West Papua

I spent 2 weeks in the Indonesian province of West Papua, on the top of the Vogelkop peninsula, between October and November 2012. My main goal was seeing and taking pictures of Birds of Paradise, and i opted to visit 2 locations : the Arfak mountain range south of Manokwari, and the Islands of Salawati and Batanta off Sorong.

Traveling to this part of the world is usually considered at least “difficult”, and therefore most people wishing to visit the place for birding do so in joining a tour, or have their trip arranged by a local specialized agent such as the Papua Bird Club (http://www.papuabirdclub.com). I tried the second route but response was slow due to their busy schedules, and as i found myself alone for this trip it turned out that the price they would charge for a single person would be outrageous. Nevertheless, Shita Prativa of the Papua Bird Club was helpful and provided me with information and contacts in order for me to arrange the whole trip on my own. I also got in touch with Manokwari based Charles Roring (peace4wp@gmail.com), who specializes in ecotourism in the area and I signed up with him for a 2 night camp in a Lowland forest location nearby a display site for Lesser Bird of Paradise, but it turned out to be a fiasco as the local guides never showed up… So i decided to go directly to the village of Siyoburi in the Arfak mountains, which is the area’s birdwatching Mecca.

Both locations have been visited by a number of birdwatchers in the last 15-20 years, and a quick search on Internet will yield several useful trip reports. There is one i recommend in particular, as it provides good details on both birding and logistics : http://www.papuabirdclub.com/TR_Nick_Brickle_2008_3.pdf. In my short report here below i will just emphasize the changes i found on the locations, and the particular aspects of arranging your own trip on the spot.

Arfak mountains

Key points :

– Zeth Wonggor is still the birdwatching rainmaker of the place, and birding in Siyoburi area means using his services one way or another. The trick is to contact him however, as Siyoburi is outside of mobile network coverage area… There are 2 possible tactics : trying to call/msg him (+62 (0)85254053754) until he picks up the signal when going down to Manokwari, or simply turning up at Siyoburi and getting things arranged on the spot. Both tactics have proven to work, but Zeth is a busy man and during the June-September peak season regular birdwatching tours will have booked his services well in advance. The good news is that Zeth actually runs a real organiation and has several assistants who are also very knowledgeable on local birds so that visiting groups or individuals will always be taken care of somehow… in my case, i could only contact Zeth on my day of arrival in Manokwari, and as he was about to leave for a trip to Bali (!) i was put in the hands of Eliakim who turned out to be a great guide.

– From Manokwari there are 2 options to go to Siyoburi (elavation 1500m, about 2h drive) : a truck that departs from the main market some time in the morning bringing back locals to their village (8 USD), or chartering a 4WD (100 USD one way). Your hotel will be able to find the car, and as you have no network connection up there it is safer to agree on a pick up day and time with the driver if you want to travel back the same way. One important point not to be ignored : in West Papua foreigners need a permit issued by the local police (‘Surat Jalan”) even for sightseeing activities. You therefore need to report to the police within 24 hours of your arrival in West Papua, tell them your planned itinerary and date of departure, and it will be issued in a couple of hours. If the police officer tells you it takes longer, it means you’re invited to contribute to the local police charity fund in order to speed it up… (100 k IDR will clear the problem)

– You need to bring food with you from Manokwari, not only for yourself but also for the guide and the porters you will possibly hire if you plan to camp in the forest for example. Enough rice (i took 5 kilos for 6 nights and it was just enough) and some fish/meat/eggs are the essentials, as you’ll be able to buy veggies from the village if you don’t bring any. In Siyoburi above the village there is a “rumah turis” for visitors with 4 rooms with wooden bunker beds, a cooking area outside and a bathroom with running (cold) water from the stream. No electricity, so bring the lighting of your choice. A woman from the village will take care of the cooking.

– All prices are fixed and as of my visit, they were : 250 kIDR/day for guiding, 70 kIDR/day for the bed, 100 kIDR/day for cooking, 100 kIDR/day for porters, and an additional one-off 200 kIDR that goes to the community. So overall, a 6 nights stay set me back 6.6 mio IDR, food and transport included. I spent 4 nights in the guest house, and 2 nights camping on the ridge at “camp X/Jepang”, elevation 2100m, using 2 porters for the 3 days trek. Basic camping equipment such as a sleeping bag and a pad are certainly useful (bear in mind that nights at Siyoburi are fresh, and chilly above 2000m), you don’t need a tent for camping as porters will bring a tarpaulin sheet.

