Sumatra - August - September 2007

Published by Low Bing Wen Albert (halmaherastandardwing AT

Participants: Albert Low, Andy Mears



This is the 2nd part of the Indonesian Experience and I would spend almost 3 weeks on this fantastic island, currently probably the undisputed "Ground Bird Capital" of S.E.A. This trip was done in the company of Andy Mears, who opted to return here again after his trip back in 2002 as he missed several key species then and of course to see the "Living Fossil" of the Avian World in the flesh! I am very grateful to be back home typing this as not long after we left Padang was hit by a earthquake which almost certainly would have left us stranded had we stayed just a little longer. On a lighter note, this trip would notch me 26 lifers, many of them some of the most enigmatic and difficult birds in the world, and for someone who has been birding for more than a decade now, a perfect way to celebrate his 21st birthday (which incidentally fell on 10th September). As such, many of the birds I saw here were in a sense birthday gifts, and I treasure just about all the sightings I am going to share with everyone below. Our itinerary was as follows:

Barisan Seletan National Park / Way Titias (2 Nights Camping)
Way Kambas National Park (2 Nights In Way Kanan)
Kerinci Seblat National Park (7 Days Based In Subandi's)
Tapan Road / Maura Sako (2 Days Early Start From Subandi's)


Once again we would like to express our gratitude to several people who made the trip successful. Many thanks to James Eaton for once again assisting us greatly in "gen" and other data (both directly and in Subandi's logbook!). A huge debt of thanks also goes to Nick Brickle, who worked hard to find the ground-cuckoo and thereafter being generous enough to share logistics information and even recordings of the bird to the rest of the community. Finally, once again we would like to thank Poli for a job well done in the logistics department, and we were lucky to have him on stand-by here, as for the moment hardly anyone in the Way Titias area speaks a word of English! On Kerinci, the Subandi family were as magnificent as ever, catering to everything a birder could want and need to the point where all we had to do was bird! The Subandi family now own a family car as well so they can fetch birders to and from the airport as well as make trips to Tapan Road with ease. We used a local guide, Mr En, for the last few days of the leg and found him to be an excellent birder and companion in the field with his intimate knowledge of the forest and its inhabitants, and for stake-outs of the difficult birds. His greatest achievement was showing us 3 night birds in 24 hours where prior to that we barely could even manage a single one! He comes highly recommended particularly for birders with little time and want to see as much as possible.

Site Summaries:

Barisan Seletan National Park:

This is a magical and vast expense of forest located in the south-west corner of the island and as mentioned before can easily be combined with a trip to Way Kambas. The terrain in this region is rather hilly and reaching the heart of the forest where the cuckoos are necessitates a 5 hour trek starting from the village of Landos. Along the way, at least 6 thigh deep river crossings are attempted and thereafter the trail goes steeply up a hill and down into Way Titias proper. Not too difficult if you have done Hamut Camp before. The forest here is magnificent with towering dipterocarps and lots of mammal signs. The leeches here are plenty and some of the biggest I have ever seen, with sizes averaging around 4-7cm long and at times half an inch thick! However, with birding rewards like Sumatran Ground-cuckoo at stake these discomforts are but minor distractions. The forest here is closed so anything above the under storey is difficult to watch, but the wealth of ground birds here is undeniable.


Sumatran Ground-cuckoo: No words can adequately describe my encounter with this mythical avian jewel. Probably the bird of my life so far! It took quite a bit of hunting down to see it though. We came very close to at least 3 birds on our 1st morning there, but did not see a single one. The same afternoon, we were walking along the trail up the ridge when we heard its distinctive call. As was the case then, playback did not garner any response, but all of a sudden Gamal's "Hunter's Vision" saw something and he whispered "tok-tor" (the bird's local name) and as if by magic, there it was! We both had great views as it walked up a log by the side of the trail then across it before dropping off again. Euphoria! Having just seen the Bornean a couple of weeks back I became the youngest person in the world(based on what Gamal told me and my limited understanding of Bahasa) to complete all the old-world Ground-cuckoos at the age of 20 years 11 months and 23 days. It was also significant because according to Gamal I was the 1st Asian to have seen the bird. The following morning, we would get more views of a pair as they circled a recording but this time we had Bram (a Belgium birder) with us so only those who stuck close to Gamal got some epic views but overall I was content with the various views I had of this "Living Fossil". It looks and sounds very different from its Bornean cousin, with its entire upperparts being almost completely leaf-green in colour (my theory is that the density and increased diversity of mammal predators in Sumatra meant that it could not be as gaudy as its Bornean cousin). Unlike the Bornean, it was also more compact and certainly had slimmer legs. (The
Bornean has very thick legs)

Ferruginous Partridge: Another huge highlight for us. Once again Gamal's sharpness paid dividends here. Around noon on the 1st day we were heading back to camp when we flushed a flash of colour on the forest floor. Gamal immediately motioned for me to play the Ferruginous Partridge call and within minutes a group of 3 materialised. They were very wary however and seemed very sensitive to movement, running off the moment either of us raised our binoculars. In the end, I decided to just sit and play and was rewarded when 1 particularly inquisitve individual came as close as 5 metres of me and walked parallel to me for a few seconds before walking down the slope. Another difficult Arborophila to see in the region nailed!

