Wamena and the Baliem Valley

Wamena and the Baliem Valley
24-29 August 2007

This is a trip report from my very first time in the the Baliem Valley in 2007. I had wanted to go there for a long time but I never managed to set foot in the region. After travelling in Indonesia for six years I finally decided it was time for me to visit and bird the region. This was the only time I didn’t manage to get the King-of-Saxony Bird of Paradise on my list. I have been back ten times since 2007 and am amazed every time of the magnificent scenery and amazing birds!

I took the 30-minute morning flight from Sentani to Wamena with Trigana Air. This is the ONLY way to travel to Wamena – the base for trecking in the Baliem Valley. Be prepared for almost western prices in Wamena as everything from water to fuel is flewn in from Sentani. I had arranged for someone to meet me at the airport.I decided to stay at hotel Wamena a bit far away from the busy and noisy streets of the city. It was an over-priced run down place (– which is now renovated and extended and a fairly decent hotel!)  it had seen better days but still you get some privacy from all the hassles coming from all the wannabe guides. You can plan your trip without outside interferences.

With the contact I had in Wamena we planned a trip to Lake Habema which is at an elevation of more than 3100m, the city is at 1600m so it’s an uphill trek which demands a lot of respect, the rain can fall at any time and the trails can be muddy and slippery. Except from muddy or invisable trails you are also faced with the challange of heat in the days and freezing temperatures at night!
We planned to spend 5 days and 4 nights, visiting different elevations and different biotopes.

We were a total of 7 people, one guide, one cook and 4 porters. All food and cigarettes should be bought in the city and carried out to the lake and it should be enough for everybody and enough for the way back to the city. It’s necessary to bring experienced people so they can build shelters and lead the way when staying in the forest. I had brought some water purifying tablets with me from Sweden so I didn’t bother to buy water (which is almost the same price as petrol in Wamena!). I had used them in many places before such as the Arfak Mountains, so I felt safe.

We started early in the morning with hiring a car and driver to get us from town to the beginning of the trail we would be following. Also there was no need to attract attention walking with all gear through town. We spent the first hours walking through some cultivated land and patches of secondary forest with many bird species easily seen such as Pied Bushchats, Red-collared Myzomelas Belford’s Melidectes, Island Leaf-Warblers, Grand, Hooded and Black-breasted Mannikins. We walked through the village of Lawesi and through some pine forest; the trees were filled with New Guinea White-eyes. We stopped for lunch close to a small but wild river, I thought it’ll be a challenge to cross this river if we had to but the guide assured me that there is a bridge later on so there was nothing to worry about.

The cook proved to be a class act, the food was exceptional and I didn’t have to buy any cooking utensils as he had everything in his backpack: plates, cups, cutlery and everything else he kept from previous  trips.
After an hour walking we arrived to the famous bridge, it didn’t look much, made from sticks and branches held together with rattans but it was strong enough to support a 100kg heavy Mehd. After this construction the trail started with a wall-like uphill struggle, I was lucky to just be carrying my camera and lens. The other guys didn’t look bothered at all with all the weight on their shoulders. That was the beginning of one of the toughest trek I’ve ever endured.

We were exhausted when we reached the village of Welaik so we decided that I’ll spend the night in the village church, the others chose to sleep in the hut close by. I didn’t understand why at that time, it was a cold night and my sleeping bag wasn’t enough to keep me warm (You need to bring a sleeping bag that holds a comfort temperature of 0-6 degrees – I didn’t.) The others had a fire burning in the middle of the hut and that was the answer to my question of why they didn’t spend the night in the church. Sleeping like that makes you smell like a forest fire, but at least it keeps you warm. After a breakfast of tea, peanut butter toast and passion fruits it was time to continue. We could see a good forest some hundred meters above the church and the trail cut through it. I saw my first Painted Tiger-Parrot in this place, it wasn’t easy to bird this forest as the trail was full of obstacles in the form of fallen trees and slippery logs to be crossed. I did get good views of a Short-tailed Paradigalla from a distance.

