Sumatra - July 2012

Published by Oscar Campbell (ocampbell AT britishschool.sch.ae)

Participants: Oscar Campbell

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Photos with this report (click to enlarge)

Sumatran Trogon
Sumatran Trogon
Fire-tufted Barbet
Fire-tufted Barbet
Streaked Bulbul
Streaked Bulbul
Large Frogmouth
Large Frogmouth
Banded Pitta
Banded Pitta
Red-bearded Bee-eater
Red-bearded Bee-eater

This short trip report summarises a visit to two well-known locations in Sumatra, made in July 2012. This visit was tagged onto to a trip to western Java and complimented that very nicely; although Java is great birding for sure, Sumatra in its own way is at least as good and, quite aside from the endemics, has a much better selection of lowland rainforest species (partly due to biogeography; partly apparently due to long-term deforestation in the much more densely populated Java). The locations visited were Gunung Kerinci, at 3805 metres Indonesia’s highest volcano (total of 7 days here, including two at the nearby Bukit Tapan) and Way Kambas, a lowland forest reserve in the south of the island (5 days here). Because of the tortuous geography of Sumatra, and the poor internal infrastructure, both sites are best visited from Jakarta; trying to get from one to the other directly entails well over 1000 km of potholes and hence two or three days solid travelling.

What to bring

For books I used the so-so Mackinnon and Phillipps Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali which, despite many limitations, is still ok most of the time, although one or two trip reports with systematic lists outlining updated taxonomic changes (those from Birdquest are generally pretty good) are useful supplementary material. In addition, Robson’s Field Guide to the Birds of South-east Asia is also very useful for many of the trickier species; Paul Jepson’s Birding Indonesia (Periplus, 1997 – maybe not in print anymore?) is also excellent and still highly relevant and applicable.

Other gear: A ‘scope would be a waste of time at Kerinci but I used mine a lot at Bukit Tapan and Way Kambas for digiscoping and getting great views of stuff. Instead, at the former, it is more important to be ready for lots of water and mud: we had at least 1-2 hours of rain each afternoon (after which the forest generally went deadly quiet for the rest of the day – as opposed to very quiet, which is what is from dawn until the rain starts). The trail is very, very muddy; it is also narrow and, in places, steep and trailside vegetation is permanently soaking wet. For this reason, wellington boots (used by the locals), plus waterproof trousers, plastic bags to keep gear dry, umbrella etc are all very useful too. Note that the above comments refer to the dry season (northern summer); if you go at Christmas, bring fins and scuba. In contrast, Bukit Tapan is mainly easy roadside birding (but watch for the odd leech when you try for Graceful Pitta).

Way Kambas is famously hot and sticky all year but, presumably as I live in Abu Dhabi, it actually felt ok; mornings and evenings were very pleasant and even at midday there is plenty of shade. There is also the potential for plenty of biting bugs; I met only a few mosquitoes and leeches but this was after no rain for a fortnight. I predict carnage after rain, so come prepared: DET, leech socks, strong whiskey, the works.

1 Gunung Kerinci

Getting there and where to stay:

First you need to get to Padang, Sumatra’s third largest city and the main one on the west coast. This is easy in theory; there are many economical flights each day from Jakarta. I used Lion Air. Indonesian airlines don’t have a particularly good reputation and Lion Air’s claim to be an efficient and modern transportation company is somewhat compromised by their apparent inability to deal with internet bookings using international credit cards (and their website neglecting to inform you that the problem lies with their system, not your card). They also are incapable of replying to email enquiries about this issue. Apparently, most of the other local carriers (although not Air Asia) have the same problem. This makes it well nigh impossible to book anything from abroad (unless you contact a Jakarta travel agency and get them to do it?) Anyway, I solved this problem by going straight to the Lion Air office at the airport on arrival (at the domestic terminal, not the international one) and buying my ticket there and then; luckily I had nearly two weeks in Java before I needed to fly so there was plenty of availability and the fare was the same as on the internet. This approach may not work if you want to fly out straight after arriving in Jakarta, however. On the plus side, when I showed up for the flight, the planes were modern, with engines where they should be more or less and capable of sustained flight, departing almost on time. All the air hostesses were very nice too…

Once in Padang, and assuming you are not being met at the airport, there are plenty of hotels to stay in (see, for example, Lonely Planet). I used the Immanuel Hotel, near the river and beach; it was basic but fine and the owner gave me a lift to the airport on the return to catch a very early flight out. To get there I took the airport bus into town then a taxi to find the hotel.