Other notables:

Helmeted Hornbill (Common By Call)

Malaysian Rail-babbler & Sumatran Peacock-pheasant (Both Heard Only) & according to Gamal he has seen Chestnut-capped Thrush, Graceful Pitta & Long-billed Partridge to name a few ground megas.

Also Sumatran Trogon & Drongo; Spotted Fantail.

Mammal highlight was a Binturong flushed from the trail and seen well by all as it scaled a tall dipterocarp.

Way Kambas National Park:

This ever popular birder's destination was well worth the 2 days or so which we gave it. The birdlife here is very similar in both density and diversity to Penisular Malaysia's Panti Forest with the notable exception of reasonable numbers of pheasants and the locally common Banded Pitta. 1 of the biggest crowd drawers here is the population of White-winged Ducks, a species which we saw very well. Over 100 species were seen and heard (mostly heard) in just 2 mornings although given both our extensive experience birding in the Orient we didn't bother to chase most of the calls.


White-winged Duck: 1 of my most sought-after Orient Jewels. On our first afternoon we headed straight for Rawa Gajah where we were searching this stretch of riverine habitat when all of a sudden thru a gap in a log I spotted a pair of them paddling leisurely along. Incredibly, they didn't immediately flushed and we were able to watch them carry on swimming for at least another minute or 2. I even saw 1 individual perch on a semi-submerged log for a few seconds. Eventually though I must have moved too far into the open and they flushed, giving off their rather amusing trademark "honking" call. After seeing them, they really look a bit like farm ducks and look very out-of-place in a forest habitat like this one!

Banded Pitta: Now this is 1 cracking forest jewel! Certainly well worth the effort coming all the way here to see it after missing it over the years in Penisular Malaysia, Borneo and most recently Java. It was a lifer for Andy as well and his 1st statement when we saw our 1st bird was "Best Bird In The World!" I certainly couldn't agree with him more. The 1st of 3 lifer pittas I would have on this trip and the mental image of this gem hopping around in the forest by the roadside is 1 I will not forget for some time yet. Relatively common in the Park but expectedly not tape-responsive at this time of year but easy to observe if you listen for the sound of crunching and flipping leaves as it silently forages.

Other Notables:

Rufous-collared Kingfisher
Crested Fireback
Great Argus
At least 8 species of Woodpeckers and more than 11 species of Babbler.
Hordes of Bulbuls, all 4 lowland trogons including Cinnamon-rumped. Several Broadbills including Green.

Notable Dips:

I am partially embarassed to put this paragraph down but believe it or not we did not see a SINGLE night bird in WK. We were supremely unlucky to have a full moon and cloudless sky on every night we were there and we believe this contributed to the lack of response or sightings of these birds. Despite 2 full nights and 1 early morning of attempts, we came up empty in the supposed night bird capital of Asia. The most frustrating thing about this is that we heard a whole bunch of them, including Large & Gould's Frogmouth, Bonaparte's Nightjar and Reddish Scops-owl, at times very close to the road. However, they seemed to show no interest in tape and seemed to be taunting us by calling 3-4 times and then staying silent indefinitely. A hugely frustrating experience!

Tapan Road:

I chose to start with this area first as we only did 2 day trips here. The forest here is pristine, extensive and beautiful, although chainsaws were heard from time to time, particularly in the lower parts, it is still some of the best forest I have seen in SEA. We focused primarily on the upper section of the road, up till the 28km mark or so, as most of our target birds were found there. We only ventured down on our 2nd morning to get Andy his Scaly-breasted Bulbul. The weather was world's apart during our 2 visits here. Our first visit was done in largely pouring rain, while the 2nd was done in fine weather. Expectedly, the birds were more
active in the wet weather, which meant birding with 1 hand on an umbrella and another on the bins! In 2 days, we scored on all the key species here, with almost all being seen in pouring rain!


