In Search of Birds of Paradise

I’m on the beautiful traditional adventure liveaboard Tiger Blue. We are traveling along the Alfred Wallace routes here from Raja Ampat, to the clove island of Ternate. We are anchored off the village of Bessir on the island of Waigeo in Raja Ampat, West Papua. Its a 4am wake up call & its raining. We have cups of coffee or tea & hope for the rain to subside. There’s only this one chance on this trip to try to find the birds of paradise. Some of us don’t have rain gear, its dreary but then we decide to go for it anyway.

We start off from Tiger Blue in the tender in the dark. It stops raining heavily. Our local guide from the village of Bessir is with us at the front of the tender & in the drizzle we land in the shallows & with torches on, we wade to the narrow beach under the heavy dark canopy of the rain sodden trees growing thick on the shoreline.


Everything is wet. We rinse our feet of sand & put on our shoes. Then with our guide in the lead with a torch we start the hike up through this forest in single file. It belongs to his family. The guide walks slowly & makes no sound as he pads up the slope & over stones, rocks & logs. He is in no hurry & we all have to deliberately slow down to adjust to his pace. Along the way he stops to clear leaves, fronds & cuts away branches that have fallen during the storm. It is not a particularly difficult hike but it is uphill with a couple of steep parts to negotiate. There’s also a few fallen trees to climb over. The crude hand rails made a while ago with tree branches, are quite rotten & one falls away as someone puts too much weight on it as they pull themselves up the slope.

The jungle starts to light up a bit & its easier to see our way. After about 20 minutes we climb a steep wooden ladder up a slope & arrive at the hide, a crude canvas lean-to hut with a bench inside. It is all damp & steamy. There are holes through which you can view the display trees used by Paradisaea rubra for their courtship displays. We wait in silence, just the odd cough to give us away. A male bird of paradise calls & our guide mimics the call in order to encourage other males to join the tree. There are 2 high up in the branches. We catch a glimpse of them. There is a flurry of excited whispers & movement in the hide as we shuffle around to give each other a turn to look up into the branches. A couple of females come in but not much happens. There isn’t enough competition.

Our guide patiently mimics more calls, some very tentative, waiting for a reply. He calls more enthusiastically if he gets a response. It’s not easy. We watch him press a finger to his nose as he squeaks out the call that gets the competitive male birds excited. There is some movement in the trees as the birds half heartedly begin a courting display. We take turns to look through the open holes in the canvas & some of us get a better look at the birds than others.

We continue our patient & silent watch for about an hour but the mosquitoes have found us and there is a little boredom setting in. Our guide has one last go at calling. Two females fly high into a nearby tree & wait to see if there will be any male action this morning. The wet rain has upset the atmosphere & put a damper on everything so most of the males have stayed away from the display tree.

Bird watching is not an exciting past time. Most times it is about having the stubborn patience to wait for the bird to just show up. You have to constantly think past the feeling of being hard done by & disappointment. At best, there will be no rain & your hide is comfortable. Ah well, maybe next time.

The dawn chorus of birds in the jungle as we make our way back down the hill in the morning light, makes up for the lack of visuals on the birds of paradise. The act of getting on a little tender, wading in the shallows & starting the hike in the dark is exciting. Silencing yourself while you listen to the sounds of the morning rising in the steamy damp jungle is something we should try to do more often. It reconnects ones whole being to the natural elements, taking you a little out of your own comfort zone. The calls of the butcher birds & other unknown birds, the blurred vision of white cockatoos as they fly through the trees, their caws heard all over the islands. And then there was the wonderful sighting of the black cockatoo with its red crest, Burung Kakak Tua Raja Hitam. That is definitely one for the bird list!

