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Captain Blood and the Barnes' Astrapia

On a recent trip to New Guinea we came upon this amazing bird feeding on Schefflera fruits by the Astrapia lek above Ambua.

Nature guide Phil Gregory (Sicklebill Safaris) is a 20 year veteran of running tours to Papua New Guinea and this year, for the first time, he finally found a beautiful adult male of the elusive Barnes' Long-tailed Astrapia.

 "This hybrid Ribbon-tailed x Princess Stephanie’s Astrapia was found below the Bailey Bridge near Ambua Lodge. It's the kind of sighting that reactivates your sense of wonder".

Ambua Lodge's resident guide Joseph Tano has only seen them seven or eight times in his 30 year career.

Despite being a hybrid of two species, people mostly record females or young males that look like one or other of the parents. This amazing bird was if you like "a classic hybrid, with the body of one and the tail of the other" says Phil.

"It was an extraordinary adult male with a thick ribbontail-like tail only thicker and bordered black, with the partly white-centred paddles of a Princess Stephanie’s tacked onto the end … it was quite the longest tailed bird I have ever seen - the tail measured well over 1.7 m (5’)".

The history of this strange bird of paradise is almost as colourful as the birds themselves. The montane species Princess Stephanie's Astrapia was named in honour of the wife of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, the son of Franz Joseph I, emperor of Austria who, with his mistress, committed suicide in 1885. The result of which made Franz Ferdinand the heir presumptive, his assassination in 1914 led to the start of World War I.

The suicide left Princess Stephanie bereft but immortalized with the wonderful Astrapia named after her. These days the Princess epithet is often omitted for the more prosaic Stephanie’s Astrapia. It was common to name Birds of Paradise after royalty, as the collectors looked to gain possible sponsorship and an early kind of celebrity endorsement. The tragic Crown Prince Rudolph himself has the rare Blue Bird of Paradise named after him, Paradisaea rudolphi.

You wouldn't think war and ornithology could go further hand in hand but this was a time in history when exploration and discovery was a way of life for many in the military. The type specimen of Barnes' Astrapia was procured during the 2nd world war by Captain Neptune Blood whilst on patrol in New Guinea. He passed it to Tom Iredale at the Australian Museum in Sydney who named it in honour of a the taxidermist who, at that time, described it as a new species. Blood is also famous for rediscovering the Sepik Blue Orchid - he fled with specimens stuffed in his shirt in front of an advancing Japanese patrol.  

For Phil Gregory, it was the "bird of the trip" but a slightly bitter sweet tale from an area being devastated by logging. This most charismatic of all bird families, the Birds of Paradise, are remarkable for the number of hybrid or putative hybrids involved, many not just in the same genus but also some quite unrelated.

Twenty-three named varieties of hybrid (or presumed hybrid) exist, mostly known from plume trade skins from the later 19th and early 20th centuries and rejoicing in such evocative names as Rothschild's Lobe-billed Bird of Paradise, the Wonderful Bird of Paradise and Captain Blood's Bird of Paradise.

Many are known just from a handful of skins and most have never been seen in the wild, so it was great that on the last Sicklebill Safaris PNG tour two such examples were found - this remarkable Barnes' Long-tailed Astrapia and also Lupton's Bird of Paradise, a hybrid between Greater Bird of Paradise and Raggiana Bird of Paradise.


Ribbon-tailed Astrapia photo courteousy of Mark Harper, Ribbon-tailed Astrapia].Creative Commons licence cc-by-sa-2.0.

On a recent  trip to New Guinea we came upon this amazing bird feeding on Schefflera fruits by the Astrapia lek above Ambua, an area now sadly being devastated by logging. It was the first adult male hybrid of this type I had ever seen and Joseph Tano the resident guide at Ambua has only seen them 7 or 8 times in his career. We quite often see female type plumaged hybrids at Kumul Lodge.

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Sicklebill Safaris