Biak – West Papua – Number 5,000

We knew Biak was going to be special. Ross was going to achieve a lifelong goal and see 5,000 species of the world’s birds. That’s a pretty big achievement for a world birder in case you weren’t aware. Come on, FIVE THOUSAND birds! Get a little excited. At the time Ross started birding roughly 10,000 species of birds were known to exist. And he hoped to see half of them. While new species have been discovered since then, 5,000 has remained a special number. When planning this trip it was always a goal for Ross to achieve 5,000 on the trip but there was a point where we didn’t even know if he would make it to the milestone on this trip or not. Then there was a point that we thought he might be able to hit it by the time he made it to Madagascar. But with how well things have been going in Indonesia, it soon became clear that he would definitely be ticking number 5,000 while in Indonesia. The only question was whether he could do it before I left to go home for 3-weeks. As his sidekick, naturally we wanted to be together for such an event and it soon became clear that we would, Biak Island was going to be it. You can’t pick what your 5,000th bird is going to be. Some people don’t even keep track of that sort of thing but Ross wanted to remember this bird. Call him nostalgic if you want, but this was a pretty big day for him (maybe second only to his wedding day… …I hope.) There were a few species that Ross really didn’t want to be this milestone bird and he was really hoping not to see any pigeons or fruit-doves until after he had ticked number 5,000.

Biak is a small island located 50 kilometers from the shore of New Guinea. But don’t let its size fool you, it is home to roughly a dozen endemic bird species with several more very plausible candidates to be upgraded to species status (per no source other than I think so.) Biak is a special place as the Biak-Numfoor Rain Forests, contain the most highly endemic avifauna of any single area in New Guinea, boasting twenty-nine mammal species, including five endemic or near-endemics (per WWF this time because I can’t make this stuff up.)  Needless to say, if you are visiting the West Papua region and plan to snag endemics, Biak Island (number 5 on this map) is a must-visit. 

We arrived to Biak early morning and surprisingly had a lot of trouble finding a hotel in town. The one we hoped to visit was fully booked but when the next four we checked were also fully booked we started to become worried that we wouldn’t be able to find a room in town! Luckily one place, Dahlia Hotel, did have availability and staying at this hotel turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the owner could speak English and was able to coordinate transportation for us for the next few days. We met Toto that afternoon and he was to be our driver for the remaining three days that we were on the island. We were fortunate to have him because he arrived on time, never complained about staying out all day, and at the end of our visit gave Claudia and myself a hand-crocheted satchel. 

After finally getting the hotel sorted out, we met up with Toto and headed off on an hour drive to our first birding location. Soon after starting down the trail Stephan spotted a Biak Black Flycatcher. Ross rushes over to the scope to be sure that this relatively boring black flycatcher is not his 5,000th bird. But then after that we saw a flock of Long-tailed Starlings in a tree, a very distinct endemic starling boasting a long black tail and bold red eye. Soon I hear Ross mutter “why couldn’t this have been number 5,000?” A bit further up the trail and we had a responsive family group of Biak Paradise Kingfishers and after seeing the birds sporting bright blue and black bodies, long white tails and bright orange bills, Ross says, “now why couldn’t this have been the one?” Being only one bird away from a lifelong goal was nerve-wracking. What was it going to be?! We really hoped it would at least be something good. And still, if anyone spotted a pigeon Ross was not going to look at it!

Ross walked further up the trail and all I can hear is “there it is.” Somehow, against all odds, this milestone bird was exactly the one that he hoped it would be, the very distinct pale yellow and black bird with yellow patches in the wings endemic to only this one small little island – Biak Monarch. Ross has always had a special love for monarchs so having this be “the one” was perfectly aright! Ross found the bird himself, and managed to snag photos and recordings of the exact individual. After all, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

This was a pretty big deal and we celebrated by taping in a Biak Hooded Pitta. After the excitement of finally ticking number 5,000 died down, we started on our walk back out hearing at least a dozen more pittas calling and seeing a few more targets including the often tricky Biak Leaf-Warbler as well as Biak Triller and Yellow-bibbed Fruit-Dove. Before heading back to our hotel, we were planning to try for Biak Scops-owl. We didn’t have an exact location to go to, so Ross picked a place near the ocean based on a recommendation by bird guide Carlos Bocos. Only Ross and Stephan managed views of Biak Scops-owl that night with two unsatisfactory flybys overhead. We headed back to town, an hour’s drive away, to catch up on some much needed sleep, although not much catching up was going to be done considering we had a 3:30AM departure the following morning.

When we arrived back at the forest patch that we were birding, we tried a bit more for this elusive owl but didn’t hear a single croak. Soon the day took over the night and the birds of the forest began to wake up. We were birding somewhat dense habitat but at least we had a nice road to walk. After the unsuccessful owl search, the first target bird of the morning was Biak Scrubfowl. We walked the dirt track, occasionally playing tape until we finally got a close response. We all crouched down and it was only a few moments later that a Biak Scrubfowl came flying in and landed on a nearby branch. Success! The only forest target we had remaining was Biak Coucal. Although we had heard a number of these secretive birds, seeing one can be a whole different story and we were unable to do so. Since we were all getting hungry, we decided to leave late morning and head back towards town for some food.