I’ve been lucky enough to have trekked up to this location in Bessir a few times now & only once can I describe the end game as magnificent. 8 birds in full, crazy, noisy display. I say that has been great odds. It is more likely that you have to be content to have caught just a glimpse of the Red Birds of Paradise. We are all lucky that they are still around for us to get excited enough to go look for them. Their numbers are very much threatened & it is likely that soon, their numbers will dwindle to just above none. This is a very sad prospect.

Alfred Russel Wallace was fascinated by them & he desperately wanted many of the birds of paradise in his collection. He struggled to find them, shoot them, collect them from the locals. He found it difficult to keep them alive. All of the ones he tried to keep died within just a few days, despite eating well & greedily. He was completely at a quandary over this. Wallace was also constantly at the mercy & competition from the Sultan of Ternate who had everyone on his side when it came to the procurement of these birds, so coveted for their magnificent feathers. During Victorian times, their feathers were in any fashionable persons hat, the trade in feathers so huge that numbers of these birds were forever affected & unable to recover from the fall.

Today they are at risk, not so much from the collection of feathers, but from the destruction of their natural environment. It is hard to expect the people of the villages on these remote islands to wave away prosperity & modernity gained from tourism & other related businesses. As health & housing improves, as modern gadgets become more affordable, as tourism increases, these villages will prosper & expand, & the impact on their immediate environment, no matter how small, will be marked.

This village of Bessir  was where Alfred Wallace himself had a house. He stayed here with the firm goal of collecting the Red Bird of Paradise. When you are standing in the village looking out towards the water, you do get the feeling that it has not changed that much. It is here, in this tiny area, that these birds were exclusively found & they still are today. For now that slow, dogged patience & determined silence required of a small but avid birdwatching community, most often dismissed as boring by other kind of adventure types, ensures that these birds have a chance to regroup & stay amongst us in this world. Paradisaea rubra cannot withstand a frenzy of excited activity around them. A glimpse of them on a wet damp day is satisfaction enough to make me feel happy knowing that they are still with us on this earth.


Get on a bucket list trip like this:
Let Tiger Blue take you on a voyage of exploration & discovery along the Wallace route. There are various itineraries, that can be customized to your interests, available beginning in Sorong, West Sorong taking in his journeys around the islands of Raja Ampat, his journey from Raja Ampat to Gag & Ternate, as well as sailing south Passing through the islands around Misool (which eluded him completely despite his desire to explore there), to the Banda Islands & Ambon. These trips take place in season at certain times of the year.

Go to <> for more information. Contact <> for general enquiries.

Check out the Tiger Blue Instagram page: @sailtigerblue

& our Facebook page: Tiger Blue, Voyage Indonesia

Activities are all included and you can expect to dive, snorkel, hike, kayak, waterski, paddle board, walk around villages & markets, hang out on the beach.

What to bring:
Swimsuits, a rasher top (against sunburn & jellies), leggings (against sunburn & jellies), good walking shoes or a pair of hiking sandals that are easier to dry after wet weather, a rain poncho or lightweight raincoat, sarong, small selection of clothes, a light colored set of walking pants & top (better against mosquitoes), a sweatshirt (mainly for the airconditioned flights around Indonesia), your own special medications. There is a selection of wetsuits, rasher tops, all dive & snorkeling equipment on board.

Inspiration and Knowledge


What inspiration…?

People always ask me “What are you inspired by?”. My immediate gut answer has always been, and always will be, ‘Malaysia’. The beautiful natural environment & cultures of my country are always on my mind. I love it. It is what I have grown up with, always close to the jungle, outdoors, free to roam around the plantations in which I grew up, mixing with people of all races, watching festivals and ways of life in little towns.

Parents and knowledge….

Through the years, as an adult,  my inspirations are being drawn from a much wider range of countries visited through my travels. However, my strongest inspirations still come down to the world’s environment and cultures. As a child, my parents made us observe nature, make things, draw things we saw. They encouraged artwork, an interest in natural history, and they encouraged general knowledge. The volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica was always on hand and out on the big work table in my fathers study.

The inspiration of a teacher….

