Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Saturday, 11 February 2023

Papua New Guinea Cruise Part 3 – The Conflict Islands


Louisiade White-eye

On the return leg of our cruise to Papua New Guinea we stopped for the day on February 3 in the Conflict Islands, a chain of small islands that are part of the Louisiade Archipelego. The Louisiades extend from the south-eastern end of PNG where the Coral Sea meets the Solomon Sea. 

They have several endemic bird species and four of these (plus two future splits) occur in the Conflict Islands. We were moored off Panasesa, the largest of the Conflict group, and transferred by tender boat from the Coral Princess to an island wharf. A path from the jetty crosses the island, passing through rainforest. 

The Conflict Islands are privately owned by an Australian businessman, which seems an incongruous state of affairs for such a scenically spectacular destination. It appears that nobody is resident here and that people are brought in when a cruise ship is berthed. Native artefacts were absurdly expensive, and many passengers had been denied the opportunity to acquire much cheaper souvenirs a day earlier on Kiriwina Island to the north when the captain decided not to land there. 

Panasesa may be the largest in the group, but the island can be walked around and across within a couple of hours. I spent an enjoyable and productive morning here in lush rainforest and along beautiful beaches, scoring all 6 specialties. I had not left the jetty upon arrival when I saw my first White-chinned Myzomela (below) endemic to the Louisiades, and there were plenty of these rather drab honeyeaters about.

Next off the list was Louisiade White-eye (below) the commonest bird on the island and all over the place in noisy little flocks, often associating with the myzomelas. 

The recently split Islet Kingfisher (below) with its distinctive call could be heard easily enough but it took some tracking to eventually locate a pair.

Last of the endemics was a Louisiade Whistler, with a male showing well but briefly, with one poor image having to do. 

The distinctive subspecies of Spectacled Monarch and White-bibbed Fruit-Doves also showed nicely. 

Spectacled Monarch

White-bibbed Fruit-Dove

Other nice birds included numbers of Island (Floury) Imperial-Pigeons.

Island Imperial-Pigeon

SPECIES (* denotes lifer):

Black-naped Tern, Brown Noddy, Crested Tern, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Plover (the last two species I didn’t see but they were photographed by Colin Palethorpe),

Lesser Frigatebird, Great Frigatebird,

Eastern Reef Heron, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, White-bibbed Fruit-Dove (subsp strophium),

Island (Floury) Imperial-Pigeon, *Islet Kingfisher,

Singing Starling, Spectacled Monarch (2 subsp melanopterus), Willie Wagtail, *Louisiade Whistler, *Louisiade White-eye, *White-chinned Myzomela.

Total 18 species (4 lifers)

Ebird list here.

Black-naped Tern

Friday, 10 February 2023

Papua New Guinea Cruise Part 2 : Birding the rainforest of New Britain near Rabaul


Black-capped Paradise-Kingfisher

During our cruise from Brisbane to Papua New Guinea, we had an overnight port stop in Rabaul in east New Britain. This allowed an opportunity for a morning of rainforest birding on February 1. I’ve visited Rabaul previously while working as a journalist and had limited opportunity to bird forest patches far from town. Most birders visit west New Britain and little is known ornithologically of the island’s eastern half. I was able to organise a highly recommended tour with the Rabaul-based company Pauvu Tours (contact Tulipa Paivu or find them on Facebook.

Rachael from Pauvu Tours

A fellow cruise passenger, Colin Palethorpe, joined me. We were allowed off the ship early and were picked up at 5am in a 4-wheel drive. With driver Mare and guide Rachael, we drove 65km south-east of Rabaul into the hills to a patch of rainforest near Rachael’s village, Delroy, in the Warangoi area. I knew there was little good habitat close to Rabaul, 30km in a straight line to this site near the Warangoi Powerhouse. The often bad roads (the drive took us 1.5 hours, arriving about 6.30am) was through a depressing sea of coconut, Chinese-owned oil palm and other plantations with even secondary regrowth confined to scraps in gullies.

Bismarck Crow

The site at 170 metres above sea level was a fine stand of rainforest overflowing with birds but it was small and shrinking – essentially flanking a 500m stretch of road - with extensive areas of forest around it having burned recently.

Yellowish Imperial-Pigeon

Nonetheless it gave us a good sampling of New Britain and Bismarck specialties in quick succession. Yellowish Imperial-Pigeon and Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeon were quite common, perching openly in the early morning sun; there was no sign of Finsch’s Imperial-Pigeon. Superb Fruit-Doves were common. 

Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeon

Superb Fruit-Dove

Several Great Flying-Fox were seen perched and flying.

Great Flying-Fox

A pair of stub-tailed Bismarck Hanging-Parrots flying up the road was a welcome sight, while Blue-eyed Cockatoos noisily joined the morning chorus. Eclectus Parrots were common, flying overheading and feeding in a fruiting tree. 

