It takes a village

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Welcome to another exciting and sad update. Not sad like last time. Sad in that Ian and I are leaving Milne Bay Province to continue on our research objectives over in Western Province in Obo Village. Sad because after two months split between Porotona and Garuahi, we’ll miss our Milne Bay families. In particular, the sheer amount of support, logistically and emotionally, that has been offered to us since the Garuahi incident has been quite encouraging and reiterates how much I love the people of PNG.

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We managed to capture nearly all of the fairywrens to wrap up the Garuahi experiment. What was striking is that we found that many adult birds, prior to implantation had (what I am calling) dirty feathers, or bronze tipped scapular feathers like the bird I’ve highlighted previously. In response to treatment, nearly all females (and only one male) produced these dirty feathers. However, one male and one female (of separate groups) in the control treatment also had a dirty feather or two, suggesting other factors are also at play other than hormonal control. Now one may ask why would only a spot or two of bronze plumage on a mostly white ornament matter in the grand scheme of things. That’s a legitimate question and I don’t have a great answer as of yet – however, nearly all (>95%) males and females I’ve caught have full white ornaments and (importantly) dirty tips is characteristic of immature plumage. Oh, to the importance of Controls! Soon (ish) we’ll have data on which genes are being turned on and off during this critical period of feather growth – stay tuned.

Back in Porotona, Ian and I wrapped things up to make way for Western Province. During this time, we laughed, we told stories, and we packed gear. On 1 July, we were scheduled to head to Alotau to spend the night in town to catch an early flight. Well…

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Landslide. On the side of a mountain, the only road to and from Alotau. It had been raining nonstop the past few days and, naturally, the night before we were to travel to town, a landslide occurs. With 102 kg (later confirmed at the airport, spoiler warning) of equipment spread among multiple bags to get to Alotau, we were in a bit of a pickle. Originally, the thought was to hand carry (or wheel-barrel) the bags to the site of the landslide and simply transverse through the jungle to the other side. The hillside was stable enough that we felt comfortable enough that we cut our way through to see the extent of the landslide – maybe 50 m in length along the road. Luckily, as we returned from our expedition, we passed a local who just so happened to have a truck – I cannot understand how fortunate this is due to how few people own vehicles out in the villages. We return to Chez Serena and wait a bit, tell some more stories, drink some instant coffee as we wait on the truck to take us to the site of the landslide.

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During this time, we were trying to plan out how we were going to travel from the other side to Alotau. Our original plan was to find a bike (another rare item) and bike until we find someone with a car and then hire them to come up our mountain and pick up our items. But, for the first time in PNG this year, luck was a bit on our side. One of the local men just happened to be traveling to Porotona today to see his family (he lives on the outskirts of Alotau) and he left his car on the other side of the slide. So after confirming with him that he’d give us a ride, we were set. Now we just needed to get through with all of our gear.

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This part was pretty simple. Axes and bushknives helped clear a nice lane that enabled us to travel through. On the other side, a bulldozer was hard at work trying to clear the road – I imagine it’ll take a solid week before the road is up and running again for PMV travel.

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From Alotau, we got some last minute errands done and then said our tearful goodbyes to Serena. I’m excited to be back in Western. But I very much so will miss Milne Bay and I will miss the family I’ve come to know and love the past two months in PNG.

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Meanwhile, in Australia, Doka has arrived! Finally, after two months of struggling on our end in PNG, he made it and is now learning about Aussie fairywrens with my colleagues over at the Samsonvale bird project, specifically with red-backed fairywrens (link in previous blog post). I’m excited to share that he was able to hold a fully ornamented male of each of the three species found at our field site.

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Doka will join Ian and I in Kiunga at the end of the week. From there, a long boat ride to our next stop, Obo Village. There, birds are brown, food has no coconut to better the taste, and swamps are a plenty. It’s a fantastic village and I look forward to seeing my Western Province family.

-John

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Author: John Anthony Jones

Fairywren researcher, extraordinaire(ish)

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