Manokwari: Birds, Flies and Cleaning Businesses

Flies lazily buzz through open french windows…

…looking out on to the quiet streets of Manokwari.

It’s been 3 months since I left my soul-crushing research position in England to travel to West Papua, in search of the elusive Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise, a creature that I had spent months examining under a microscope for the sake of DNA analysis.

I no longer harboured any scientific pretensions about my mission.

This trip was catalysed by the guilt that I felt for destroying so many beautiful feathers. This bird was already classified as ‘Near Threatened‘, yet this clearly had not stopped the hunters of this bird finding plenty of samples for us to test back in the UK. The question was: how well had these numbers been regulated and was there a chance that our greed for DNA data had affected the population of this creature?

I’ll admit to a certain amount of disorganisation on my part.

I’d left home in a hurry, so consumed by my intent, I threw my belongings in storage, cancelled any direct debits I had and essentially fled the country, with no plan for when I arrived in West Papua’s provincial capital.

With just a bag of quickly packed clothes and a toothbrush, I felt like I was backpacking again rather than embarking on a Grail-like quest. Thankfully, I’d saved enough money to last me a while in West Papua. I’d barely looked into the history of the country, preferring to focus instead on the biological prize that I was in search of. So, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the British Pound was exceptionally highly valued in Indonesia.

I found lodgings in the slightly grimy flat, just outside of the small city centre, on my first day. The tired looking landlady seemed relieved to have some regular income, as I entered she took down the ‘Room for let’ sign hanging in the window, just beneath a much dustier sign advertising a ‘Cleaning franchise for sale‘. Evidently her rooms were in much higher demand than her business acumen.

Although Manokwari is the largest urban settlement on the Papuan islands, you can hardly describe the city as ‘built up’.

The rain forest environment that dominates the equatorial islands loom on the edges of this vibrant city, a constant reminder of the thin line that separates the city dwellers and the hundreds of tribes that still live in jungles, undisturbed by civilisation or technological advancements.

If I’ve got any hope for witnessing the Bird-of-Paradise, then I’ll need to meet a guide that can take me into the heart of the jungle and lead me to the sample collectors, the source of all the precious DNA that I had been testing back in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s been harder to find this person than I had originally expected. Although the town is teeming with tourist guides, whenever I explain my situation and that I’m travelling alone, they lose interest immediately.

Most of these opportunistic locals are looking for an easy job: a big group of tourists that they can shepherd around a small patch of forest just out of the city limits and then herd back into the city for a night spent at restaurants that they’ll already have a special arrangement with. They don’t want to take one, poor-looking scientist into the heart of a wilderness that they had worked hard to escape from, all in search of an elusive bird that might not even exist anymore.

I have enough money to last me years here in Manokwari – I’m just worried that my real purpose will get slowly eroded by the cheap beer that I can’t seem to stop drinking…

Summertime Bird Watching: How To Get Started

Bird watching is hardly what you would call a mainstream activity.

During the Winter and Autumn months, birders have to rise during the early hours of the morning in rather miserable weather, in order to get camped down for a good view. However, by the time the summer months come round, a day spent bird watching begins to look like a much more attractive prospect. 

Thanks to the proliferation of green spaces throughout the UK, it doesn’t take long to leave the city and make it out to a convenient place for bird watching. Although the UK is home to a number of migratory species that ‘winter’ in warmer parts of the world, there are still many species of bird that stay in the country for the whole year, making Summer the best time to spot them.

If you’ve just begun your bird watching journey then one of the first questions will be where best to do it. Rural England during the Summer is a perfect place to begin your bird watching journey. Take a country trail or bridal path out into the sticks and you’ll soon start to spot a few creatures. However, should you wish to take a short cut to bird watching success, then you can head to a dedicated bird reserve of which there are dozens spread throughout the UK.

The RSPB, Britain’s leading bird preservation charity, owns huge swathes of land out in the countryside, including 5 large stretches of marshland in Norfolk. Should you wish to learn some more advanced tricks of the trade then you can always head to Rutland Water for the annual Bird Fair, where hundred of British bird watchers gather every year to share tips, photographs and sightings.