From Padang to Kerseik Tua, the small village that is the access point to Gunung Kerinci, it is a journey of at least 6 hours (private car) or 8-9 hours on the public bus. The guys at the hotel can put you on a bemo that will take you to the shopfront of the company that runs the bus to Kerseik Tua / Sungai Penuh (Padang appears not to have a central bus station; ask to go to Tranex and tell them you want the Kerinci bus). Exactly how long the bus takes depends on the amount of time spent driving round Padang picking up other bookings, how many sets of roadworks you meet and how many lunch stops and fag breaks are made. It is a lot more hassle than just taking a private car but also more fun, obviously vastly cheaper and for free you get to listen to lots of Indonesian pop music at an exceptional volume. It can all be done with minimal Indonesian, as I proved.

Kerseik Tua is tiny; there are a couple of basic homestays to choose but you would be mad to deviate from the famous Subandi Homestay (email: subandi.homestay @ gmail.com). Pak Subandi is local legend, well used to dealing with hardcore birders and acting as a guide; he knows all the calls and locations for key species. He can also pick you up from the airport in Padang, if this is pre-arranged. On Kerinci, 15 hours in the field per day are the norm, and Subandi will arrange lifts up to the trail head (5 km away) before dawn, pick you up after owling (if he hasn’t been with you all day) and provide nearly unlimited tasty grub and snacks to keep you going in the field. Which, given the gruelling nature (mental and physical) of Kerinci, is really quite a compliment.

A: Birding Gunung Kerinci

Get ready; this is hard, really hard: long periods of nothing, poor views a lot of the time and many of the key species are both very shy and very scarce. On my last two days, having been practicing hard for the previous five, I scored good views of 25-26 species each day (i.e. about 1.5 species per hour of birding!) You need to come fully armed with recordings (although Subandi has many) and infinite patience; to stand a serious chance of seeing most of the monsters you probably need to give yourself 5 or 6 days. You also need to be prepared to go painstakingly slowly and silently, including not breathing at critical periods. It is worth climbing up to the ‘First Shelter’ at c.2500m (actually the third shelter, above the burnt tree) at least once or twice; it is not actually that far from the start of the trail (c.1900m) although the trail is very steep in places. Having said all the above, I loved it here: it has some of the most amazing and demanding bird species on the planet and when you finally lay eyes on each one, it feels all the better for all the hard work and ultra-professional strategy that you have had to employ.

Given all the information in the logbooks at the homestay, and Subandi being out in the field a lot, it is superfluous to give loads of specific details on where to find key species, so what follows is just a quick summary:

• ‘Common’ (i.e. you will at least hear them in a whole day of trying!) birds include ‘Sumatran’ Collared Owlet (calling everyday; several seen), Fire-tufted and Black-browed Barbets, Blue Nuthatch, Lesser and White-browed Shortwings (both abundant; former easy on the trail; latter higher up and much, much harder to see), Shiny Whistling-Thrush, Pygmy, Eye-browed and Rusty-breasted Wren-Babblers (all abundant on voice), Golden Babbler (loads), Long-tailed Sibia (mainly higher up), Sunda Warbler, Mountain Leaf-Warbler, Sunda Bush-Warbler, Black-capped and Mountain White-eyes (latter mainly at or above First Shelter), Indigo Flycatcher.

• Much scarcer are Salvadori’s Pheasant (mainly around Base Camp; four sightings for me was a good score), Sumatran Green-Pigeon and Pink-headed Fruit Dove (need to find a fruiting tree), Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeon (at First Shelter), Sumatran Trogon (seen twice; call is very like Javan Trogon), Sunda Minivet (only one flock; like the next species, much easier at Gede, west Java!), Orange-spotted Bulbul (only at the First Shelter, but seems to be regular here), Sumatran Drongo (seen at very bottom; easier on Bukit Tapan), Chestnut-winged Whistling-Thrush (once only, below Base Camp), Sunda Blue Robin (once only), Spot-necked Babbler (scarce but regular below Base Camp), Rufous-vented Niltava (seen only twice).

