Arfaks – West Papua – Arrrfakkkk (“White People Walk Into The Forest and Money Comes Out”)

This area of West Papua, The Arfaks Mountains, is world renowned thanks to the likes of David Attenborough narrating about the uniqueness of the area on popular nature documentaries such as The Life of Birds and Planet Earth, where the amazing displays done by the male birds in the area are showcased. It was hard not to be excited for a trip to ‘The Arfaks’ with so many Birds-of-Paradise to be seen. The four of us, Stephan Lorenz, Claudia Cavazos, Ross and myself who were to all be travelling together for West Papua, FINALLY arrived and were ready to get some birding in after our obnoxious flight delay (having to go all the way back to Jakarta because flights from nearby Sorong were completely full and our flight had been cancelled.) From the airport we immediately took a 4WD truck up to Zeth’s Homestay, where a local man, Zeth, has capitalized on the rare and fascinating birds in the area by creating a little eco-tourism business. Anyway, the Arfak Mountain range runs through the Bird’s Head Penninsula of West Papua and is the premier birdwatching destination for anyone visiting West Papua, point number 3 for anyone who cares to look at this lovely map I made:

Although we didn’t leave Manokwari until mid-morning, the drive up was very productive was some very good birds including the rarely seen Obscure Berrypecker, the odd looking Vulterine Parrot, and the stunning Masked Bowerbird. It was mid-afternoon when we dropped our bags in the room and Zeth’s brother Eliakim took us out on the trails to get a little birding in. We started our BOP quest by sitting in a blind for Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise. A male Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise came in to make sure his court was clean but did not do a full display. Still, seeing him puff up some of his bright yellow feathers was neat to see up close! We had a Stephan’s Dove come hang out and an unidentified species take a bath in the water from the tarp above us but not much else. Eliakim then took us on to the trail where we struggled to find many more species before dusk, a theme that would become all too familiar is the extremely frustrating forests of West Papua. That night Ross was the only one with enough energy to go owling. According to Ross he was only going to put in minimal effort and therefore did not bring any of his gear with him. Funny then when he had a Greater Sooty Owl overhead calling and perching for photos. When in doubt, digi-bin it! Is that a word yet? Surprisingly this cellphone + binocular combination turned out pretty darn good for what it is, a cellphone photo!

The next morning we woke up early and made our way up the steep trail to sit in a Western Parotia BOP hide. Just as we all sat on the bench, it broke! (I guess the ‘blind fee’ doesn’t go towards maintenance like it should…) Despite the lack of bench we hung out in the blind waiting for a Western Parotia to come in and display to any females in the area. Unfortunately the Western Parotia that we had was not even interested in picking the leaves up off of his once clean patch of ground, let alone dance. We still could see him very well and hoped to sit in another blind later on. From the blind we birded the trail back down to the homestay not seeing much except a Green-backed Robin, Long-billed Honeyeater, and Large Scrubwren. That afternoon we hiked up the mountain towards our destination known as ‘German Camp’ taking our time and birding the trail slowly. It was a very productive afternoon having views of Modest Tiger-Parrot, Marbled Honeyeater, Mountain Meliphaga, Vogelkop Scrubwren, Tit Berrypecker, Long-tailed Paradigalla at a nest, and Lesser Ground-Robin along the trail. We didn’t arrive at the campsite until early evening. German Camp, as it is known, is a rather robust campsite chalk full of tarpaulin structures and pre-built platforms to sleep on found at a higher elevation where certain birds occur. That night we set up our tents ate a quick meal and headed out into the forest to try for the Feline Owlet-Nightjar that was not found on a day roost during our walk up. We heard a few interesting calls during the night and Ross managed to make a few recordings and used those recordings to call a Feline Owlet-Nightjar into the tree above us. Surprisingly the bird was much higher in the tree but when Stephan finally spotted it we all managed nice views!

