The bizarre and wonderful Maleo. Photo: Susan Myers
The Indonesian province of Sulawesi, formerly known as the Celebes, is the large, rather odd-shaped island, variously described as spider or orchid shaped, to the east of Borneo and west of New Guinea. Indonesia has the highest rate of bird endemism of any country, and Sulawesi has the highest number of endemic bird species of any of the Indonesian islands—arguably, more than 70 species are found nowhere else. Additionally, there is a marvelous suite of endemic mammals and plants. Halmahera, the largest of the Moluccas or Spice Islands, lies just a short distance to the east and has a similar odd shape but a totally different avifauna, of which a remarkable 22 are endemic.
We’ll visit three of Sulawesi’s national reserves: Tangkoko, Lore Lindu, and Tompotika. From the cool mossy cloud forests to the luxuriant lowland rainforests, our targets will include the extraordinary Maleo, a suite of endemic raptors, some cracking kingfishers, the unusual Purple-bearded Bee-eater, the colorful Knobbed Hornbill, some tricky forest dwellers like Geomalia and Great Shortwing, and some amazing endemic starlings among many others. Our jumping-off point for Halmahera is the small island of Ternate, dominated by a gently smoking volcano and the most important town of the fabled “Spice Islands.” Ternate is much drier and has more affinities with the Australasian region than with Sulawesi, but it has an equally rich selection of endemics, including the fabulous Wallace’s Standardwing, one of the strangest of the birds of paradise which we should be able to watch at a display site. We’ll also be keen to find the huge and beautiful Ivory-breasted Pitta as well as other endemics such as White Cockatoo, Goliath Coucal, Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar, and the rare Moluccan Scrubfowl. Travel in Sulawesi and Halmahera is a real adventure, and although not especially difficult, it is certainly off the beaten track! Our accommodation ranges from excellent to basic, but nearly all with private facilities; the food is excellent but not fancy; our pace is moderate with some day treks; the climate is hot and dry with a chance of rain at any time; and our travel is by four-wheel-drive vehicles and minibuses. There is no doubt that birding in Sulawesi and Halmahera is a remarkable experience.
Day 1: The tour begins this morning at our hotel near Manado, Sulawesi. We will start our birding this afternoon concentrating our efforts on the Scaly-breasted Kingfisher, the star bird of the area. Night in Tomohon.
Day 2: We’ll spend the early morning birding in the Mahawu forest looking for montane species, including a chance of the elusive Scaly-breasted Kingfisher, Sulawesi Blue Flycatcher, Isabelline Bush-hen, Crimson-crowned Flowerpecker among others. After lunch we’ll drive three hours to Tangkoko Nature Reserve. As we travel into the park we’ll bird the forest en route, and as darkness falls we’ll walk into the forest in search of the amazing Spectral Tarsier; we have an excellent chance of finding (and photographing) these diminutive primates at dusk as they exit from their shelter in the huge fig trees that are a feature of this area. Night in Tangkoko National Park.
Days 3-4: We’ll have two full days to explore the coastal and lowland forest of this wonderful park, which supports a good range of the region’s endemic birds. We should see many spectacular Wallacean species, such as Black-naped Fruit-Dove, the unusual Azure-rumped Parrot, Yellow-billed Malkoha, Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher, and Ashy Woodpecker. The park boasts a healthy population of the amazing Knobbed Hornbill as well as a unique monkey, Sulawesi Crested Macaque. Weather permitting, during the heat of the middle of one day we’ll take a boat out to an area of mangroves in search of Black-billed Kingfisher and White-rumped Cuckoo-shrike, stopping to admire a beautiful pair of huge Sulawesi Masked Owls in their traditional cave roost. Nights in Tangkoko National Park.
Days 5: This morning we’ll drive back to Manado and take a short flight toTernate, near Halmahera. Ternate is little more than a huge smoking volcano rising to over 5000 feet. The perfectly shaped cone, which last erupted in 1987, is one of a chain of small volcanoes that guard the western approaches to the larger island of Halmahera. Ternate was formerly of vital importance as one of the world’s few sources of cloves; today it is a little-visited but charming backwater with only crumbling remnants of its colonial past. In the afternoon we’ll go birding at Tolire Lake to look for Channel-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Red-throated Grebe, Halmahera Swiftlet, and Torresian Crow, and we’ll have the opportunity to photograph this interesting sulphurous lake and the Gamalama volcano. Night at Bella International Hotel, Ternate.
