“Attenborough in Paradise” is an excellent video by any standard simply because it focuses on one of the most fascinating group of birds in the world - The Birds of Paradise. Incidentally, it was also the inspiration behind this trip, a big twitch for Wallace’s greatest avian discovery. The 10min or so segment of displaying Wallace’s Standardwing at Labi Labi within the video had triggered the attention of some birders in Singapore and bridged the generation gap. For the trip leader, Lim Kim Chuah, it was a fulfillment of a boyhood dream. Likewise, having first watched the video at age 11, it was also the same dream that I would fulfill much earlier in my lifetime. It was on this note that a team of 6 was assembled, all pioneers in their own right as the first Singaporeans to land on Halmahera, all united in the goal to observe, document and photograph the Wallace’s Standardwing.
Weather & Itinerary:
To many birders, May is not particularly a good time to visit the islands, as it is what locals call a Transition Month, where the floodgates seem to open on a whim. This was true to some extent, although we were blessed with a remarkably sunny spell during our time in Foli. A timeline of the weather is as follows. Notice how problems seem confined to the first half of the trip.
24/05-Travel Day. Flew from Singapore to Manado via Silkair, arriving at around 1310 hrs. Following that, we drove to Tangkoko where we would spend the night in the famous Mama Roos homestay. (Weather: Moderate Rain upon arrival, which continued for most of the afternoon before clearing in the evening).
25/05-This was predominately a travel day, birded the TKK access road for a few hours in the early morning before heading back to Manado and onto a flight to Ternate. From there it was a 20 min ride to the harbour and another 1hr boat ride to the quaint fishing village of Sidangoli on the southern tip of Halmahera. Arrived in Sidangoli 1600hrs. Overnight in Sidangoli Indah, supposedly the only guesthouse in the township.(Weather: Overcast very early AM before torrential rain nearing our departure. Overcast on Ternate and light rain and choppy waves during the crossing to Sidangoli)
26/05- The longest day. Awoke at 2am after a mere 2.5hrs of sleep and proceeded up Dase Hill in the aftermath of some heavy late night rain. The first half of the day was spent getting down from the Standardwing lek after an experience of a lifetime. In the afternoon, we birded along the KBP around the KBP road around the small village just after the bridge. A huge hornbill roost is located here and the twilight was spent observing their majestic flights back to their quarters for the night. (Weather: Beautiful sunny skies for the most part save for a light shower in the early evening)
27/05-Another travel day, this time we were bound for Foli on the eastern part of the island. We endured torrential showers in the early morning, which cleared up as we approached Daru. It was a rather enjoyable crossing into Foli, where we birded the 2km stretch of the logging road in the afternoon. (Weather: Partly cloudy for the most part).
28/05-Another trekking day, this time up Dollarbird ridge and all the way to another suspected Standardwing lek by a stream. As the trek both ways was combined with birding (and some great birds were on show), it was a rather enjoyable experience. In the afternoon, we headed deeper into the logging track, birding the 6km mark. (Weather: Beautiful sunny skies throughout)
29/05- The morning was spent birding the 6km stretch of logging road at Foli. Following a extremely productive morning, we had to drag ourselves away from the road and prepare for the return crossing to Daru. Our afternoon was spent trying to change some currency (We had run out of Rupiah at this point due to some last minute cost alterations) in Tobelo. We then took a boat out to search successfully for the Beach Kingfisher before the long drive back to Sidangoli where we would spend the night. (Weather: Beautiful sunny skies again.)
30/05- A rather unproductive morning was spent in KBP before our 2nd boat crossing in 2 days brought us back to Ternate. Upon arrival back in Manado in the afternoon, it was back to the familiar landscape of TKK where a very productive afternoon birding stint was had. Night in Mama Roos.
31/05- An early morning stint in TKK was rather ordinary by yesterday’s standards. Subsequently, Changi Airport (Singapore) was the last destination after a great week of birding.
Guides & Logistics:
A huge thank-you goes out from the team to Ninny from Safari Tours & Travel (Manado), our logistics guide for the trip. If not for her help, we would not have even come close to seeing that many birds within such a short period of time. We had got her name from an earlier report by Jon Hornbuckle who had also used her services during his stay on the island. During her time with us, we found her to be extremely efficient and helpful. She would take great pains to ensure that our plans were followed down to the slightest detail. An example of this would be on our last day in Halmahera. While we were out birding in the forest, she had gone down to the pier to make sure that a boat would be available for our return crossing. By the time we had return, a convoy of rickshaws were already waiting for us to load up our bags and bring us to the pier. Another plus point was that in a way, she managed to keep Anu in check. Hidden costs (and there were many during our time there), were made known to us, and “avoided” whenever possible. Last but not least, she speaks English and has a love for the outdoors. Out in the field, she would always bring along her binoculars and a video-camera, just to take in the sights and sounds of the area. Incidentally, it was her first time in Foli as well, and it was obvious she was enjoying it as much as we were.
As for Anu, everything that has been mentioned about him is true, both the good and the bad. The good point is that you probably will never reach the Dase Hill lek without him. This is also partly due to the fact that you actually have to pass his house to reach there! The other good point is that he has intimate knowledge of all the island’s avian sounds, so it will save you a lot of trouble in deciding which bird to go after. As for the bad side, it has been mentioned enough times throughout birding circles in the region, so I shall spare you all from hearing it again. Suffice to say, he treated us no differently from any other birding group in the area of payment. Out in the field, he is indeed a tad sloppy at times, often asking KC to use tape playback on target birds while he has a smoke.
A big Thank You to Lim Kim Chuah for taking the time and effort to organize such a successful outing within such a short time frame. (We only started planning the trip 3 months before we actually left) Mention must also be made of the other members of the team, namely Ong Kiem Sian (Photographer), Yong Ding Li, Andrew Chow & Andrew Tay for being such excellent company throughout the trip.
Special Thanks also goes out to Phil Gregory for publishing his report on his Halmahera tour which ended just a few weeks before our departure as his report helped us greatly in giving us some foreknowledge on what to expect during our time there.
Last but not least, as already mentioned earlier, a big thanks to Jeremy Barnes & his wife Ninny, for helping us plan and ensure that our trip was carried out so smoothly. It would not have been so successful without their help.
