BirdLife focuses on New Britain


BirdLife International is raising awareness of the birds of the remote Papua New Guinean island of New Britain, which are among the least known to science, after a ground-breaking expedition to the island.

A group of researchers ventured into the island of New Britain's unforgiving wilderness to find out how its species were coping with a major loss of forest. They found that some had adapted, but many more need urgent protection before it's too late.

Perched on the outer edge of the Malay Archipelago and sheltered from the vast expanse of the Pacific only by the thin strip of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea’s New Britain boasts an impressive diversity of fauna and flora. The island’s volatile colonial and volcanic history have made it almost accustomed to upheaval, but the most recent disturbance is to its forest landscape, with over 20 per cent of its lowland forest having been lost between 1989 and 2000. The culprits are palm oil plantations and industrial logging, which are threatening to turn New Britain’s rich biodiversity into a monoculture, or worse, a barren deforested wasteland.

Mount Tarvurvur, New Britain, Papua New Guinea (Taro Taylor, BirdLife International).

New Britain and its satellite islands are of vital importance to 14 endemic bird species, and together with New Ireland it forms an Endemic Bird Area which is home to 38 restricted-range species. Despite the importance of this habitat and the threat of its destruction, New Britain’s bird fauna is poorly understood and among the least known to science. A group of researchers ventured there to find out more, with the aim of updating the status of New Britain's birds on the IUCN Red List.

During the expedition, the team had to battle oppressive heat and humidity, two weeks of torrential rain and flooding, and even a case of malaria. This was without even mentioning the difficulty of actually finding the birds during more than 400 hours of surveys.

Rob Davis, a member of the research team, explained that they had to spend two weeks "becoming familiar with the birds," some of which few people had ever laid eyes on. He also stated that Papua New Guinea "is arguably the hardest place to see birds well," not just due to the almost impenetrable forest, but the fact that many birds are very wary thanks to a history of being hunted with slingshots.

Despite the impressive amount of time spent in the field and working with local guides, four of the key species were only recorded once, and Golden Masked Owl and New Britain Thicketbird (both classed as Vulnerable) remained unseen throughout the survey. Fortunately, the owl is now being spotted regularly at one site on the edge of an oil palm plantation, raising the hope that it can use such degraded habitats for hunting. The thicketbird (below) remains a mystery since the original specimens were taken in 1959.

Bismarck Thicketbird hasn't been seen or heard by western scientists since 1959 (BirdLife International).Thankfully, the volcanic Mount Tavurvur kept quiet, with just a few grumblings, and the team were well-fuelled for each day’s hike, claiming they “ate like kings.” With hard work and perseverance, they were able to survey vast amounts of forest habitat in what became the most extensive survey to date of the island’s bird fauna.

What was expected to be a depressing story of dwindling populations turned out to be a more positive one. Davis told The West Australian that “despite our expectations, a lot of species were doing better than we anticipated.” Six species were found to be less dependent on the old-growth forest than previously thought, and seemed to be using the palm oil plantations as a new habitat. This is a promising discovery, coupled with the fact that the rate of lowland forest loss has slowed in recent years. The researchers suggest that seven species be reclassified on the Red List from Near Threatened to Least Concern.

One such species, Red-knobbed Imperial Pigeon – endemic to the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands – had the highest encounter rate of any species in the study. This species was actually found to be twice as abundant in the degraded forest than in the old-growth forest. However, logged forest and plantations may be far less suitable for breeding populations of species such as the Blue-eyed Cockatoo (Vulnerable), which depends on large hollow-bearing trees unlikely to be found there.

New Britain’s other range-restricted bird species remain at levels of elevated concern, since they were found to be highly dependent on the diminishing original forest habitat. An example is New Britain Goshawk, which is still listed as Vulnerable. It has been suggested that one species, New Britain Dwarf Kingfisher, should be re-classified from Near Threatened to Vulnerable due to its reduced population size estimates, with most individuals being found in areas of lowland forest that are on the frontline of exploitation by palm oil and logging projects.

While the threat of habitat destruction remains potent, the overall rate of forest loss has slowed in New Britain over recent years due to the main palm oil company’s ‘zero deforestation’ commitment as well as the lack of accessible forests to log. There has been an increase in helicopter use to reach formerly inaccessible areas for logging, and the forest is also being fragmented by new roads that carve their way through the precious habitat. One ongoing challenge is to revoke the allocation of vast areas of traditionally-owned forest for clear-felling and oil palm under the illegal Special Agricultural Business Lease scheme.

Due to past habitat loss and these emerging threats, the researchers have called for urgent attention to be directed towards improving our understanding of the ecology of New Britain’s unique birds to find out more about how they’re adapting or failing to cope. BirdLife says this unprecedented survey has laid the foundations for the next generation of intrepid naturalists to venture out to the fringes of the Pacific to uncover Papua New Guinea’s secrets before it is too late.

The researchers erected a tent as their base in the dense New Britain forest (Guy Dutson, BirdLife International).