– Forest clearing is gathering pace around Siyoburi, unfortunately for birdwatchers. In addition, a new road leading to the village of Kwai was being cut at the time of my visit, passing just 100 meters away from the spot for Magnificent Birds of Paradise. It is simply inevitable, and most villagers will certainly see their living standards improve substantially out of this, but the constant noise of chain seesaw and caterpillar engines made my birding experience less enjoyable.

– Around Siyoburi, Zeth and his crew have set up hides for displaying Magnificent Birds of Paradise and Western Parotias. Black Sicklebill and Arfak Astrapia are found higher on the ridge, mostly above 2000m, and i had good view of both species during the 2 nights/3 days camp. Unfortunately i missed out on the Long-tailed Paradigalla, which usual sighting location is now threatened by forest clearing, and on Buff-tailed Sicklebill, which can be found in a lower elevation area, near the village of Mokwam.

– Birding is generally difficult in Arfak and the rest of Papua, birds being particularly shy due to traditional hunting pressure. This is compensated by the incredible sighting skills of the local guides and their excellent knowledge of birds, from calls to feeding and roosting habits. Especially if you have little or no knowledge of New Guinea avifauna, more than anywhere else you need a guide to see the birds in good conditions. Photography was difficult too, and only from the hides i could get decent shots of visiting birds. Visiting at the tree fruiting season also meant that no fruiting tree was particularly busy with birds… I basically spent more than half of my “useful” time in hides, staying 3 times at both the Magnificent BoP and the Western Parotia hides. This was not very productive and even though BoPs were definitely around, frequently calling, they did not display at all (it was late in display season but i could have been more lucky) and showed only very briefly in front of the hide.

– BoPs put aside, most notable sightings were : New Guinea Harpy Eagle, White-striped Forest Rail (Magnificent BoP hide), Modest Tiger-Parrot, roosting Feline (just behind the guest house!) and Mountain Owlet Nightjars, Spotted Jewel-babbler, Lesser Ground Robin, Lesser Melampitta, Smoky, Green-backed (Magnificent BoP hide), Ashy (WP hide), Blue-greay and Garnet Robins, Papuan Treecreeper, Rufous-sided and Western Smokey Honeyeater, Vogelkop and Cinnamon-browed Melidectes, Spotted Catbird, Vogelkop Bowerbird.

Salawati/Batanta

Back to Manokwari, it takes a short flight to Sorong (3 or 4 daily) to reach the gate to the Raja Ampat archipelago, mostly famed for its great diving spots. Thanks to Shita of Papua Bird Club, i was given the contact of Cyau (+62 (0)85254477744 , no english spoken), who has a ready-to-charter boat available for birding and diving trips alike. The 4 days/3 nights trip was priced at 8.5 Mio IDR, with more of half of that money going into fuel for the 4×40 CV outboard engines. A pretty powerful setup that shrinks the 70km or so journey from Sorong to Wailebed on Batanta to less than 2 hours. At such a speed, the opportunities for seabird watching en route were also shrunk to minimum. Before heading off to the islands, i had to buy food supply for myself + 3 people crew + 3 guides in Batanta/Salawati… 8 kg of rice for 4 days was barely enough. But as one of the boat crew turned out to be a skilled spear fisher, a large supply of fresh reef fish was also available.

Salawati being only separated from Batanta by a 3km wide strait, visiting both islands in one trip is easily done. This is all the more interesting because their geography are substantially different, and their birds as well. Batanta is a hilly island with little or no coastal plain, whereas Salawati is flatter with swampy lowland forest along the coast. Batanta has Wilson and Red BoPs (shared with Waigeo Is further north), but Salawati has a similar avifauna as the mainland, with King BoP and Western Crowned Pigeon being the main targets.

I managed to get views of the 3 BoP species, with up to 8 Red BoPs displaying high in the canopy of a large tree just outside the village of Wailebed.  Wilson BoP occurs above 300m elevation in Batanta, so it takes a bit of a hike to reach the display sites. None was active unfortunately, and during my 2 visits i had some good but brief views of a few birds moving in the middle storey. On Salawati, the guide Nelman knew a roosting site for King BoP (this bird tends to roost communally), so by getting there early enough we had good views of 2 males grooming themselves in the canopy. The Western Crowned Pigeon stayed elusive for most of the day spent in Batanta, and only on the way back from our last attempt we flushed 2 birds that were feeding on the ground. Other notable sightings : Dusky Megapode (Batanta), Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeon (Batanta), Black Lory (Salawati), Rufous-bellied Kookaburra (Salawati), Hooded Pitta (Batanta).

