Honoring Earth Day with a visit to Eden

In 2007, 60 Minutes visited a mountain rainforest in New Guinea, where Bob Simon encountered exotic birds that don't exist anywhere else

"Garden of Eden" was originally broadcast on Dec. 16, 2007.

It's hard to imagine there are still new frontiers on Earth -- places untouched by man. So when a group of scientists found such a spot two years ago and made news around the world with the discovery of dozens of new species, 60 Minutes took notice. And when the scientists described the mountain rain forest on the Indonesian side of New Guinea as a sort of "Garden of Eden," it sounded like a good story for us.


It's about as far as you can get from civilization, or, for that matter, from anywhere. But as correspondent Bob Simon found out, getting there was half the fun.

After a 20-hour flight to Jakarta, Indonesia, followed by a seven-hour plane ride to New Guinea, Simon and the team had concluded the easy part of the trip. They then boarded a single-engine plane with Bruce Beehler, the lead scientist from "Conservation International," which stirred the world with its discoveries in 2005. After an hour in the air, they were looking for a grass runway.

Their small plane skirted the treetops and touched down, landing right in the middle of a party of sorts. The guests of honor: Simon, the 60 Minutes team, and Beehler, all surrounded by dancing and singing Papasena people.

When the Papasena people like you, they dab you with clay, as Simon and Beehler got to experience firsthand. The village of Papasena was our jumping-off point for the final leg up to the rain forest the next day. Since the villagers own the land we wanted to visit, we needed their blessing.

Beehler was looking for one villager in particular, Pak Timothy, the Papasena chief, the man we hoped would serve as the host for our expedition.

The next morning, we loaded up a helicopter for the 45-minute journey up to the mountain. It's at least a two-week hike from the village and there are no trails.

We were going to a rain forest in what's known as the Foja Mountains, to the very place where Beehler and other scientists had discovered new species two years ago. The only place where we could set the helicopter down was a bog, if we could find it amidst the clouds. Suddenly, at 6,000 feet, the landing site appeared.

We hopped out, said goodbye to the helicopter, and hoped it would come back in 10 days as promised. We were now closed off from the outside world.

"We're about as far away from home as you can get," Beehler explained. "We're basically at the edge of the Earth, as we would know it."

There's no sign of human activity, there are no footprints, no trails, and no Coke cans. There are no sounds except for the sounds of birds.

Only a handful of humans are known to have walked this ground. Beehler had been there once before. He had always wondered what might be hidden in this forest. But it took him 24 years of begging before the Indonesian government would let him set foot there. To help us set up a camp, we brought a few villagers from Papasena.

Beehler was already wearing his binoculars. "I'm looking for new birds. Or old birds that I saw the last time but that only live here," he said. "No place on Earth except the Foja Mountains."

In 2005, Beehler and his fellow scientists needed only 10 minutes to find their first new species, an odd looking bird. It didn't take Simon and the group much longer to spot it as well.

A new species of bird needs a new name, and Beehler had a quirky solution. "Well, I've got a wife," he explained, laughing. "And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to name it after her?' So I named it after Carol. Melipotes carolae. It actually has an English name, too. That's the Wattled Smoky Honey Eater."

"Now that's a mouthful isn't it?" Beehler said. "Most birds make a sound. As far as I know, this bird either never makes a sound or very rarely makes a sound. So we've encountered it now perhaps 40, 50 times. And it's always quiet."

Beehler was on the march to find what are called "birds of paradise." The Black Sickle Bill Bird of Paradise was of particular interest, the largest of the family. The bird is so rare it took Beehler 30 years to see his first Sickle Bill; we were trying to find one in 10 days.

And then, we saw one. It was only a glimpse, but it was long enough to marvel at his extravagant tail. The key to finding the Sickle Bill, it turns out, was a dead stump. "That is a very special place. That is the display site of that black Sickle Bill bird of paradise that we glimpsed. This is the first time I've ever seen a display site," Beehler explained. "This is where the male does his dance for the female, only on top of that perch."

The bird, Beehler says, literally does a dance. "He completely transforms himself into [an] other-worldly creature."

The dance is part of the mating ritual. And it only happens between 5:20 and 5:45 a.m. That's when our cameras were focused on the dead stump every morning, trying to become the first camera crew to film a male Sickle Bill doing its display for a female. Sure enough, one morning an early bird arrived before dawn. What we saw next really was other-worldly: the male flashed his yellow mouth, hoping to lure a female. One took the bait, and the male transformed himself from bird to batman.