After a knee-breaking descent we came out in a relatively flat trail overlooking a vast forest with many species of Honeyeaters feeding on the tree-tops and different species of Lorikeets flying above our heads. I spotted two more Painted Tiger-Parrots sitting quietly on a mossy branch. The trail cut through many ridges and streams before we came out to a small opening with a river and a traditionally built bridge that lead to Babililo village. After a short break we took the trail on the right before the bridge.

We asked people from the village near by for direction as the trail was overgrown. We had to use machetes to cut our way through. We heard the metallic calls of the Brown Sicklebill (TSAT…TSAT…TSAT…) many times and we spotted it twice, but I didn’t manage to get a clear shot, frustrating! This forest is good for Josephine’s and Whiskered Lorikeets, Hooded Cuckoo-Shrikes, Dimorphic Fantails, Canary Flycatchers and Brown Sicklebills. After we walked several hours we stopped at a small clearing with an empty hut and a stream near by we decided to spend the third night, it was getting dark so I took a well deserved cold baths and warm cup of tea, the cook had already lit a fire in the hut and built my tent.

The next day I woke up early and birded the forest close by, Splendid Astrapia female posed for some photos and the same for a curious Lorentz’s Whistler and once again the metallic sound of the Sicklebill could be heard nearby. Konopa was the next village we came across, the people there were working in their gardens in this small valley while singing, the scenery was breathtaking. We pushed on and after many hours of an uphill struggle we came out in a fairly vast clearing filled with different types of shrubs and many kind of bright white, red and orange orchids. The struggle continued for more than 2 hours but this time we came out to the road that connect Wamena city with lake Habema. According to the guide we were 17 kilometres away from the lake. We had lunch by the road and I decided not to continue to the lake but spend the remaining 2 nights birding the road back to the city and sleeping in the jungle close by. We met some locals on their way back from fishing crayfish in the lake to sell in Wamena so we offered them some lunch and the cook bought some of the catch which he cooked for dinner later that day.

That afternoon proved to be the best birding time of the trip, we encountered the star bird of the region Macgregor BOP 3 times. I was fascinated by this species and the sound it makes when flying from a tree to another. I saw my first Blue-capped Ifrita and Crested Berrypecker in this forest. The birding was relatively easy and we entered the forest only when we heard or saw birds. This road is very good for many species such as Papuan Mountain Pigeon, Papuan, Orange-billed and Yellow-billed Lorikeets, Black-throated and Mountain Robins, Black-throated, Rufous-sided, Rufous-backed and Grey-streaked Honeyeaters, Papuan Parrot-Finch, Mountain Firetail and Great Wood-Swallow. What you miss if you only bird along the road side is the King-of-Saxony BOP. You definitely need to go into the forest for this target species!

Conclusion:
I wish I had more time to spend in the Baliem Valley so I could visit and bird Lake Habbema and its surroundings and a lighter lens than the one I had with me. Most of the species we came across were very nervous and wary so photo opportunities were very limited. In general the trip was worth the struggle and where else in the world one can enjoy the sight of such Gems as Macgregor BOP and Blue-capped Ifrita?

Update:
Nowadays we go by Jeep from Wamena to Lake Habema and treck down from there. We spend the first days around the lake and along the road. After that we take to the forest and do our treck downhill back towards Wamena. We find it to be the most productive itinerary and we can also treck in a slightly slower tempo, to have the time for long stops for birding and resting.
But be prepared to go for the toughest treck ever. we’ve had guests who trecked the Himalayas and confess Baliem is tougher!

