On the trail of the bowerbird

A team of international birders goes to Papua New Guinea to photograph the endemic flame bowerbird and its mating ritual “dance”.

Published : Feb 13, 2019 12:30 IST

The flame bowerbird.

The flame bowerbird.

“IT is an iconic bird that looks like a flame in the forest. It is a miracle of evolution and when you see one, I am sure you will be compelled to contemplate on the mysteries of nature.”

A smart and well-informed forest guide thus described the flame bowerbird, acknowledged as one of the most colourful birds on the planet. The impact was a breathtaking experience for an international group of birders in Papua New Guinea, a country of incredible avian diversity that deeply influenced Charles Darwin and his contemporary the explorer and biologist Alfred Russell Wallace and generations of scientists, birders and naturalists.

Papua New Guinea, which has more than 800 species of birds, occupies the eastern part of New Guinea, an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean. The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua form the western part of the island. Papua New Guinea has snow-clad mountains, rugged terrain, volcanoes, rivers and unexplored, dense rainforests. The country is inhabited by hundreds of ethnic groups and boasts a greater density of languages than anywhere else in the world. It is also home to the spectacular birds of paradise, of which the Raggiana bird is the most iconic, attired with dazzling, ornamental plumes.

The guide continued: “You have to wait in hides patiently if you want to see the flame bowerbird. It is an alert bird. If it gets wind of people around, it may fly off. If some other bird perches on the branch, it may fly off. It is a temperamental bird.”

Bowerbirds, numbering about 20 species, are endemic to Australia and Papua New Guinea. The flame bowerbird is endemic to Papua New Guinea. The male has a scarlet head and a golden body. The female is dull and brown. The dance of the bird is incredible and dramatic. Ornithologists say that it is a flamboyant courtship display by the male bird to attract the female. The courtship displays take place around the bower, a nest-like structure. Male birds build bowers on the ground that are made of twigs, sticks, splinter-like roots and dry grass. Some birds decorate the bowers with colourful berries, beetle shells and other shining objects and even colourful bottle tops.

Bowerbirds are the most intriguingly human of birds, according to Professor Jared Diamond, the evolutionary biologist and author of popular science books. But Tom Gillard, the great American scholar of New Guinea, says: “It is perhaps not too much to say that of all the living creatures, short of mankind itself, bowerbirds are the most bizarre.” While the bower of the flame bowerbird is not attractive, those of the Vogelkop bowerbird of West Papua and the satin bowerbird of Australia are beautiful to look at. The birds use colour pigments to make the bowers attractive aesthetically.

These birds are like artists with a brush, says Mark Cocker, a British naturalist and author of Birds and People . Richard Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale University and the author of Evolution of Beauty , says: “No description can really prepare you for the extraordinary architecture of the aesthetic structures created by male bowerbirds to use as their courtship arena. The bowers are their masterpieces created with as much care, attention and discernment as any art work.” Satin bowerbirds use strange blue objects to decorate their bowers. Of the 10,000-odd species of birds on earth, bowerbirds are the only ones to build their nests this way on the ground, according to Cocker.

Bowerbirds do not have terrestrial predators, and wild animals are conspicuously absent in the forests of Papua New Guinea. The only wild animals on the island are the tree-kangaroos and wild boars, and they do not present a threat to the bowerbirds or birders. Sheer remoteness protects the habitat of flame bowerbirds from human intrusion. Even members of the indigenous tribes do not have access to their habitat because of the altitude of the mountain ranges, which may go up to a height of 16,000 feet (4,877 metres). The terrain is hazardous.

The adventurous group of birders in this story was led by Sabu Kinattukara, a prominent birder and photographer based in Kochi. (See “In search of rare birds”, Frontline , June 8, 2018, for his photographs of birds from Africa and Asia.) It was his fifth visit to the country. The group consisted of Michel Sammut, Jesseph Grech and Juan Elleul from Malta; Martin Mengus from Germany; Nial Perrims from South Africa; and Jeaong Seo from South Korea.

The birders first reached Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. Road connectivity is still in its infancy in the country, so they travelled by air to some of the birding spots. Kiyung, in the interior of the island, was the starting point of their adventure. Four hours by boat and a one-hour nerve-wracking trek later, they were in the habitat of the flame bowerbird, which consists of woodlands and mangroves with marshy surroundings. They had taken antimalarial pills as a precaution.