Eclectus Parrot female (above and below)

Moutached Tree-Swifts sat atop tall trees. White-mantled Kingfishers called from inside the forest but only brief flight views were had.

Moustached Tree-Swift

More co-operative was a pair of Black-capped Paradise-Kingfishers, with both birds showing nicely.

Black-capped Paradise-Kinfisher (above and below)

As we left the area we saw a couple of Melanesian (Collared) Kingfishers in more open habitat. A Bismarck Pitta teased at it called at close quarters, allowing  a decent if brief flight view. 

Melanesian Kingfisher

New Britain Friarbird was very common. A pair of Bismarck Fantails were heard and then seen furtively making their way through the undergrowth; the species is scarce at this low altitude. Others included Bismarck Crow, Black Sunbird and Ashy Myzomela. We left the area late morning and were back at the ship by 1pm, so it’s an easy trip for cruising birders to undertake during a Rabaul stopover.

New Britain Friarbird

SPECIES (*lifer): Great Flying-Fox*.

Buff-banded Rail, Brahminy Kite, Pacific Baza, Amboyna Cuckoo-shrike,

Red-knobbed Imperial-Pigeon, Yellowish Imperial-Pigeon*, Superb Fruit-Dove, Blue-eyed Cockatoo, Eclectus Parrot, Coconut Lorikeet, *Bismarck Hanging-Parrot, Brush Cuckoo, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Uniform Swiftlet, Glossy Swiftlet, Moustached Tree-Swift,

*White-mantled (New Britain) Kingfisher, *Black-capped Paradise-Kingfisher, Melanesian (Collared) Kingfisher, *Bismarck Pitta, Pacific Swallow, Varied Triller, Barred Cuckoo-Shrike (subsp sublineata), Black Sunbird, New Britain Friarbird, Ashy Myzomela, Red-banded Flowerpecker (subsp lagardorum), *Bismarck Fantail, Black-tailed Monarch, Velvet Flycatcher, Spangled Drongo (subsp laemostictus), Bismarck Crow, Singing Starling, Hooded Mannikin. 33 species (6 lifers). Elist here.

Black Sunbird female

Thursday, 9 February 2023

Papua New Guinea Cruise Part 1: All at Sea

Red-footed Booby

We’ve just returned from a 12-day cruise from Brisbane to Papua New Guinea aboard the Coral Princess from January 26 to February 6. I’ll post separately about productive birding experiences near Rabaul and in the Conflict Islands. This post is to give an idea of what to expect on a cruise of this nature and to outline what happened with seabirds along the way. It’s important to note that seabirding from large cruise ships is difficult; you’re a long way up from the water and birds are usually distant.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

First birds of interest were a surprisingly good number (about 10) of Brown Booby perched with Pied Cormorants on pylons as we left Moreton Bay late-afternoon on Day One. At 6am the next day (January 27) we were at 23.79020S, 153.47622E, well north of Fraser Island, heading north at 17 knots an hour, a speed maintained for most of the cruise. Several hundred Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were seen as the morning progressed, most heading north. By 9am we had crossed the Tropic of Capricorn about 170km east of Rockhampton (23.48139S, 153.42456E) and it wasn’t until then that the first and last Tahiti Petrels for the trip were seen – 3 distant birds. 

Masked Booby

 An hour later we were skirting the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef (22.82514S, 153.31802E) about 300km east of Rockhampton and bird numbers picked up. I saw in quick succession Masked Booby, Red-footed Booby, Red-tailed Tropicbird (1 single and 1 pair), White-tailed Tropicbird (1 pair) and a female Lesser Frigatebird. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters remained abundant but mostly as singles and small groups flying north. By 2.30pm we were about 350km east of Mackay (21.40460S, 153.08650E) having notched up several more Masked Boobies, another White-tailed Tropicbird and a few Sooty Terns. 

White-tailed Tropicbird

By this time, the shearwaters began dropping off markedly in numbers. At 6am on 28 January, with the phone GPS no longer working, we were about 500km east of Cairns in the Coral Sea Islands Territory. Several Masked Boobies were regularly following the ship, attempting to catch flying fish disturbed in its wake. 

Flying Fish

Another White-tailed Tropicbird was seen. Wedge-tailed Shearwater by now was scarce. At 9.30am, 500km east of Cape Flattery, a couple of Red-footed Boobies joined the Masked Boobies following the ship, with both species maintaining a presence for the rest of the day. 

Red-footed Booby (above and below)

Small flocks of Sooty Tern were about. A distant bird that was very likely a Herald Petrel was seen briefly. We were in the PNG port of Alotai on 29 January for a land visit.

The Coral Princess berthed in Alatou

Unfortunately my attempts at organising a birding trip had failed so I was reduced to looking at Pacific Swallows and Singing Starlings along the foreshore of this somewhat bedraggled town.

Pacific Swallow

Singing Starling

 Boys charged $5 to be photographed with a captive Blyth’s Hornbill (this image was not paid for!). 

