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The Melodious Forest - Papua New Guinea's Uplands

We call it birdsong, but only a few bird species have vocalisations that are truly melodic. This leads to many habitats being dominated by twittery or even raucous birdsong, with those tuneful species standing out as distinctly charismatic voices.

The upland forests of Papua New Guinea however, seem unusually rich in birds with melodic voices. These mountain rainforests resound with tuneful birdsong.

Lesser Ground Robins are the most noticeable, singing loudly and sweetly with graceful, melodic phrases. Various other robin species each have their own simpler songs, some medium-pitched, and others so high as to sound quite un-bird-like. Friendly Fantails (that is actually their species name) sing delicate arpeggio patterns, while their cousin Black Fantails give boisterous cascades of notes. Whistlers, Pitohuis and Boatbills add to the layering of sounds. Meanwhile Spotted Jewel Babblers call from the forest floor with a steady chiming on a single note that acts like a tonal centre to the other species.

There are exceptions of course. Wahnes's Perotia is a textural contrast with loud and harsh screeches, while small groups of lorikeets skitter noisily among the treetops. Underpinning all these are fruit doves and pigeons with their lovely, booming calls.

You can understand why I think of these as the melodious forests!

This recording takes us high in the mountains, to over 2000 metres. This is still well below the cloudforest, and many of the species here are unique to these mid-altitude forests. The album is one continuous, 4-hour recording, allowing us to hear the rich diversity of highland Papuan birdsong.

"This recording was made during a field trip to Papua's Huon Peninsular organised by fellow members of the Australian Wildlife Sound Recording Group. See here for an overview of this expedition.

"With the assistance of local villagers as guides and porters, we had established a base in the heart of a remote area - Camp Astrapia. From this camp, I'd set out on my own each morning to record and explore, and after a few days I was closing in on the best sites for recording. However this was our last camp at the end of a long, strenuous trip, and I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

"On our second last night, I went to sleep to the sound of rain that had been falling since mid afternoon. Everything was sodden. In the small hours of the morning, I was awoken by an earthquake, the ground shuddering beneath me. Seconds later, came the sickening groan and crash of a large tree falling on the edge of camp. Our local guides were up immediately, calling out, torches flashing, assessing the situation, and then hacking away with machetes to clear the debris.

"Tired, a bit jolted, I was not at all feeling like going out into the wet dawn to record, even if the rain had stopped. But I couldn't get back to sleep, and eventually realised that my second last morning was not an opportunity to miss, particularly after the exertion to get here. So I arose, but feeling rattled and just wanting some reassuring company, I asked one of our guides, George, to accompany me that morning.

"We negotiated the chaos of the treefall, which was frighteningly only a few metres from where we'd been sleeping, and set off along slippery jungle tracks. For half an hour we pushed through glistening wet vegetation in the dark. I was aiming for a barely discernible foot track I'd found the previous day, which led over the ridgetop to a shallow basin, forming a small amphitheatre.

"Once there, George watched me set up my microphones in the dark, switch on, and together we stood a few hundred meters away while the forest woke up. And what a glorious dawn chorus it was. After that first flush of the day's birdsong subsided, I suggested George return to camp and get himself something more substantial for breakfast than a banana.

"The daylight and birdsong had refreshed my spirits, and I remained, leaving the recorder going. I pottered around listening, at one point catching a rare glimpse of shy Jewel Babblers in the undergrowth. Eventually I wandered off to check out some other locations, and try photographing birds in the dense canopy. It was midday by the time I returned, finding the recorder still ticking away faithfully.

"So I had six hours of recording from that morning. The exhilarating dawn chorus turned out to be overwhelming on playback. It was just too much! So for this album, we begin in the lull after the chorus finishes, and continue through to the point when things had quietened in late morning."

Identifying birdsong in tropical regions such as Papua, when birds call invisibly high in the canopy (and they're small brown things anyway), can be very problematic. So there's certainly mmore going on here than I've been able to recognise. But these are the princliple species...

Blue Grey Robin: Rising whistle (in background, 0.16...). Later a call variation, which may be a duet between two birds (92.10...)

Friendly Fantail: Repeated arpeggio pattern of several notes (7.18...), which may continue for up to a minute or so.