Narrating his experiences to this writer, Kinattukara said: “The team was particular about sighting the flame bowerbird. They had travelled such a long distance just to see the bird. I planned the trip with some of my friends in Papua New Guinea.”

The trip was not without dangers. In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller, was believed to have been killed by cannibals in West Papua. His body was never recovered. In 1989, Phoebe Snetsinger, the legendary birder of the United States, who had seen and photographed more than 8,000 species of birds in 30 years, was assaulted and raped in Papua New Guinea. A woman of great willpower, she recovered from the trauma and continued birding. Tourists and birders have been attacked and robbed. The government has no control in tribal settlements. The tribal headman’s permission is necessary to visit birding areas. Hence, Kinattukara’s team was accompanied by armed security guards.

There are nearly 800 tribal groups in the country, speaking around 1,000 languages. There is no written script. Some languages are as different as English is from Chinese.“Most of the highlanders have never ventured more than 10 miles from their homes,” writes Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel .

The team started trekking after the boat cruise on the Fly river. The forest looked mythical. Different bird calls were heard. When a guide locates the bower, it is a money-spinner for him. He would take different birding groups and get a handsome fee for showing the bird. The first day was sunny. All the birders waited in different hides from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. They had just biscuits and water. By 3 p.m., darkness fell and visibility was low. By 4:20 p.m., they left the hides and reached the lodge by 10 p.m. without having seen the bowerbird.

The cruise back through the Fly river at night was frightening, said Kinattukara. It was dark and there were tall trees on both sides of the river. Birds of paradise were seen crossing the river. Calls of nocturnal creatures such as owls were heard in the stillness of the night. Although the first day was disappointing, it did not bother the birders because they were used to such situations. “On that day, we entered a totally different and strange forest area. We have never visited such forests. We were happy and thought we could try our luck the next day,” said a member of the team.

Dawn was magnificent the next day, and the team reached the hides by 9 a.m. At 11:15 a.m., a flame bowerbird appeared like an angel. It was like a forest flame, a magnificent glow of scarlet, said Kinattukara. Breathless moments ensued, a euphoric situation when sighting a bird that was one of the most beautiful birds on the planet.

Kinattukara took out his binoculars and began watching the bird. He said the bird was endowed with a remarkable optical phenomenon. The pupil of the bird’s eye could be seen clearly. And it would rotate, then dilate and contract. The process was repeated. It was a unique optical capacity, like humming birds, which can fly backwards, and owls, which can rotate their heads fully.

The bird gently walked round the bower. After a couple of minutes, it withdrew into the bushes. It was getting dark when a female bird appeared. And the undergrowth obstructed photography. Sitting in their hides, the birders could not see the courtship that was taking place. However, it ended soon, and the birds were seen flying off. “It would have been great if we had seen the male bird fluffing its wings and dancing,” said Kinattukkara. The team waited until 4 p.m. to have a glimpse of the bird again. But it did not appear. Subsequently, Kinattukkara took the team to Solomon Islands in the Pacific, another important birding area.

A short documentary on the flame bowerbird had enthralled birders and naturalists when it was released in 2012. It was filmed by Tadashi Shimada, a celebrated Japanese wildlife photographer and film-maker. “It is the world’s first documentary on this particular bird,” he said to this writer in an email. “I focussed on the courtship display. I have been deeply influenced by the avian beauty of Papua New Guinea since my visit to this country a quarter century ago,” he said. He is organising a major exhibition of his bird photographs from July to September at the Metropolitan Art Museum in Tokyo.

A prize catch for Sabu Kinattukara was the crested satin bird and the Victoria crowned pigeon. The pigeon has visually striking slate blue plumage. It is a turkey-sized bird, endemic to the lowlands and marshy spots of Papua New Guinea. The fan-shaped lacy crest of plumes on its head is a striking feature of the bird. There are three different species with different colour plumage in different parts of the country. All live on the forest floor and fly to the trees to roost. Kinatturkara had to wait for three days to photograph this bird.

G. Shaheed is chief of legal and environment news bureaus of Mathrubhoomi, Kochi.

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