There is something really special about this bird. Kingfishers are an overcrowded family in terms of stunners and mouthwatering species, but this one sits well apart from the rest. Not exactly stunning this one but charismatic, and like many things in PNG it breaks the mould, having a monster bill that it uses bizarrely for digging into the ground in a distinctly unkingfisher-like fashion.
Looking for a Shovel-bill is always a tense and nervous experience, as they seem to call for just a short, agonizing period at dawn and dusk. So most of the time you are searching for one it is in the half light of dawn, when you cannot help but feel there is a nervous race against the clock, before the bird falls silent and becomes nigh on impossible to see thereafter. We had arrived at the most reliable site in the world for the species under cover of darkness. We simply could not take the chance of arriving too late in broad daylight, to be greeted by a wall of silence and no kookaburra. So there we were standing around on a muddy forest-flanked road at night. Not long after our thoughts of this massive-billed kingfisher were temporarily sidelined when a Papuan Boobook began calling above us, and the spotlight was quickly swept into action. As this smart 'creature of the night' glared back at us with its glassy eyes the daily dawn army of Shovel-billed Kookaburras jolted us out of the owls stare. The torch was removed from the owl and the whole of our group began combing the trees on the roadside for any one of the sources of this atmospheric New Guinea dawn chorus. As we spread ourselves and searched the trees the light of morning grew ever brighter, and with this our hopes of getting the bird before they fell silent once more ever dimmer. One of the characteristics of searching for this superb endemic is that you never hear just the one, in fact at times it feels like they are all around you, mocking you. Therefore, we chased after one, and when we approached that sound another would pipe up at another spot and draw us over to another bank of trees. Once we had been pulled this way and that a number of times it starts to creep into your mind that maybe they are actually all working in cahoots, and that this is a clever decoy strategy of some kind. Our nerves were frayed and thoughts were looming large of the need to face another dawn on site, when Keith Barnes announced he had its hefty bill in his sights. It was not there for long, and indeed the photos it allowed were not exactly spectacular, although my first encounter with this bird was nothing if not thrilling.