Finally…the day-by-day account begins…
There was a sense of déjà vu as I stepped into Sam Ratulangi International Airport, Manado. It was the 2nd time in 3 years that I had stepped onto Sulawesi but this time, being the only 1 in the team of 6 who had visited Tangkoko before, I was tasked with showing the rest of the team the endemics that made Tangkoko their home.
As usual, it was an uneventful 2.5hr drive to Mama Roos Homestay, the drive itself made even more boring by the fact that it was raining rather heavily all throughout the journey. A single Barred Rail was the only bird of note as a result. Upon arriving at our accommodation for the night, all our gear was hastily unloaded and birding commenced in the vicinity of the homestay amidst light drizzle. A few birds were picked up including Black Sunbird and Grey-cheeked Green-pigeon while our first Sulawesi endemic came in the form of a pair of foraging Sulawesi Trillers.
Nevertheless, the team was anxious to access the park itself to look for the famed kingfishers of Tangkoko. In order to do this, there was a need to engage a guide to lead us into the trail network. A local guide, Jemmy, was on hand to do just that. The only shock for me came when I realised that the fee for birdwatching guides had doubled since I last came here. It now costs 200,000 Rupiah per person for a full day of birding, which is about 20 USD. Regardless, the team did not want to waste any more time and decided to go ahead with the plan anyway.
Thanks to the overcast sky, the walk into the core area of the parking was uneventful yet again. Once we hit the trail network, a sense of anticipation filled the group as we treaded gingerly through the area, watching for any signs of movement. Within minutes, Jemmy’s keen eyes detected a subtle movement in the undergrowth that betrayed the presence of 1 of the team’s target birds- A male Green-backed Kingfisher. The better part of the next half hour was spent trying to get close to the kingfisher as the photographers successfully managed to get the good shots they required. It was not my 1st time seeing this forest jewel but the sight of it within my binoculars still took my breath away. Pleased with our success thus far, we proceeded deeper into the forest, searching intensively for any diurnal birds that might be still active as the last rays of the Sun sank below the volcano. Both the Ashy Woodpecker & Yellow-billed Malkoha were heard, while a very vocal Spot-tailed Goshawk led us in a game of hide-and-seek before our persistence was rewarded when the team spotted the bird perched high in the canopy. Eventually, the twilight chorus was replaced by the penetrating calls of a Sulawesi Scops-owl. At this point, we were all clustered around a small hollow fig tree, awaiting the departure of a Spectral Tarsier has it left its roosting tree to forage at night. Sooner rather than later, a pair of those huge eyes peered cautiously out of 1 of the hollows in the tree. Although good views were had, photographing the agile and rather shy primate was an entirely different manner. Eventually, we decided to leave it in peace and proceed back for some much-needed food. Along the way, Sulawesi Scops-owls came close on several occasions but remained elusive. Up to this point, it was a good start, and the adventure was only just beginning.
Today, we started early in the hopes of reaching the Valley before sunrise. For the uninitiated, The Valley is situated just before the junction leading to the village where a section of the road looks out into the pristine forest between the road and Gunung Tangkoko. The weather was ominous from the beginning and even as we headed out to the area in a pick-up I was already being pelted by rain as I surveyed the surroundings from the top of the vehicle. Nevertheless, my efforts were rewarded when I picked up my first lifer of the trip- a pair of beautiful Black-naped Fruit-doves attempting to shelter from the rain. Although the lighting wasn’t the best, the distinctive colours of the male still stood out in spite of the greyish hue of the surroundings.
Upon arrival at our destination, business was the order of the day. There was no sunrise, but activity still came in waves, and we were kept continually busy. Knobbed Hornbills & Silver-tipped Imperial Pigeons flew over the valley, while in the flowering trees by the roadside both Large & Small Sulawesi Hanging Parrot actively fed on the flowers, accompanied by animated Grey-sided Flowerpeckers & Black-fronted White-eyes. In a cluster of fruiting trees, a group of beautiful White-necked Mynas were enjoying breakfast, accompanied by the distinctive pink-headed race of the Green Imperial Pigeon. A flock of Finch-billed Mynas lent their vocal cords to the morning’s activities, making the Valley a rather lively place in spite of the inclement weather.
Inevitably, the rain arrived, we had no choice but to retreat to the shelter of the vehicle. Back at the homestay, bags were now being loaded onto the waiting bus, and everyone was raring to go. We headed back up the valley road once more, but birders being birders, we halted every time someone spotted a bird. By now, the rain had cleared up and bird activity increased yet again. A pair of Yellow-billed Malkohas had come out to dry themselves, as did a single Sulawesi Black Pigeon. A quick stop at the valley was extremely worthwhile. A Blue-backed Parrot called from its lofty perch, while at eye level a male Black-naped Fruit-dove was perched within 10m. A bit further up, a pair of Sulawesi Cicadabirds was foraging alongside a single Sulawesi Triller. As you can see, it was hard to drag ourselves away from all this, but we had a flight to catch which no one wanted to miss. 2 hours and several Barred Rails later, we were back in a café at Sam Ratulangi enjoying some meatball noodles and a coffee while patiently awaiting our Ternate flight, which had been delayed due to inclement weather. We were extremely relieved when it finally left, even though it was almost 2 hours behind schedule. From there, it was a rather uncomfortable hour’s flight to Ternate, in a cabin which suffered from a lack of ventilation and incidentally was infested with small cockroaches, which came out in force once the aircraft had reached cruising altitude!
Upon arrival in Ternate, there was a temptation to kiss the ground once we came out of the aircraft. The local airport seemed to be more like a building under construction rather than a gateway to the rest of Indonesia. It took awhile for the baggage to be hauled into the terminal building and it was a free-for-all as the locals descended on it like a flock of vultures onto a carcass. Thankfully, we managed to account for all our bags and Ninny came up trumps when she motioned us to a pair of waiting 4x4 that would take us to the harbour, a 20-minute ride through the chaotic streets of the former spice empire. A brief stop at a provision store and 20 minutes later, we arrived at the harbour, which was little more than some decaying wooden planks and a cluster of boats positioned cheek-by-jowl in a area as small as a parking lot. A bunch of “captains”, obviously without any meaningful job to complete, descended on us, jostling with 1 another to take us to our destination, Sidangoli. We motioned Ninny aside, told her to get us as big a boat as possible, and sent her back into the verbal battlefield, as prices and boat sizes were thrown onto the table. It was a rather tense situation, but Ninny came through again with flying colours, managing to secure us the largest boat in the harbour. Most importantly, it came with 3 motors, a fact whose importance we were to find out the hard way.
