Day 341: A Surprising Find Inside an Oil Palm Plantation

While searching for a long-lost owl, Noah realizes the palm oil industry is not half-bad for birding.

December 7, 2015: West New Britain, Papua New Guinea — Earlier this year, a birder named Joseph Yenmoro went looking for fireflies near the Walindi dive resort where I am staying. He often takes groups of tourists to see the fireflies, and sometimes on these excursions a big bird flies past in the dark. Joseph had always assumed this bird to be a night-heron, but, this time, it landed on a fence post, and he realized it was an owl.

Not just any owl. It was a Golden Masked-Owl, an endemic species to the island of New Britain that looks a lot like a Barn Owl. Joseph couldn’t believe it: The last confirmed sighting of a Golden Masked-Owl was in the mid-1980s! He was guiding a group of Japanese butterfly enthusiasts and asked them to take a photo, but the owl flew before they could document it. Fortunately, when he subsequently returned with some other staff at the dive resort, they relocated the bird and got a video, the first-ever footage of this species. In the months since that encounter, there have been several more sightings.

The spot where Joseph found the long-lost owl is perhaps the last place you’d look for a super-rare bird. It is less than a mile from a popular resort, and it’s inside an oil palm plantation. Maybe that’s why it was overlooked for so long: Evidently this owl prefers a habitat that birdwatchers generally despise. Oil palms are often regarded to be one of the world’s worst environmental scourges, and assumed to hold few birds. 

I’ve seen a lot of these plantations this year in places like Cameroon and northern Borneo, but until today hadn’t actually been in one and didn’t know much about the crop. Joseph, another birder named David Dau, and I spent much of the day in a huge tract cultivated by New Britain Palm Oil Limited before we went looking for the Golden Masked-Owl this evening.

There must be millions of trees on this island. The trees are planted in endless, rigid rows which go on for miles. Each tree has the classic palm shape with a rough trunk and a spray of fronds at the top, though they are straighter and squatter than coconut palms. Palm nuts, as big as a plum and ripened to a deep reddish-orange color, grow in dense, basketball-sized clumps at the base of the fronds. These are harvested once a month by workers on the ground who use 12-meter-long poles with saws on the end. Every 20 years, the trees are cut down and replantednot because they have reached old age, but because they have grown too tall to be easily harvested.

The palm nuts are taken to an on-site factory for processing. Palm oil comes in two grades: Industrial-grade oil is squeezed from the outer part of the nut, and food-grade oil comes from the inner part. This oil is collected in big tanks and exported. Palm oil is now one of Papua New Guinea’s largest exports.

We found about 20 species of birds inside the plantation this morning, including Black Bitterns, Blyth’s Hornbills, White-browed Crakes, and Stephan’s Dovesall birds I wouldn’t have expected in such an altered habitat. Most common was the Willie-wagtail, a charismatic little bird (also common in Australia) which adapts well to fragmented landscapes. Common Kingfishers patrolled the irrigation canals; Brahminy Kites perched among palm fronds; and Eclectus Parrots squawked as they flew below the canopy. The place was birdier than I imagined.

Palm oil is in high demand for foods (especially breads), cosmetic products, and other uses, and the proliferation of palm plantations has caused large-scale deforestation in southeast Asia and other tropical zones. The most promising solution has recently been proposed by scientists who say they can create a near-identical oil from yeast instead of palm nuts, which would be a game-changer. Yeast-based oil would be renewable and would ease the pressure on tropical forests. This is a great example of how conservation can be approached in broad terms: Instead of fencing off forests one at a time, it’s sometimes more effective to address the larger demand.

After dinner, Joseph took me to where he has seen the Golden Masked-Owl several times now, just down the road from the Walindi resort. “It likes this section of the plantation,” he said, as we drove slowly among the oil palms with spotlights scanning each row of trees. “We think it sleeps in the nearby forest and hunts in the plantation at night.” I spotted a big fruit bat, then a dog with green eyeshine, and then, after less than half an hour, something flew through the beam of my spotlight and perched on a palm frond. There it was: The golden bird which, before this year, had not been seen since before I was born!

Nobody knows how many Golden Masked-Owls are left. The bird’s vocalization has never been recorded, to Joseph's knowledge, and its nest remains unknown. It has only been seen by a handful of visitors to Walindi over the past few months. It’s possible that the owl is relatively common in oil palm plantations on New Britain, but nobody has really looked. At least there is one.

New birds today: 27

Year list: 5605

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