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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Indonesia: Sulawesi and Halmahera

2016 Narrative

Despite some, shall we say, interesting weather this year our tour to this little known part of Indonesia was, as always, exciting, fascinating and fun. A little bit of research turned up some interesting information. As we know, the Sundaic region has been in the grips of a very bad drought for the last few years. This year with the onset of the northeast monsoon, a broad area of persistent northeasterly winds that pushes dry air southwestward over the region, heavy rain was expected to fall. This year it was expected that heaviest rain was likely farther to the east, that is, Indonesia. Weak La Niña conditions, combined with unusually warm waters over the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, is expected to have a further significant impact on the weather in Asia later this winter. La Niña is the cooler-than-average sister to El Niño, which translates to fluctuating ocean water temperatures over the tropical Pacific Ocean. The combination of the northeast monsoon, La Niña and the warm waters of the eastern Indian Ocean will play a role in triggering heavy rainfall from Malaysia and the Philippines to New Guinea. The rainfall will ease drought conditions but in the meantime not ideal for our birding needs.

Despite all of this, our birding was generally excellent even with these unwanted disruptions. We started our trip somewhat prematurely with a fun unscheduled day in the cool mountain airs of Tomohon – an unexpectedly excellent day of birding with prizes including a wonderful Speckled Boobook and a very neat Scaly-breasted Kingfisher. This bird signaled the first on our list of very exciting east Indonesian kingfishers, and given it is one of the hardest of them to find it was cause for celebration! Moving on from Tomohon we ventured further east to my personal favourite place on this tour, Tangkoko Nature Reserve. This little gem of a place is just full of fantastic wildlife and, thanks in large part to foreign visitors; it’s well protected with a great deal of involvement of the local communities. With the help of our expert guide, Samuel – there are some very knowledgeable local naturalists here - we enjoyed an outstanding, albeit very hot, day in the reserve. There literally was never a dull moment as we compiled a remarkable list of exciting endemics including Knobbed Hornbill, Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher, Spot-tailed Goshawk, Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher, Yellow-billed Malkoha, Rusty-backed Thrush, Sulawesi Masked Owl, the list goes on…. We also found some very cool mammals such as Sulawesi Crested Black Macaque, Spectral Tarsier and Bear Cuscus. It was a long day but our refreshing picnic lunch on the white tropical sands of Batuputih beach very much revived our spirits.

Taking our leave of this wonderful area, we next flew to Halmahera an hour’s flight to our east. There are many exciting endemics on Halmahera and even though we had to dodge frequent heavy, and I mean heavy, downpours we connected with many of them. Of course, the standout amongst without doubt was the incredible Wallace’s Standardwing. An even earlier than usual departure had us waiting at the known lekking site at first light and we delighted in watching a collection of seven males performing for the ladies. What an amazing sight! And as most commented, the books don’t do anything close to depicting how wonderful this bird is. Later in our stay here we found a huge fruiting fig tree and watched it for some time as an array of spectacular birds came and went; birds such as spectacular Blyth’s Hornbills with their impressive wing beats, colorful Grey-headed Fruit-Doves, pretty little Rufous-bellied Trillers, and appropriately named Goliath Coucals.

We did really well with the nightbirds here, too – a great look at Moluccan Owlet-nightjar was very exciting, as were a handsome pair of Moluccan Hawk-Owls. Our search for the often elusive Ivory-breasted Pitta was gratifyingly successful, too. This appropriately named Pitta maxima is, just as the name says, huge but also very beautiful. Another pitta, the Moluccan Red-bellied Pitta, was even more amazing – seen well and close, we watched it for quite some time.

Leaving Halmahera was easier said than done! Our flight out of Ternate was delayed, and then delayed some more until it was clear we were never going to get out of there on that flight. Much scrambling ensued and eventually we were out of there on a Garuda flight via Manado again. This unwanted change in plans meant we had no time to do our scheduled birding in Makassar, a disappointment but it really could have been worse. From Makassar we then flew to the small but vibrant town of Luwuk in Sulawesi’s far central-east and from here we journeyed overland to the distant area of Taima, the site of the Tompotika Conservation area of the amazing Maleo, one of Indonesia’s most interesting endemics. We weren’t disappointed here as we were able to watch from strategically placed hides as the Maleos worked on their nesting grounds. Well worth the long journey!

We finished our sojourn in this fascinating part of the world at Lore Lindu National Park in the centre of the island of Sulawesi. Yet again we had to deal with some difficult weather and low bird activity but we still found a great selection of the special birds here. The park is very large at 217,000 hectares but access is limited so our activities focused on the forest around Lake Tambing and the Anaso Track as well as the roadside forests. Some of our more notable sightings included close views of the evocatively named Diabolical or Satanic (take your pick!) Nightjar, a rain soaked pair of Red-eared Fruit-Doves, lots and lots of exotic Yellow-and-green Lorikeets, long looks at a stunning pair of Ashy Woodpeckers as they worked a favourite tree, impressive Cerulean Cuckooshrikes as well as their diminutive cousins, the Pygmy Cuckooshrike, and flitting Rusty-flanked Fantails, to name a few. A suite of attractive flycatchers kept us entertained – migrant Grey-streaked Flycatchers, cute Little Flycatchers, Island Flycatchers, Sulawesi Blue-Flycatchers and Blue-fronted Flycatchers as well as Citrine Canary-Flycatchers all put in multiple appearances.

Leaving Sulawesi, we next explored Bali’s far west on our post-tour extension. Over two days we birded the mangroves and forests of Bali Barat National Park, where our main target was the beautiful and rare Bali Myna. This extraordinary white bird with its shaggy crest and blue eye patch is on the verge of extinction due to the cage bird industry, one of the conservation scourges of the Asian region. A concerted and heroic effort on the part of a dedicated band of Indonesian naturalists has saved this remarkable species for future generations but it requires ongoing vigilance. Their efforts are to be applauded. We enjoyed amazing looks of this very special bird as well as many other exciting species including the underrated Green Junglefowl, many many Coppersmith Barbets, Sunda Woodpecker, and another increasingly endangered bird, the Black-winged Starling. In the mangrove areas we found ugly-beautiful Lesser Adjutants, stately Beach Stone-curlews, the scarce Javan Plover and the truly stunning Small Blue Kingfisher.

Many thanks to all for the excellent company on a very challenging but rewarding tour!!

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