Graceful Pitta: Mega views of a Sumatran Mega! 1 bird responded both to tapes and whistling and showed itself twice in a single day in the gullies between KM 24 & 25. The 1st view was in pouring rain where the bird responded to tape and perched in a tangle for at least 5 minutes singing his heart out. It is obvious they put alot of efforts into their calls as the bird almost seems to inflate and deflate as it sings. That afternoon, when the weather cleared up we returned to a neighbouring gully and this time another bird (we believe its the same one) came in silently to Subandi's whistles and perched in full view for about 10 seconds in the centre of a stream before hopping off and started singing enthusiastically from the other side. Brilliant! This was my 17th Pitta in 3 years and completed the pitta hat-trick on Sumatra, all in good time for my birthday!

Marbled Wren-babbler: Stunning views were had of this Orient Mega as well! We only scored this beauty on our 2nd morning in a gully about 1km after the 1st bridge. The location is known to both Subandi and Mr En for anyone following in our footsteps. We tried this area twice but in pouring rain there was no joy. On our 2nd morning, we headed straight for this area and within minutes got a response from a single individual. We were then able to watch this bird vigrously tossing leaves and foraging actively on a semi-exposed slope for another half and hour or so. Even after we left the area, the bird was still actively calling and foraging. After years of fruitless attempts on Fraser's Hill, it felt really good to get this one under the belt.

Other Notables:

Blue-masked Leafbird (Beautiful lil' things)
Cream-striped & Spot-necked Bulbuls
Golden-fronted (Sumatran) Leafbird
Black Laughingthrush
Sumatran Trogon (Had 4 in a single Bino view in 1 mixed flock!)
Long-tailed Broadbill
Eastern Crowned-warbler & Grey Wagtail(Early Arrivals From The North)
Scaly-breasted Bulbul (Fairly Common lower down in fruiting roadside trees)

Mammal Highlights:

It was a week of cats on the Kerinci Leg and most were encountered here. Bear in mind that unlike most people, the cats we saw, or tried to see, or at times seen by the lucky individual, were not small. They are known as Big Cats!

Golden Cat: 2 higher up on the Tapan Road, 1 jumped off to the side almost immediately but the other stayed on it for just a few seconds longer. Not the best views but certainly a sense of excitement to see 2 new and rare species of forest cats in a month (having seen Flat-headed in Borneo not too long ago)

Tiger: Subandi's reward for exploring deeper into the "Wren-babbler Gully" in pouring rain. The cat probably didn't hear him amidst all that raindrops but he certainly saw it and came running out. Andy went in with him thereafter and found vague scoff-marks. I was watching flocks at this time and was not on the scene for this 1. Pity we failed to see this 1 although I doubt having 3 people in there would have helped our cause!

Gunung Kerinci:

The hotbed of endemics in Sumatra and a must-visit for any birder travelling here. Birding expectedly is slow and with increasing intrusion into the forests by both woodcutters and hunters ground birds in particular are becoming increasingly difficult with both the Peacock-pheasant & Red-billed Partridge under threat of local extirpation. Nevertheless, we did exceptionally well here, seeing almost all the specials in just 3 days on the mountain. We relaxed on most of the remaining days although we did pick up a few additions here and there but most notably with Mr En's help we broke our night bird duck and eventually managed a very good
haul of them from this leg. We were also aided by cooperative weather as the flood-gates only truly opened on our last afternoon on the mountain.The greatest moment of the trip also occurred here and is recounted in detail by Andy Mears in the paragraph below:

At 5.30pm on 1 Sep, Albert and I were lolling round near base camp at Kerinci and he decided to head uphill a bit to try for the pitta, while I drifted down towards the forest edge. He soon noticed something bobbing at eye level 40m away and it was a very agitated male Schneider's Pitta,giving a peculiar call ( I believe its the alarm call, a high pitched "Ouhhh!"), bobbing its head frequently and then running up and down the large branch it was perched on.He watched it for 30 mins! He also noticed that all the primates and some other birds were giving agitated alarm calls... (The pitta was seen in the patch just after the Banana Clearing & Before The Base Camp).

Meanwhile, I'd found a nice straight bit of trail, taken a few steps off to one side to get a full view down it and just waited, hoping that a pitta would hop into the open. After 15 mins I heard a rustle over one shoulder but saw nothing when I looked. Then another rustle and this time I saw a shadow on the trail. As it drew alongside me, 2m away, it materialised into a Clouded Leopard. It carried on about 4m and turned off the trail and across in front of me, disappearing in the undergrowth. It quickly turned round though and carried on down the trail at which point I could use bins.After 30m it stopped and slowly looked up and to its left, holding the pose for a few seconds and giving a lovely profile view of the head. It then casually walked on and around the corner. (This was not far before the Banana Clearing).