Day 6: After a very late night, we’ll start later today to drive south to the village of Daru, birding along the way, and take a speedboat across the bay to the village of Foli for a three-night stay in the area. (If weather conditions are unfavorable, we’ll take the overland route by vehicle). The Foli area was made famous in David Attenborough’s film on birds of paradise as the location of one of the display trees of the magnificent and rare Wallace’s Standardwing. This extraordinary bird of paradise occurs only on Halmahera and neighboring Bacan. Until its rediscovery in the 1980s, it was long thought to be extinct, and it is the prime reason for visiting this site. We’ll spend our time searching for the many Halmahera endemics that occur here, including the voluble Ivory-breasted Pitta, which can be found in good numbers. Night in Wasile.
Days 7-9: Waiting under the Standardwing’s lekking tree at dawn, we’ll hear the loud display calls as the first glimmers of light appear through the canopy. As the sun rises, the activity rapidly increases, and gradually our monotone surroundings will be enlivened by flashes of glistening green breast-shields and orange legs. Before we know it, we’ll be engrossed in the spectacular display going on just a few meters above us. Males, with white standards sticking out in all directions, call loudly and suddenly leap into the air before parachuting back down to their perches in the hope of attracting a rather drab female. When one appears, she causes a near riot as rival males tussle over her attentions. Its wolf-whistle-like calls echo around the forest, and before too long we should be able to track down this most impressive species. Other hoped-for species include Variable Goshawk, Dusky Scrubfowl, Scarlet-breasted, Blue-capped, and Grey-headed Fruit-Doves, Spectacled, Cinnamon-bellied, and Pied Imperial Pigeons, White Cockatoo (still fairly common despite the ongoing forest clearance), Red-flanked Lorikeet, Chattering and Violet-necked Lories (both declining due to trapping), Moluccan Hanging-Parrot, Red-cheeked, Eclectus, and Great-billed Parrots, Goliath Coucal, Blue-and-white and Sombre Kingfishers, Common Paradise-Kingfisher, Purple Roller, Blyth’s Hornbill, Moluccan, Halmahera, and White-bellied Cuckoo-Shrikes, Rufous-bellied Triller, Golden Bulbul, Long-billed Crow, Paradise Crow (actually a bird of paradise!), and Halmahera Oriole—Wallace’s famous friarbird mimic. Nights in Wasile.
Day 10: After breakfast and some morning birding we’ll drive to Sofifi from where we’ll return to Ternate by ferry (weather and schedule permitting; if these are unfavorable we’ll use a speedboat). We’ll keep our eyes open for any interesting seabirds or cetaceans. Species we’ve seen in the past include Red-footed Booby, Long-tailed Jaeger, Aleutian Tern, Spinner Dolphin and Short-finned Pilot Whale. Ternate is little more than a huge smoking volcano rising to over 5000 feet. The perfectly shaped cone, which last erupted in 1987, is one of a chain of small volcanoes that guard the western approaches to the larger island of Halmahera. Ternate was formerly of vital importance as one of the world’s few sources of cloves; today it is a little-visited but charming backwater with only crumbling remnants of its colonial past. In the afternoon we’ll go birding at Tolire Lake to look for Channel-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Red-throated Grebe, Halmahera Swiftlet, and Torresian Crow, and we’ll have the opportunity to photograph this interesting sulphurous lake and the Gamalama volcano. Night at Ternate.
Day 11: After breakfast we’ll transfer to the airport for our morning flight to Makassar. Upon arrival in Makassar, we’ll bird near the airport to look for Barred Buttonquail, Pale-headed Munia, Lemon-bellied White-eye, White-shouldered Triller, Javan Sparrow and possibly Pale-vented Myna. After lunch we’ll drive to Ramang Ramang or Karaenta forest. These forests are remnant forest patches on limestone outcrops close to Makassar. It is home to our prime target, the very localized Black-ringed White-eye, a species restricted to southern Sulawesi. A number of other Sulawesi endemics also occur, and this morning’s outing will provide an excellent introduction to the island’s magical avifauna. In particular we’ll be keeping a keen eye out for Silver-tipped Imperial Pigeon and Sulawesi Dwarf Hornbill, two species that can be hard to come by elsewhere. Sulawesi Babblers (one of the very few babblers to be found east of Wallace’s Line) sing from the undergrowth, noisy Hair-crested Drongos call from the roadside (the distinctive form here has a white eye), and the canopy is home to Grey-sided and Yellow-sided Flowerpeckers and Black Sunbirds, while Grey-rumped Treeswifts patrol above the forest. In open areas near Makassar, depending on water levels in the paddies, we may find such interesting species as Cinnamon Bittern, Woolly-necked Stork, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Pied Chat, Zitting Cisticola, White-breasted Woodswallow, and Scaly-breasted Munia. In the afternoon we’ll bird local fish ponds to have another chance at finding Pale-headed Munia. Night in Makassar.
