Key Points:

We had travelled by canoe in darkness for two hours up the Sepik River, then climbed a steep track through the jungle in the pre-dawn light to reach this spot, and I couldn't help wondering if it would end up being worthwhile.

Then a strange, almost musical, cackling echoed through the dimly lit trees and Matthew, a guide from Kanganamun village on Lake Wagu, tensed. "She is coming now.

Watch that branch there," he said, pointing to a spot high in the giant tree in front of us. "That is where she always lands."

Suddenly, a brilliant red and yellow blur flashed above us, and there it was, exactly as predicted: the bird of paradise, national symbol of Papua New Guinea and one of the most beautiful birds in the world.

High up on the tree it pranced along the branch, wings and tail open, displaying its glorious plumage - with a brilliant yellow head, green under the chin and reddish wings and tail which glowed in the early morning sun - so the world could appreciate its obvious beauty.

"It is trying to attract the females," said Matthew. "Sometimes there are four or five of them but now there is only one."

Ornithologists maintain that, in fact, it is the male bird of paradise which has the more beautiful plumage but Matthew's people see things differently. "The scientists say it is the male who is the pretty one but our old people have always known it is the woman."

Matthew didn't know which particular of bird of paradise this was - 38 of the 43 known species are found in PNG - but after showing my slightly blurry pictures to a couple of experts I'm pretty confident it was a raggiana.

This is the species of bird of paradise which features in PNG's national coat of arms holding a drum and a spear in its claws.

It's certainly a more spectacular national bird than our own kiwi, and a much more flamboyant one, as it demonstrated by leaping from branch to branch while showing off its magnificent feathers.

From time to time it took off and flew in a circle above us, making that strange cackling noise, but then returned to the same branch.

I didn't see it at the time, as I craned my neck in the dim light to see the display taking place high above, but my photos later revealed that there was another drabber and slightly smaller bird sitting in the leaves, watching this display . . . presumably the female.

There were other birds around, too, most of them small, perky and impossible to identify in the gloom.

A dramatic contrast was provided by two huge hornbills who made a noise like a wonky helicopter, crashed-landed on a branch, then took off again, making even more racket.

Several times we were visited by noisy parrots - the males bright green for go and the females bright red for stop - their lovely plumage belying their raucous behaviour.

Something behind us made a loud hissing noise and I asked what it was. "It's a bird," said Matthew, adding with a grin, "It's not a snake." Unfortunately he didn't know the English name.

But the bird of paradise was undoubtedly the star of the show and I watched its performance for nearly two hours until my guides told me it was time to go.

Back at the village, when we dropped Matthew off, a small crowd was waiting, led by an elderly man with a visitor's book and a cardboard collection box. I made a donation, signed my name in the book, noting that the previous entries were about a month ago, and that most visitors seemed to be from Japan and Germany.

The elderly man explained that the area where I had seen the bird was now a protected reserve - something I got the impression he was not altogether enthusiastic about - and donations went towards the cost of caring for it.

Maybe. But there's no doubt that the bird of paradise occupies a rather contradictory position in Papua New Guinea.

On the one hand it is the national symbol - there's a particularly beautiful carving in the National Parliament in Port Moresby - and its beauty does attract many birdwatchers.

On the other, its feathers are an essential ingredient in traditional headgear, especially for chiefs, and once upon a time were a nice little earner when sold to fashionable milners in the outside world.

I learned more about this at Ambua Lodge, up in the Highlands -an amazing place to see birds.

During an early morning wander down the road near the Tari Gap, where the Highlands Highway passes through huge areas of mountain forest, I saw six species of bird of paradise in about half an hour.

We had barely started when Joseph, who has been helping visitors to find birds for decades, heard something, leaned out the window of our van and whistled. "There is one," he said. "I try to call him . . . You hear? He answer."

Then, suddenly, there was the bird flying across right in front of us. "You see him? You see the long tail? That is a Princess Stephanie." I did indeed because even in the dim light of dawn the tail drifting behind the bird was amazing.

It landed briefly on a tree by the roadside then took off again. "They not sit still."

Soon afterwards we were watching another long-tailed bird of paradise flying across the road, a male ribbon-tail, which has the longest tail of all, over three times the length of its body.

