Raja Ampat – West Papua – The Land of Beautiful Islands

West Papua, while technically part of Indonesia, couldn’t be more different than the rest of the country. In fact, when Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch in 1949, the mineral-rich island of Papua was excluded from the deal. It wasn’t until 1963 when then-president Sukarto demanded it, that West Papua actually became a part of Indonesia. That being said, I am not sure that West Papua has ever truly “been a part” of Indonesia by anything more than title. The island-nation of Indonesia is unique in that it is essentially a country made up of a bunch of islands each with their own distinctive history, language and culture. The history of West Papua is a fascinating one and to this day some of the indigenous populations are refuting Indonesian rule.

West Papua makes up the western side of the island of New Guinea and sits north of Australia. It happens to sit on the other side of the invisible biogeographic marker known as Lydekker’s Line, so not only are the people very different, the avifauna found here are nearly unrelated to their “Indonesian” counterparts. I’ve mentioned about Wallace’s Line on one end of the country running between Bali and Lombok and therefore talked about the unique distribution of plants and animals on either side of it. A similar phenomenon occurs on the other side of Indonesia and is known as Lydekker’s Line. Birds of Paradise and other crazy, insane species are found on the other side of Lydekker’s Line and therefore this part of the world is a MUST VISIT for anyone, bird lover or not.

We were planning on spending 34 days in West Papua and meeting up with fellow birding couple Stephan Lorenz and Claudia Cavazos. Unfortunately Hurricane Harvey changed all that when it plowed through Houston, Texas delaying Stephan and Claudia’s arrival into the U.S. by a FULL week, which then caused them to miss their flight to Indonesia. They were to be flying into Houston where their parents live to regroup after three months guiding in Brazil, but because they couldn’t get into Houston on time for their flight to Indonesia, they ended up missing the first section of our trip, Raja Ampat. Can you imagine having your flight delayed for A WHOLE WEEK?! The Indonesian field guide that we had brought along with us does not include birds of West Papua for obvious reasons, namely because the birds found on that side of Lydekker’s Line are so different from the rest of the country. We weren’t going to be able to carry a Birds of New Guinea guide with us for the first 3 months of our trip given weight constraints, but Stephan and Claudia would be bringing one along when they met up with us and we could all share. Oops… With their delay, looks like we no longer had access to a book. Ross, who has been busy with Indonesian birds for the last 3 months, wasn’t prepared to go to a completely different biogeographic region not having looked at a field guide for the area but was forced to do so. Last minute we bought a PDF version of the book so that we would at least have some reference for what we were seeing and attempted to make due, but we both knew that a steep learning curve was about to start. Lucky for Ross, learning bird songs and identification come readily.

As I mentioned, our first stop while in West Papua was to the Raja Ampat region, a peninsula situated off of the northwest tip of the Birdshead Penninsula which is made up of over 1,500 small islands, cays, and shouls around the four larger islands of Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati and Misool. During our visit to Raja Ampat, we only visited the island of Waigeo where all of our target birds could be seen, but many (read: most) of the tourists to this region are coming for the diving or snorkeling, as it is known to be among the best sites in the world for snorkeling/diving with spectacular underwater views. Although, after having visited, I can attest that above ground, the views of steep rocks covered in green vegetation jutting out of clear blue water are nearly unparalleled in beauty. After three months of island hopping through the Indonesian archipelago picking up the different island versions of essentially the same bird, we were ready for a change of pace and were really looking forward to our visit to Raja Ampat. We were immensely disappointed that Stephan and Claudia were delayed in their travels and would not be able to join us. We originally flew into Sorong and were going to bird that area but decided to head to Raja Ampat first and then bird around Sorong on the back end so that hopefully we could at least see a few birds in Sorong with Stephan and Claudia when they flew in before we had to leave again.

