Birds & Birding

Searching for the Lesser Bird-of-Paradise

October 19, 2015


Birding is not easy in New Guinea.

Most of the time, birders looking for birds-of-paradise go to well-known display sites, usually near a luxury lodge, at predetermined times. And voilà! They see the birds. Easy, easy.

But going it alone, sans luxury lodges, trying to find things yourself — that’s another story entirely.

All of the birds in New Guinea — let alone birds-of-paradise — are hard to find and even harder to see. What do you expect? Most birds here are hunted, some for food and some for their feathers, and birds-of-paradise are especially prized and used in ceremonial headdresses. Granted, if you hike through the rainforest you will probably hear them, but seeing them at a display site takes tenacity and hard work.

And so it was that two intrepid birders — myself and Conservancy science writer Justine Hausheer — set out to see the Lesser Bird-of-Paradise while on scientific expedition to gather acoustic data in the far reaches of the Adelbert Mountains.

Searching out birds-of-paradise in the rainforest. Photo © Zuzana Burivalova
Searching out birds-of-paradise in the rainforest. Photo © Zuzana Burivalova

Calls from the Canopy

We heard them the very first day, not long after plunging into the hot, wet, green abyss of the rainforest. My spirits lifted; this might be easier than I first thought!

The next day, while crossing a river, we even caught a glimpse of what was probably a female flying out of a tree. But that was on a very long and very tough day hiking, and we were still far from our destination, so we slogged on.

I wouldn’t count that quick glimpse anyway. When male birds-of-paradise are so incredible, a brief sighting of a female is just not good enough. (No disrespect intended, ladies. Just ask any birder, females are second best. Especially in this case.)

The days rolled on, and work continued. Then one night, Cosmas Apelis (our terrific Conservancy logistics guru for the trip) told us: “Tomorrow they will take you to the kumul tree.”

Kumul is the Tok Pisin name of any of the bird-of-paradise species. The tree they were referring to is a lek, or the display site where males get together and display for the attending females, each hoping to prove to the ladies that he is worthy of fathering a bunch of baby kumuls.

This was very exciting news. We actually had a chance at seeing the bird! Displaying!

Morning arrived, and after breakfast Justine and I trudged through rivers and up mountains, reaching the tree about two hours after dawn. A lone male called from a treetop nearby — mocking us. Too late. Way too late.

Tomorrow they will take you to the kumul tree.

Cosmas Apelis

Unfortunately no one had told us a critical piece of information — you had to be at the display tree at dawn. We had left the village at 7:00 a.m. Way too late. Our guides looked at in dismay — or perhaps pity — and then said they knew of another tree. “Let’s go!”

Buoyed by their enthusiasm, we stormed off in another direction, even deeper into the forest. At least another hour hike, up another mountain, to a second tree. But this time, silence. It was almost 11:00 a.m. by then. And very hot and humid. We were both exhausted and very far from the village.

“We have another tree!” came the increasingly absurd refrain, as our guides pointed in the wrong direction, away from the village. This time I demurred… too late, too far, too tired. Justine looked in no mood either. It was time to head back. Tails between our legs, we stumbled back over the mountains to the village.

The kumul had defeated us. For now, anyway.

A Lesser Bird-of-Paradise displaying in the Adelbert Mountains. Photo © Timothy Boucher
A Lesser Bird-of-Paradise displaying in the Adelbert Mountains. Photo © Timothy Boucher

Kumuls at Dawn

Ask anyone: when it comes to birds, I am tenacious if not downright annoying.

Work continued, and as we spent the days deploying acoustic sampling recorders we continued to hear the occasional kumul in a tree somewhere — hidden far above, obscured by the dense green canopy foliage.

The last few days in the forest crept up to us. Still no kumul. Not even close.

As often happens during fieldwork, there was a sudden change in plans. Our conspirator in chief Conservancy lead scientist Eddie Game and Justine had to leave three days early. Princeton tropical forest ecologist Zuzana Burivalova and I would continue deploying the last of the recorders, monitoring the soundscape of the forest.

Our last day in the forest would be a day off, waiting for the recorders to complete a 24-hour recording cycle. No deploying needed. After days of strenuous hiking, we had a full day to relax. Not so! Cosmas informed us: “Tomorrow they will take you to see the kumul.” But this time they had it right. “Be ready at 5:30 a.m.” Oh my gosh — now this was serious!

But I was smiling inside… I like serious when it comes to birds.

Early the next day, Zuzana, a few villagers, and I hiked down the trail in the darkness to the kumul tree. We stumble along, tripping over roots and down slippery slopes, until we stopped at the base of a large tree. The night sky was barely beginning to fade.

And then a high-pitched, raucous call rang out through the forest. And then another, and another! At least three male Lesser Birds-of-Paradise were calling.

Shapes started to emerge as the light grew, until eventually we could see the birds, resplendent with their massive white and yellow tail plumes. The males gathered around a central point on the tree — calling and displaying, strutting and hopping, tails and wings stretched aloft. Females bounced around excitedly. The whole tree seemed to come alive with the courtship displays — with both sight and sound.

The fantastic display lasted for about an hour — overwhelming us with its beauty. It was easily the natural highlight of the trip.

And so I finally got to see the kumul in its display tree, in all its glory.

We left the forest the next day with a certain spring in our step, knowing that the project was accomplished and the bird well seen.

Zuzana Burivalova and local guides celebrate finding the kumul in it’s tree at last. Photo © Timothy Boucher
Zuzana Burivalova and local guides celebrate finding the kumul in its tree at last. Photo © Timothy Boucher

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