As for the Arfak, the Batanta/Salawati trip has been done by many birders in the recent past with comprehensive reports available on the net. So just a few points to highlight the conditions at the time of my visit :

– Similarly to Siyoburi in the Arfaks, Wailebed on Batanta is prepared to welcome visiting birders with a dedicated “Rumah Turis” (a small concrete house with no bed/mattress, so do bring your sleeping pad) and guides available to show you around (Chris and Yehuda, both excellent). Prices are almost equivalent to Siyoburi, with the price for a guide coming at 200 kIDR/day, but then they insisted that i needed 2 guides… At Salawati, Nelman is the man, very good as well, but he managed to sell himself more expensively, at 300 kIDR/day.

– Whereas i found Wailebed area in Batanta in good condition besides the clearing around the village, Salawati is unfortunately undergoing rapid and undesirable changes, from a birdwatcher’s perspective : a large “Transmigrasi” settlement area is being developed on the north coast just across from Wailebed, and from there a logging road has been cut along the North coast almost all the way to Northwestern tip. Transmigrasi is the name of a controversial (at least in Papua) Indonesian government policy promoting population transfers from the most populated areas of the archipelago (mostly Java) toward the least populated areas (Kalimantan, Sumatra, Papua). Local Papuans  resent this policy because they are progressively getting outnumbered by non-native Indonesians, and as for environment impact, the policy accelerates the logging and conversion of forested areas into agricultural land, especially along the coasts and large rivers. This was very visible, and hearable, during my day long visit along the northern and western coasts : every kilometer or so a chain seesaw was in action close to the coast.

But overall it was a great trip, and things went smoother than expected. All local people were friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the birds and their environment, making it a wonderful birdwatching experience. When discussing prices, i never had any “drama-filled” session that are sometimes reported by travelers in Papua, as prices were already set and reasonable. This all makes it very possible for independent travelers/birdwatchers to come to West Papua and save significant money as compared to joining a tour or having an agent to design a custom itinerary. Speaking some Indonesian does certainly help, but most locals speak at least a little bit of English, and with the help of a lexicon one should manage to survive pretty much all situations.

16 thoughts on “West Papua

  1. Thanks for sharing great images and thoroughly written posts on your blog, Yann. This is valuable information and interesting reading for anyone going to these places. See you in the blizzards in Norway in January 2013! Just got home from Kenya, difference in temperature is 60 degree Celsius… -25 in Lillehammer today…

  2. Hi Yann,
    I came over from BF (following the Leucosticte news), and decided to have a look at this location as well. A couple of comments. Vogelkop Fairywren will confuse just about everybody. Vogelkop Sericornis, or Vogelkop Scrubwren is preferred.
    The Meliphaga. Well, the birds of genus Meliphaga, in New Guinea, are without doubt the biggest headscratcher on the Island. Even Phil Gregory, and Bruce Beehler have problems with these. However, I am doubtless as competent as the next guy, and I disagree with your assessment. Can I inquire how the ID determination was made? For me, this is a Forest Honeyeater (Meliphaga m. montana), and actually as far as these Meliphagids go, the Forest Honeyeater is perhaps the most easily separated from other sympatric Meliphaga. In this case, it should be remembered that the ear-patch of M. m. montana in the Arfak is yellowish, and not the white found in other races of M. montana. M. a. analoga is overall a much lighter bird, in particular, the crown is not this dark (greenish in the Mimic HE), in this bird tending to brown, and the ear-patch is smaller, and triangular.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for dropping by !
      – Yes, Scrubwren is the right word, will modify that.
      – The ID for the melipahaga was made by your servitor, with the help of B. Beehler et Al. “Birds of New Guinea”. I could very well have been wrong, and i can’t argue much now since i am on a trip without any guidebook handy. Bear in mind however that the picture was taken at sea level in Batanta, where M. a. analoga is known to occur. Will look more into this when back home.
      Thanks again for the useful comments.
      YM

      • Hi Yann,
        I relooked at this with the additional information, and I am still perplexed. The color and the large caudad extension of the auricular macula, the apparent absence of a darker loral line not concolorous with the frons and the crown, the overall darker appearance of the bird, well, it still makes me think that it is montana. On Batanta, both species range though, as you have mentioned, the altitudinal optima for analoga (the nominate race ranges here), and for montana (putative race margaretae – putative because some consider it indistinguishable from the nominate montana) is considered to be different (apparently analoga altitudinally displacing montana, the latter having the higher optima). However, montana has been recorded at sea level (but not on Batanta). By the way, IBC does have a photo of the Mimic HE shot on Batanta.