From Sorong we took a ferry to Raja Ampat and were immediately scooped up by local officials to make sure that we paid our 1,000,000 IDR ($75 USD) fee to enter. This money is supposed to go towards conservation, but like many bureaucratic ventures in Indonesia, we were very skeptical when the office didn’t have a single detail about the forest or the birds found in the area. After we paid our ‘entrance fee’ we received a plastic entry card valid for one year of entry into Raja Ampat, but if that wasn’t enough, we also received a full-sheet invoice receipt and then plastic tags to put on our luggage, so we inquired why all of this redundancy was necessary. We received a response to the effect of “so that people know that you paid your entrance fee.” I’m still not sure why anyone would need a card, an 8″x11″ invoice AND a plastic luggage tag just to prove they paid entrance so we only took the card. The ‘point’ we were making on how wasteful it all was, was surely lost on the local officials. From the ferry terminal we moved onwards to find someone to take us to our pre-arranged accommodation, Yangkankane’s Homestay. Apparently the homestay had arranged for our transportation, but still the fee was a bit ridiculous – 200,000 IDR (15 USD) to go 3 miles, but at least we could split this cost in half because there was another guy who was on the same ferry as us going to the same place. The accommodation was basic but what the sleeping arrangements lacked in luxury was more than made up for by the outstanding view overlooking the water and the delicious food cooked for us by the lady at the homestay. Robin, the man we met from the ferry, made for good company as we shared the balcony overlooking the ocean for meals and good conversation. He also joined us on a few birding excursions splitting some other costs as well.

Upon arrival, we dropped our bags and hit the road to do a little birding. We hadn’t even made it to the road when we saw a group of four guys walking with scopes, cameras, and binoculars in tow. It was obvious they were visiting Raja Ampat for the same reasons as we were and we soon learned this was the independent Swiss bird group that our Swiss friend Julien mentioned to Ross when he told him we were visiting West Papua. It was also the first time that Ross introduced himself to someone and they took one look at him and asked if his last name was Gallardy! (Thanks for that David – it was too good not to share!) We joined them in walking the road and picked up a few birds with the highlight being a Hook-billed Kingfisher that was briefly spot lighted just as it was getting dark. Evening turned into night and day birding turned into night birding where we focused on finding one of two frogmouths in the area, Marbled Frogmouth. (The other target frogmouth happened to be on a day roost near our homestay that we could easily tick later!) It took a bit of effort, but eventually Ross managed to get a responsive bird to come in close and we all had excellent views of a Marbled Frogmouth eye-level to where we were standing.

The next morning we woke up early and started the walk up to our first bird-of-paradise hide, because if there’s one thing that is standard about birding West Papua, it is that in order to get close views of birds of paradise, one visits staked out hides. Just outside of the trail to the Red BOP hide we had views of Papuan Boobook. Before first light we made our way up the trail to the viewing area clearly made for visitors to watch male Red BOPs display to the females. As dawn broke we immediately saw a single male Red Bird of Paradise sitting in the tree. He was looking nice, yes, but he was all alone. He called a few times and three females came in and along with them an entourage of a few more males. We were very fortunate to watch as the four males went absolutely crazy shaking their tail feathers trying to impress the females. The females were very interested and we watched as they sifted through tail feathers to see who would make the best mate. The males had success that day and copulation occurred in the tree right before our eyes! To see these ornate birds display like this really was an impressive show. These photos can’t remotely do the experience justice!

From that hide we made our way to ‘the second’ Wilson’s Bird of Paradise hide but it started to rain so not much was seen there. When the rain let up we made our way to ‘the third’ Wilson’s hide and were treated to views of a brightly colored male Wilson’s Bird of Paradise who came in to make sure his court was in tip top shape should a female be interested in him. No female came in so we didn’t get to see him display but we were very lucky when our guide spotted two Western Crowned Pigeons in the trail nearby the hide. These pigeons are enormous, weighing in at almost 5 lbs, but also enormously shy and can be very difficult to see well so we considered ourselves very fortunate and the morning a huge success. Other noteworthy birds seen along the main track were Puff-backed Honeyeater, Green-backed Honeyeater, Yellow-bellied and Pygmy Longbills, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Spot-winged Monarch, and Olive-crowned Flowerpecker. I opted to leave Ross early with our local guide and on the walk back to the homestay had views of a Papuan Pitta and Brown-headed Crow that we still needed for our target list. Ross too had a productive walk, also seeing Brown-headed Crow and stumbling upon more Western Crown Pigeons – this time they stopped long enough that he could take a photo!

