Not just a successful twitch

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: Not just a successful twitch
From: Laurence Knight <>
Date: Tue, 7 Feb 2006 18:22:05 +1000

Analysis: 'I had long given up on the thought of finding new species'
By Bruce Beehler
Published: 07 February 2006

By the time the clouds closed us off from the outside world, the helicopter had dropped three loads of people and gear on to the little boggy clearing in the mountain forest. We were met with silence, but for the sound of birds, frogs and cicadas. At this point we all were excited and nervously elated that we were all finally in this promised land - we had surmounted the many hurdles and had defied the odds and had made it into the Fojas.

Within minutes, each of the scientists was off in various corners of the bog. Later, several of the party mentioned their encounters with a weird bird with dangling orange wattles like a chicken. I didn't see the bird for myself for another five days but, in essence, the first bird our team encountered at our camp was a species that had never been seen by Western scientists. I had not imagined we would so quickly encounter such a find.

This wattled smoky honeyeater was very much like its more widespread cousin, the common smoky honeyeater. In fact, the first few of these I glimpsed I ignored. I thus learnt it pays to look closely at everything when in a new environment. There is no mistaking the new species with the old.

The new bird is freaky - the bottom of the face-patch on each side ended in a free-dangling wattle of skin, the same colour as the face, like no other honeyeater in New Guinea. I had long given up thought of finding a new species. We all thought there might be great stuff in the Fojas, but thought it would be lesser discoveries - new populations, new subspecies, and the like.

We were to encounter additional surprises - a "lost" bird of paradise that had long been forgotten, plus new species of butterflies, plants, frogs and mammals. These discoveries, and the lack of human presence in these mountains, told us one thing - this was an incredible biodiversity resource of global significance. Moreover, this grand tract of mountain forest appears to be entirely free of the many impacts of civilisation. We found no trails, no signs of hunters, no huts, nothing. How many places on Earth remain untrammeled by humankind? Not many.

So what is to be made of this rarely-visited mountain range and its abundance of little-known wildlife? There are several points that can be made. First, most would agree the area should be conserved and managed to preserve its wonderfully wild flavour. These pristine ecosystems are rarer and rarer. Second, this area should better studied by biodiversity scientists, for it is an amazing laboratory of evolution, giving us a look at how an isolated mountain range in New Guinea generates new species. Third, it is important to better understand the relationship between the local indigenous communities and this mountain forest resource.

They know these forests well, and are in the best position to act as the stewards of these forests. They are logical partners in the push to develop a plan for the future for this area. The birds, plants, frogs and tree-kangaroos are depending on us.

Dr Bruce Beehler is vice-president of Conservation International's Melanesia Centre for Biodiversity Conservation and co-leader of the Foja Mountains expedition

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