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Interview: Ben Freeman and a Spine of Papua Biodiversity Pt. 1

Just in case you didn’t snicker enough in the last interview that my initials are BM, here’s another, equally fascinating and envy inspiring conversation. A benefit of starting out young as a birder is that it’s a small world.  You inevitably meet some people who are headed amazing directions.  Ben Freeman is another ornithologically inclined acquaintance on the way to big things.  He recently returned from work in Papua New Guinea and is in his first year of graduate school at Cornell.  Surprisingly enough he has very similar interests to Ben Winger. Let’s be honest though, tropical mountains are riveting in so many ways.  Enjoy!

Brendan McGarry: First of all – where specifically did you go and what was the purpose of this trip?  Give us a little background of how you ended up in Papua New Guinea.

Ben Freeman: I went to the Huon Peninsula in Morobe Province; a nubby peninsula in NE PNG. The Huon contains the Finisterre, Saruwaged and one other mountain range, all of which contain peaks that top out at or around 4,000 m. These are all young mountain ranges — I think the main uplift has occurred in the past couple million years. The island of New Guinea has a mountainous backbone that runs down the center of the island, completely surrounded by islands. There are many outlying mountain ranges, but few as high as the ranges on the Huon. The Huon’s combination of many large, tall mountain ranges and isolation is a classic recipe for endemism; any montane species that somehow arrive to the Huon’s mountains are isolated due to the intervening lowlands and essentially on their own evolutionary trajectories. Given enough time, these forms evolve significant differences and are classified as species endemic to the Huon (but with a close relative in the Central ranges). Huon endemics include three endemic birds of paradise, an endemic bowerbird, an endemic tree kangaroo, and many others. So that is a very brief history of the Huon Peninsula and why it is cool from a zoology perspective.


The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Project (TKCP) headquartered at the Woodland Park Zoo (in Seattle, WA) has been working on bottom-up conservation on the Huon Peninsula for over a decade. Their efforts have led to the creation of the YUS Conservation Area, over 150,000 hectares of land set aside for conservation by local landowners. Many ethnic groups and dozens of villages exist within the YUS Conservation Area. TKCP is working on helping YUS communities in their economic development, education and access to medicine.


Recently, a Conservation International (CI) team headed by Dr. Bruce Beehler, a top ornithologist and conservation biologist who works in PNG, won a grant from the German-funded LifeWeb initiative to study the impacts of climate change on tropical plants and animals. The general goal is to complete detailed field surveys of plants and animals in the YUS ecosystem along an elevational gradient — from sea level to over 3,000 m — and compare the datasets these surveys generate with historical transects, to see if plants and animals have shifted their ranges to higher elevations in response to climate change. These generated datasets will also provide excellent benchmarks for future studies of plant/animal distributions in relation to climate change in the coming years/decades.


Alexandra Class and I were hired by Dr. Beehler to perform mist-net bird surveys at eight field camps, located between 200 m and 2400 m (approx every 350 vertical m). Future work will extend the transect to 3,100 m, and the mist-net data will be combined with Dr. Beehler’s audiovisual surveys to quantitatively estimate bird distributions along this elevational gradient.


BM: Describe a typical day for us, the environment, etc.


BF: PNG is a different world. To arrive to our field site within the YUS ecosystem, we hopped into a small “bush” plane in the city of Lae and buzzed over the mountain tops, eventually landing on the grass airstrip in Sapwanga village. The flight took only 45 minutes and traveled just 70 km, but the difference between take-off and landing was acute. Sapwanga’s only transportation is a weekly flight from Lae; the one general store is irregularly stocked at best, there is no electricity, and people eat what they grow in their “gardens” and get water from nearby streams for cooking, drinking, washing and bathing. Meals are cooked using firewood. There are footpaths that traverse the mountains, but Lae would be over a 4 day hike away.  And Sapwanga was a regional hub, the location of the valley’s school and therefore much better connected to the outside world. From Sapmanga we hiked for three hours to the village of Gomdon, local porters carrying all our supplies, including enough food to feed six people for two months (Alexa, myself and a rotating cast of four workers). After organizing in Gomdon, we bought local produce, organized porters and workers, and hiked 6 hours up to the ridgeline that formed our elevational transect, to our first field camp. Field camps consist of a central A-frame built with machetes, using saplings for support and vines to lash the structure together. Several large blue plastic tarps formed the roof — this space was our storeroom, kitchen, dining room and sleeping space for the workers, about 30 feet long by 20 feet wide by 15 feet tall… Each field camp had an outhouse and a flattened space for researchers to set up tents.

Daily chores consisted of fetching water (sometimes involved a 30 minute one-way trip to the water source!), cleaning dishes, cooking meals, and most importantly, mist-netting birds. At each site we made a 1 km trail that followed the elevational contour (e.g. the 2420 m transect stayed at or around 2420 m.a.s.l for its entirety), and set up 36 mist nets along this trail, along with a small A-frame with benches and a tarped roof for processing birds. It took one day of hard work to make the transect trail and set up nets. We used saplings for poles. We then mist-netted from dawn to dusk for three days at each site, Alexa, myself and four workers patrolling the net lines and taking out any birds that we caught. We measured, weighed and photographed the birds we caught. After three days at a site, we collected our nets, packed up our gear, and walked downhill to the next field camp.


We’ll conclude the interview tomorrow – there was just too much good stuff to talk about!


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