How Superb!

Sandra Elliot ventures to remote Mount Rondon in Papua New Guinea in search of a particularly seductive species of Bird of Paradise.

Chilling mist filters through the remote rainforest in Papua New Guinea. Joseph, our guide, beckons us up a slippery path, his throng sandals seeming to float on the sodden track. Rainbows sparkle in the fog where he stops. “Highland mornings cool,” he tells us, rubbing his hands over his gray fleece jacket. His English is tinged with Pidgin, or Tok Pisin, an official language of his country. A white baseball cap shades his weathered, ebony face. “We start late. De Superb an early riser.”

Our visit to Papua New Guinea was part of a National Geographic Trip Around the World by Private Jet. In a country with limited facilities, travellers choose one of five locations to visit. Along with several other couples, my husband and I selected the interior highlands. Our group left the jet in the capital, Port Moresby, and flew to Mt. Hagen, a village with an airport adequate for small commercial planes.

Rondon Ridge Lodge is a thirty-minute drive. Built on the side of Mount Rondon, more than 7,000 feet above sea level, the lodge has a reputation within the birding community for the different Bird of Paradise species seen there. Unusual colors and plumage are the hallmarks of the Bird of Paradise.

But we’re on a quest to see a very special species of Bird of Paradise, the Superb, a rare creature that lives in the ancient forests surrounding Mount Rondon. The previous evening on YouTube, we watched a Superb attract a mate. More like an exotic dancer than a bird the size and color of a crow, he spread his wings and cavorted for a shy brown female. Two black appendages crossed the chest of his feathery costume with brilliant blue-green lines and dots shaped like lips and eyes. An animated happy face, he danced to impress.

“Dis he favorite spot. You hear him?” Joseph motions to a tree. Squint-eyed, we strain to track the bird’s chirps and leaf-shrouded movements. Condensation rolls off dense forest vegetation onto our heads and into our eyes. Sighting a black bird in backlit foliage isn’t easy. We hear the Superb, but we don’t see him.

Sensing our frustration, Joseph suggests we continue our hike. The trail crosses a boundary fence with a posted sign. We need permission from the village to enter. Fortunately, Joseph has authority to allow us in. On the far side of the fence, we gaze at the lush Wehgi Valley and Mount Hagen, an eroded volcano.

Along the way, Joseph points out scattered tufts of moss, the work of a bowerbird, but not the one he wants to show us. We struggle up a sunlight-dappled path with thick roots and puddles, to a small, circular clearing outlined in moss and dried grassthe bowerbird’s nest.

“De courtship arena. He dance and sing for de ladies here.” Joseph makes sure we note the patterns the bird has made with white and gray moss, the artful work of a single beak and pair of claws.

The overhead sun is baking hot. We shed our jackets and return down the trail. Joseph invites us to cool off in his orchid garden, a tree-filled expanse enclosed by a thatched fence with a gabled entrance. “Construction destroy de forest where wild orchid grow. Here dey live.” Using botanical and local plant names, Joseph points out plants with unusual colors and shapes. Pink bells dangle like dainty earrings beside lines of blossoming yellow balls. Fans, pinchers, and spider orchids decorate the trees in colorful arrays.

Water gurgles from a waterfall. Retention ponds and drainage canals offer moisture in dry periods and carry away excess in rainy seasons. “In de mountain, many orchid grow wild.” Joseph gestures upward. “I want dem safe from lumber truck. Here we have 133 different kind of orchid. When I no work, I search de mountain for more.” On a grander scale, Joseph’s efforts resemble the bowerbird’s worka labor of love to maintain the flora and wildfowl of his homeland.

Bags packed our last morning, we hurry out to find the Superb. Joseph directs us to slide down a muddy embankment on gigantic leaves. We follow his lead and stipple our slacks with mud. At the bottom, we study a sunlit branch where he thinks the bird may dance. As if on cue, a quasi-crow steps into the light and casts open his wings to reveal an iridescent turquoise smile. The tantalizing song we’d heard the previous day reverberates full voice through the forest. A small brown bird alights and the dance grows serious: the smile across the male’s chest changes from turquoise to lavender.

Truly Superb.

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