At school I developed an interest in art and pattern, anthropology, archaeology, natural history and art history. At boarding school in Dorset, UK doing my A levels, I took part in a new activity that was being offered, ‘Weaving’. It was there in the wonderful ‘weaving shack’ created by the totally inspiring textile artist Wendy Barber, I found the exact thing that allowed me to combine all my favorite interests; woven and printed textiles. I couldn’t get enough and there was never enough time in the day to keep working at creating and trying out ideas on the loom, block printing, dying natural colors, spinning wools, and learning about textiles from around the world. My short time living with Wendy Barber and her partner, the late artist John Hinchcliffe, after school before going to New York, has been fundamentally vital to my growth as an artist today.

On my own….

I carried all of this with me to New York and Parsons School of Design where I studied Print & Surface Design. Here I could mix up all the ideas I’d learnt from studying cultures around the world and found my own ‘hand’ and ‘colour sense’. It was here I was told “Stick with your own ideas and never be afraid of acting on them.” And so I managed to focus it all down to pattern, color, nature and culture. I took this back to Malaysia when I finished and set up Owen Rebecca Designs with my future husband specializing in prints that promoted the environment & culture of Malaysia.

Decide on a lifestyle….

That was 30 years ago and since then my ‘work’ has morphed into a ‘lifestyle choice’ of art, hospitality and activism highlighting Malaysia, nature, heritage and culture. Whilst living full time on Pangkor Island, I was all about the jungle. In George Town within the UNESCO heritage zone, I was all about what I saw on the street, intangible heritage, old trades and customs and a moral inkling to want to preserve some of that for the future. Still in Penang, as I watch the steady destruction of the islands fantastic natural environment & hills, my interest has swung again to nature: its patterns, colours and my own gut reaction to it.

Support a cause….

My participation in the recent ‘Save Our Hills’ campaign by the Penang Forum has pulled my focus out of the urban mess, into the hills of Penang and once again I’m fascinated by everything most people just simply dismiss as they go about their lives. The shapes of leaves, the colors of their veins, the patterns in bark, the types of birds that flit in and out of our view, the amazing blooms on our trees, the way the sunlight plays on the jungle canopy. Once you stop and start looking, you can find extraordinary things in the most ordinary places. I find this very uplifting and recently I have started to translate these daily ‘visual memories’ or ‘visual imprints’ into quick paintings.


These quite large paintings on paper have stemmed from an exercise I started some time ago to create what I call ‘A travelling artists diary’. There have always been certain images that have stayed with me through time and my travels, visual memories that I have taken in. Instead of just leaving them be in my head, I started to translate and draw them in a sketchbook, filling the whole page with an ink drawing and pattern. Once started, I made myself complete the page even if I felt that I’d made a mistake or ‘didn’t like it’ along the way. I wanted to create a routine for myself by starting and then making sure I completed the page whilst working through the mistakes in order to make the image ‘whole’. I didn’t want to give up on that particular ‘visual imprint’.

Work to create….

I use the same technique with my quick paintings. There is no sketching or thought. I just start painting and work through it all with layers of color and pattern until I feel its complete. I have really enjoyed this process and the amount of work I have been able to produce in this way has been so very satisfying. Part of this focus is also because I’ve reached a stage in life where the kids are all grown up and I suddenly have time to give myself. I’ve also inherited a certain ‘work ethic’ from my parents, my father in particular, that does not allow me to be idle for too long. I’m throughly enjoying my ability to spontaneously produce these ‘visual diaries’, a collection of pattern and colour. That is to me, the essence of my art, a visual record of things that I see on a daily basis, often ‘ordinary’ but absolutely not!

The essence of my work….

I am a ‘hoarder’ and I love producing a collection of work rather than individual pieces. My ideas and inspirations then have a ‘story’ and together I feel the works make more sense. The ‘collection’ relays my thoughts and emotions during the space of time in which I produced them.