The crossing itself was rather smooth for the most part, despite the rainy weather and moderately choppy seas. The 3 motors enabled the boat to cut through the waves with ease, much like the Lesser & Great Frigatebirds that were soaring effortlessly above us.
Now, remember we had 3 motors. Midway through the crossing, 1 of the motors spluttered and died. The boatman tried in vain to re-activate it, but it was beyond repair. With only 2 motors remaining, we were now at the mercy of the waves, and it was obvious that some of the stronger waves were tossing our vessel around, but thanks to the skill of the pilot, we were able to avoid the worst of the swells. I, for one, was greatly relieved when we reached the sheltered harbour of Sidangoli. In retrospect, I can’t imagine what would have happened if we had taken a boat with fewer motors and it had broken down.
We touched ground on Sidangoli under the eyes of a moderate crowd and were greeted by the sight of 2 brand new Toyota MPVs, our vehicles for the next 4 days and looking rather out of place in a quaint fishing village like this. It was a short drive to Sidangoli Indah, the only guesthouse in the town, and along the way some of the island’s troubled past was readily apparent. Several churches were riddled with bullet holes, while charred clusters of wood were obviously former settlements that had been burnt to the ground. In terms of birds, only 2 species were apparent- Metallic Starling & Willie Wagtail, both well-known “urban birds”. A third, the endemic and endangered Chattering Lory, existed only as pitiful captives chained to a wooden platform-A depressing sight for any birdwatcher and conservationist indeed.
Sidangoli Indah was luxurious for a guesthouse nestled in these backwater islands. It actually had a much more powerful fan compared to the guesthouse in Tangkoko and actually had a shower that worked. The place was also very clean and the food was decent. Shortly after sorting out our rooms (Our team ended up taking 80% of the rooms), we proceeded to the verandah where we had our first meeting with Anu and his 2 drivers. The locals obviously seemed to respect him, as he was probably the greatest contributor to their income. The proprietor of Sidangoli Indah addressed him with a great deal of respect, while the 2 drivers seem more concerned with awaiting his pay-outs to them like pampered pets (We observed this occasionally throughout the trip). Nevertheless, we addressed him cautiously, careful not to offend him in anyway as we deemed his behaviour could be rather unpredictable. Our first order of business was to discuss our plan of action for the next few days, the main salient point being his suggestion to go to Foli the day after we saw the Standardwing. We were then required to wait while he relaxed until 6pm where he agreed to take us to Kali Batu Puteh for some birdwatching.
KBP, especially the outer areas, have been accurately described as being severely degraded habitat. This was largely the case, and perhaps the most surprising fact about this is even in an area infested with shrubs and secondary growth, the call of the Ivory-breasted Pitta echoed all over the area. Some fly-by Blyth’s Hornbills were also observed, the first of hundreds I might add. However, aside from that it was deathly quiet, even as twilight turned to darkness, the night birds weren’t biting. The decision was made, we were going to trek some distance into the Dase Hill trail to search for whatever could be found.
The trek was basically a foretaste of what was to come in a couple of hour’s time, and the signs weren’t good. In the aftermath of some heavy rain, the trails were muddy and slippery, a fact not helped by how erosion had brought many granite boulders to the surface which were subsequently colonised by moss and algae. It was tough navigating such conditions, especially for me, the tallest member of the group, as it meant I had the most unstable center of gravity. I was thus especially concerned with injuring my lower body, and took great pains to observe where I was placing my feet. A couple of hours later, we had only walked in about 500m and heard a half-hearted Moluccan Owlet-nightjar response to a tape. It was now almost 10pm, and we had not even eaten our dinner, let alone contemplate the thought of waking at 2am and walking a further 3.5km into the same trail to reach the Lek. As it were, we double-timed back to the guesthouse, had a quick dinner then showered and turned in for the night.
I heard the alarm at 2am, but my body just refused to warm up. It took Kim Chuah’s persistent banging on the door before I hauled myself out of the relative comfort of the bed. Thankfully, I had taken some time to pack and lay out my gear the night before, and after giving Ding Li a good wake-up slap in the back I was ready to go in 5 minutes. A quick cup of coffee and we were off!
Back on the trail, conditions had not improved a bit. The first big surprise came at the 1km mark. Anu’s house overlooks a river valley, and thanks to the recent showers, the stream had expanded to become a fast-flowing river. My combat boots were waterproof, but the water was easily knee-deep. There was no choice but to perform a river crossing. In the dark, the team parted with their shoes, rolled up their pants and made their way gingerly across the river. The water may have been refreshingly cool, but the boulder covered riverbed made the crossing very treacherous, a problem made worse by the rather murky water which the torches had difficulty penetrating. Thankfully, everyone made it through without incident. Thereafter, the trail was undulating throughout, cutting through numerous small hills and crossing several streams. Most of the team soldiered on, led by a determined Kim Chuah who barked out words of encouragement and helped whoever needed it. It didn’t please me at all when Anu gladly made everyone a walking stick out of bamboo stems but somehow had neglected to give me 1, meaning that I had twice as much difficulty navigating the trail network. Along the way, we found 3 napping Spectacled Monarchs who made excellent photographic subjects, but other than that it was a rather strenuous trek through some rather difficult terrain. In retrospect it still beats Labi Labi where I heard you have to camp overnight in the forest just to reach the lek the following day. Our trek, on the other hand, took a mere 4 hours.