We don't know if the female was blown away by this display, but we certainly were. "How could she not be impressed?" Beehler wondered. "It's the most fantastic thing I've ever seen."

Just yards away from the dead stump, we met another character of the rain forest. A male golden-fronted bower bird, found only in the Foja Mountains, was sprucing up. He's known as the architect of the forest, for good reason.

"I like to call this the bower bird's 'Tower of Love.' It looks sort of like a nest. But it's not a nest. You can hear the male. He's up there, making weird sounds. He's created this love bower that he builds and it's artful. He adds different colors," Beehler explained.

The bower bird decorates his tower with fruits, snails -- anything he thinks will make it stand out.

"And all this to attract the girls?" Simon asked.

"Yes. Basically, this is his playboy pad. Right, he's a single male here. Polygamist," Beehler replied.

"He's more discriminating in how he builds his tower than he is in the females he mates with," Simon remarked.

"That's what the evolutionary biologists say, yes. Generally, the females are choosey. And the males are, shall we say, horny," Beehler explained.

This tower, three feet tall, consists of about 500 sticks, all put together by this one male bower bird. Surrounding it is a mossy runway where he will dance for the female as part of his display. It had never been filmed before, so our camera man Chris Everson had a hiding spot built for him near the tower. Once the camera was safely tucked away behind camouflage, it was a matter of waiting, and hoping. We weren't disappointed. First a female dropped in to check out the tower. The male arrived, bearing fruit in his mouth. He finally got up the nerve to lift his crest and strut his stuff.

What some guys won't do. Apparently he'll need work on his routine, because the female left. According to Beehler, it may have just been too early in the season.

It wasn't just unique birds that we saw: there was a burst of red in a forest of green. "Look at that. I can see the rhododendron over there flowering. This is apparently the largest of any rhododendron in the world," Beehler pointed out.

When it rains in a rain forest everything stops, except for Beehler, who continues taking notes.

And this wasn't even the wet season. It all helps the Foja Mountains in its role as species generator. "The mountain range just happens to be isolated enough, it's high enough, it's wet enough, it's cool enough to be a place where unique species can evolve," Beehler explained.

There aren't many snakes in this "Garden of Eden." There aren't many mammals either. At least ones known to us.

This is the forest primeval. There are no big cats, monkeys, or elephants here as there are next door on the island of Borneo. The large mammals never made it across the water from Asia. We did find some other interesting creatures. There were bats, and rats.

"That's one of the biggest rats in the world!" Beehler said, examining a very large specimen.

From the big to the small, a pygmy possum, one of the smallest possums in the world, couldn't get enough camera time, checking out and climbing onto the 60 Minutes cameras.

But for the most part, this place is for the birds. Like Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise, so called because of the wires protruding like antennas from the back of its head. It was described to science over a hundred years ago, then seemed to disappear until Bruce Beehler and his scientists rediscovered it here in 2005. It's never been found anywhere else. We wanted a better look at it, so Beehler played back a recording of its own voice to draw it closer.

Asked if he thinks this little corner of the Earth has changed much over the years, Beehler said, "I don't think it has. It's probably basically the way it was five or 10,000 years ago."

It's a museum piece, Beehler says, a rare opportunity for scientists to study the Earth the way it once was. "It doesn't have any outside species. It has all the original forms here. No extinction presumably. So you have really some very precious part of the ancient Earth that was here before humans began to take over," he explained.

It's the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve. But Adam and Eve eventually did arrive, and there is fear loggers and poachers may one day take over in the Foja Mountains. The area is a wildlife sanctuary but Beehler is hoping Indonesia will give it more prominence by making it a national park.

"What happens to this place when you leave? How does it get conserved?" Simon asked.

"Well, you need to know what you're conserving right? Are there endemic species here? Yes. We know there is the golden-fronted Bower Bird, only found in the Foja Mountains. This Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise, only found in the Foja Mountains. So when you build up a list of remarkable creatures that only live in this place, you have sort of a dossier of, that you can show to governments to say, 'Look. Here's a place that's unique on Earth that has these wonderful creatures. Let's save it,'" he replied.

Our helicopter did return as promised. It was our ride back to civilization. But Bruce Beehler was leaving knowing this might be the last time he ever visits a place he helped put on the map. And that's just the way he wants it.

"The Foja Mountains don't belong to us," he says. "This is a place apart. And I think it's good that we go away. And we take our memories but allow this place to be as it is and be a special place for centuries to come."