A charmed encounter with birds-of-paradise in Papua’s Arfak Mountains


  • The provinces of West Papua and Papua have pinned their hopes for economic growth on ecotourism and sustainable development.
  • The Arfak Mountains in West Papua have become a hotspot for bird-watching, thanks to forests teeming with spectacular birds-of-paradise.
  • Mongabay Indonesia recently traveled to the village of Minggrei for a bird-watching trip to see what makes the experience so special that tours are booked out until 2021.

ARFAK MOUNTAINS, Indonesia — Seblon Mandacan scampers with ease up the slippery footpath through the forest in the Arfak Mountains. I follow slowly. It’s about 4 a.m. and the sky’s still dark. Wearing headlamps, we cut through the forest mist here at an elevation of about 1,900 meters (6,200 feet) above sea level.

I find it a struggle to get up this early and steel myself for the walk. The wind knifes through the multiple layers of clothing I’ve put on, and the cold cuts to the bone.

It rained the previous night, making the trek that much more taxing. I have to grasp tree trunks and branches to avoid slipping, and step gingerly to make sure the ground is solid.

The Arfak Mountains, ringed in red, in Indonesia’s West Papua province. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

But that’s the price I’m willing to pay to reach the “playground” of the greater superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina superba), known locally as nyet, a bird species endemic to the Papua region of Indonesia.

“They start to flock to the playground between 6 and 7 a.m.,” says Seblon, 18, pointing to a moss-covered fallen tree that the birds are said to frequent.

“Let’s hide under this blind so the birds won’t be able to see us,” he says. We wait in silence beneath the tarpaulin for about an hour and a half, not moving even to smack the mosquitoes landing on us, for fear of making noise. I’ve heard that this particular bird species is very sensitive to noise and difficult to encounter.

And then, faintly, there’s a chirp from afar.

Seblon points to the fallen log again, where a male superb bird-of-paradise has now perched. It looks around for a bit, appearing to be assessing any threats, before calling out to its female partner.

When the latter arrives, a spectacular show immediately gets underway. The male flares out the patch of shiny blue feathers on its neck, which glow against the legendarily void-like black of the rest of its body, and dances around the female. With every passing minute it puts on a different act, none of which I will ever forget.

When the dance is over and the birds are gone, I can’t stop thanking Seblon profusely for the experience that I’ve now captured on camera.

An aerial view of Minggrei village in Manokwari district, in the Arfak Mountains. Image courtesy of the Indonesia Nature Film Society (INFIS).

A haven for birds-of-paradise

Seblon is one of many people in Minggrei village, in the mountainous district of Manokwari, who work as guides on bird-watching tours. The birds-of-paradise are the village’s main draw, and tourists keep coming to see these spectacular species.

One of my fellow travelers during my trip is Tim Laman, a world-renowned wildlife photographer. He’s here with Ed Scholes, an avian researcher from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; it’s their second visit to Minggrei. They stayed for three weeks last time, and are likely to do so again this time.

“I started working as a wildlife photographer more than 25 years ago,” Laman says. “I came to Papua for the first time in 2004.” For him, what makes the birds in the Papuan forests particularly special is that they occur nowhere else on Earth. The birds-of-paradise and the bowerbirds are some of the most well-known of these endemic species.

On this trip, Laman wants to take pictures of the Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina niedda), a bird once thought to be a subspecies of L. superba but described as a distinct species in its own right only last year. He’s also on the lookout for the western parotia (Parotia sefilata), the magnificent bird-of-paradise (Diphyllodes magnificus), the black sicklebill (Epimachus fastosus), and the Arfak astrapia (Astrapia nigra).

“Plenty of species to photograph here,” he says.

The masked bowerbird (Sericulus aureus). Image courtesy of INFIS.
The western parotia (Parotia sefilata). Image courtesy of INFIS.

The remoteness of this region and the lushness of the primeval forest has allowed the birds-of-paradise and other species to thrive here even as wildlife in other parts of Indonesia face the growing threat of extinction from habitat loss.

Keeping the birds’ habitat intact is what will keep the tourists coming to Minggrei, a concept that village head Aren Mandacan fully understands. He’s ordered the villagers to protect the birds and stop cutting down trees in the forest.

The bird-watching tours have had a massive impact on the village’s welfare. “We haven’t had to buy any rice in the past three years,” Aren says. “We get to eat for free together with the guests. Plus, we get to make some money.”

It was Aren who first pitched the village’s bird-watching potential to Shita Prativi, the founder of Macnificus Expedition and the Papua Bird Club. Shita, in turn, had learned how to guide bird-watching tours from her husband, a tour guide in Papua since 1992.

Bird-watching in Arfak really took off in 2007, Aren says, thanks to positive publicity and travel accounts written by visitors enchanted by the diversity of the local bird life.

“In Minggrei, the [natural] potential is incredible — the range of birds-of-paradise species is quite complete here,” Shita says. “There are also many other bird species. A single tour can involve 25 locals, so the people really benefit from protecting the birds.”

She says a typical five-day trip for eight visitors can generate up to 30 million rupiah ($2,100) in revenue for the people of Minggrei village — a small fortune in a region where the minimum wage is only about $200 a month. The cost covers accommodation, meals, guides, porters, transportation, and the use of the bird blind. Shita says tours are fully booked until 2021.

Like Aren, she says protecting the birds will benefit the people of Minggrei in the long term in a way that won’t require destroying the rich natural resources of the region.

A male greater superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina superba), left, in a courtship dance with a female of the species. Image courtesy of INFIS.

Other regions in Indonesia have adopted ecotourism to boost their economic growth, in most cases almost as an afterthought. In the Arfak Mountains of West Papua, though, local leaders have mandated that sustainability and conservation be prioritized as part of the region’s economic development.

In October 2018, the provinces of West Papua and Papua, which together compose Indonesia’s half of the island of New Guinea, signed the Manokwari Declaration. The agreement changes two regions’ development framework from “conservation” to “sustainable development, a subtle shift that de-emphasizes the central government’s control over local land issues. By making this alteration, they hope to place responsibility for sustainability more firmly in the hands of local governments, who are more in tune with the rights of their indigenous constituents.

Scholes, the bird expert, says he’s impressed with the people of Minggrei village for their hard work in protecting the forests and natural resources.

“You don’t have to be a bird expert to come here and watch the birds-of-paradise. Anyone can come and see them,” he says, adding that he hopes future generations of visitors will still be able to see the birds and hear their calls ringing out through the forests in Minggrei.

Bird-watching guide Seblon Mandacan, left, and the writer. Image courtesy of INFIS.

Editor’s note: INFIS is a media partner for Mongabay Indonesia. INFIS has no editorial influence over the content that Mongabay publishes.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Aug. 10, 2019.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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