As we neared out destination, our spirits were given a huge boost as the cries of the Wallace’s Standardwing could be heard far and wide. The last part of the trail, ironically, was also the toughest as we ascended the steep side of a small hill to the viewpoint where we would observe the birds. Incidentally, bamboo stems had been buried into the ground here to aid visiting birders
By the time we had reached the lookout, all the pain and sweat that had accumulated throughout the journey evaporated as we watched the unfolding spectacle in front of us. In the earlier parts of the day, they looked more like apparitions than “wanderers from paradise”. The black shadows moved rapidly through the trees, their white standards trailing in their wake like the wings of angels. As the light improved, the shadows melted away and their true form was revealed. Some critics would argue that the Standardwing is a relatively dull Bird of Paradise, indeed it is basically a chocolate brown bird with bright orange legs, white standards and a metallic green breastplate. However, there was great beauty in the combination of all these elements. The first real surprise was that the breastplate could change colour depending on the amount of light shining on it. At certain angles, the breastplate shone a beautiful deep blue colour. The best part was most certainly the parachuting flights. Aside from the static displays, which were fascinating in their own right, in which the birds would fan out their breastplate and vibrate their standards vigorously, the display flights were another matter entirely. In this display, the males would select a prominent perch amongst the dense canopy and take off at about a 45 degree angle into the sky, all the while advertising their presence with their distinct calls. Subsequently, they spread their breastplate and while vibrating their standards, gracefully glide back to their initial perch. Amazing Stuff! Another notable fact was the size of the lek. Throughout recent times, reports have indicated that aside from Labi Labi, most observers only reported seeing small numbers at Foli or at the former roadside lek in KBP. At this lek, on this day there were actually at least 15-17 birds on show, with the highest count being in excess of 20 birds. Ironically, there were only 2 females on hand to observe the males’ flamboyance.
By 7am, the sun had risen over the hill and the Standardwings steadily moved on, presumably to search for breakfast. A few loners remained, mostly young males displaying to each other! Our attention gradually shifted to the other birds in the area. A Sombre Kingfisher called briefly but was not seen. An Ivory-breasted Pitta’s loud call then sent everyone’s adrenaline skyrocketing but after a long vigil, all we were rewarded with was a fleeting glimpse of the pitta as it hopped around the base of the hill. Next on show was the distinctive call of a White-naped Monarch. After some playback, I noticed a white object flirting around the canopy. The bird had come in silently to the tape! For the next few minutes, the bird ran rings over our head, as it listened to its call being repeated over and over. Eventually, Sian managed to get a descent shot of the bird and everyone was happy to have nailed this difficult endemic. Other birds noted in this area were yet another Spectacled Monarch and nesting Shining Flycatcher along the slope of the hill. Overhead, our first Gurney’s Eagle and White Cockatoo treated the more observant among us with brief fly-bys, while the numbers of Blyth’s Hornbills were increasing exponentially as the day progressed.
Eventually, it was time to begin the slow walk back to civilisation. The front-runners on the track back were fortunate to see Dusky Scrubfowl on more than 1 occasion in the area around Dase Hill and a brief Common Paradise Kingfisher near the 1st stream crossing on the way back. Other than that, the walk back was rather unproductive. The last Sombre Kingfisher for the trip was heard midway into the trek but again remained elusive. In the same area, we picked up Golden Bulbul, the most easterly member of a predominantly Oriental family. A prolonged vigil for the Pitta again slightly further on netted everyone good flight views but only Kim Chuah managed a descent perched view this time around. Although a 2nd bird soon responded to playback, both remained unseen.
Eventually, we reached Anu’s home at around noon, where we were treated to some hot tea and delicious homegrown Pineapples and Bananas, which we devoured. Even though it was noon, the strategic location of Anu’s house in a clearing in the midst of the forest meant that birdlife was rather numerous even in the heat of the day. A Moustached Treeswift hawked from a tall tree, while flocks of Metallic Starlings fed on figs in the garden. On a flowering shrub, a Cinnamon-bellied Imperial Pigeon perched motionless, sheltering from the heat. In a nearby figging tree, a flock of 6 Grey-headed Fruit-doves were enjoying lunch, accompanied by a Rufous-bellied Triller. Overhead, the endemic Grey-throated Goshawk, a recent split from the Variable Goshawk, soared in the thermals, before being joined by a Pacific Baza.
Pleased with our success thus far, we bid a temporary farewell to Anu as we trekked the remaining 1km back to our vehicles. Along the way, another Ivory-breasted Pitta frustrated us, while a Moluccan Cuckooshrike perched in a tall tree next to our vehicles provided a fitting end to the morning’s birding.
After a brief but much needed siesta in Sidangoli Indah, it was back to KBP for a afternoon bout of birding. After meeting Anu at the entrance to the Dase Hill trail, the vehicles struggled a little further on into the heart of KBP before we had no choice but to get out and walk. Our target for the day was a spectacular hornbill roost located near a small settlement about 5-6km into the logging road.
The entire length of KBP was probably degraded to some extent. Even this deep in the track, plantations still locked arms with fragments of good forest. With the clear skies shining down on us, birdlife was abundant this afternoon. A Superb Fruit-dove flew parallel to the logging trail, while a Goliath Coucal and its chick clambered awkwardly in the undergrowth. The name of this bird is a bit of a misnomer, as a huge tail largely aided its size! In a small mixed flock, we picked off a Papuan Flowerpecker & a Moluccan Flycatcher amongst the more common Metallic Starlings. Grey-headed Fruit-doves were as usual extremely common, with a huge flock of 20+ birds taking off out of the blue from a tall fig tree. At the settlement itself, a bare tree by the river was host to a group of 4 Moustached Treeswift, while a Red-cheeked Parrot called from high in the canopy but remained elusive for now. The birds continued to flow with Black Sunbirds, Golden Bulbuls and yet more White Cockatoos & Blyth’s Hornbills providing good demonstrations of synchronised flying.
When we finally approached our destination, the first call we heard got us all excited. It was the far-carrying shriek of a Chattering Lory, a much sought-after target bird with a rapidly declining population throughout its range. After some playback, our team scanned the horizon extensively trying to spot the bird. I kept listening to the call, and by fluke I settled on putting my binoculars on a particular Albizia. There it was! The little red dot! Congratulations were in order, albeit we had to admire the bird using our binoculars as we had neglected to take the scope along. Regardless, we had finally nailed the most wanted parrot on these islands, and we actually had perched views of it to boot. It was soon becoming more like a showcase of parrots…Next in line was the shriek of an Ecletus Parrot. After much scanning, we found a male bird in his smart green suit and bright orange bill settling in for the night. As the darkness closed in, we were treated to neat files of White Cockatoos, accompanied by pairs of Ecletus Parrots soaring over our heads. This evening also saw us observe our first pair of Great-billed Parrots, squawking noisily as they joined the evening flight show. However, the stars of the show had to be the squadrons upon squadrons of Blyth’s Hornbills that descended in groups of 6-8 birds, settling into the grove of Albizias before us. The group mingled with equally large numbers of Rainbow Bee-eaters that seemed content to fly around aimlessly over their roosting areas, making the whole scene a spectacle to behold. Late-comers were often chased from presumably the better roosting spots, and noisy squabbles erupted everywhere as 100s of these great birds crowded into a select few Albizias. A small flock of rogue Long-billed Crows soon joined the fray, apparently enjoying mobbing the stragglers who were having difficulty finding their place in the crowd. The evening cacophony was further enhanced by the eerie calls of the Common Bush-hen and the monotone “chonks” of the Large-tailed Nightjar.