Arguably one of the best birds to get at the elevation of German Camp is Black Sicklebill, a large black bird with a very long tail that displays on the top of trees. There was a group of Korean men filming for a documentary on this bird so they pretty much had the blind booked but we had enough room to sneak in with them and watch as this massive Black Sicklebill came and perched on a broken snag calling at the top of his lungs. He didn’t do any fancy moves but just sheer size and length of tail was impressive enough. From the blind where we sat we also spotted Lesser Ground-robin and had perched views of a Modest Tiger-parrot who came into the exact area where the sicklebill was sitting. From the blind we hiked up a bit higher in elevation to an area known as ‘Japanese Camp’ but this camp is nothing more than a small clearing that may have once served as a campsite. The main target for this area was Arfak Astrapia and after about an hour of looking we finally saw a single Arfak Astrapia. We spent most of the day in the area around Japanese Camp and had a number of other good birds including Brehm’s Tiger-Parrot, Papuan Lorikeet, Cinnamon-browed Melidectes, Regent Whistler, Black-throated Robin, Smoky Robin, and a Spotted Jewel Babbler sitting on a nest. Despite finding many new birds we never had even a glimpse of Dwarf Cassowary which is very shy and very rare.

Claudia and I walked back a bit before the guys and sat in a Voglekop Bowerbird hide and watched as a male came in to make sure everything was spick and span. This little guy is quite the architect and landscaper. Just seeing the structure he built and the colorful organic materials outside was super impressive. Small pink flowers piled up next to a bunch of dark black beetle carcasses with burnt orange mushroom walkway all made for a very nice garden. Later in the day the guys joined us in the hide but the bowerbird had gone away and didn’t reappear until after we had been kicked out of the hide by one of the Koreans. We didn’t realize at the time that only one guy was taking over the hide because we certainly could have fit into the other hide that had been built next door instead of walking to a very unimpressive bower where the bird never came in. When we did find out that the other blind was empty we did sit inside and have nice views of the bird at his structure.

Our time in German Camp was coming to a close, so the next morning after we packed up all of our gear, we went back to the sickle-bill hide to see if the male would display. Two males happened to be in the area and instead of displaying, spent the whole morning arguing over who would get to sit on the perch. Turns out nobody got to perch up. After a fairly lackluster viewing in the hide, we then started walking slowly down the trail back towards Zeth’s Homestay birding along the way. No one comes to West Papua and cleans up all of the targets but we did narrow down the list by crossing off Mottled Berryhunter, Vogelkop Whistler, and Orange-crowned Fairywren.

The following morning we headed to a little area called Minggrei. Eliakim for some reason did not accompany us and sent us into the forest with a local man who spoke no English and appeared to not know where to go for the Black-billed Sicklebill. We got to his ‘location’ before dawn and waited until first light for the birds to call but didn’t hear a single sound. We explained to him that Eliakim told us we would be walking for one hour before we got to the spot but he only took us down the trail for 8 minutes. After we continued to repeat satu jam aka one hour he seemed to realize that we wanted to go somewhere else and took us to a different location where we promptly heard a Black-billed Sicklebill call in the distance. Hearing it and seeing it were two different beasts and it took climbing down the hillside and playing the recording that Ross made of the same bird back to it before Stephan finally spots it in a tree. The bird was very responsive but clearly did not want to be seen. The whole time we were trying to the sicklebill the rain was increasing in force. What started out as a very light mist turned to a light sprinkle and then full blown rain.

We saw the Black-billed Sicklebill and then we walked back up and the rain continued so Claudia and I went back to the lodge to hang out while Stephan and Ross hung back. They spent most of the day along the road, sitting in the rain, but managed a few good birds including Ornate Melidectes, Pygmy Lorikeet, and Elfin Myzomela. Eventually they went to the Surperb BOB hide and were extremely lucky to see a female come and watch the male, Vogelkop Superb Bird of Paradise display.

They following day we went to the Western Paroita hide but since the hides can be small, we opted to break up as couples where Ross and I sat in one hide and Stephan and Claudia sat in another. We both were lucky enough to see the fancy males come in to clean up their court and we both were lucky enough then have a female stop by! While the male at Stephan and Claudia’s hide knew what to do and performed, the male that Ross and I watched simply stared at the female who was sitting directly above and did nothing. We laughed. The lady bird went off unimpressed and uninterested. He’s going to have to step up his game if he wants to compete for her attention! From there Claudia and I went back to the Superb BOP hide hoping that we too might see him perform but no such luck. The little guy never even showed up! Meanwhile Stephan and Ross took a truck up to Danau Anggi to tick Grey-banded Munia. From what I heard, it was an enjoyable experience but the road to get up was HORRENDOUS and at first they struggled to find the bird but eventually had a few in the phragmites at the edge of the marsh. After we all met back up, (and after a quick, but successful search for White-stripped Forest-rail) we went back up to Zeth’s and met the legend himself.

