists spent time with the local people: living with them, talking with them, and eating with them. The people needed to see “that we weren’t in a hurry all the time,” said Dr. Beehler, and “that we’re just regular folks.” The importance of relationships in Melanesian culture can hardly be overstated.

All too soon, the lecture was done, and Brian and I went to the front to ask for an autograph in my “Birds of New Guinea,” which was my constant companion in every corner of PNG. Dr. Beehler seemed pleased to see the book (it is out of print), and Brian commented that his copy is still in PNG and has Menya bird names written all over the pages. I asked Dr. Beehler about the new edition, which is supposed to be in preparation, but he hemmed and hawed without giving a definitive answer.

I wanted to ask more about the Foja Mountains birds — the Parotia bird-of-paradise, for example. It was included without comment in P. carolae in “Birds of New Guinea,” but now that the birds have actually been observed and photographed, Dr. Beehler seems to believe they deserve full species status. I wanted to ask why, but the event’s high-strung organizer insisted on hurrying his friend away to dinner.

There is so much to see. There is so much to learn. I guess that’s what tomorrow is for.

Related posts:

  1. Owls, Christmas birds, New Guinea birds
  2. Stunning video footage from Papua
  3. Back from Taney County
2 Responses
  1. Bruce Beehler permalink
    October 30, 2007

    Hello! One of my colleagues here at Conservation International mentioned to me that you had written about my giving a talk in Fort Worth! Thanks very much. I listened to your sound file of the mystery bird from PNG but it was too fragmentary for me to make anything of it, sorry! Happy birding!!

    Bruce Beehler

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Search and Serendipity: A Birder’s Blog » Owls, Christmas birds, New Guinea birds

Comments are closed.