What is paradise?
That place or state of perfection and happiness where everything is exactly as it should be.
Stereotypically, the word conjures images of blue skies, turquoise seas and tropical, luxuriant islands where palm trees overhang white sandy beaches. Certain areas of the world have become synonymous with these landscapes; one such location is the part of the world once known as the East Indies, now Indonesia and New Guinea. When the explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, arrived in these idyllic lands he wrote home with fabulous tales of amazing birds and butterflies; here he penned his essay to Darwin on the evolution of natural selection. It wasn’t long before many of the species’ Wallace collected were labeled with common names prefixed by the word ‘paradise’; Paradise Kingfishers, Paradise Snakes, and of course the Birds of Paradise; species’ so spectacular and extravagant, so out of this world, that they must be from paradise!
Ever since I was a boy my imagination has been captured by this part of the world. Attenborough documentaries and books served to fuel my desire to explore these remote lands in search of the weird and wonderful. In 1994, as a 12 year old, I took part in the Birdfair bird race to raise money to help protect the forests of Halmahera, an island sitting in the centre of the Moluccas, Indonesia. I vividly remember the cover image of the event programme, the information, and even the illustration on the front of the bird race checklist; all of which featured the bizarre Wallace’s Standardwing. Twenty-two years on and I set out on my own mini-adventure with my wife on our honeymoon in search of paradise.
Indonesia is HUGE, an island archipelago nation; 17,500 islands spread over 4,500km. Towards the east of this chain sits the Halmahera, a strangely ‘k’ shaped island flanked to the west by a string of beautifully conical, active, volcanoes. Wallace arrived on Ternate, the northern-most of these volcanic islands, in 1858. Now the location of the capital and airport, Wallace based himself here for two years building up large collections of specimens for shipment back to Europe. Ternate is still a bustling city, trading cloves and cardamom amongst other things, but the transfer to mainland Halmahera is a rapid 30 minute speedboat ride rather than a slow sail of years gone by. Little infrastructure exists on Halmahera and the only road south snakes along the coast through coconut gardens and lush jungle. Occasionally, the view opens up to reveal sweeping black sandy beaches, the chain of volcanoes, or a mangrove-filled bay. The road swings east and zigzags up and over a dramatic ridge where the cloud seeps through the forest and cloaks everything in its path. The sounds are all natural, the smells intense and earthy, and the sights ethereal and pure.
On the coast at the head of the large eastern bay sits Weda, a small town, and close to it Weda Resort, one of the few places tourists can stay. Here, the forest meets the sea. White Cockatoo’s and Eclectus Parrots scream around the trees. Hornbills cruise around the forest in search of fruiting trees, insects abound, and the spiders are as big as your head! The bay brims with life. Reefs pepper the shallows forming patterns at the surface like lichens do on rocks. Terns congregate in huge numbers wheeling around above bait balls, and beneath them we discovered an aggregation of Eden’s Whales joining in the glut of food.
My main interests, however, lay in the shadows of the forest. Pre-dawn we ventured up a muddy track in a 4×4 and parked, heading off on foot along a narrow trail away from the pastel tones of dawn and back into the darkness of the forest. Night clings to the understory and whilst the first rays of sun illuminate the forest canopy, bats still hunt through the inky darkness close to the ground. With every minute the noise and intensity of bird activity increases. Finally the trail reaches a small clearing in the forest. A movement to the left, two to the right. Shapes bounce from branch to branch above us. As I focus my binoculars the grotesquely beautiful form of a Wallace’s Standardwing sharpens up. This is one of the most bizarre Birds of Paradise, endemic to Halmahera, and the most westerly occurring of all the species. It is without a doubt the flagship species for the forests of Halmahera.
The males lek. The stakes are high here in the forest clearing arena, and the dominant male seeks the prize perch from which to display to the assembled females. They are bizarre to look at. The forehead of the male is elongated, plumped with short erect feathers whilst the rest of the head is a dirty brown. The throat sports eccentrically attenuated turquoise feathers falling down the body like an elegant scarf. Beneath these, dark-fringed emerald belly feathers produce a brilliant scaled appearance, glinting and morphing through shades of blue and green as the bird changes position. A pair of bright orange legs and feet seem incongruous with the rest of the body. When perched normally the matt brown scapulars (shoulder feathers) mask folded wings; ivory white primaries, and the pièce de résistance, the brilliant white standards (exaggerated wing plumes) hang limply along the body.
The appearance of a female, however, sparks an instant and flamboyant response. Primaries flare like angel wings and the standards spike like stamens held proud above the bird. With an eruption of energy the male leaps into the air, uttering a mix of guttural and melodic notes before parachuting back down with a slow fluttering flight to his perch. The intensifying morning light, contrasting with the dark forest floor exaggerates the purity of the wings and momentarily the male seems almost angelic. As soon as one male leaps, others follow suit, raising the energy to near frantic levels. The females cluster around the most favoured male and with that the intensity of this dance increases. Males bounce, flight, flutter, shriek, call, whistle and grunt from all around, until the opportunity to mate with one or more of the females presents itself.
As the sun climbs, the sounds of dawn become drowned out by the sounds of day, electric Cicada’s dominating the forest. The Standardwings slowly start to lose energy and soon the more subordinate males melt away into the green and brown shadows of the forest to wait for another dawn, and another show-down. The alpha male is the last to slink out of sight, and with his exit, the show is over.
There is something phenomenally special about witnessing such a species engaged in such unique and elaborate behaviour. The sight, the sound, the smell. The imagination of a twelve-year old lad had been bought to life twenty-two years on and with no hint of disappointment.