Sound recording the cloudforests of Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsular

Five members from the AWSRG have recently been field recording in the mountain forests of the Huon Peninsular in Papua New Guinea.

With three previous years recording in the region, Tony Baylis organised and lead this year’s expedition, comprising Sue Gould and her partner Rod Thorn (who both accompanied Tony last year), plus David Stewart and myself, Andrew Skeoch.

On the trail in Papua New Guinea – (from left) Rod Thorn, David Stewart, Andrew Skeoch, Tony Baylis and Sue Gould.

Tony’s connections with the local people were crucial to the expedition. Without permission and support from local landholders we simply could not have visited these forests. We hired porters from nearby villages to assist in moving all our equipment and supplies between camps. Here they arrive at our first bush camp in the morning, ready to help us relocate further up the mountain.

Tony and Rod ascending slowly. Trekking was exhausting, a combination of altitude and a vertical landscape. Often a day’s walk with only modest altitude gains, would involve first descending into a deep valley and then climbing up a sheer slope beyond. The locals were adapted to it, padding along in bare feet, but slippery rocks, mud and hidden tree roots were treacherous in our hiking boots. We relied on our walking poles for both balance and secure footing.

We each employed a local guide who stayed with us the whole journey. Together they established our camps, helped out in numerous ways, and shared their deep knowledge of the forests. This is Keshdi, one of our senior guides who had worked with Tony in previous years.

Our guides setting up camp. Frames were made from bush poles, cut by bush knife, lashed together with vines, and over which large tarps were placed. They were so efficient at this, taking only a few hours to construct and fine tune our lodgings.

The finished camp. This was our first base at around 2600m, where we stayed for three days.

Our jungle home, complete with bench seat and shelf for supplies made of bush poles, a carpet of ferns and cooking fire on the ground. The ‘fern wall’ at the far end encouraged smoke to go upwards before drifting along the roofline – a simple chimney principle that minimised the amount of ‘smoking’ we all received.

On location: Tony recording endemic Huon Melidectes (a large honeyeater) in cloudforest at near 3000m.

Meanwhile, Sue and I were recording stereo soundscapes. This is my microphone rig (MKH 8020s in custom baffled array – Sue was using similar) in misty morning light.

Rod took on the role of our tech support, building and deploying a solar charging setup. Here he sets up to charge our batteries during a rest day in Gomdan village. The panels charged 12V batteries, which then trickle fed our recorder batteries and phones, and also powered our LED strip lights at night. At the end of our trip, this solar equipment was donated to the villages.

Mountain forest near Astrapia Camp at 2200m. The forests themselves were fascinating; both beautiful and full of rare species, although actually sighting the birdlife was frustratingly difficult.

A Lesser Ground Robin on its nest. Our local guides demonstrated their impressive skill in finding nests like this, but how they did it remained a mystery, as the sites were often so well hidden and inconspicuous.

On trekking days, we’d look up at walls of jungle like this, ascending into the clouds, and think “we’ve got to walk up there…”

“…across wobbly bridges like this one…”

“…but the reward is this…” Cloudforest approaching 3000m, our highest camp. The mix of species at this altitude was notably different than at even a few hundred meters lower. The mountain forests of this region are part of the extensive YUS conservation area, administered by the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project, the inspiring collaboration between an internationally funded NGO and local landowners and villagers.

Tony taking a breather on the trail with Luke (a local landholder and one of our guides) and some of the village kids, who trotted along with us ‘for the walk’. Some even helped porter our supplies, seen bagged up in the background.

David, Rod and I returned after four weeks in the mountains. Sue and Tony are (as of writing) still on the trail, undertaking an extended walk for an extra fortnight down to the north coast. This will take them through a range of altitudes, allowing them to experience different habitats and species not found at higher elevations.

Our expedition will likely have a diversity of outputs. Some sounds and further stories will likely be posted here. In due course, I’ll be creating long-form soundscape recordings which will be published on our website for free listening. Tony has produced a sound guide to the vocalisations of bird species in the Huon, and copies of that have been distributed to our guides and their villages to assist them with future visitors. No doubt that guide will undergo some updating as a result of our recent efforts. We’ve all been invited to participate in a symposium panel in December (more on that shortly). And there has been thought about a scientific paper or two as well.

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