Stop and look….the importance of Knowledge….

I always have my camera with me and I take many many photographs to use for ideas and to look at again for inspiration. However, most important, when I’m out, I take the time to look at things and inspect how they are formed. A flower for example is not just a four petaled thing. It has been designed specifically to be pollinated by its chosen creature or element. It may be designed to shake in the wind, float on a river, be rubbed by the back of a beetle, to be entered by the long tongue of a moth or be fluttered by the wings of little tiny bat. These shapes look disjointed and strange but as soon as you understand how nature has interconnected everything, ones ability to draw and put marks on paper becomes all the more easy and fluid. Ultimately, it is this ‘Knowledge’, that I find incredibly inspiring.

My Artwork:

Harking back to my childhood:

A Traveling Artists Diary: For you to colour in!

Hinchcliffe and Barber today:

Go for a walk in the Penang Botanic Gardens

Support this cause:

Birdwatching on Gurney Drive

Please stop and watch the birds on Gurney Drive….


Gurney Drive is the main point where the public can visually connect and meet the sea, here on Penang Island. It is here that you can view Kedah Peak on the mainland, an often ethereal and hazy shadow of a mountain that floats on the view. All the early voyagers to Penang made reference to Mount Kedah. It marks the entry by sea into Penang Island.

The promenade (originally called New Coast Road & completed in 1936) was renamed in 1952 after Sir Henry Gurney the British colonial Administrator, was assassinated on route to the hill station Frasers Hill on Oct 6th 1951, by communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency. Thousands of people attended his funeral at Cheras War Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur. The Rolls Royce in which he was assassinated is displayed at the Penang State Museum.

Wake up early….

I walk on Gurney Drive, with lots of other people, early morning at least 5 times a week. I always aim for sunrise. It is a stunning introduction to each day. I’m always surprised by the beauty of it all. The Drive is approximately 2.5kms in length and most times, there is too much traffic, noise and fumes. Where the drains discharge, and especially around the seafood restaurants, your nostrils will smart in protest at the sharp scent of ammonia and rotten food. It is at times unpleasant, but if you walk with purpose, or run, past these points, you’ll get over it. I smile at each municipal street cleaner as I walk by, acutely aware of the fact that without them thanklessly sweeping everyday, the pavements and the beaches here, would be a tip.

I started walking here for exercise, a routine I wanted to keep to. A minimum of 10,000 steps a day!  What a change this has made to my mind, body and mood, despite fumes and nasty smells. It has now become a bit of an addictive passion and I carry both my big Nikon camera & my iPhone6 with me each day.


I look forward to the sunrises each day, but it is the birdlife that has really got me gripped here. In particular, the very beautiful, small colony of white egrets that fish so elegantly along the shore line. There are also little herons, redshanks, waders and at night, a change of guard with larger night herons, standing still as sentries, where the island water discharges at the main drains out to the sea.

Otters, dolphins, monitor lizards, mud skippers, bats, crows and pigeons add to the mix. Everyday there is something different. You cannot come to Penang and miss a walk along Gurney Drive. With reclamation for more development about to start, the line of the shore, the mudflats, the bird colonies and wildlife,  are all at risk. Before it all disappears, sunrise or sunset, get your steps in now and take a moment to look out, up and around. Stop and watch the birds!

For me they are an inspiration for my artwork, and their elegance and calm resilience, a call to become more aware of what the natural environment means to me. I do not wish for them to disappear.

How to get there….

From China Tiger, our apartments on China Street in the centre of the UNESCO heritage zone of George Town, take the Rapid Bus 101 from Weld Quay. Bring your camera! Ask to get off in front of Gurney Plaza. Walk the length and back, from the ‘Sunrise’ Apartments roundabout to the collection of fishing boats on the end. It is here you can wait for the sun to rise above the hills. The egrets are fishing all day long, shining bright white in the sun, moving position with the tides.

Get savvy….