All you really need to start bird watching is patience, there are a few other things which you might wish to take with you, should you wish to while away more than just a single hour in the hot sun:

A good pair of binoculars

If you embark on a bird watching expedition it’s best to come armed with at least one pair of binoculars. Because of the distance that you often have to sit from, the bird’s you might spot could be quite hard to make out.

Although you could spend a good few hundred pounds on a pair of binoculars, this pair from John Lewis should serve you well for your fledgling spotting trips.

An effective electric fan

If you stay out in the summer heat, then you are going to get hot. You may find that your spot will be under cover, but that won’t stop the sun getting to you.

Avoid buying a novelty child-sized fan and invest in a serious piece of equipment, so that you can stay cool throughout the day. Northern firm Beatson sell ‘man-coolers’ capable of keeping the air moving, even on hot muggy days (you can find them by clicking here).

Camouflage clothing and netting

The last thing that you might want to do on a hot summer’s day is cover up, but the plain truth of the matter is that bird sightings will be a lot more elusive if you don’t wear some form of camouflage.

You can buy netting and material from a haberdashery should you wish to create your own den, but if you want to invest a little more, you can be a full camouflage light weight suit form Wildlife Watching Supplies right here.

Once you’ve kitted up, all you need to do is head out to a spot and wait – best of luck!

Farewell to Manokwari: Into The Jungle

It’s time to leave this city…

After months of languishing in boredom here in Manokwari, I’ve finally found a guide to take me into the rainforests.

The island I’ve found myself on is unique in that the temperature here rarely drops below 25 degrees. Sitting right on the equator, these islands enjoy a perennial heat that refuses to give up. Combine this heat with the complex humidity and high pressures of the Phillippine Sea and you have the perfect recipe for a tropical storm.

Thick drops of rain hammered the tin roofs of Manokwari’s poorly built suburbs, as I packed my bags for the off. I’d taken the precaution of paying my landlady 6 months advanced rent, so that I could be sure of a place to stay, should I be forced out of the jungle at an unexpected moment.

What few possessions I had: clothes, camera lenses, satellite phone, were rammed into my rucksack as I locked the flimsy door behind me and dropped the door key into a well thumbed copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost – even the most deluded of backpackers would think twice before picking up that long slog of a book.

I nodded to the landlady as I pulled my new hat on to my head.

For some reason, the entirety of Manokwari had become besotted with these fedoras. Whether it was a new fashion trend or perhaps a cultural fad, I truly didn’t know – but it seemed like everybody from rickshaw drivers to business men were wearing these old-school cowboy hats.

Only a few feet lay between my awaiting rickshaw and the front door of what had been my home for 3 months. A wall of water streamed off the choked gutters and I resigned myself to the inevitable saturation that I was about to receive. Pulling the hat down, so I could at least keep my face wet, I stormed through the door and into the waiting rickshaw.


I’d met Manu on an ill-fated research trip to the town’s only University.

The University of Papua has one of it’s three campuses in the provincial capital. It was my 3rd week in Manokwari and I’d come to the conclusion that the learned men from the UoP would be my best bet for getting in touch with a guide – in some ways I was right.

My journey into the University of Papua’s Biology department was not successful. The receptionist’s face was an immovable wall. She was not impressed by my fancy English University credentials, she did not like my shabbily dressed appearance and she appeared to find my scent somewhat noxious. I must’ve waited for something like an hour before she curtly informed me that the professor would be out for the rest of the afternoon. She smiled a sickly smile as I left and almost crashed into a student carrying a large stack of papers.

The receptionist began to immediately berate the confused lad, causing a violently gesticulated spat to ensue for a couple of minutes.

By the time they had finished cursing at each other in their native tongue, I’d helped the lad re-stack the papers. The argument ended on a decisive back and forth basis, as we both backed out of the room – needless to say, the receptionist was no longer smiling.

As I left the building, Manu, for that was his name, caught up with me and spoke to me in English, asking me if there were anything that he could do for me. He bitterly complained about the unfair hours that he had to work for the University and told me about his plans to become a tour guide.