At that point I heard yet another rustle behind me and looked round to see Albert standing there.He'd seen that I was watching something but hadn't seen the cat and couldn't catch up with it for a view when he tried ( I did find a brilliant pug mark, which I probably accidentally stepped on thereafter and also hear deer alarm calls coming from the riverbed).We had radios here but fortunately, Albert's didn't work when he tried to call me about the pitta. I presume that the leopard hadn't seen me at all.On view for an estimated 50 seconds.( Andy had been waiting there for 15 minutes or so before his encounter occurred)

Addendum: This was the only sighting of Schneider's in 5 days on the mountain. They were heard irregularly though, especially at 1st light and last light. They were not tape-responsive although 1 particularly regular calling bird was heard on 2 dawns in the gully to the right of the Base Camp Shelter. Pitta No.16 For Me! Thankfully, Andy had seen this 1 on his 2002 trip, albeit briefly at 1st light.

Other Highlights:

Salvadori's Pheasant: Brilliant Views of a Male and 2 females around the Base Camp Shelter. Imagine my surprise when I had this in the bag just 2 hours after arriving in Subandi's!The male was very tame (just this once)and actually allowed approach down to 5m! The group would be seen again at both dawn and dusk by both of us over the next couple of days but were not seen ever again from Day 4 onwards.

Sumatran Cochoa: Absolute Euphoria! The 1 time we made it up to the "Burnt-Out Tree" in the morning was also the 1 time we nailed this epic bird. Prior to the encounter, Andy had actually heard 1 at the Air Minum Campsite for 10 mins on 1 morning but failed to see it. Thereafter, when he pushed up to the ASIS Tree beyond the Cochoa Shelter 1 afternoon, he had a possible flyby. Then came our encounter. Having trawled randomly and unsuccessfully up to the Burnt-Out Tree on our 3rd morning we soldiered on.100m after the tree there was an instant response to tape! After several anxious minutes of searching for the source a tail-flick gave the quarry away and we had our mega. We watched the bird on and off for the next hour and had very good views of it as it foraged at times at eye level relative to the trail as it sloped upwards. At this point I am still not sure what an adult female Sumatran Cochoa looks like but we believe that is what we saw.A brief description is provided below:

-The bird was chiefly made up on 4 colour tones.
-Its head bears striking resemblance to a female Purple Cochoa. It's head was largely a dark rufous-brown with a greyish-blue cap. The rufous extended only very slightly onto the upper breast.
-The rest of its upperparts were noticeably glossy black, even in good light.
-Its underparts, save for the small bit of rufous, were sooty black with no sign of scalings or barrings.
-It had sky-blue wings.

Sumatran (Short-tailed) Frogmouth: 1 of the toughest birds to see on the mountain. We knew it was going to be tough, going in after a particularly busy birders' summer which at times had 20 birders on the summit trail, but after 4 nights of effort (2 of which lasted from 7pm to almost 12am), we were suffering from battle-weariness. The birds noticeably did not respond to playback via their song, but instead with the rather abrupt 2 note call and they did not call without tape. Thankfully, Mr En "The Nightbird Miracle Worker" stepped in and on our penultimate dawn we got brief but excellent views of a singing bird just after dawn at the Base Camp Shelter. A truly bizzare avian odditiy with all that bristles sticking out from above the mouth, almost like an unkempt moustache!

Other Notables:

Sumatran Wren-babbler (1 just after the Fallen Log, also 2 before Base Camp Shelter)
Rusty-breasted Wren-babbler (common)
Pygmy Blue-flycatcher (1 on 2 dates mixed flocks at Cochoa Shelter)
Sumatran Green-pigeon (Several daily in a low fruiting ficus before Banana Clearing)
Spot-necked Babbler (Common)
Sumatran Trogon (2 Cochoa Shelter 1 date)
Barred Eagle-owl (Stunning 30 min views at Mr En's stakeout in the riverbed at dusk)
Salvadori's Nightjar (Nice flight views at the forest edge 1 date 7pm)
Mountain Scops-owl (1 whistled in by Subandi Riverbed)

Notable Dips:

There was no sign of Sumatran Peacock Pheasant or Red-billed Partridge in 5 days on the mountain. Mr En says the Partridge is pretty regular around 3000m but hunting seems to have decimated lower populations. We also only heard Rajah Scops-owl on 1 date as the date we had set aside to try for it was washed out by rain. Another victim of hunting was Pink-headed Fruit-dove, with none seen or heard anywhere by us.