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Papuan Dawn

Experience the mountain rainforest of Papua New Guinea's remote Huon peninsula.

It is dark, before dawn. Insects chime and tiny frogs call from hidden places on the forest floor. As the light pales, the first birds begin singing. Prominent among them is the Regent Whistler, ruling the dawn chorus with whipcrack calls that echo through the trees. A soft chorus of cicadas begin fizzing intermittently, as more songbirds join in.

Over the next hour there is a gradual transition from nocturnal voices to daytime birdsong. Once the dawn chorus ebbs, birds and insects are heard discreetly. For such a rich environment, there are periods of relative quiet. However rare denizens of these mountain rainforests make themselves heard, including ground-dwelling rails and scrub fowl. Meanwhile the various songs of exotic fantails, ifrits, robins, jewel babblers, meladectes and melampitas come and go, while fruit pigeons keep up a soft booming from the treetops.

This album is one continuous recording, allowing you to hear this precious forest environment as it is.

"The making of this recording involved all the planning and trekking hardships one would expect of undertaking field work in the mountains of New Guinea. The trip was co-ordinated by friend and sound recording colleague Tony Baylis, and images and recollections from our expedition can be viewed on the Australian Wildlife Sound Recording website.

"The recording was made at 2500 metres, an altitude just below the cloudforest proper. Here the clouds would gather and envelope the rainforest in mist each afternoon, but the mornings were clear. Many tropical species are restricted to specific altitudinal ranges, so the species community here results in a distinctive soundscape.

"This album is the result of four mornings recording. From our jungle campsite, I would set out around 4am, negotiating a slippery trail in the dark with my gear. On the first morning, I didn't chance on a particularly worthwhile location. Exploring further along, I found the trail rounded a shoulder on the mountainside. Here the forest received more morning sunshine and opened up a little. It became the site I returned to over following days. Each morning was subtly different, and from them I feel this recording is the most interesting.

"Preparing the album in the studio has been a challenge, as the soundscape presented extremes of dynamics. The predawn was filled with sound; delicate but continuous. An hour after dawn however, everything had quietened down considerably, and sound became more nuanced. Birdsong would occasionally be close, but more often distant, even muted, but then a Lesser Melampita would flit close by giving extraordinarily loud, and quite unbirdlike, snapping calls.

"I considered what do with these sonic vagaries. I could easily have used digital processing to 'tame' the melampita and balance the predawn chorus. But I'd like you to hear this soundscape authentically. I suggest setting your listening volume moderately (as realistic to nature as you can judge) to begin. Later, you may find there are sequences when not much seems to be happening, but when the melampita comes by, it is quite exhilarating.

"Many of the species heard here have been little documented. Of them, I'm particularly pleased by the clear recording of Forbes's Forest Rails, which were foraging, muttering and calling very close to the microphones at times."

I travelled to PNG in the company several experienced ornithologists, and so we all shared both that knowledge and that of our local guides. Yet many of the vocalisations heard here we found challenging to correlate with species. Below is my list of species and some indication of their calls.

New Guinea Scrubfowl - Loud, raucous calls, heard prominently a few times (1:10:30, 2:48:30)

Forbes's Forest Rail - 'muttering' close to the microphones then churring preceding an extended sequence of "rark, rark, rark, …." (around 1:56:00, and again 2:24:10)

Mountain Owlet Nightjar - "chapping" call, heard once at 3:42

Ornate Fruit Dove - Accelerating series of 'whoop's
Papuan Mountain Pigeon - , more individual 'whoop's, deeper toned than ornate FD.
Great Cuckoo Dove - series of up slurred 'whop-whoop's (from 1:28:13-1:33:48)

Various Lorikeets, possibly including Fairy and Stellar's

Blue-capped Ifrit - various scratchy, sometimes raspy calls, heard often

Blue Grey Robin - sequence of slowly rising, quavering whistles, given about 10 secs apart (e.g.: 2:03:51, 2:11:39)

Lesser Ground Robin - melodic phrases, sometimes repeated (e.g.: 1:36:22 and in minute or two after)

Black Fantail - high-pitched descending, whistled song (particularly close 2:31:52-2:45:54)
Dimorphic Fantail - lower pitched and more full bodied song phrases (compare at 2:45:01, 2:45:44 & 2:45:56)

Cinnamon-browed Melidectes - loud, descending, atonal calls (3:01:58-3:04:18)

Rufous-backed Honeyeater - descending whistles (e.g.: 2:02:13-2:03:20)

Regent Whistler - Loud 'chopping' song, particularly over dawn

Spotted Jewel Babbler - long, held notes, or quick, series of piping whistles (e.g.; 1:38:34-1:39:31, 2:07:29)

Lesser Melampita - loud, snapping contact calls. Also fizzing, upslurred "zzwit!"s. Heard close by during dawn chorus (particularly 22:13-24:19), and later (3:03:14-3:09:24)

Brown-breasted Gerygone - up-down, delicate, high-pitched song (e.g.: 2:26:54).

In addition, 'chiming', ground-dwelling crickets, along with a small frog species ("jit-jit"), are heard loudly and numerously, particularly predawn, but quieten as the morning progresses.

This short species list is more an indication of my superficial knowledge than the diversity of the environment. There are even some quite prominent calls that I cannot currently identify.

All land is owned in New Guinea. Even when one is in 'wilderness', it is actually someone's land; a family or nearby village. Not only does one need the permission of the land owner to be there, but no conservation initiatives can be undertaken without their active support and involvement.

Large areas of the Huon Peninsula are currently managed for conservation through an innovative program co-ordinated by the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project, an internationally funded NGO backed by Seattle's Woodland Plains Zoo. The region included is known as the YUS Conservation Area, and embraces the watersheds of 3 major river systems. The tree kangaroo is the icon species of the project, and they are actively tracked and monitored. Of course in protecting tree kangaroos, the whole ecosystem is preserved and maintained.

To support the villagers in this, the TKCP has taken an active role in promoting and marketing their coffee crop. This is sold as a fair trade product through outlets in Australia and the USA. In addition, the TKCP administers research in the region, necessitating that visiting academics hire guides and porters at established rates. In addition, the TKCP employs several rangers from local villagers to police the forests, and report any unapproved activity such as hunting or the establishment of additional gardens.

During our visit, the TKCP was our primary contact, assisting us in negotiating the logistics of our trek. In return, local villagers received wages and further experience in guiding, and the TKCP benefits from the research outcomes of the expedition.

More about the TKCP, its engagement with local villages and aims, and support from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. Also an interview with Lisa Dabek, one of the prime movers behind the initiative.

Purchase and download this album for the finest audio quality, the convenience of offline listening, and adding to your music library. Also links to photo gallery for this album.

Profits from the sale of this recording will be donated to further local conservation initiatives in the Huon Peninsula.

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