Zeth, among many things is a visionary and has really learned that “white people” want to see birds so he is constantly out searching for new territories of target birds. It was then that we learned about “new camp” a place where Zeth recently started working with the locals and is hoping to add to his collection of places to visit. Truly any local could learn the system but luckily Zeth combines this knowledge with an actual passion for the birds. The following morning we set off early for New Camp and just across from the trail entrance along the road had excellent views of Papuan Owl! What?! Typically this owl is hard to see and often dipped. We clearly found a territory because it responded to tape several times. Unfortunately Ross wasn’t set up for owl photography and the external flash was put away with dead batteries so a photo would have to wait!

We followed Zeth to New Camp along with a few local guys who acted as porters so that they could learn how the process of eco-tourism works. One of the main reasons for visiting this new camp was that Zeth had recently located a roosting Allied Owlet-Nightjar. This rare species hadn’t been recorded in nearly 10 years and is one of the hardest birds in the Arfaks to find. Luckily, the little guy was still hanging out at his new roosts and we got awesome views and pictures of this rarely seen species. Also we managed to see both Papuan Scrub-Robin and Chestnut-backed Jewel-Babbler during the walk in!

When we arrived to New Camp we found that the trail to get down was super steep, muddy and downright dangerous. New Camp is in fact new. Zeth informed us that he only started setting it up two months ago! Already we had a successful trip and surely this site will make it onto the birding circuit in no time! Camp as we saw it was basic but we set our tents up under the tarps and were lead away to a Masked Bowerbird hide that Zeth created. Unfortunately getting to the hide was a bit of a challenge and was much further than we anticipated but after we arrived and sat down into position we were treated with excellent views of the stunning orange and black Masked Bowerbird who came to do some maintenance at his bower. This bowerbird has a tendency to decorate its bower with blue items. Unfortunately nowadays a lot of blue that they find is plastic and his bower wasn’t exactly as beholding as he had hoped. I’m sure a female bird might beg to differ.

We birded along the way back to camp and found a few more interesting birds including White-faced Robin, Trumpet Manucode, Chestnut-bellied Fantail, and Pygmy Drongo-Fantail. When we made it back to camp we only stopped at the Lesser BOP lek for a brief viewing before the skies opened up and we were forced to take an extended lunch. During this time Zeth told us his background. He’s an energetic man if you’ve ever met him. We learned that he used to hunt the birds of paradise and it wasn’t until David Gibbs first explored this area in the 1980s looking for someone who knew the trails and where the birds were that Zeth was introduced to a white man. He told us how he thought David was actually coming to hunt the birds and his camera was a gun. The first BOP that they saw Zeth immediately shot and killed. David told him to stop doing that because he would rather see the birds alive than dead. David paid him for that initial visit and promised to come back but Zeth had no idea. Then David returned with a group a few months later and wanted Zeth to take them into the forest to see the birds. Zeth told us he was shocked and finally made the connection that when ,and I quote, “white people go into the forest, money comes out.” The story didn’t end there though because Zeth kept repeating that phrase multiple times to the point where it sort of became awkward. We all joked about it after because Zeth learned that if you take white people into the forest, money comes out and has been exploiting that fact ever since. It was a relatively unbirdy afternoon with lots of rain and we never did end up seeing much else. We opted to go into the forest at night hoping to get the first ever recordings of Allied Owlet-Nightjar but it never called. The following morning we birded a bit seeing things such as Obscure Berrypecker, Mid-mountain Berrypecker, Pale-billed Scrubwren, Hooded Pitohui, and Stout-billed Cuckooshrike before walking back out to the road and being picked up by our driver. We paid the locals proving to them that they should listen to Zeth when he tells them not to shoot the birds of paradise. We headed back to our cabins, packed our bags and said goodbye.