Days 12-13: We’ll fly to Luwuk and from there drive two to three hours to Tompotika, stopping for birds along the way. In the afternoon we’ll hope to find one of Sulawesi’s most enigmatic birds, the Maleo. This large megapode uses geothermal heat to brood its eggs in a communal breeding ground, and we have a very good chance of seeing them as they inspect their nests. Maleos lay their eggs colonially in the ground in areas where the soil is heated volcanically, leaving them unattended. The youngsters are able to fly strongly almost as soon as they come out of the egg! Unfortunately, predation, especially by humans, takes a massive toll (almost all the nesting grounds are known to the local people). At Tompotika many of the eggs are taken to be reared in the safety of a hatchery, ensuring a considerably higher success rate than in the wild. Even so, the future of this wonderful species remains precarious. We’ll spend two days in the Tompotika forest searching for Maleo and other forest birds that abound here. Species we’ll look for include Lesser Fish-Eagle, an unusual isolated population of Spotted Harrier, Buff-banded and Barred Rails, White-browed Crake, the beautiful Maroon-chinned and Black-naped Fruit Doves, Sulawesi Black Pigeon, the secretive Yellow-breasted Racquet-tail, Black-billed Koel, Bay Coucal, Lilac-cheeked, Great-billed, and dazzling Green-backed Kingfishers, the colorful Blue-breasted Pitta, and Pied Cuckoo-Shrike. With luck we’ll also find one or more of the park’s scarcer inhabitants such as Sulawesi Ground-Dove or Red-backed Thrush. At dusk we might see the huge, harrier-like Great Eared Nightjar floating over the forest, and at night we have a good chance of finding Ochre-bellied Boobook as well as perhaps the rather cute Speckled Boobook and Sulawesi Scops Owl. Nights in Taima (very simple).
Day 14: We’ll bird in the morning around Taima for more views of the remarkable Maleo. If we haven’t seen them yet, we’ll try for Stephan’s Dove, Large Sulawesi Hanging Parrot, Purple-winged Roller, Pygmy Sulawesi Woodpecker, Ivory-backed Wood-swallow, and Yellow-breasted Racquet-tail. After lunch we’ll return to Luwuk. Night in Luwuk.
Day 15: After breakfast we’ll fly to Palu, via Makassar, from where we’ll drive to Lore Lindu National Park. This is essentially a travel day but we’ll have a chance to do some birding in paddy fields along the way. Night in Wuasa.
Days 16-17: This wonderful area supports most of Sulawesi’s montane species and offers fabulous birding. The Anaso Track and the surrounding forest is where most of the montane birds are found, and White-bellied Imperial Pigeon (with its unique and remarkable call), Rufous-throated Flycatcher, Sulawesi Myzomela, and Yellow-bellied White-eye, among others, are all possible. At the entrance to the Anaso Track we’ll walk uphill on one day in search of Red-eared Fruit-Dove, the rare Sombre Pigeon, flocks of Golden-mantled Racquet-tail, the mysterious Diabolical Nightjar, Maroon-backed Whistler, Pygmy Cuckoo-shrike, the enigmatic Geomalia, Sulawesi Thrush, and the thrilling Great Shortwing. We’ll make a special effort to find the Hylocitrea, formerly known as Olive-flanked Whistler and now assigned to its own unique family. We’ll spend another day at the bottom of the track birding at Lake Tambing, where the surrounding forest supports still more excitement in the form of flocks of Yellow-and-green Lorikeets, Dark-eared Honeyeater, Rusty-bellied Fantail, and Ivory-backed Woodswallow. We’ll spend the remaining day birding along the roadsides in excellent forest where we’ll search for Piping Crow, Sulphur-bellied Whistler, and Cerulean Cuckoo-shrike, to name but a few. At night we will search for nightbirds, including Minnahasa Masked Owl. Nights in Wuasa.
Day 18: After breakfast we’ll return by car to Palu, stopping to bird again in the forests of Lore Lindu and then in Oloboju to look for Savanna Nightjar on their nesting grounds. A number of open-country birds and waterbirds can be seen in the magnificent and ancient paddy fields stretching between the park and Palu. We’ll stop to check through the flocks of Chestnut Munias for the localized Black-faced Munia, and we may well see Lesser Coucal and Eastern Yellow Wagtail. We’ll have a delicious lunch at floating restaurant on the way, after that we’ll transfer to Donggala and head to Tanjung Karang Beach. Night in Palu.
Day 19: After breakfast we’ll drive to the airport in Palu for our departing flights.
Updated: 10 January 2017
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Maximum group size eight with one WINGS leader.