The Orchid Garden and the Paradise Birds | Carla Charleston


Joseph, our local guide, beckons us up a slippery clay path toward the remote Rondon Ridge, in the rainforest of Papua, New Guinea on our quest to see a Superb Bird of Paradise, a most unusual bird. Chilling mist filters through trees congested with ferns and vines. Fog diamonds dance through beams of sunlight in air heavy with forest aromas.

“Highland morning is cool, here on de equator,” Joseph tells us in a shy melodious lilt that hints at Pidgin English, or Tok Pisin, one of the island’s official languages. He seems relaxed, affable, his smile contagious. Dressed in jeans, dark t-shirt and windbreaker, with a white baseball cap to shade his creased, ebony face, Joseph moves agilely up the muddy trail in thonged sandals. At least with my gear from, I look prepared for the journey. “We got a late start. Maybe we find a Superb,” he whispers, motioning us forward. “Maybe not.”

Earlier, on a YouTube video, we watched a black Superb cavort like an exotic dancer attracting a mate—wings spread to reveal a double-swoosh of iridescent turquoise chest-feathers beneath two brilliant blue dots—a unique happy face design.

“Dat his favorite spot.” Joseph points to a branch overhead.

Squint-eyed, we strain to track leaf-shrouded flutters and faint chirps like the YouTube clip, confirmation the Superb is nearby, probably in the trees above us. Condensation drips in our eyes and down our cheeks. The search for a black bird in backlit foliage grows tedious.

“You like to hike up to de bowerbird nest,” Joseph suggests, gesturing to the path.

We agree and move on. Soon we reach a boundary fence where a stile with a posted sign informs us the land is a local village’s private territory and requires permission to enter. Fortunately, Joseph, a village elder, invites us to enter. We press on. Through a break in the trees, we gaze down at the lush valley and distant Mount Hagen, an eroded volcano.

Continuing upward, Joseph points out scattered bits of white fluffy moss, clues a bowerbird is making a nest, but not the one he wants to show us. In dappled light, we struggle over thick root laces to a circular clearing about two feet wide, its outer edge defined by white moss tufts, the inside lined with dried grass. “De bowerbird nest,” Joseph announces with pride. “Here he dance and sing for de ladies. Dis de courtship arena,” he says with a grin.

We admire the artful work of a solitary beak and a pair of claws.

Joseph makes a wide gesture with his hands. “Dis land cleared, twenty year ago. All big tree taken. De tree you see are young and little,” he says with a sigh. “Dey no hold big bird. Up high, where de truck no go, you can see many big bird.”

We contemplate the possibility of extending the hike, and then, with our own collective sigh, turn and head back down the trail. We have no time for a longer hike today.

The sun is strong; the mist gone. Sweat pours down our faces. Quickly, we shed our jackets. Joseph invites us to cool off in his orchid garden, a large tree-filled expanse enclosed in a wooden fence with a thatched gable shelter at the entrance. “New construction take many tree, home to wild orchid,” he explains. He offers botanical and local plant names as he shows us colorful bell-shaped orchids like dainty earrings and strands of tiny balls that sway in dangling chains. Little fans, pinchers, and spiders appear in profusions of red, pink, yellow, purple, and white, all carefully grafted on shade trees. Higher up, we see the yellow and purple blossoms of prize cattleya orchids.

Water gurgles not far away. Joseph shows us the waterfalls, retention ponds, and drainage canals he built to provide moisture for his babies during dry periods and to carry it away in the rainy season. “Papua, New Guinea have about 460 different wild highland orchid,” he says. “So far, 133 here, in my garden. I want dem all. When I no work, I walk in de mountains to look for dem. I watch how de orchid grow and make dey new home in my garden so dey like it here.”

Joseph is not young, yet he never seems to rest, as a guide and a gardener creating a home for endangered orchids. His monumental labor echoes the bowerbird’s work on a grander scale, not to entice the opposite sex, but to preserve the flora and wildfowl.

Early the next morning, we meet Joseph to continue our quest to find the Superb Bird of Paradise. This time he takes us to an embankment and shows us how to use banana leaves to slide down, not quite to the bottom. Silently, we follow his lead. All of us perch on the hillside together, studying Joseph and a branch he points to not far away. A familiar song reverberates through the forest as a black bird lands on that branch and flings open his wings. On his chest an iridescent turquoise smile, two dots above a double-swoosh, blends to lavender in the early morning light. This moment has been worth the wait. Truly Superb.

Carla Charleston is a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Florida.  Dr. Charleston has been a professor and research scientist in the field of communication sciences at the University of Florida and the University of Miami.  She has published six books and over fifty refereed articles in her field. Her essay, Alachua Autumn, was accepted for publication in bioStories ( in January, 2013.  She is currently marketing her novel, Partenope’s Secrets, the story of Americans during the Cold War and the rebuilding Naples, Italy, after World War II.

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