Captive Blyth's Hornbill

Other birds around town were Willie Wagtail, Torresian Crow, White-breasted Woodswallow, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, Torresian Imperial-Pigeon and Varied Honeyeater. In the late afternoon we departed, enjoying the scenic Milne Bay as we headed east through PNG waters. 

Milne Bay

 January 30 was another day at sea, having now left the Coral Sea which had been with us for most of the trip and crossing the Solomon Sea. At 6am we were about 80km north-east of Fergusson Island (9.15418S, 151.40258E). Not much was seen other than a few Brown Boobies early morning. Around this time I saw another Red-tailed Tropicbird, a couple more Red-footed Boobies (although boobies had by now stopped following the ship) and some Sooty Terns.

Sooty Tern

In the afternoon I saw a pod of Long-flippered Pilot Whales (7.54995S, 151.72454E) and more Red-footed Boobies. At 6am on January 31 we were 10km east of Cape Gazelle at the eastern end of New Britain (4.46433S, 152.46290E) and 40km west of New Ireland. This was the kind of area we needed to be in for the rare and highly localised Beck’s Petrel, but no petrels of any kind showed. Even Wedge-tailed Shearwaters had not shown for a few days now. What we did find unexpectedly was a Uniform Swiftlet (of the New Britain endemic subsp pallens) alive on the deck.

Uniform Swiftlet

 A few Lesser Frigatebirds and Black-naped Terns were about and a nice pod of Gray’s Spinner Dolphins put on a show close to the ship. 

Gray's Spinner Dolphin (above and below)

We had a two-day stop in Rabaul. Day one was partly occupied with a cultural tour of World War II relics around town and the wastelands that emerged after the city was buried by volcanic ash in 1994. Birds included Singing Starling, Glossy Swiftlet, Golden-headed Cisticola, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Willie Wagtail, King Quail, Hooded Mannikin and Willie Wagtail. Day two was a productive visit to forest away from town; the subject of the next blog post. 

Children at Rabaul

Rabaul's still active volcano

We left Rabaul late in the afternoon of February 1, seeing a mixed flock of Great and Lesser Frigatebirds, and a flock of Island Imperial-Pigeons flying to a small offshore island. February 2 was when we supposed to visit Kiriwina Island in the famed Trobriand group. I was looking forward to this, especially the chance for the coveted Curl-crested Manucode. A rain squall prevented us from landing with tenders and the captain turned the ship around and headed south at 10am, eight hours before we were scheduled to leave the island. We learned later that the weather cleared up with an hour and it remains a mystery why the captain did not elect to wait a little longer to see if the weather improved.

Lesser Frigatebird

 We continued south at a painfully slow speed (with much time to kill before our next destination) but saw nothing other than a few Brown Boobies and Crested Terns. Things thankfully improved on January 3 when we were able to land on the Conflict Islands, the subject of another post. At 6am on February 4 we were 650km east of Cape Melville. Boobies were all about the ship diving for flying fish, with 6 Masked, 4 Brown and 10 Red-footed making the line-up at one point. A Great Frigatebird and another Red-tailed tropicbird showed. 

Red-tailed Tropicbird

At 9am, about 500km east of Cape Flattery (14.90885S, 152.47574E), I saw an interesting petrel/shearwater but this poor image (below) is the only I managed; it looked markedly smaller than the many Wedge-taileds I’d seen earlier on the cruise and was flying erratically close to the water in the company of Sooty Terns. It may have been a Christmas Shearwater but the image does not rule out Wedge-tailed.

Mystery Shearwater

Around lunchtime I saw a Flesh-footed Shearwater, which is pretty much unknown in waters this tropical. At that point, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters had not been seen for several days.

Flesh-footed Shearwater

Around mid-afternoon, 450km east of Cairns (16.37149S, 152.64106E), Wedge-tailed Shearwaters again began to show in small numbers. The large number of boobies following the ship (24 at one point, more than half of them Red-footed) began to drop off, with Brown Booby becoming the more common species as we headed south. Sooty Tern continued to show occasionally. 

Masked Booby (above and below)

 January 5 was the last full day of the cruise: another day traversing the Coral Sea. At 6.30am we were 320km east of Mackay (21.20436S, 153.19432E). Common Bottle-nose Dolphin was a long way from shore here. 

Common Bottle-nosed Dolphin

The first Streaked Shearwaters (2) of the trip put in an appearance among mixed flocks feeding on bait fish of Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Brown Booby, the occasional Masked Booby and Sooty Tern. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were common throughout the day. 

Streaked Shearwater with Wedge-tailed Shearwaters

At 3pm we were 100km north of Fraser Island when we were joined by 3 Red-footed Boobies, which remained with the ship until 5.30pm, by which time we were 40km north-east of Sandy Cape. We disembarked in Brisbane on the morning of January 6.