The next day we decided to start at ‘the third’ Wilson’s hide to hopefully see a male display but again we only had brief views of the male and no display. We ran into the Swiss birding group again and learned that they had staked out ‘the first’ Wilson hide and never had a single sighting! I guess just seeing the male on his court was lucky! A highlight surely was the Red-necked Crake that walked through the Wilson’s court while we were waiting and the Black-sided Robin that we taped in behind the hide. We went back out the road and walked it for a bit looking to cross off a few more birds on our target list. I opted to head back to the homestay to eat lunch while Ross opted to stay behind and do what he does best, find birds. Mid-morning Robin and I did some snorkeling in the waters just out from the homestay. The corals and fish in the area appeared healthy and super colorful and these had to be some of the best looking corals I’ve ever seen so close to shore. No wonder this area is known for its snorkeling!

Ross didn’t return until 3PM and nearly forgot all about the islands nearby that are home to roosting Spice Imperial Pigeons. Ross, Robin and myself had all been moseying around the homestay when Ross finally came up with the idea that it might be worth trying to make it out to a Spice Island Pigeon colony that evening instead of trying to see them the next morning. This way we could save an entire morning and just like that it became a race to find someone willing to take us out to the islands before it got too dark. Eventually we did find a boatman and after checking out the roosting Papuan Frogmouth were on our way!

Our boat deceivingly looked stable but once we hit open water every little bump became a threat to the safety of our expensive gear. Luckily the water was calm and we hardly had to fight any bumps or waves. Had it been rough seas I would be singing a completely different tune! It was an hour-long boat ride out to our known site and soon we were soaking in views of breathtakingly beautiful small rock islands jutting straight out of the ocean, green with vegetation and polished rock edges. Raja Ampat certainly contributes to the 17,000+ islands that Indonesia boasts. Most of the islands we saw that night were the size of your living room (or smaller) and this was where we waited for dusk when Spice Pigeons and Great-billed Parrots come in to roost. A few Spice Imperial Pigeons started trickling in but the 300+ parrots that supposedly roosted here were nowhere to be found. We were wondering if their roost site had changed because if the parrots were around they would have been noisy and we hadn’t heard even a peep. From our little boat on the water overlooking the islands we watched the sun set and saw as beautiful colors were thrown across the sky and then we watched as a full moon rose over the horizon replacing one light in the sky with another. You definitely don’t have to like birds to want to experience something like that. It wasn’t until well after sunset that the first group of Great-billed Parrots came in to roost and it wasn’t until the moon was already high in the sky that larger numbers began flying over our heads. The full moon clearly had something to do with their late arrival! We took our hour-long boat ride back with nothing but the light of the moon lighting the way.

We decided that the next morning would be our last, as the allotted 5-day itinerary was a bit too much for the area. Although we could have sat in the bird hides all day we decided to bird Raja Ampat and then head over to Sorong. We spent the morning birding the steep rocky road one last time to see what we could find and picked up Purple-tailed Imperial-Pigeon, Frilled Monarch, and Spotted Honeyeater. We had other targets in Sorong to find so we headed back to town via the 2PM ferry.

When we arrived back in Sorong it was pouring down rain. Thankfully let up for just the amount of time it took for us to coordinate a motorbike ride to our hotel. Lucky us. Once we stepped inside the rain torrents started. Unfortunately we had some hotel Wi-Fi issues and because we desperately needed Wi-Fi, we decided to switch hotels and walked from one to the other in the rain. Unfortunately the Wi-Fi was no better and likely the rainstorm was the culprit as to why Wi-Fi was not working. We also needed to buy some food, rain boots, and eat dinner but the rain meant most of the street vendors were closed. We walked to a nearby “mall” but they didn’t sell boots or tarps or anything really useful so we left and ate dinner at the only place open a “duck-chicken-fish” as Ross likes to call them. I’m sure these establishments have a real name but whatever they are called they have good food so we sat and ate a grilled fish dinner. I went back to the hotel while Ross attempted to coordinate transportation for our upcoming days of birding the Sorong area. The one good thing about that night was that Ross met Donald, a bemo driver (think bus driver of a small shared van taxi thing) who used to work as a guide in Bali who is perfectly fluent in English. Unfortunately Donald wasn’t available to drive for us but he essentially helped Ross coordinate someone to drive us to our locations and made sure that they knew they would be spending the entire day out while we were birding. The bemo driver we ended up with easily drove the most run-down vehicle we had seen yet in our travels. I regret not taking a picture of the 90+ things that were broken on the inside but he was cheap and available so we went with it.

