Physically speaking the Vogelkop Bowerbird Amblyornis inornatus may be a rather uninspiring 'brown job' but a male's so-called 'roofed maypole' bower — nothing less than the most complex and largest structure known in the avian world — more than makes up for that. Now add to this a frantic obsession to collect colorful or shiny environmental items to decorate this bower, plus a vast array of electronic, almost extra-terrestrial-sounding territorial vocalizations, haphazardly interspersed with convincing mimicry, and a male has everything to impress the ladies as well as make a good bird program. Not just 'any good bird program' if you will. As it turns out, the BBC Natural History Unit back in Bristol (UK) has been staging the making of 'the best bird program ever made': 'Life of Birds'. And wacko bowie is to be its grand final!
From September 3 to October 8, 2008 Papua Expeditions assisted a BBC production team in the remote and trackless Moari area of the Arfak Mountains, situated in the northeastern extremity of the Bird's Head Peninsula in Indonesian New Guinea. PE resident birder Iwein Mauro said: 'The BBC wanted pristine, natural-looking bowers, quite lit(t)erally a world apart from the 'trash-bowers' tended near accessible human settlements where fashionable male bowerbirds nowadays resort to discarded wrapper plastics, fish cans, and battery hulls to aspire to the ladies. Last April a PE exploratory tour into the Moari region disclosed a high density of unspoiled bowers and produced a promising venue for the shoot. However, the site's positioning on a secluded ridge-top at 1,700 m elevation meant prolonged camping under challenging conditions, and that in excess of 800 kg of filming equipment and logistics had to be carried in on foot.'
MEET THE ALFA-MALE! One of two dominant males Vogelkop Bowerbird Amblyornis inornatus that quickly became the focus of our attention, indefatigably working and calling in and around its awe-inspiring roofed maypole bower. Copyright © BBC Natural History Unit and Stephen Lyle.
Two selected dominant bowerbird males with tastefully decorated bowers 80 m apart were on show in and around their respective monuments throughout much of all dry field days. Soliciting females appeared fairly regularly too and a first mating was witnessed on only the fourth morning out. But in order to obtain the ultimate dream-sequence of courting and mating birds — a world first — cameraman Barrie Britton eventually spent nearly 200 hours sequestrated in hides.
In addition to filming the Vogelkop Bowerbird up-close and personal, the BBC-team took the opportunity to film the dawn display of the adult male Black Sicklebill Epimachus fastuosus, and eventually even extended its stay in order to accommodate a last-minute shoot devised for King Bird of Paradise Cicinnurus regius in the adjacent foothills.
Stephen Lyle, Assistant Producer 'Life' said: 'We came out specifically to film vogelkop bowerbirds but were treated to displaying Black Sicklebill and King BOP on top, two cracking species we had secretly hoped rather than expected ever to get to grips with, especially at such short notice without pilot survey.'
The logistically complicated filming expedition generated big dividends for indigenous Hatam and Sougb communities holding customary land rights over the Moari area, with over US$ 5,200 disbursed through local employment opportunities alone. Doubtlessly, a high-profile natural history documentary the caliber of 'Life' will help raise awareness among the channel's vast international audience for the awesome Vogelkop Bowerbird, both as a not-to-be-missed ecotourism experience and a flag-ship species for the conservation of an entire suite of regional Bird's Head endemic birds that almost exclusively depend on healthy sub-montane and montane forests for their long-term survival. Stephen Lyle said: 'We parted with traditional village leaders and landowners in the conviction that local communities essentially are keen on preserving Moari's rich natural heritage, and also are receptive to ecotourism development as an alternative income-generating mechanism to the present often deleterious usage of forest resources.'
Barrie Britton added: 'If only a small fraction of the BBC's massive pool of viewers could trickle through to the Arfak Mountains to see with their own eyes the amazing vogelkop bowerbirds, then the influx of these international tourists would not only bring financial benefits to the local people but would also be a huge incentive for the preservation of these birds and their beautiful forest habitat.'
A bower is not a nest but a terrestrial display site. Bowerbirds Ptilonorhynchidae (except the monogamous catbirds Ailuroedus) have a highly complex polygamous mating system whereby males site, construct, maintain, own and defend bowers from where they compete to monopolize copulations, while females in turn also visit multiple bower-tending males in search of 'good genes'. Indeed, good genes are all a female bowerbird could hope for from a mate because males play no role whatsoever in subsequent nesting or parental care.
NO PLAYING HOUSES? Not surprisingly, it took the first natural history collectors to penetrate into the Arfak Mountains a good while to recover from their ascertainment that the roofed maypole bowers of the Vogelkop Bowerbird Amblyornis inornatus indeed were no playing houses made by the indigenous children.
The Vogelkop Bowerbird Amblyornis inornatus inhabits sub-montane and montane forests between 1,000 and 2,000 m elevation in the Arfak, Tamrau, Wandammen, Fakfak and Kumawa ranges of the Bird's Head (or Vogelkop in Dutch) region of western New Guinea. However, only populations in the Arfak, Tamrau and Wandammen mountains construct the formidable roofed maypole bowers. In the Fakfak and Kumawa mountains, males Vogelkop Bowerbird build much simpler maypole bowers similar to those of the geographically separated MacGregor's Bowerbird Amblyornis macgregoriae, which inhabits New Guinea's central dividing mountains and some outlying northern ranges. These large qualitative differences in bower structure in spite, the Vogelkop Bowerbird exhibits only minor morphological and genetic variation throughout its disjunct range. This suggests that the marked changes in bower structure evolved rapidly, and were driven by divergent female choice, consistent with the speciation by sexual selection hypothesis.
Vogelkop Bowerbird is part of a suite of ten so-called Vogelkop endemic birds that are confined to the mountains of the Bird's Head region in eastern Indonesia and occur nowhere else on Earth. The nine other avian Vogelkop endemics are: White-striped Forest-Rail Rallina leucospila, Vogelkop Melidectes Melidectes leucostephes, Western Smoky Honeyeater Melipotes gymnops, Vogelkop Scrubwren Sericornis rufescens, Vogelkop Whistler Pachycephala meyeri, Long-tailed Paradigalla Paradigalla carunculata, Western Parotia Parotia sefilata, Arfak Astrapia Astrapia nigra, and Grey-banded Munia Lonchura vana. Gateway city to the Arfak Mountains is Manokwari, capital of the novel West Papua Province (formerly known as West Irian Jaya Province) and situated on the northeastern tip of the Bird's Head Peninsula. Batavia Air currently operates four flights a week to Manokwari from the Indonesian capital Jakarta, stopping-over at Makassar (Ujung Pandang).
Read on about the birdlife of the Arfak Mountains.
Read on about our short birding break to the Arfak Mountains.
Read on about our prolonged birding expeditions visiting the Arfak Mountains.