• With regard to the total monsters, Schneider’s Pitta was calling around Base Camp late on three nights and I was lucky to finally find one male on the trail just above Base Camp on my fourth evening of crepuscular crawling (at 1730; seen again the next evening too at exactly the same spot and this time I was sat down and ready for him!) and Sumatran Cochoa (a group of 4!) was eventually seen on the trail between Camp Cochoa and the burnt tree on the last morning, the only day I climbed up there by 0900 – on the other days, I had not got up that high until late morning / early afternoon. I felt very, very lucky to see the cochoa; some people have spent weeks looking and left empty-handed.

• Finally onto nightbirding: I never heard Rajah Scops Owl, so was lucky to find one in the daytime between Air Minum and Camp Cochoa, Salvadori’s Nightjar was calling and seen over a clearing below Base Camp at dusk on two nights and Short-tailed Frogmouth was at its usual site in the dry river bed before the forest starts on four visits out of five, but was never seen once, despite calling very closely on two occasions. B*stard!

The other main misses, and you will surely have a couple too, were Red-billed Partridge (none calling; family crossed trail when I was 100m away!), Barred Eagle-Owl (only seen very badly) and Long-billed Wren-Babbler (calling only rarely and never close)

B: Birding Bukit Tapan

This, Sumatra’s version of Peninsular Malaysia’s Fraser’s Hill, provides some much needed and delightful relief after a few muddy, wet and arduous days on Kerinci. Subandi will provide the transport; it is worth remembering that despite what anybody tells you, the top of Bukit Tapan is at least 2 hours away from Kerseik Tua, so get going early. It is worth making (at least) two visits here: one in the higher hill forest between the pass and the first bridge (going downhill) and a second between the first and third bridges (or even further down). Bukit Tapan has a lot of species that seem not to occur on Kerinci, including a number of Sumatran endemics that are mostly common and easy plus a really good range of Sundaic hill-forest species. Obviously, the species composition changes as you go downhill. The terrain lends itself to good viewing and lots of birds and you will surely find at least a couple of mega-flocks in a full day out.

Key species include:

• Common: Barred and Little Cuckoo-Doves, barbets as at Kerinci plus Gold-whiskered, Lesser Yellownape, Rhinoceros and Wreathed Hornbills (keep looking up!), Graceful Pitta (in many of the gullies; very confiding but hard to hear its thin whistle over the sound of rushing water – Subandi has several that come to mealworms!), Sunda Cuckoo-shrike, loads of bulbuls (endemic Cream-striped and Spot-necked common; Sumatra Sunda Bulbul seen only once; good chance of Grey-bellied and Scaly-breasted Bulbuls lower down), Sumatran Treepie (everywhere!), Sumatran Drongo (none on first day, but 10+ on second; no particular altitude)

• Rather scarcer: Bronze-tailed Peacock-Pheasant (only heard), Sumatran Collared Owlet (seen once), Sumatran Trogon (seen twice), Long-tailed Broadbill (one flock), Black-and-Yellow Broadbill (one above third bridge), Blue-masked Leafbird (two pairs; higher up), Blue-winged Leafbird (don’t miss it; a gorgeous Sumatran subspecies and made up for not finding Sumatran Golden-fronted Leafbird), Lesser Forktail (I saw only one pair, but there should be more), Black and Chestnut-capped Laughing-Thrushes (scarce due to trapping, apparently), Hill Prinia (looking nothing like in the field guide), Spectacled Spiderhunter, Purple-naped and Temminck’s Sunbirds (mainly lower down).

The above is far from exhaustive; I saw many other common species and am sure there are plenty more that would appear with more time.

2 Way Kambas

If Bukit Tapan is Sumatra’s Fraser’s Hill then this site is more like a scaled-down version of Taman Negara. It is far less vast and majestic but, if anything, finding great birds is even easier. It was really birdy when I was here and I had a very enjoyable time indeed. Again, it needs time and patience but I had a great experience at Way Kambas and wholeheartedly recommend it.

