We’ve come to Milne Bay to scout out places for future work, meet officials, talk about permits, learn our way around this province of islands, and learn the birds and bird calls of the area. In our short time here (less than two weeks), we’ve been on the move, and stayed in eight different places. Everyone has been tremendous – this must be the friendliest place in the entire country…
By far, the most productive trip has been to Normanby Island, where we went to find one of the best local bird experts, Mombi Onasimbo, from Saidowai.
To get to Saidowai, one catches the Public Motor Vehicle (PMV), which is really just a truck refitted to carry passengers, sacks of potatoes, chickens, bananas, or whatever else you have to take to market or home. We got a seat near the front, so we had the best views, but we were also the first ones hit when the rain started falling. The PMV took us to East Cape – the easternmost point on mainland, Papua New Guinea. From here, we caught a 1-hour dingy ride to Sewa Bay on Normanby Island.
The dingy was about 20 feet long and equipped with a 60-hp outboard engine, and packed with about 15 passengers and their cargo. We got pelted with rain on the ride, but it kept us cool, and when Normanby Island emerged from the rain cloud, it floated above the deep blue water and glowed green in the sunlight. This was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life.
Sewa bay is huge – much bigger than it looks on the map – and the protected harbor provides safety for yachts during storms, but was also home to several US battleships during WWII. Water is glassy smooth here…
These are seafaring people. Kids begin learning to paddle when they about two years old, and get their own canoe at about age five.
Kids as young as 7-8, like this little girl, have to paddle across the bay to school each morning. The larger canoes are rigged with sails, and folks navigate by stars. The older men can sail to any of the islands in the province using traditional techniques.
On our first day, we rowed a canoe up the river at the top of Sewa Bay to survey the mangrove birds, and this small boy joined us in his little canoe. He was the perfect birding partner – helping point out birds and keeping silent most of the time.
The birds here were amazing, and we got some excellent recordings of many of the common birds. One of the most interesting trips was to Dutchess Island, a small forested island just off the east coast Normanby.
It is especially unusual because nearly all of the bird species found on Dutchess were different from nearby Normanby, and most of the species we didn’t find elsewhere. So why are these species found here, on this tiny island? Why do they not occur on the larger island? How are island assemblages formed? And what controls which species occur on which islands? These are some of the key questions that intrigue us, and why we would like to survey this island chain. For the most part, only the larger islands have been surveyed, and the vast majority of islands have not been surveyed. We think that many of these smaller islands will hold some interesting surprises…
After that we traveled to several other spots on Normanby and around Sewa Bay. Sibonai was an interesting place where we got excellent bird recordings and saw the most species. This is also where Thane Pratt and Mike Moore worked in 2003 when they surveyed Normanby.
There is now a new village guest house in Sibonai, and the lodging was quite nice.
On our last day in Sewa Bay, we stayed again at Saidowai, and Mombi and I spent the day compiling our bird lists, going back through our 70 recordings, identifying birds, and updating our lists.
It also rained, so we took in some of the village sights and sounds, and we spent the afternoon making coconut cakes with our friends and hosts.
Here, one of the young boys is scraping the meat out of the coconuts for the dough.
And then they prepared the fire, composed mostly of coconut husks and empty shell – and all of these items burn very well.
The oven that we used was really just a large saucepan with fire both below it and on a large steel plate above. The scones cooked in just a few minutes and tasted excellent.
When we returned, we again rode the public dingy, packed with about 15-17 people and lots of cargo, and our gunwales were only a couple inches above the waterline. We had to move slow, and we caught a lot of salt spray on the long ride from Normanby to East Cape, but we had no serious troubles or bad weather.
It took a little longer to get back to town, as the truck overheated in the sun on the road, but it was nice to get out, stretch our legs,
And even take a little nap while the vehicle cooled off…
We spent a couple days on the south peninsula below Milne Bay, but it rained constantly and so we were not able to do much serious work or recording there. And now we are headed back to Port Moresby to take care of some official business, work on export permits (and permits for future work), and hopefully we will have time enough for a scouting trip to Manus Island…