P.S. — We laughed because Zeth and co. have learned to take advantage of the system, requiring us to buy all of our own food in town and bring it along, and then charge us a ‘cooking fee’ to have someone cook it, a ‘firewood fee’ to feed the fire to cook it on, and then a ‘spices fee’ to make it flavorful. It felt like we were being charged for the same thing three different ways in addition to bringing the food to begin with. The ‘spices fee’ included seasoning our noodles, even though we had already brought our own sambal, garlic and ginger, and was a whopping 360,000 rupiah!!! AKA $30 USD for some cilantro!!! (We refused to pay that FYI!) Honestly, although Zeth charges quite a fee, at least this money is going directly into the hands of the village people and hopefully, with more tourism, will come a greater need to protect these forests and the birds that inhabit them. If our money can convince someone to save the birds instead of shoot them, then it is worth it but hopefully tourists understand to use the tool of bargaining so that prices don’t become more ridiculous than they already are.

We had our driver drop us off in town and shortly thereafter he too demanded a ridiculous fee. He charged us a pick up fee, drop off fee, a fee for him taking us to each location, an absurd amount to go up for the Grey-banded Munia (possibly the only price that was justified given the horrible road condition save for the fact that it would be SOOOOOOO easy to just hitch a ride up on one of the many trucks going to and from), but best of all he wanted us to pay him for staying the night at Zeth’s even though he certainly did not need to do that. It is when the locals think they can blatantly take advantage of tourists that we put our foot down. We paid him a more than reasonable sum of money but refused to pay an exuberant price on all of his uncalled for fees. When we refused he decided to bring in a group of locals standing nearby our hotel and attempted to get them to side with him, but when they saw how much we were paying him (it was A LOT, ~$500 USD) they basically told him to just accept the money and move on. That didn’t go as planned for him I suppose. We definitely recommend finding your own transportation up to Zeth’s Camp and hitching a ride back down because there is quite a bit of traffic on the road. The only issue would be the last bit between the main intersection and Zeth’s, but I’m sure you could pay someone a nominal fee to drive you down to his place. Hopefully another budget-conscious traveler can figure it out!

And in honor of this being our 100th blog post (!!!!!) and in case you’d also like to watch as a male Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise serenades a female, we’ve included this video!! ENJOY!

4 thoughts on “Arfaks – West Papua – Arrrfakkkk (“White People Walk Into The Forest and Money Comes Out”)

  1. Hi Ross & Melissa,
    Met you in Madagascar….Good report, disappointed to hear about price gouging though. Thanks for the BoP video at the end. Oh yes, I think your Obscure Berrypecker pic is a juv. flowerpecker- both have yellow pectoral tufts and short tail, and the bill looks reddish to me.
    Could I get a copy of the Masked Bowerbird shot ? It might be useful for the forthcoming Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds book and if used you get a modest fee

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    • Hi Phil,

      Thanks for the comment. I’ll send a few shots of the bowerbird to your e-mail. As for the berrypecker, I’m still confident that it’s an Obscure Berrypecker. The pics on the blog might be a bit hard to view, but the orange bill with dusky upper mandible, bright yellow pectoral tuffs, orange eye-ring, and grey head with dusky breast all fall in line for Obscure Berrypecker. Also, probably most important is that I originally found the bird because it was singing, it responded well to tape, and I was able to get some good recordings of its song as well (unfortunately they probably won’t be edited for a few months).

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  2. Any chance of a copy of the sound cut? This could be a very significant record as I think this species has not been properly documented here as yet apart from the type specimen.
    Thanks
    Phil

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    • Yes, I can send you some recordings, but unfortunately it won’t be until end of February. I’m en route to South Africa now and won’t be home until early February. As of at least recently though, there seem to be a number of reports of Obscure Berrypecker in the Arfaks. Carlos Bocos of BirdTour Asia is the one who tipped me off to keep an eye out for them. There was a Swiss group there the same time as us who also had it. Although they had one near Zeth’s house, my observations and Carlos’s have been much lower in elevation.

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