Getting there:

Most people fly from Jakarta to Bandar Lampung (about 30 minutes) and then get a private car / taxi to Satwa Elephant Ecolodge (details below; about 2 hours drive). I recommend you do the same but I had this idiotic, romantic notion about sailing across the Sunda Straits and seeing lots of seabirds, so that is what I did (at least the first bit): I got a very early flight from Padang to Jakarta and then took a taxi from Jakarta airport to Merak, the port from which the ferry goes from (this was fast but pricey; I would never have made it from Padang to Way Kambas in one day if I had to sort out buses). From Merak the ferry is 2.5-3 hours across to Bakahueni on the southern tip of Java. The cost of the ferry ticket is totally nominal (about USD1.50!) and they go continually (unlike the seabirds in the strait…). Once you arrive at Bakahueni, it would be easier to go to the bemo / bus stand outside the departures terminal and ask around for a bemo to Jepara / Way Kambas (takes about 2 hours). I didn’t realise this, so bussed it into Bandar Lampung (2 hours) and then out to Way Kambas (another 3 hours). This was definitely not necessary, however. The Way Kambas entrance gate is about 7km off the main road (and the turn for it is about 10km north of Jepara, in the village of Rajabasalama; there is a big sign); the bus drops you at junction and it easy to hail an ojet for the last 7 km. This gets you to the gate of Way Kambas; for what happens next, see below.

Where to stay:

I strongly recommend you stay at least one or two nights at Satwa Elephant Ecolodge, at least on arrival. My visit coincided with Ramadan and the whole place was almost empty but they are a small establishment so it would be better to book: www.ecolodgesindonesia.com. This is great accommodation, including hot showers (far rarer than nice views of pittas in Sumatra!), delicious food and the staff there are super-friendly and can help you sort out the logistics of staying in the park at Way Kanan (a riverside clearing 13km on from the gate with a small ‘guest house’). At Satwa, you can also hook up with Hari (hariyono_ecolodges @ yahoo.com), their excellent guide who runs the nightbirding trips. I didn’t bird during the day with him but I bet he is highly competent then as well. You could just stay at Satwa all the time and travel to Way Kanan each day but this would involve hiring transport and you would not be at Way Kanan at dawn, which you surely want to be. I spent two nights at Satwa on arrival, plus a night there at the end, and 3 nights at Way Kanan in between. The guest house at the latter is basic but ok and clean(ish), with a generator on in the evenings for electrics and plenty of (cold) water for washing, boiled water for drinking etc. You need to bring all your own food (easily bought in the little stalls by Satwa). The rangers are friendly and will share a few snacks or spices for your noodles at dinner time and, if you are lucky, some fish they have caught (otherwise you need to bring your protein in tins; there is no fridge. Or you could settle for the ants in the sugar…) It would be worth bringing some cigarettes or snacks to share with the rangers.

Birding:

At Way Kambas, due to the presence of elephants, tigers, etc you are supposed to go out with a ranger, at least if you step off the main access track (e.g. onto the excellent Look trail, that loops from Way Kanan clearing back to the access track). In reality, this is not always enforced, at least during my visit – perhaps due to the stultifying effects of everybody fasting during Ramadan? - and I was left to my own devices on the first day or so. When they decided I did need some protecting, somebody came along as well a couple of times (and charged me for this). The most dangerous thing we met was a large scorpion and the only person who needed to worry about that was the one in the flip-flops, which wasn’t me.

At Way Kanan, I birded the clearing itself, the access track about 3 km back along the road (to the second small bridge, beside a muddy forest pond) and the Look trail (five times!) Despite resistance and much head-shaking, I also insisted on walking from Way Kanan back to Satwa when it was time to leave; despite this being from 1230 to 1700, I saw some good birds and quite a lot of activity (although the best time and place on the trail was 0700-0900 within 2-3 km of Way Kanan). If the boat is available, you can arrange to do a river trip to Rawa Gaja swamp to try for White-winged Duck. I didn’t do this as the forest (and, apparently, the swamp) was very dry during my visit and the cost was extortionate (600,000 Rps!) (and because I have seen the duck twice at Nameri, Assam).

Back at the entrance, from Satwa, you can walk down to the main gate (500m) and, at least when I was there, there was free, unaccompanied access to the road that goes to the right (to the elephant training centre, eventually). Walking along this, you can easily nip into the forest on small but well-marked trails. I tried this a couple of times when I was staying at Satwa and saw a few nice things, but it was small beer compared to Way Kanan.