After a quick lunch back near town, we once again headed back in the direction of the few forest patches remaining on the island. At one point mid-drive back to our birding spot Stephan tells the driver to stop the car thinking he may have seen a white-eye. We were driving rather quickly so it was funny to hear Stephan say “stop the car,” proceed to get out and start pointing down the road. But, either Stephan is that good or he’s darn lucky, but just like that we were looking at two Biak White-eyes that just so happen to not even have ‘white-eyes.’ We dubbed this location “Stephan’s Corner” after that impressive feat.

We spent the afternoon walking along the road close to where we started the morning hoping to pick up a few more open habitat species and have more of a chance to spot flyover parrots. Claudia opted to nap in the car while Ross, Stephan and I walked along the road, seeing a few birds such as Emperor Fairywren, Black-capped Lory, Black-winged Lory, and a single Geelvink Pygmy-Parrot. We waited around for dark and tried again for the owl, but by this point we were beyond exhausted and Ross was struggling to convince the three of us that it was a good idea to stay up all night searching for the scops-owl. Ross always manages to see owls because he puts in the work that most are not willing to do – including the three of us. After only an hour or two of trying (and only hearing a single distant bird) we headed back to town for some sleep so we could wake up and repeat today.

Surprisingly only two targets remained for Stephan and Ross, Biak Coucal and the local ssp of Drab Myzomela, but they would happily take better looks at Geelvink Pygmy-parrot if given the opportunity. Biak Coucals are large birds, ones you wouldn’t think would be hard to miss, but although we heard at least two dozen over the course of our time in the area, we still hadn’t seen one. Each time a bird sounded close we would sneak into the forest after it and just when we thought we were standing under the exact tree the bird was in, it would shut up and another (likely the same) bird would call from far away. We had no idea if these darn things were flying out unnoticed or simply shutting up and sitting still. We noticed that the vast majority of people visiting Biak, at least those whose trip reports we were reading, had these as a heard-only. These things seemed to not be noticed by anyone! We walked all morning chasing into the forest each time we heard one call but each time no such luck with actually seeing the bird. Most times we dashed into the forest Claudia would remain on the trail happily content with photographing the crazy insects, and 9 times out of 10 Stephan joined Ross when he would go running into the forest after a coucal. Soon Ross became adamant that the birds that we thought were “close” were in fact much further away than we thought. So instead of stopping at the obvious distance, he was going to continue into the forest and at one point dashed into the forest with only me behind him. It was that 1 out of 10 times that Stephan decided to stay back on the trail with his wife that I spotted the all dark and skulky Biak Coucal sitting in a tree. Ross also managed decent views and soon the two of us started whistling the ‘we have something good’ whistle. Stephan comes running in. The coucal we were watching creeps up the tree and jumps into the open but ducks behind a leaf just when Ross snaps a photo. When Stephan was no more than 3 feet away the bird jumps away before he catches a glimpse. Funny how that always seems to be the case. And this was when the rain began. Ross went to put his camera away while Stephan went walking down the trail after the bird. We all meet back out on the main trail and Stephan and Ross, determined to see this bird and see it better, go back in. It began to rain harder and harder. Claudia and I sat huddled under our umbrellas thinking how crazy these avid bird-watcher husbands we have are. It had to be at least 30 minutes before the two of them come out of the forest soaking wet but smiling with success. Or at least Stephan was smiling. Ross never saw the bird again and apparently, as the story goes, he yelled to Stephan that he was going back out to the main trail at the same time that Stephan was whistling that he was looking at the bird. Neither of them heard each other. Both of them ended up very lost on the small identical trails deep in the forest trying to make their way back to Claudia and me. Lucky that they ran into each other though! If it hadn’t been for the fact that Ross carries a GPS with him, they could have stayed lost because the way that Ross thought was back to the main trail, was actually in the exact opposite direction! Thanks to the handy GPS, they found their way back to us and we all started on the walk out with lunch on our minds.

The rain let up and we took it a bit slower and still managed some views of Biak Gerygone, Biak Triller, Biak Leaf-Warbler, and more Biak Monarchs while Ross and Stephan had yet another flyby sighting of Geelvink Pygmy-parrots. Clearly I was not meant to see this one. Despite hearing them call and searching intently in the area that they surely were sitting, we never had perched views of these tiny parrots that act more like nuthatches than they do parrots. Originally the plan was to only bird for a half a day but on the drive back to lunch the conversation shifted to “should we stay out longer” as it usually does when serious birders are still missing a target. Technically this myzomela isn’t a full species yet but it is likely to become one considering how vocally different it is and the distinct habitat that it is found in. We finished lunch and still hadn’t come to a conclusion. Stay or go? Eventually we headed back out into the field to try to bird a patch of forest closer to town and then maybe check out some mangroves. We weren’t out very long before Claudia made it clear that when promised a ‘half-day’ we should take a ‘half-day.’ Ross had a lot to get done before leaving for the Snow Mountains too, so even though we passed on birding, it was a very productive afternoon. Seeing all but one bird (that is technically not even a new species…yet) on Biak isn’t too shabby either right?!

Next stop for Ross: Snow Mountains. Next stop for me: USA (yes, this was planned from the beginning!)