Eventually, night descended on this spectacle and the music of the day gradually died down, replaced yet again by a Moluccan Scops-owl that just refused to show. On our way back to the vehicles, a beautiful Masked Flying Fox proved an excellent distraction, while close encounters with yet more Moluccan Scops-owls and a single Moluccan Owlet-nightjar were had, but they continued to be frustratingly elusive. Our plight was also not helped by the weather, which had now opened up.
ALAS! The longest day of the trip came to a satisfactory close.
Over dinner last night, the decision had been made to spend the following 2 nights in Foli, as KBP obviously was extremely hard birding and we had not even had a whiff of many of the forest species found on the island. As such, we were now headed to Daru, the gateway for the crossing to Foli. Along the way, Ninny had arranged for us to stop midway along some mountain road for a bout of morning birding.
The signs were not good. We awoke to the sound of torrential rain interacting with the tiled roof of the guesthouse. We loaded our pre-packed baggage into the vehicles and prepared for the 3-hr ride in front of us. The rain continued relentlessly even into the early morning, and it didn’t help that partly due to yesterday’s exertion, even though the vehicle had already arrived at the pre-arranged birding site, I had fallen asleep in the van and had difficulty waking up. This problem seemed to be shared by everyone in the vehicle. Eventually, with great difficulty, I dragged myself out of bed to the shout of a Goliath Coucal sheltering from the rain in a tall tree. The brolly was unleashed, and the art of 1-handed birding was further refined. As we progressed down the mountain road, right on cue the weather seemed to clear up and the birds responded positively to this change. As we approached another small settlement by a bridge, more species were being added to the list. A pair of Blue-and-white Kingfishers were sunning themselves as the Sun finally broke the cloud cover. Simultaneously, pairs of White Cockatoos and White-eyed Imperial Pigeons were doing the same. An unidentified Alcedo zipped over the road, while on the road itself some Long-billed Crows were scavenging on the multitude of road-kills, mostly reptiles. In the undergrowth, the sweet song of the Shining Flycatcher and harsh chirps of the Golden Bulbul further brightened our mood. The star of the show had to be a perched Moluccan Goshawk, which gave great views as it sunned itself on a small roadside tree before being flushed by a fast-moving truck.
As we moved away from the plantation and into a secondary growth habitat, the activity continued. A large flock of 8 White Cockatoos were feeding in a coconut plantation accompanied by an animated flock of Red-flanked Lorikeets, our first for the trip. Watching the parrots from a dead tree was a Common Cicadabird, while the ever-elusive Common Bush-hen called from the reeds.
Eventually, it was time to move on, but not before adding Sacred Kingfisher to the list. After a brief breakfast stop, we sat out the remaining 2+ hours of the journey and arrived in the time of Daru in the midst of its weekly Market Day. Amidst the chaotic atmosphere that characterised such an event, Ninny and Anu went to sort out our ride while we were content to observe the proceedings from a distance. Many locals were rather inquisitive and there was a certain feeling among the group that we were being observed from the top-down like fish in an aquarium. Some of the bolder individuals even came up to us and engaged in some small talk as we continued to await the results of our enquiry.
Eventually, a rather longish ferry was chartered and we waited our turns to board the ship after our luggage. Ding Li and I had the luxury of being man-lifted into the boat as we were unwilling to take off our army boots and the locals seized the initiative to do us a favour. What a picture-perfect moment!
The 1.5hr long crossing was rather uneventful though rather nervy at times as the boat cut through some of the bigger waves. En-route, there were scores of terns that seemed to follow large shoals of fish. There were large numbers of Bridled Terns, and an equally large number of Common Terns, possibly inter-mixed with some Aleutian Terns. The only reason why we were unable to differentiate them is because nobody in the group was familiar with Aleutian Terns and the boat was constantly on the moving, meaning the time we had to observe these birds was very limited. A small number of Frigatebirds loitered along the edges of the bigger tern flocks, waiting for the right moment to steal some unfortunate tern’s lunch.
At long last, the village of Foli appeared on the horizon. As we dropped anchor in the shallow water, we had to wade through the last 50m onto the shore. The village of Foli was nothing more than a cluster of buildings built around a road junction. The most impressionable piece of scenery was the sight of a mosque and a church on opposite sides of the junction in the village, yet another sign of the island’s troubled past. The homestay was situated east of the town on a small hill that lay next to the upward sloping logging track that led to the forest.
After settling into our new accommodation for the next 2 nights and fortified by a welcome drink of fresh coconut, we set out in the afternoon to bird the 2km mark of the logging track. We were taken there via motorcycle, which proved to be a rather efficient way of navigating the undulating terrain, which would otherwise have been a rather energy-sapping process.
Upon arrival at the 2km mark, we were greeted by a first-hand look at the destruction that Malaysian logging companies had brought to this land. Entire hillsides had been cleansed, but pristine forests stretched as far as the eye could see beyond a buffer zone of approximately 1km from the logging track, a sign that the loggers had yet to reach the mountainous interior. The first thing that struck us was the abundance of parrots. Ecletus Parrots were a permanent feature of the landscape, with 1 soaring over our heads every few minutes. Likewise, White Cockatoos and Red-cheeked Parrots were also equally common. Some of the forest denizens were also present in this patch of secondary growth on the edge of the forest. An appropriately named Drab Whistler foraged in a flowering tree, while a Cream-throated White-eye responded aggressively to playback, producing a powerful musical chirp from its vocal chords as it literally flew into the recorder. White-bellied Cuckooshrikes seemed to be perched on every tall tree. As twilight beckoned, Violet-necked Lories treated us to impressive aerial displays as flocks of 5-8 birds maneuvered skillfully through the trees. Great-billed Parrots flew noisily across the valley, as did Pied Imperial Pigeons. On a bare stump, a pair of Moluccan Starlings seemed content to enjoy the sunset, and were soon joined by a pair of Dusky Honeyeaters.