The next morning the bemo driver was late despite Donald explaining to him many times how important mornings are. Luckily we still made it to our location at a decent time, but we never found the Red-breasted Paradise Kingfisher that we were after. We spent the rest of the morning walking the road having our driver follow from behind and pick us up whenever we needed. Oddly the area we were birding was pretty much dead other than a flyover Large Fig-Parrot. After several hours we had our driver take us a bit further down the road. We got out when Ross heard a flock and behold our best bird of the morning Wallace’s Fairywren was in a mixed flock along with a few Northern Fantails, Golden Monarchs, Boyer’s Cuckooshrikes, and a single Ruby-throated Myzomela. Ross had been talking to local Indonesian bird guide extraordinaire Carlos Bocos, who mentioned that he’s only ever seen Wallace’s Fairywren once and it was just last month! That’s how good of a bird this is. A guy who has been birding this area for years has only ever seen it once! After this find we drove into town to get lunch. Ross was pretty ecstatic to find someone selling the most delicious mie ayam, aka chicken soup.

After lunch we headed to what is known as “the lory track” which was essentially a dirt road through a patch of decent forest. It definitely lived up to its name when we found a flowering tree full of lories! We had great views of Black, Black-capped, Coconut, and Red-flanked Lorikeets drinking the nectar from the flowers. Other noteworthy birds should you be interested included Dwarf Fruit-Dove, Yellow-billed Kingfisher (finally seen after hearing a ton in Raja Ampat), Grey-headed Cuckooshirke, and Golden Cuckooshrike. It was a long day of birding for sure and we sort of left a bit early (5PM) so we could get back to town for a good night of rest before doing it all again.

 

Our driver was late again but we decided to try once more for a bird that is rarely seen, the Red-breasted Paradise Kingfisher. Again we failed but we did have a Papuan Dwarf Kingfisher fly by. Once more that area was pretty dead so we headed over to the lory track. We walked the road and sat by the clearing and really didn’t see much. It was without a doubt the slowest day of birding we had yet in the always birdy country of Indonesia. You never know how your days are going to turn out and hindsight is always 20/20 but we would have had just as productive of a day sitting in our air-conditioned hotel room back in town. At least we knew of a flowering tree to sit under but we had all of the same species as the day before. We left after a full 12-hours in the field with only one new bird for the trip! Yikes! We did decide to have our bemo driver take us to a location we thought might be good for a different rare kingfisher, Blue-black Kingfisher. Our scouting trip of the area proved that we would need to walk in as the road to get there is in rough shape. Just before dusk we walked the dirt road and saw Brown-backed Honeyeater and heard Blue-backed Kingfisher, so we were happy to know where to be at first light the next morning.

We went back to our hotel room and were happy to report that Stephan and Claudia had arrived in Indonesia and would be meeting us later the next morning for our flight over to Manokwari. The next morning we had a different bemo driver take us to the birding location, drop us off and head to the airport to pick up Stephan and Claudia and bring them to us. Ross and I were super lucky to have views of a Blue-Black Kingfisher perched in the roots of the mangrove trees. (Ross was the one playing tape but I was the one who found the bird and got Ross on it!) This was a good bird for sure and we wanted to not tape too much in the hopes that when Stephan and Claudia arrived we could refind it. Unfortunately we never did, but we did have great looks at Orange-fronted Fruit-dove and Collared Imperial-Pigeon in the scope. Poor Stephan and Claudia only got in a few hours of birding before having to go back to the airport for our next scheduled flight.

Joke was on us however when we found out that our pre-booked flight was cancelled with NO notification from the airline whatsoever. We showed up to drop off our bags and that’s when we find out that the flight had been cancelled and all other airlines headed to Manokwari were full! It was a disaster and the only solution was to fly from Sorong to Jakarta and then from Jakarta to Manokwari aka the equivalent of wanting to fly from Cincinnati, Ohio to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but flying to Los Angelos, California first to get between the two. It was a mess, an absolute disaster and a complete waste of time but we did eventually arrive in our destination and the birding in the Arfaks could begin! We were all looking forward to sitting in bird of paradise hides and seeing some of the world’s most fancy feathered creatures! But that will have to wait for the next post!