Survival of the Sexiest – Birds of Paradise, Part 1

by David Tomb on February 27th, 2015

Indonesia is an immense and complex country and has the 4th largest population in the world. The Indonesian archipelago is the world’s largest – it is comprised of over 17,000 islands and has at least 381 endemic birds. Fortunately, many of the islands still have large tracts of healthy primary and secondary forests.

Inspired by pals Tim Laman and Ed Scholes of National Geographic and Cornell University and of course, David Attenborough - I finally made good on my dream to travel to the islands of Waigeo to see two of the most beautiful and spectacular birds in the world: Wilson’s Bird of Paradise and Red Bird of Paradise. After 9 flights, 5 boat rides, and at least three challenging pre-dawn hikes for a grand total of about 45 hours of travel from San Francisco,  Brian Coleman and I arrived at our base for four nights on the Island of Waigeo. So… , that was SFO to Tapei to Jakarta to Sulawesi to Sorong (West Papua) to Waigeo by ferry. We met out guide, Untu Baware, in Sorong. Untu deftly located a beer source (rare) in Sorong and porters helped carry and load a very heavy crate of warm Bintang and Anker onto the ferry. Gotta do what you gotta do. Then on to the island of Halmahera two more fantastical birds: Ivory-breasted Pitta and another Bird of Paradise: Wallaces Standardwing. Being a gorgeous and unique bird has stiff competition in Indonesia. There are head spinning colorful world class creatures by the dozen there. Pittas, Fruit-doves, Kingfishers (we saw 12 exotic species) , Parrots, Lory’s, Lorikeets etc.

No electricity, no running water. As you can see this village knows what they do have. There were Birds of Paradise in our future!
Saporkren Village
Through gaps in the floorboards of our homestay I could spy tropical fish passing by and shells rolling in the sand.
Home Base. Tropical fish and fancy sea shells below our home.

Here’s a sampling of Indonesian birds from this famous book illustrated by the Bay Area’s own Dana Gardner. I borrowed this from birding pal Russ. Sadly, they are out of print and go for up to $800 on Amazon. Dana assured me that there will not be a 2nd edition. Drats, foiled again.


A 3:30 wake up call was made better by coffee and piping hot fresh donuts delivered to us. We hiked through dark, steep and wet forest trails (uphill) for a long time. Did I mention that it was already very warm? When we arrived at the hide it began to rain. Not a great omen. However, at about 6:20 AM we heard a Wilson’s calling… The astonishing Wilson’s Bird of Paradise at 7:00 AM in the forest mating and courtship display court (Lek). Tim Laman and Ed Scholes of National Geographic fame have described the sexual selection and lack of predators for the Birds of Paradise as Survival of the Sexist. More on that later…
My Wilson’s Bird of Paradise video:

Victorious birders, guides and porters after having minds blown by Red Birds of Paradise, Waigeo, Indonesia: Brian, Franky, Untu and Sony.Victorious birders, guides and porters after having minds blown by Red Birds of Paradise, Waigeo, Indonesia: Brian, Franky, Untu and Sony.

There is always a big miss of a much wanted bird… this trip it was the spectacular Western Crowned Pigeon. The bird snares hidden in the forests there have taken a serious toll. An hour boat ride through rain took us to a nearly uninhabited forest before our failed search and treacherous off trail hike.
Our Excellent guide was Untu Baware of the Papua Bird Club and all arrangements were carefully crafted by Shita Prativa. For more information about Papua Bird Club and their conservation efforts.