The star of the evening parade had to be a Dollarbird of some sort that was making display flights from 1 of the few remaining tall emergents. Ding Li and I broke into a run and covered the 200m of terrain quickly, while the rest of the group sauntered along. Speculation was rife as the lighting was too poor to make out any colour, even with a scope. Anu was insistent that it was a Purple Dollarbird, but the rest of us were not convinced, as the field guide had mentioned that the Common Dollarbird occurred in this area as well. The Dollarbird stayed on right till last light, leaving us with a bitter aftertaste at the thought of a mega-bird missed.
We decided to conduct owling a little later, to take advantage of the peak calling times between 8-11pm. After a quick meal, we took turns on the 2 motorcycles and slowly plodded back up to the 2km mark. The night chorus in Foli was far better than KBP. Almost immediately, the distant hoots of a Moluccan Boobook were heard, but it seemed immune to playback. A closer Moluccan Scops-owl again eluded our best efforts, as did a Moluccan Owlet-nightjar, which came in to the tape but flew off when it apparently observed movement in the crowd.
We decided to proceed down the Dollarbird Ridge trail at the 2km mark, hoping for better luck. In a case of déjà vu, it was as slippery and muddy as the Dase Hill trail, and some members of the group wanted to turn back as it was getting late.
Back at the entrance to the trail, I decided to give the Owlet-nightjar another shot, as it was high on my list of must-see birds. Incredibly, 1 responded immediately to playback. Anu was just as efficient, spotlighting it on an albizia branch at eye level by the roadside. The group’s weariness evaporated as we focused on the prize in front of us. The Moluccan Owlet-nightjar must be 1 of the oddest nightbirds around, as it seems to be a cross between a frogmouth and an owl. The upright stance that it maintains is reminiscent of a frogmouth, while its large compound eyes, which look like those of a Scops-owl, made its face rather comical. The extremely obliging bird, incidentally a rufous morph, stayed at the same perch for an incredible half-an-hour, allowing the photographers to get some simply breathtaking shots of it as it posed before the camera, undisturbed by the torches being aimed at it. Eventually, it flew down the valley, seemingly responding to another more distant calling bird. My conclusion was that the bird was probably some lovesick male in search of a mate.
Almost simultaneously, we encountered an interesting looking snake on the road. The snake looked like a boa constrictor but its exact identity could not be verified. Nevertheless, it was quick to become another subject for scrutiny as photographers took snap shots from every conceivable angle. What an exciting end to the day!
It was another early start for the day. This time, the target was simple. We would erase the bitter aftertaste and nail the Purple Dollarbird once and for all. In order to accomplish this, we had to trek up Dollarbird Ridge, some distance from the entrance to the trail at the 2km mark and a regular stakeout for the bird.
Once again the motorcycles took us in waves to the 2km mark. The dawn chorus in Foli was special and totally unlike anything I had ever seen elsewhere in Asia. Scores and scores of Red-flanked Lorikeets took over every Albizia tree in the area, foraging actively through the leaves in search of breakfast. A smaller number of Violet-necked Lories mixed with them, and careful scrutiny of the huge flocks was rewarded with the sight of several Moluccan Hanging Parrots joining in the feeding frenzy. It was an unforgettable spectacle that we were to observe every morning, where dozens of parrots of numerous species would gather en-masse to have breakfast. Their timing was so precise that by 8am, the flocks would have all but disappeared from the Albizia groves.
When all members of the team were present, we started down the trail for the 2nd time in 12 hours. Unlike the trail at Dase Hill, this trail was far less intimidating in the day compared to after dark. Incidentally, Anu seemed to take a lot of pride in mentioning that he had paid some local boys to cut the trail prior to our arrival, and it was pretty obvious that the trail had been overgrown judging by the large clumps of vegetation that lay on its side. For the more perceptive readers, you will also be right when you concluded that this would be 1 of those hidden costs which he raised up to us later, but I digress.
The first part of the trek was rather uneventful, with the trail sloping gradually downhill right to a river where a family of hunters had made an encampment. After crossing the river, the trail once again climbed gradually towards the summit of a small hill. It was here that the action really started to get going.
As the front-runners marched up the hill, the unmistakable display flights of several (!!!) Dollarbirds were readily apparent, as were their noisy squawks. With our pulses racing, we scrambled up the hill to what was a truly magnificent sight. On a rather short bare tree on the summit of Dollarbird Ridge we observed 4 Purple Dollarbirds perched in close proximity to each other. The sheer number was hard to believe and even Anu could not help but make the remark that on previous occasions when he brought American & British groups to the ridge, they had difficulty locating even 1 bird, let alone 4 of this very scarce and localized endemic. We spent the better part of the next hour watching these birds as they displayed over the ridge, trying to find the best angle where the purple sheen would be the most distinct. They actually did not look very much different from the Common Dollarbird, and we ultimately concluded that both species would look black in poor light, leading to the conclusion that the Dollarbird on the logging road the previous evening could well have been a Purple as well, as there was no sign of any Common Dollarbirds in this part of the woods.
Although the Dollarbirds were the stars of the show, a lot of the other birds were also in evidence. White-eyed Imperial Pigeons and Red-cheeked Parrots came to feed in the fruiting shrubs on the summit, as did some Moluccan Starlings and a pair of Golden Bulbuls. Overhead, Pied Imperial Pigeons made fast, direct flights across the ridge. Further down the trail, another small mixed flock yielded great views of a pair of Halmahera Orioles as they foraged just above eye-level, accompanied by the ever-present Rufous-bellied Trillers and Cream-throated White-eyes. The Ridge seemed a magnet for mixed flocks and another further along the trail finally produced a Halmahera Cuckooshrike amongst the locally abundant White-bellied.
Eventually, the trail sloped steeply down into a gully in what appeared to be virgin forest. According to Anu, this was where he suspected another Standardwing lek was located. In fact, as we were watching the Dollarbirds, Standardwing calls could be heard all along the ridge. It was a short and rather treacherous walk through the gully filled with slippery granite boulders before the trail ended in what looked like an abandoned campsite along the banks of a stream. The quality of habitat here was excellent and the site was extremely promising although it was a pity we had arrived here late thanks to all that activity in the earlier parts of the trail. Nevertheless, front-runners Kim Chuah and Ding Li had good looks at a Common Paradise Kingfisher in this area. Incidentally, this stream is also the area where Anu and a few lucky birdwatchers have observed Invisible Rail come to feed in the late afternoon. Anu himself claims to have heard it regularly in this area.
