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Birds and Mammals Research 

March 11, 2009

Alotau, Milne Bay Province

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.

Ride From East Cape

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

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…

Young Canoeist

These are seafaring people. Kids begin learning to paddle when they about two years old, and get their own canoe at about age five.

Girl Rowing

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.

Mangrove Birding

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.

Ductchess Island

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.

Sibonai Lodge

There is now a new village guest house in Sibonai, and the lodging was quite nice.

Compiling Lists

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.

Fleet in the Rain

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.

Scraping Coconut

Here, one of the young boys is scraping the meat out of the coconuts for the dough.

Preparing Fire

And then they prepared the fire, composed mostly of coconut husks and empty shell – and all of these items burn very well.

Heating the Oven

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.

Naked Baby

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.

PMV Overheating

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,

Asleep in PMV

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…

Filed under: Winter 2009 Expedition — @ 8:47 am

Another Installment…

Our last couple days in the camp were productive, and we went to one final cave to look for swifts, bats, and cave fish. We found Glossy Swiftlets (Collocalia esculenta), two species of horseshoe bat (Hipposideros cervus and Rhinolophus euryotis), and a couple fish. This was also the only place where we found leeches, and they were plentiful along the passageway roofs where they hung down trying to latch onto bats. They looked very well fed.

Longicorn Beetle

Also around camp we had some interesting insects, including this longicorn beetle,

Christmas Beetle

and this beautiful Christmas beetle.

On our second to last day, rain started falling by 6:00pm, and it rained hard all night. I woke to the sound of men yelling at 4:00am, and several of us got up to see what was going on. The river flooded, a drum of petrol had already washed downstream, and they were working to keep control of our zodiacs and other supplies that had formerly been on the beach. Water was literally lapping at the generator stand. So we tied off the boats, tied up the remaining barrels, and prepared a runway to haul the generator uphill. In the end, the water reached its peak around 5:00am, and we relaxed with a cup of coffee and watched the water drop.

Heli Landing


But the flood did wash away our helipad and the beach remained underwater when it was time for our chopper to take us out. Luckily, the beach downstream was exposed enough to land on, so we ferried across and caught the chopper there, and headed to Moro on schedule.

Filed under: Winter 2009 Expedition — @ 8:47 am

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

January 21, 2009

Where is Paradise???

PNG-o-centric world


Ahhh, Papua New Guinea…

In New Guinea, when you ask someone how far is it to the village or to the other side of the mountain, they say, “ino longwe, tupela haua tasol” or “not a long-way, just a couple hours.” Often it ends up taking several days to get there. Right now I can feel my distance to PNG – the other side of the world – in days or even hours. And I’m starting to panic that I’ll be ready to leave on time.

This trip is a special one. It’s been nearly three years since my last visit, and apart from my home, PNG is my favorite place. The forests are beautiful and wild, the local people are lovely and alive, the animals are strange and fantastic. PNG is home to the world’s largest butterflies and walking sticks, poisonous bird species, and forests that pulsate with the sound of insects and birds.

In the next 20 days, I will be traveling to the limestone karst country below Mt. Bosavi in Southern Highlands Province. Don’t be fooled by the province name; we will be well out of the mountains and in the steamy-hot lowlands. This is rugged landscape strewn with jagged uplifted limestone and streams that disappear underground and appear again somewhere else. BBC has assembled a team of scientists – me to study birds from California Academy of Sciences, and along with colleagues from Smithsonian, Bishop Museum, Oxford University, PNG Institute of Biological Research, and other institutions, we will study mammals, insects, bats, plants, etc. We will be surveying the area’s life and highlighting some of the gems that New Guinea has to offer…

Here’s another GoogleEarth image of PNG showing the location Fogoma’iu village near our study site.

We’ll be flying from the capital of Port Moresby by a twin-engine “Dash 8″ to a small town along Lake Kutubu, and then flying in an even smaller “Twin Otter” to the jungle grass-strip at Fogoma’iu. From there, we will either float down the river to our bush camp, or if the river is too swollen from rain, we’ll shuttle in on helicopters.

You can see the thick green lowlands around Fogoma’iu, with the flanks of Mt. Bosavi in the lower-left-hand corner of the screenshot. The white line is 5 miles long for scale.

Once there, I’ll focus on birds. Pitohuis are my favorite species: jay-sized birds that carry a potent neurotoxin in their skin and feathers. I’ve studied them for years, and on this trip, we hope to study a little beetle in the genus Choresine that pitohuis eat to get their poisons. Where the Choresine beetles get their toxins is anyone’s guess. I’ll also study how cassowaries respond to low-frequency calls. Cassowaries are among the largest birds living in the world today – they are flightless ancient relatives of emus and ostriches. In New Guinea, the cassowaries send deep booming sounds into the forest – presumably to communicate with each other. The Macaulay Library of Sounds at Cornell University gave me 9 high-quality recordings to use in these experiments – thanks Tammy and Greg!

Here is a photo of Choresine pulchra (Pic), the toxic “nanisani” beetle, next to the Hooded Pitohui, Pitohui dichrous. Both carry potent neurotoxins, and presumably the pitohui picks up toxins from eating the beetles.

One last project that I am really excited about… Our colleagues (Joe DeRisi and his lab) at University of California San Francisco have engineered a DNA chip that screens for all known virus types, and can potentially help discover new viruses. We will be working with Joe’s lab to see what old and new diseases are affecting wild birds on the island of New Guinea. This is important work, as many emerging diseases originate in wild places like New Guinea and jump to humans where people and wild animals come together. It’s also important because wildlife on isolated islands can be devastated by the introduction of exotic diseases, so getting baseline data in wild places like New Guinea will help us to monitor pathogens in the region. Joe and his lab have been very generous and have provided us with most of the supplies we need to test the birds.

Here’s some nice lowland hill forest not far from the area we’re headed…

For more information about my work at California Academy of Sciences, you can check out some of my older blogs or click on my home page. You can read about the department’s collections here.

To learn more about Papua New Guinea – stay tuned. I’ll try to blog whenever I can from the BBC camp. For now, I have to start packing…


Filed under: Research Division — jdumbacher @ 8:58 pm
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