        Well, beyond this rather arcane discussion on the fine points of Meliphaga identification, congratulations are to be extended for the first (and the only one that I know of) photograph of Rallina leucospila!!!!

        Cheers,
        Steve

  3. hi Steve,
    Again it’s hard for me to debate not having good material handy, but as far as general color is concerned, my picture is backlit and therefore the bird appears quite darker than it actually was. However i concur with all your other remarks and I will wait until my return to have a definite ID call on this one. As for the White-striped Forest Rail, it was lucky that one of those shy and secretive birds showed up while in a hide. I’d be happy to make the picture available to a bird picture database, do you think IBC is the best place for that ?
    Cheers
    Yann

  4. Yann,
    There are two useful ornithological resource sites for the Rail, which is, by the way, an adult male bird. The two sites are Tom Tarrant’s site, Australasian Bird Image Database, http://www.aviceda.org/abid/aboutus.php
    and then, yes, the Internet Bird Collection which is by far the most widely consulted of the two. Either, or both of those sites would welcome the image. Further, another possibility is: http://www.flickr.com/groups/birdguide/
    a site for which I vet quite of the few more lesser known birds from less traveled venues.

  5. Dear Yann,
    Thank you for sharing this story and pictures. Could you please tell me more about the situation in Wai Lebed and the place on Salawati just opposite, inlcuding some kilometers to the East and West. You say that they are building this transmigrasi settlement place there. Could you please give some more details on this? You said that chainsaws are often heard and roads have been built. Have the roads been in use (by loggers ect) at the time you were there? How vast do we have to imagine this whole development project? Are they clearing all forest? Or just establishing some places connected by a road? Is the whole Coast affected by this or just smaller areas? We plan to stop by at Wai Lebed in mid-February to do some birdwatching. Do you think it is still recommended to go there? Is the overall experience still that of untouched nature (in some places at least)? I think you understand what type of information I am trying to get at. I am particularly interested to see the King BoP. Which location would you recommend at first? Any information would be highly appreciated. Thank you, Lilil

    • Dear Lilil,
      To answer to your questions :
      – The logging road affects the North coast of Salawati facing Batanta on a roughly 10km length, but i am not sure how far it extends inland. Apart from the area just around the Transmigrasi settlement there was no sign of extensive clearing yet, but certainly selective logging was taking place on both sides of the road, and also on the West facing coast (that the road does not reach yet). I am not sure how many transmigrasi settlers are planned to arrive, but it’s certainly at least in the 100s and there is no doubt that significant clearing will take place in the coming future to develop cultivation.
      – So far the key species in Salawati do hang on : i saw King BoP and Western Crowned Pigeon, and footprints of Cassowary. Also numerous hornbills and parrots on large fruiting trees along the logging road. The location for King BoP is just opposite of Wailebed (and roughly 3km West of the transmigrasi settlement) and appears reliable still. The local guide Nelman will certainly take you there upon request. As for “untouched nature” in Salawati, it will be hard to escape from chain seesaw disturbance along the coast during the day… but for now large tracts of fairly untouched lowland rainforest certainly remain, all the more so if going inland.
      – Batanta appears unaffected by the developments on Salawati for the time being.
      I hope this answers your questions, and i’d be happy to hear from your visit there.

  6. Hi,
    L’oiseau sur la photo #8 n’est définitivement pas une harpie de Nouvelle guinée mais à mon humble avis, a Long-tailed Honey-buzzard Henicopernis longicauda (motif sus et sous alaire, la petite tête et faible bec et surtout la poitrine striée et les tarses très courts).
    Salutations :]

    • Hi. As far as i know they don’t regulate that but i’d not recommend it. The birds are very shy and you risk abruptly interrupting the display using a flash. You also want to keep the opening for your camera as small as possible, so your flash would have to be put outside and remote triggered. Not a good idea i think.

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