By the time we had trekked back to the Dollarbird Ridge in the late morning, the Dollarbirds had disappeared, along with most of the activity as the Sunny spell meant that the temperature was steadily increasing. The hunters had returned to their camp and allowed us to use it as a rest stop. Along the river, another stubborn Ivory-breasted Pitta gave only brief views as it flew from branch to branch in the dense canopy.
After another noon siesta, we decided to travel deeper into the logging road towards more virgin forest deeper in so as to increase our chances of seeing the few remaining forest specialties we would need. In the late afternoon, we were brought to the 6km mark of the logging track. The habitat here was much more promising compared to the 2km mark and even though it had been logged there were numerous emergent trees here and large tracts of undisturbed forest could still be found close to the logging track. However, storm clouds were brewing over our heads and consequently birdlife was rather lacking. We heard our first Paradise Crows here, as well as Red-bellied Pitta. Amongst the few birds that we saw were more Halmahera Cuckooshrikes and most of the common parrots. As evening fell, we were again witness to a great spectacle as more than 30 Great-billed Parrots flew over this section of the trail in waves, with some even perching on the taller trees for some great views. It was great to see so many of this rapidly declining parrot still thriving in the forests of Foli despite the ongoing logging, and the spectacle alone more than made up for the otherwise uneventful walk back to our lodge. Night birding was again frustrating with distant Boobooks and Scops-owls again as we slowly covered the 6km back to civilization. As you may have already guessed, we had long since given up on seeing any owls on this trip. Nevertheless, the km 6 forest had great promise and everyone was raring to bird this stretch on our final morning in Foli.
Our final morning in Foli, and we awoke to the news that 1 of the motorcycles had broken down and was probably not available for the morning. It meant that reaching the KM 6 forest would take considerable amount of time. Undaunted, we decided to walk and bird the earlier parts of the trail while the motorcycle slowly ferried each member of the 6 to the ultimate destination. First birds of the morning were a pair of Pacific Bazas seen just after the first slope of the logging track. The parrots were out in force again as usual but otherwise nothing of interest was noted. Eventually, it was my turn on the motorcycle and I was full of anticipation as the motorcycle raced down the logging track.
KM 6 was a whole different world and activity was fast and furious. The moment I alighted I was overwhelmed by a huge mixed flock that was moving through an Albizia grove. The parrots were out in force even here but the mixed flock contained so much it was hard to see everything all at once. Drab Whistler, Moluccan Flycatcher, Common Cicadabird, Halmahera Cuckooshrike, Black Sunbird… the names were being mouthed like water! Eventually, 1 of the names caught my attention and after much scrutinizing of the brown jobs I found what I was looking for. A pair of endemic White-streaked Friarbirds were squabbling with each other and gave great views as they did so, the first lifers for the morning.
Anu was pulling all the stops on his last day and we were thankful that for once he seemed really into it. Further along the trail, he flushed a Great Cuckoo-dove which thankfully flew parallel to the logging track towards us, providing great flight views. Next, he identified the call of a Scarlet-breasted Fruit-dove and we were treated to excellent views of a pair of these magnificent endemics. As the trail gradually sloped downwards, our pulses started racing as we heard the distinct call of a Red-bellied Pitta by the roadside in a dense clump of wild ginger. The opening exchanges with the tape were unsuccessful, and Anu, perhaps knowing something we didn’t, walked on. We heard his cry no less than 5 minutes later and we rushed to where he was, scoping out the 3rd and final endemic Fruit-dove: A beautiful male Blue-capped perched high in 1 of the emergent trees. We returned to try unsuccessfully for the Pitta, while Anu continued walking up the trail. We were all made to regret letting him go when he screamed Paradise-crow shortly thereafter. Utilising some of our soldiering skills, Ding Li and I dashed up the section of trail as fast as our gear allowed. Alas, both of us only managed to see what looked like a pair of Large-billed Crows glide down the valley. What an anticlimax! Along with it, our last chance to complete Halmahera’s Bird Of Paradise Duo was dashed as the distant sound of the returning motorcycle could be heard.
Back at the ginger clump, Kim Chuah scored the perfect birthday present when he happened to be seated at the right place at the right time to see the pitta hop into a small window in the dense undergrowth. It was classic LKC for those who know him as he is the only 1 in Singapore who seems to have some karma with Pittas, having seen 17 species thus far and well on his way to completing the family in the near-future.
As we bid our goodbyes to Foli and departed back to Daru a couple of hours later, the Paradise Crow had left such a bitter aftertaste that it almost felt like a case of gastric flu. Was Anu to blame for wandering off alone? Regardless, it was time to head to Tobelo for the final target: Beach Kingfisher. The crossing again produced lots of terns with dubious identities, especially the Common Tern look-alikes. Back in Daru, it was another long 2hr+ drive to Tobelo where the local bank there incredibly directed us to a local Chinese merchant to change our currency!!! What was even more incredible was that the merchant’s rate was actually much better than even the rate at Manado Airport.
With new-found cash in our wallets and an excellent lunch at 1 of Ninny’s recommended eating places, we headed down to the docks at Tobelo to bargain for a boat which would take us to 1 of the small islands off the coast of Tobelo. After an unnerving 30 minutes of waiting in which we observed hordes of dock workers idling around and looking at us with cold hard stares, we finally managed to secure a boat to begin our final assault for the day.
Pulau Tiup Tiup is a small circular island about 50mins from the Tobelo coast. According to Anu, Ben King and a number of tour groups regularly visited it for the kingfisher. The waters surrounding the city were heavily polluted but as we traveled further away the wealth of undersea life was readily apparent as a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins joined us and the sail of a sailfish cut through the surface of the water on more than 1 occasion. As we dropped anchor on the island itself, the scene of birdwatchers jumping out of the boat and up the sandy beach seemed reminiscent of some of the beach assault scenes from WWII. Only this time, the enemy surrendered quickly as within 5 minutes we observed a Beach Kingfisher fly into a Sea Almond tree and call from a low branch.
With the target bird in hand, we spent the next 30mins trying to help the photographers get a good shot of the bird. However, as it seems to be the case with all the Beach Kingfishers, the bird was far too wary for us to even get close to it. Birdlife was also extremely limited on the small island which took only 10mins to circle and was infested with land hermit crabs. The only other feathered denizens seen were some Pacific Reef-egrets and Olive-backed Sunbirds as well as a lone Willie Wagtail.
