Thursday, December 19, 2013

Wildlife in tree cavities and nest boxes in Papua New Guinea

A view to the coast from the Wasu study area

You never know where some incidental observations will lead.

One of the best aspects of my research studying cassowary dung was that I was free to observe and explore the forest around me.  If you observe or monitor animals in any way, you often have to focus on your beast to the exclusion of cool things happening around you.  Not so with cassowary pekpek.  It stays put and can be ignored while watching something else.  The data are just as good if you stop to watch a hornbill.

While doing my fieldwork I made several observations of parrots and other birds fighting over ownership of tree cavities where they presumably nested.  Sometimes I'd note the occupant as one species only to return later and find some usurper had taken over the site.  I suspected tree cavities were in strong demand.  There are no woodpeckers in New Guinea, so everyone that nests or dens in tree hollows pretty much has to find one.  No one is excavating new holes.

As a preliminary experiment I made and put up an artificial nest box within view of the station verandah.  Soon it was evident that some animal had chewed the opening to make it larger and some twigs were protruding through the hole.  Possibly one of the many rat species endemic to New Guinea had made a nest.  In a few months a bat displaced the presumed rat.  We could often see the claw on the "finger" at the bend of the wing protruding through the hole and hanging on to the outside of the box.  I stored away this information.

Some of the team horsing around in the study area.  Paul Igag seated.

Years later a PNG student, Diatpain Warakai, was looking for a field project and we thought about nest boxes.  Deb Wright worked her magic raising funds and obtained support to build and deploy a bunch of nest boxes. 

The study was a large collaboration.  A carpenter was hired to build the boxes.  Our friends now at the PNG Institute of Biological Research, Muse Opiang and Daniel Solomon Okena, helped Diat with the fieldwork.  Paul Igag acted as uncle and trained the others in tree climbing (sadly Paul passed away before the publication of the results).  Half a dozen local men helped put the boxes up.  The team put out nest boxes and monitored them to learn what occupied them.  Would cuscus move in?  Would parrots nest in them? Would we be able to use nest boxes as a way to study the elusive arboreal mammals of New Guinea?  Putting out nearly 200 boxes in 2006 was the culmination of those first incidental observations fifteen years earlier while roaming the Crater Mountain forests searching for pekpek.

One of the boxes in place and waiting for an occupant
[more to follow on the results]

Carrying the pre-made boxes to the study site employed a lot of workers.

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