Then Joseph pointed out a King of Saxony sitting on the very top of a tree. "He there every morning."

This bird had two extraordinary plumes dangling from its head, at least twice its body length, and I watched through the binoculars for about 10 minutes as it sat on the tree waving its head and those amazing plumes side to side.

Next there was a crested bird of paradise - "only a female" - which was rather less spectacular.

Then we came across a pair of sicklebeaks, the male with an enormous curved black beak, neatly balancing an even bigger curved black tail. They played about on a branch for about five minutes while I watched, entranced.

Finally a flash of red, orange and yellow signalled that a raggiana, my friend from the Sepik, had swooped across our path.

At the top of the Tari Gap were several families gathering edible nuts from the pandamus tree. "When the seeds are ripe they come up here and live," explained Joseph. "They sell some to the trucks driving on the road. The rest they take home."

There were also lots of other birds. "There is a little red lorikeet. . . Those are fruit doves. . . That is a mountain pigeon. It is his display flight. . . There is a tiger parrot. . . That is a Papuan mountain pigeon. . . You hear that hissing. It is a bowerbird." Ah, so that's what I heard in the Sepik. "Those are honeyeaters. . ." And so on.

But the stars of the show are definitely the birds of paradise and there are 13 species of them around Ambua Lodge.

The previous evening I had gone for a walk with Joseph along the network of paths round the lodge, which took us through thick mountain forest, past rivers and waterfalls and over surprisingly solid bridges made in traditional style entirely from rattan vines, not a nail, screw or piece of wire in sight.

It was pouring with rain so there wasn't much birdlife around but at regular intervals he stopped to point out a beautiful little orchid hiding beside the path or berries and leaves used as food or medicine.

At one point he whispered, "Walk quietly here. Berries on path. We may find cassowary feeding."

I had heard a cassowary had been seen on the path the previous day and, even though it is an aggressive and rather dangerous bird, I tip-toed along in the hope of seeing one. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Instead I found a long bluish feather on the path. "Ah," said Joseph, snatching it out of my hand, "bird of paradise." And he stuck it in his cap."

I was mildly miffed at this, which may be why he then showed me how to split a coral fern growing beside the path with his fingernail, making a fine strip of fibre, which he then used to make a noose.

"This is to catch a bird of paradise," he explained. "Put thousands on a tree with fruit, they catch a leg in one" - he demonstrated by catching his finger in the noose and pulling it tight - "and it is caught."

Then, as I was about to remonstrate, he added vehemently, "You have to wait near to catch them. You don't want to kill them, just pull the tail feathers out to use in a chief's headdress, then let them go.

"But some careless people leave them too long, they hang upside down, they die. That is very bad."

I did subsequently see several people in the Highlands wearing ceremonial headdresses decorated with a magnificent combination of feathers - mainly from birds of paradise - and they certainly looked amazing.

James Keke, the gatekeeper at the Ambua lodge and chief of his village, had a particular impressive ceremonial headdress which he wore on special occasions.

But I can't help thinking they looked even better on the birds.
Jim Eagles saw the birds of paradise as a guest of Air New Zealand, Air Niugini, Trans Niugini Tours and the Tourism Promotion Authority of Papua New Guinea.
GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand has flights from Auckland to Cairns and also from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Brisbane. See www.airnewzealand.co.nz.

Air Niugini has daily flights from Brisbane and Cairns to Port Moresby. Air Niugini also has regular flights from Port Moresby to Highland towns like Tari and Mt Hagen. See www.airniugini.com.

WHERE TO STAY
Sepik Adventure Tours offers a range of tours on the Sekik River including to the Kanganamun sanctuary on Lake Wagu. See www.ambuntilodge-sepiktour.com.pg.

Ambua Lodge, run by Trans Niugini Tours, arranges birdspotting trips on request. See www.pngtours.com/lodge1.html..

PNG Explorers International offers trips from Port Moresby to see the raggiana bird of paradise in Varirata National Park from April-October when the bird is in display mode. See www.pngexplorers.com for details.

FURTHER INFORMATION
For general information on PNG see www.pngtourism.org.pg