Species seen:

The birding was really great at Way Kambas. I saw some really good species easily on every excursion I made, especially around Way Kanan. For lowland forest, activity seemed high, even during the heat of the day and locating flocks was not difficult at all. Although I saw a rather small variety of mammals, the Siamang chorus each morning (and sometimes all morning) was unbelievable. The below concentrates on just the most interesting species; there were plenty of common lowland Sundaic species too:

• Access track up to the second bridge back from Way Kanan (2-3 km back; the forest between the two bridges was especially good): Storm’s Stork (seen two mornings on the tiny pool by the second bridge; essential to get here early as it was very shy and is booted by a careless approach or the first ojet on the track), Lesser Adjutant, Bat Hawk (overhead at 0800!), Crested Fireback (two males on track, late afternoon), Red Junglefowl (common), Chestnut-bellied Malkoha (seen once; four other malkohas much commoner!), Malaysian Eared-Nightjar (loads flying early at dusk; the clearing about 1 km back from Way Kanan is supposed to be a site for Bonaparte’s but I didn’t get a sniff), Diard’s (common on call but very shy), Red-naped (1) and Scarlet-rumped (2) Trogons, Banded Pitta (easy and seen daily, including once alongside a Hooded Pitta!), Red-bearded Bee-eater (twice), Crimson-winged Woodpecker, Fiery Minivet, loads of bulbuls including Buff-vented and Yellow-bellied and good chances for babbler flocks, flyover parrots and pigeons etc.

• Look trail: Everytime I did this, it produced a few flocks and a totally different mix. Babblers were especially abundant, including Ferruginous and Chestnut-rumped; I also had Banded and Chequer-throated Woodpeckers several times. Other notables included Crested Partridge (group on trail), Banded Pitta (no real achievement at Way Kambas!), Diard’s Trogon, Red-crowned Barbet, Green and Dusky Broadbills (latter with nest!), Grey-chested Jungle-Flycatcher and Rufous-tailed Shama.

• Way Kanan clearing: I didn’t actually spend too much time here. However, Dusky Broadbills greeted me on arrival outside the guest house (which Large-tailed Nightjar uses as an amplifier every night! This beats being kept awake by mosque, which is the usual torment for light sleepers in Sumatra) and I also had Black-thighed Falconets and Purple-throated Sunbird here.

• Nightbirding: Way Kambas has a formidable reputation for this and one which, I eventually found, is well deserved. The three common nightjars are hard to miss and were also calling from the forest edge as well as around Way Kanan (except Savannah) when I was there. Bonaparte’s is not easy and is getting harder; Hari had no serious suggestions for that one. Reddish Scops Owl is common on call; I was lucky to tape one in and see it very closely at dusk 1 km short of Way Kanan. They are generally hard to find and call from deep shade and low down. Large Frogmouth are also common on call everywhere but also, at least for me, hard too see: I finally found one at dusk straight after the scops owl at Way Kanan. I saw another brilliantly on my last night on a trip from Satwa with Hari; it was close above the access track and totally unfazed by the spotlight for over half an hour. At one point it flew and perched right overhead, in the process landing on a snake which it pinned onto the branch! It didn’t try to eat it and, when it flew again 10 minutes later, the snake was none the worse for wear. On the same night we also found Gould’s, Sunda and Javan Frogmouths; these were not calling frequently and we saw them thanks to Hari knowing where to look. The latter gave a quite incredible display, trying to fly down the torch beam in response to the tape. We also heard Oriental Bay Owl on two nights (and saw it very well on one) and had great views of two single Brown Hawk Owls (and heard another two calling).

• Elephant Training centre access road, forest edge and Satwa gardens: This was nowhere near as good as around Way Kanan, but did give me a fair selection of common babblers, bulbuls, Pink-necked Green-Pigeon was a regular flyover etc. I also had Banded Pitta and Black-and-Yellow Broadbill here (both on voice; not seen), Black-and-Red Broadbill (not seen at Way Kanan), Rufous-winged Philentoma, three species of nightjar, plus falconets and treeswifts in the ecolodge gardens.

If you require any further information about any of the above, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the author at the above email address.