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Birds and Mammals Research 

February 17, 2009

Exploring Warofeni Cave

Warofeni Cave downstream

Here is the entrance to Warofeni Cave, near Fogomai’u Village. The entrance is quite large, and a decent-sized stream flows out from the cave. You can see our local naturalist, Albert, standing on some breakdown just across the creek. When we arrived the water level was down low enough that we could wade in, and the water was just above our knees in the shallowest points for crossing. Then we could climb over the breakdown to move our way into the cave.

Warofeni first bend

Once in the cave, there was a large pebbly bank that we could walk on, and on which we set up nets to catch bats and swifts. Over two days, we documented four species, and I took viral samples while Alanna took measurements, DNA samples, and recorded vocalizations.

Cave swift

We caught many small swiftlets exiting the cave at dawn, just as the bats were all returning. These appeared to be Collocalia vanikorensis, the Uniform Swiftlet in nearly every respect, however they had a single strip of feathers on the tarsus that is not supposed to be present in this species. We also collected a dozen or more huge Hippoboscid flies, or bat flies, that crawled around in the feathers of the birds. It was amazing how large these parasites were – they usually suck blood from their host, so one could only imagine how unpleasant these must have been for these tiny swifts. (Photo by Alanna Maltby)

Warofeni side entrance

On our second day, we ventured down a different side entrance to the cave that was packed with stalactites and stalagmites, soda straws, and flowstones. It led directly into the main shaft, but a significant distance upstream of the large opening shown in the previous photos. We also found very different species in this section of the cave, including the Rhinolophus species shown below and one small Vespertilionid bat. We hope to return and try to catch another of this rare little bat. (Photo by Alanna Maltby)


Although this Rhinolophus is also called a horse-shoe bat, it is in a different family than the Hipposideros bat that we found around camp. They are amazing fliers and echo-locaters, and we only found them in the deepest smallest shafts of the cave. We caught them by trying to hold nets up over a constriction in the passageway, and all but a couple of the bats managed to find small holes in the net to fly through or were able to squeeze through tiny gaps between the net and the cave wall. It was amazing how they could “see” the net so well using sound pulses and echolocation! (Photo by Alanna Maltby)

Warofeni upstream entrance

At the opposite end of the cave, we found a large emerald green pool that looked very deep, and the locals mentioned that there were many large species of fish that could be caught there. We hope to return with Phil Willink (our ichthyologist from the Field Museum in Chicago) to document which fish species are present here. Overall, our reconnaissance trip was very productive both biologically and photographically. The biological team is considering launching a larger expedition with entomologists, ichthyologists, and herpetologists and with full video camera support to document our work here. We hope that time will permit us to return.

Green Tree Python

Allen caught this green tree python near camp. These are striking species (pun intended) with bright green or yellow scales, spotted with white on the dorsal side. Note the row of large heat-sensing organs on the sides of the face below the eyes. They hunt for warm-blooded prey in trees, and typically constrict their catch. They are not venomous.

Funky caterpillar

And these odd little caterpillars arrived in camp one day. We constantly have interesting animals and plants that the scientific team brings in, but there are often so many cameras in camp that it is difficult for me to squeeze in next to the professionals and get a shot. On this particular day, everyone was distracted by something else, and I had a spare moment with no birds to look after, so I took a few photos myself…

Filed under: Winter 2009 Expedition — @ 4:01 pm

First Day in Camp

King Bird-of-Paradise

On our first day in camp, we set up our mist-nets and started working. One of the first birds we caught was this male King Bird-of-Paradise. I personally think that this is the most drop-dead gorgeous bird in the forests of New Guinea. The red feathers on the head and back sparkle in the light like spun glass, and the mouth is colored day-glow green. They perform an amazing display dance, all to impress the females, and the BBC was able to capture some of this on film.


There are lots of caves in the area, and in caves you can find Amblypygids. This one was the size of a smallish tarantula, with these long spiky recurved palps. They don’t seem to bite us, but I would hate to be a small insect wandering along the wall in front of him.

Beautiful Fruit-dove

This Beautiful Fruit-dove (Ptilinopus pulchellus) was caught in our nets. We have also been watching and filming its nest, that has a single egg balanced on a climbing palm frond. It has always been seen on the egg, ever since the first time we flushed it, and the egg should be hatching any day now.

Hipposideros wollastoni

We think that this bat is Hipposideros wollastoni. These horse-shoe bats regularly fly around the top of our work and mess tents at night hunting for insects that are drawn to the lights. They echo-locate by sending focused pulses of ultra-high frequency sound from their elaborate faces, and then picking up the rebounding sounds with their large ears. Alanna Maltby is on our team, and she has been studying the echo-location calls of these and other bats in the area. Because of her work, I have been able to sample many bat species for viruses and get some fantastic photos of their echolocation equipment. (Photo by Jack Dumbacher and Alanna Maltby)


This tube-nosed bat (genus Nyctimene) is actually a small “flying fox.” These bats are still active at night, but they are not insect eaters (they are mostly frugivores or nectarivores) and they cannot echo-locate. Instead, they have large eyes and they navigate by sight.