Spotted Jewel Babbler: piping call on one note, continued in bursts of 10 secs for several minutes (good example begins 17.46)

Lesser Ground Robin: One of the more distinctly melodic species on this recording, heard throughout, sometimes with multiple individuals singing at once (first song at 1.59...)

Black-throated Robin: Series of extraordinarily high-pitched whistles, quite un-bird-like (38.06, 38.39...)

Stella's Lorikeets: Typical lorikeet chatter, often heard as a group fly over the canopy (39.40). There may be other lorikeet species present, such as smaller Brehm's Tiger Parrot or Fairy Lorikeet with higher-pitched calls (38.26)

Black-capped Robin: Medium-pitched piping on one note (43.02 - 44.36)

Regent Whistler: Up close, a loud vocalist with a song phrase ending in double 'whipcrack's. Here heard a little in the background so only those loud whipcracks are audible (44.19 - 46.44)

Black Fantail: Boisterous jumble of descending notes, with a scratchy quality (59.34, 60.13, 60.31...)

Wahnes's Perotia: Harsh calls or screeches, sounding a little like a cockatoo perhaps (66.33...)

Mountain Fruit Dove: This is a small fruit dove species, so has a higher call than the co-occurring Papuan Mountain Pigeon. A quick series of 'whoo's slightly descending (67.28, 68.11... 71.23)

Papuan Mountain Pigeon: Lower-pitched, slower, and upward trending series of 'whoo's (76.17...)

Brown-backed Whistler: Strong and confident song, a quick series of whistled notes which slur up and down, often starting low and ending high (76.00)

Blue-capped Ifrit: Usually an almost buzzy chatter, quite high-pitched as this is a small flocking bird, so these will be contact and social calls. On this occasion though, single pitched whistles and occasional harsher notes (81.05... )

Cinnamon-browed Melidectes: Loud and brash single calls with complex tonal structure (90.24, 90.38)

Papuan King Parrot: Flying overhead with harsh explosive calls with a clipped quality (106.43)

Black-billed Cuckoo Dove: Long series of up slurred 'whoop's (122.57 - 124.18)

Black-breasted Boatbill: Quick, rising series of whistles, finishing with a downslur (139.57, a little clearer from 164.56...)

Black Pitohui: Single mellow note given every 7 secs or so, continuously for a long period (117.24 - 153.27)

New Guinea Scrubfowl: Loud cackling calls, actually quite musical (163.20, 164.49, 165.24)

Large Scrubwren: Pleasant twittering song (171.34, 173.12, 174.09)

Tit Berrypecker: High-pitched 'seep' calls (small lorikeet-like) (181.41...)

Brush Cuckoo: Mellow whistled song, getting more insistent (207.33 - 208.12)

Rufous-naped Bellbird: Phrases of deliberate whistles, each phrase different and repeated (223.04)

Rufous-backed Honeyeater: Slow, down-up whistles (232.58)

All land is owned in New Guinea. Even when one is in 'wilderness', it is actually someone's land; a family or nearby village. Not only does one need the permission of the land owner to be there, but no conservation initiatives can be undertaken without their active support and involvement.

Large areas of the Huon Peninsula are currently managed for conservation through an innovative program co-ordinated by the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project, an internationally funded NGO backed by Seattle's Woodland Plains Zoo. The region included is known as the YUS Conservation Area, and embraces the watersheds of 3 major river systems. The tree kangaroo is the icon species of the project, and they are actively tracked and monitored. Of course in protecting tree kangaroos, the whole ecosystem is preserved and maintained.

To support the villagers in this, the TKCP has taken an active role in promoting and marketing their coffee crop. This is sold as a fair trade product through outlets in Australia and the USA. In addition, the TKCP administers research in the region, necessitating that visiting academics hire guides and porters at established rates. In addition, the TKCP employs several rangers from local villagers to police the forests, and report any unapproved activity such as hunting or the establishment of additional gardens.

During our visit, the TKCP was our primary contact, assisting us in negotiating the logistics of our trek. In return, local villagers received wages and further experience in guiding, and the TKCP benefits from the research outcomes of the expedition.

More about the TKCP, its engagement with local villages and aims, and support from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. Also an interview with Lisa Dabek, one of the prime movers behind the initiative.

Purchase and download this album for the finest audio quality, the convenience of offline listening, and adding to your music library.

Also links to photo gallery for this album


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