Back on the mainland, it was back to the road and a long 4hr drive back to Sidangoli. The drivers seemed to be in a rush to get somewhere and the next 4hrs were harrowing at times as they sped along the mountain roads at speeds in excess of 100km/h with very limited use of brakes. As such, the relief was tangible when we finally arrived back in Sidangoli Indah where we would spend our final night on the island.
It was our final morning in Halmahera and a last chance for the Paradise Crow. We chartered a lone vehicle for the morning and were taken back to KBP. We birded the area around Anu’s trail and towards the village in small groups, with Ding Li opting to go into the trails while the photographers hung back behind us on the main road. All three groups concluded the morning with different results, but overall it was pretty disappointing. Ding Li and Andrew Tay managed great views of the Ivory-breasted Pitta in the trail and near the settlement by the river respectively, while Ding Li additionally also had good perched views of Superb Fruit-dove and heard another Red-bellied Pitta. On the road, we managed views of White-streaked Friarbird, Goliath Coucal and Common Golden Whistler to name a few, but no Paradise Crow. Incidentally, it was overcast due to torrential rain the night before. On the way out, the team saw another Moluccan Goshawk perched in a bare tree, which became the final bird we would see on Halmahera proper.
Back at the guesthouse, a convoy of rickshaws took us to the harbour where Ninny had already secured a boat and we were on our way. This time, thanks to the calm seas and a speedboat whose motors were working well, we reach Ternate within 40mins. Subsequently, it was a long wait in the stuffy confines of Ternate airport and then back into the stuffy Lion Air plane for the flight back to Manado.
Once back in Manado, we bid farewell to Ninny as she returned to her family. Her help and guidance over the past 4 days had been outstanding and we all took turns thanking her for helping us plan and execute such a successful trip. We then headed back to Tangkoko, or more specifically, the Valley for an afternoon bout of birding.
The highlight of the road trip incidentally also occurred close to the Valley. As we passed a group of workers repairing the hill slope after a landslide, we noticed 1 of them waving a bird tied to a string at us. We stopped the vehicle and got out to investigate. Incredibly, the worker had somehow managed to get hold of a specimen of the globally endangered Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher! We assessed the condition of the bird, noting that it was only recently captured as it was rather energetic and showed no sign of physical damage. As expected, the man wanted to sell us the bird, and after much debate we felt it was in our best interest to free the bird as some members of the group could not bear to watch such a jewel been restrained in that manner. The man’s initial asking price was for $20 bucks, but it was obvious he was desperate to get rid of the bird and hence he accepted when we named a rock-bottom price and the bird became our property for a mere 4 dollars. Subsequently, after photographing the bird, we gingerly untied the string knotted around his leg and then released it. It was heartening to see the bird zip off strongly into the forest below without knocking into any scenery. Hopefully, the bird will learn to distance himself from humans in the near-future.
Activity by now was rather intense. The Sun was up and the valley was alive. Coincidentally, Jemmy was also birding the area with a group of rangers and pointed out a perched Sulawesi Serpent-eagle, a lifer for all and a sign of things to come. I was playing the role of bird guide now as I pointed out more lifers for the rest in the form of Yellow-sided Flowerpecker and Brown Cuckoo-dove to name a few before the cry of Sulawesi Dwarf Hornbill sent everyone running back to the vehicle. At the same time, flocks of Golden-mantled Racquet-tails shot overhead, accompanied by their rarer Yellow-breasted cousins. It would however take a tense 20mins before the flock of Sulawesi Dwarf Hornbills showed themselves in a obscured fruiting fig. It was hard to imagine how small they actually were, as they looked more like oversized pigeons than hornbills.
More mixed flocks came in and we were soon overwhelmed scanning through the wealth of birds moving through us. Kim Chuah was lucky enough to spot a pair of perched Yellow-breasted Racquet-tails and a brief Sulawesi Pygmy Woodpecker which was missed by the rest of us. Other birds on show were more of the same but the sheer variety of colour found on the Sulawesi birds made it a pleasant change compared to Halmahera’s mostly dull template of white, black and grey.
Over dinner that night, Andrew Chow and I had opted to bird the Valley again tomorrow in the hopes of securing perched views of Yellow-breasted Racquet-tail as well as follow up on reports of Sulawesi Crested Myna in the area. These were 2 birds I had missed on my previous trip and I was hoping to correct that statistic. On the other hand, the rest of the group opted to go back to the forest to search for Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher, a bird which Kim Chuah deeply wanted to see.
Our final morning of birding for the trip was spent setting our plan in motion as we split into 2 groups. On my side, the morning was rather uneventful as it the temperature increased rapidly and by 0830 activity had died down. I was not helped by wary pairs of Yellow-breasted Racquet-tails which did not visit the fruiting fig like yesterday but were instead content to call from the roadside trees before flying away as I approached. After much frustration, I managed to secure descent views of a pair perched just off the main road briefly before they realized I was there and flew off. The fruiting fig itself attracted the Dwarf Hornbills again along with scores of Black-naped Fruit-doves. At one point, there were at least 5 on the same branch. Other birds seem on this morning included Sulawesi Babbler, a pair of Ashy Woodpeckers and more of the same from yesterday like Finch-billed Mynas, Yellow-billed Malkohas, Knobbed Hornbills, Sulawesi Black Pigeon & Finch-billed Myna amongst others. However, the lack of any Sulawesi Crested Mynas was a major disappointment.
Group 2 fared slightly better as they came to terms with the incredibly low-density of birds within the core area of TKK. Nevertheless, they secured 2 sightings of the Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher and several pairs of Green-backs. The star bird for the group that morning must have been a Small Sparrowhawk foraging on the ground which everyone had good views of.
Alas, the trip had come to an end and as we headed back to Manado and eventually back to Singapore, we reflected on the great week of birding that had been enjoyed by all. Naturally, this is where my story ends too. Even though it is 17 pages long (in MS Word format), I hope you enjoy reading the report as much as I have recounting my story to you. Last but not least, it is now the peak season for Sulawesi and Halmahera birding and it is my wish that this report will aid all readers now and in the future by giving them a foretaste of what to expect when they embark on a quest to see some of the greatest birds on the planet and how to go about finding them.
Until next time…