Hangin the Hennessey

A small team of us went to a nearby cave to explore the birds and bats living there. We set up camp on a slope above the cave entrance, and we slept in Hennessey Hammocks that are built for the tropics, and are sort of like hanging tents. (Photo by Alanna Maltby)

Filed under: Winter 2009 Expedition — @ 3:58 pm

Nunupi Base Camp #2

Port Moresby

Arrived in Port Moresby to torrential rains. I am just not used to this sort of rain in San Francisco – the steamy heat and huge water dump was refreshing, but made it difficult to sleep (and the jetlag didn’t help either)

Airline hangar

On the 29th, we moved our “kit” to the Airlines PNG hangar to be loaded on a chartered Dash 8 cargo plane. We literally packed the plane with cameras, electronics, and research equipment for the field. Then our team (15 or so of us) went to the passenger hangar to catch our flight to Moro on another, regularly scheduled Dash 8.

Karst country

The flight took up northeastward from Port Moresby along the coast, but the ground was obscured by cloud cover until we neared Moro on the northern end of Lake Kutubu. When we were dropping down for our landing, we could see the broken limestone karst country that the rainforest grows on. Streams appear and disappear into caves and crevasses, and the landscape is quite rugged.

Moro Airport

Here is the Moro “airport” where we arrived, and then proceeded to sit and have lunch under an awning. We waited for a couple hours for the cloud cover to lift enough for us to squirt our helicopters between the treetops and the low rainclouds.

Helicopter on pad

Helicopter flying

When our opportunity appeared, we loaded up the first chopper, and sent the film crew ahead.


The scientific team loaded onto a 212 helicopter with some of our kit. The chopper landed us on the small pebbly riverbank directly below our camp (Nunupi #2 Base Camp).

Sling load

The rest of our kit was shuttled in by sling under two 212′s that flew back and forth between the nearby village of Fogomai’u and our beach (“Croc beach”). It took several flights to move all of the equipment, and it took most of the afternoon to carry the boxes and bags one by one up to the camp.

Chopper landing

And the camera teams are always working, always shooting whatever was going on. No matter how mundane it seemed to us, all of these tasks are just part of being in the field in Papua New Guinea.

Research lab

When we arrived, the camp was already built by an advance team and ready to receive us. Here is the scientific lab space, with a bench for each of us. Most of us set up our “labs” here even before we set up our sleeping space, and we were eager to start working.

Herp lab

Here is Allen Allison from the Bishop Museum in front of the herpetology lab.

Boardwalk to upper camp

With all of the rain, paths quickly turn to mud, and the camp can get extremely messy. So boardwalks were made with rough hewn planks and nailed together. Here is the walkway from the beach up to the lower camp, where the local Fogomai’u workers had their mess, sleeping quarters, and equipment store.

Mess tent

Here is the team mess, for the scientific staff and the film crew. The food has been excellent – we have an Australian cook (Tony) – with access to a nice cooking range and even a meat freezer. Even though we are extremely remote, our existence was relatively posh compared to my typical field camp.

Production lab

Here is the production lab. This lab is totally wired with power, video editing tables, hot-dry boxes for storing equipment, all so that the film crew can keep their cameras going. Note that this is the only building with a completely raised floor, as they have a lot of very expensive top-of-the-line video and sound equipment that need special care and attention.

Filed under: Winter 2009 Expedition — @ 3:09 pm

February 3, 2009

Feb 1st – Nunupi Base Camp

We flew in by chopper two and a half days ago, over some of the most rugged
country I’ve ever seen. The base rock here is uplifted limestone, and it
has worn away into a network of sinkholes, caves, and washes that
chaotically fill the landscape. We’ve worked now for two days, catching
birds and bats, and we’ve seen some amazing animals ‹ including the little
red King Bird of Paradise ‹ a bird that I think is the most drop-dead
gorgeous animal here in Papua New Guinea.

The BBC crew is amazing. Everyone is really cool and fun to work with, and
they are all great photographers and camera people. They have so much
enthusiasm for the animals we are working with and studying, and I think
that they are doing an excellent job of collecting stories about the land
and people here. Our camp is amazing too – it is run like a small village.
Despite our extremely remote location along the Hegigio River and the
surrounding karst, we have a mess tent, a store, a production lab, a science
lab, showers, three full (huge) sleeping quarters, and infirmary, and at
least three more houses for the work staff, generators, water pumps.

We currently have ten mist nets up and catching birds and bats. The DNA and
viral samples are coming in nicely. Most of the birds are fairly common
species, but this gives us good samples for estimate disease prevalences for
these species. And, even though the species are common, our other work
suggests that many of these isolated populations are genetically distinct.
And so far, we have caught a few of the species that we are working with in
our other studies, so these samples will be very valuable.

Filed under: Winter 2009 Expedition — drittenbach @ 10:24 am

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