Birdlist:

  1. Great Egret – Egretta alba
  2. Long-tailed Buzzard – Henicopernis longicauda
  3. Brahminy Kite – Haliastur indus
  4. Black-mantled Goshawk – Accipiter melanochlamys
  5. Brown Falcon – Falco berigora
  6. Buff-banded Rail – Rallus philippensis
  7. Purple Samphen – Porphyrio porphyrio
  8. Brown Cuckoo-Dove – Macropygia nigrirostris
  9. Great Cuckoo-Dove – Reinwardtoena reinwardtii
  10. Rufescent Imperial Pigeon – Ducula chalconota
  11. Papuan Mountain Pigeon – Gymnophaps albertisii
  12. Josephine’s Lorikeet – Charmosyna josefinae
  13. Papuan Lorikeet – Charmosyna papou
  14. Whiskered Lorikeet – Oreopsittacus arfaki
  15. Yellow-billed Lorikeet – Neopsittacus musschenbroekii
  16. Orange-billed Lorikeet – Neopsittacus pullicauda
  17. Painted Tiger-Parrot – Psittacella picta
  18. Fan-tailed Cuckoo – Cacomantis flabelliformis (probably, I took a photo of this bird from far)
  19. Mountain Swiftlet – Collocalia hirundinacea
  20. Glossy Swiftlet – Collocalia esculenta
  21. Pacific Swallow – Hirundo tahitica
  22. Grey Wagtail – Motacilla cinerea
  23. Hooded Cuckoo-Shrike – Coracina longicauda
  24. Stout-billed Cuckoo-Shrike – Coracina caeruleogrisea
  25. Pied Chat – Saxicola caprata
  26. Island Thrush – Turdus poliocephalus
  27. Island Leaf-Warbler – Phylloscopus poliocephala
  28. Mountain Mouse-Warbler – Crateroscelis robusta
  29. White-shouldered Fairy-Wren – Malurus alboscapulatus
  30. Papuan Scrub-Wren – Sericornis papuensis
  31. New Guinea Thornbill – Acanthiza murina
  32. Brown-breasted Gerygone – Gerygone ruficollis
  33. Dimorphic Fantail – Rhipidura brachyrhyncha
  34. Friendly Fantail – Rhipidura albolimbata
  35. Black Monarch – Monarcha axillaries
  36. Black-breasted Boatbill – Machaerirhynchus nigripectus
  37. Canary Flycatcher – Microeca papuana
  38. Mountain Robin – Petroica placens
  39. Black-throated Robin – Poecilodryas albonotata
  40. White-winged Robin – Peneothello sigillatus
  41. Common Golden Whistler – Pachycephala pectoralis
  42. Lorentz’s Whistler – Pachycephala lorentzi
  43. Fan-tailed Berrypecker – Melanocharis versteri
  44. Crested Berrypecker – Paramythia montium
  45. Papuan Flowerpecker – Dicaeum pectorale
  46. Western Mountain White-eye – Zosterops fuscicapillus
  47. Slaty-chinned Longbill – Toxorhamphus poliopterus
  48. Red-collared Myzomela – Myzomela rosenbergii
  49. Mountain Meliphaga – Meliphaga orientalis
  50. Black-throated Honeyeater – Lichenostomus subfrenatus
  51. Rufous-sided Honeyeater – Ptiloprora erythropleura
  52. Rufous-backed Honeyeater – Ptiloprora guisei
  53. Grey-streaked Honeyeater – Ptiloprora perstriata
  54. Short-bearded Melidectes – Melidestes nouhuysi
  55. Belford’s Melidectes – Melidectes belfordi
  56. Common Smoky Honeyeater – Melipotes fumigatus
  57. Papuan Parrot-Finch – Erythrura papuana
  58. Grand Mannikin – Lonchura grandis
  59. Black-breasted Mannikin – Lonchura teerinki
  60. Western Alpine Mannikin – Lonchura Montana
  61. Mountain Firetail – Oreostruthus fulginosus
  62. Great Wood-Swallow – Artamus maximus
  63. Macgregor’s Bird of Paradise – Macgregoria pulchra (The bird of the trip, seen 3 times)
  64. Short-tailed Paradigalla – Paradigalla brevicauda
  65. Brown Sicklebill – Epimachus meyeri
  66. Splendid Astrapia – Astrapia splendidissima
  67. Superb Bird of Paradise – Lophorina superba

References:
Photographic guide to the birds of Indonesia – Morten Strange
Irian Jaya 1991 Trip Report – John Hornbuckle
Birds of New Guinea – Beehler, Pratt & Zimmerman

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