My ears pricked up at this and I asked him if he knew of someone who could take me through the forests, to an English-funded research base somewhere in the murk. He told me that not only did he know the local forests by the back of his hand, but he also had an idea about where this base might be. We shook hands on a fee and settled to leave in a fortnight.


That fortnight had flown by in an instance. Days spent planning routes and preparing ourselves with jungle survival gear had bonded us – it now felt like we were planning an escape from the city rather than incursion into one of the densest rain forests in the world.

As rain water slipped off his fedora, Manu grunted and the rickshaw shunted off through the sheets of rain – our journey had begun.

4 Incredibly Intelligent Birds

Birds are often seen as rather stupid creatures.

Terms like ‘bird-brain’ hardly help their reputation as simple creatures, yet they are often capable of far more than we think.

These 4 species of bird have proved beyond a doubt that they are far more than bird-brained:

African grey parrot

The grey parrot is an animal that has been officially listed as endangered in certain parts of the world. Calling it’s home in equatorial Africa, this species has been used extensively by the pet trade partly due to it’s highly intelligent and sensitive nature. Indeed, this species of parrot was even used for a landmark study in avian intelligence that spanned thirty years.

Animal psychologist Irene Pepperburg bought an African grey parrot from a pet shop in the 70s and proceeded to spend the next three decades teaching him over 100 words, a task that was previously thought to be beyond the capabilities of a bird. By the time Alex (short for avian language experiment) passed away at the age of 31, he was deemed to have developed an intelligence equivalent to a 5-year old child.

Pigeons

Hardly the most elusive or rare of creatures, the pigeon is a common species of bird that is often seen as being stupid. Commonly referred to as ‘flying rats’, they’re considered as vermin in many parts of the world and are often subject to cruel acts by the human population – this is particularly tragic when you stop to consider the vital role that they have played in human communication over the years.

Numerous studies and centuries of research have confirmed that pigeons’ memories are extremely well organised. Despite their reputation, it has been proven time and time again that there’s no better bird to deliver messages than the pigeon. They have excellent Geo Location skills combined with an uncanny ability to remember people and their locations.

Kea

A bird that has come under threat over the last few decades, the kea has developed something of a poor reputation in it’s native land of New Zealand. Up until 1986 this large parrot (standing at half a metre tall when fully grown) was hunted for bounty after local farmers suspected them of attacking their sheep. Today the species is considered to be in a vulnerable state with estimated figures lying somewhere in between 1’000 and 5’000.

The kea is known to be a naturally curious and adventurous bird. Affectionately known as the ‘clown of the mountains’ these colourful birds are always eager to pry and pull apart things that they find. They’re even known to tamper with stoat traps, having been caught on camera several times inserting small sticks to trigger loud noises, which they apparently enjoy immensely.

Raven

Seen as a dark omen by many cultures and religions, the raven is perhaps one of the most underestimated common variety birds. Often roosting together in large groups, these animals has one of the largest brains in the bird kingdom. Their hyperpallium is much larger than usual for a bird, giving them incredible problem solving abilities and other cognitive skills such as imitation and insight.

The common raven has been known to combine all of these skills in combination to steal small items. As young birds they are intensely attracted to shiny things (a fascination that dissipates as they age) leading to birds stockpiling odd trinkets such as golden rings, oven knobs and even money!

So, before you dismiss birds as being a little stupid, stop and think about how well you’d measure up with a kea or a raven!

The Cuckoo’s Call

Have you heard the one about the disappearing cuckoo?

I’d like to tell you that this is a setup for a brilliant joke that will split your sides, but unfortunately, it’s not.

The common cuckoo, although not yet considered to be a species under threat by the international community, has nonetheless been missing from the English countryside for the last few decades.

There was a time when the calling of the common cuckoo would herald the beginning of Summer, especially in the South and South East of the country. The arrival of this migratory bird, which winters in the warmer regions of Africa and Asia, has long been the sign that Summer has arrived. The call of this bird was even the subject of a yearly write-in competition with The Times, with readers competing to be the first to report the first call of the cuckoo in the country.

Although many commentators have been bemoaning this as another failure of the UK government for a lack of attention to the country’s green spaces, the reason for the drop in English cuckoos might just go beyond a lack of breeding areas.

The readers of The Times and the observant bird fanciers of Britain might well be aggrieved at the loss of this bird’s iconic call, but the absence of the cuckoo might well prove to be a blessing in disguise.

The hikers and walkers of England might well miss the huge variety of calls that the common cuckoo makes in order to communicate the reach of its territory, but you can guarantee that other birds in these habitats will be much happier for it. The majority of cuckoos are brood parasites. Instead of building their own nests, they hatch their own in the nests of other birds and trick them into raising their young.

If this sounds like a rather cruel twist of evolution, then you would be right. Unfortunately, it does get crueller.

The cuckoo has evolved to mimic the egg of it’s target host, meaning although it’s eggs are often much larger than the victim’s own, they appear to be almost identical. Within the seconds of discovering an ideal host nest, the cuckoo will swoop down, hatch an egg and then kick out any other eggs inside.

Even after the infant cuckoo has hatched, this killer instinct doesn’t disappear. The newly hatched bird will instinctively use it’s back to roll out any competing eggs, so that it will be the only mouth to feed in the nest. Although it’s hard to condemn any animal for their instinctive behaviour, it’s hard not to feel slightly relieved that this species has dropped in numbers in the UK.

Before you fear for the future of the cuckoo, take some time to look at the case from an international perspective. Although the last estimate for breeding pairs might seem a little low at around 16,000 – it’s important to remember that this is a species that has many subfamilies that live and migrate all across the world.

Rest assured, there are millions of cuckoos happily breeding throughout the world, just be glad they’re not pillaging the nests of British birds!

 

5 Birds of the World We’re Looking For

Part of our mission here at NTS Seabirds is to seek out and find certain species of birds.

Whether these are endangered species that need to be catalogued or simply a particular breed that one of us has a soft spot for – each year we each set our targets and head forth into the world to find them. 

All of us here at NTS Seabirds travel on small budgets, we have full-time occupations and spend our annual leave on expeditions to the disparate corners of the globe – in search of the birds that we long to see. These are the birds at the top of our list this year:

Rainbow lorikeet

A true beauty and wonder of nature. Although this particular breed has been introduced to New Zealand and Hong Kong, it’s more commonly found in Australia, it’s native country. Easily recognisable by it’s vibrant technicolor plumage, one of us is going to have to make a long journey in order to find it in the coastal bush of Australia.

Grauer’s broadbill

First spotted and named in 1909 by British zoologist Walter Rothschild, this bird, sometimes known as the African green broadbill, is something of a black sheep. Although Rothschild originally thought of it as a ‘pseudo’ broadbill, it is today regarded as a genuine member of the genus and one of just a handful of it’s kind that live in Africa.

Austen’s brown hornbill

Named after the famed topographer and mountaineer Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen, this large species of hornbill is found in the far flung forests of Asia. Northeastern India, Southern Vietnam and Northern Thailand are all viable destinations to find this species which is known for it’s varied diet that includes fruits, eggs and even bats or snakes.

Slender-billed curlew

Breeding in the swamps and marshes of the snow forests of Siberia, this critically endangered creature is recognised by it’s short small body, brown heart-shaped spots and long narrow bill. The Slender-billed curlew is growing more elusive with each passing day this is compounded by the fact that it is a migratory creature, calling no particular part of the world home. It can be spotted in Western Europe, Canada and even Japan.

Steppe eagle

Favouring the dry, arid habitats of desert and the Savannah, this grand bird of prey breeds in the cooler climates of Romania and Russia before heading to it’s preferred hotter climes. Mostly feeding on carrion, the Steppe eagles are also known to pick off small rodents and other birds. Although this species has now been given the conservation status of ‘threatened’, at the right time of year migrations can be witnessed in Nepal of as many as 15 birds per hour. We can only hope that we’ll get so lucky!

Although we’re yet to spot any of these creatures, 6 months of the year still remain and we’re confident that we’ll be able to spot these birds before 2017 is out.