Sumba – Indonesia – Where Everything Went Just Right

Indonesia, a dream destination for anyone who enjoys tropical mountains, white sand beaches, warm ocean water and gorgeous landscapes — also a dream destination for anyone interested in the myriad of bird species found there. Both Ross and I are super excited to be in Indonesia, as neither of us have ever been here before. We tend to LOVE Southeast Asian countries and we are hoping that we will love our time in Indonesia just as much because we are going to be spending 4 months here! (Technically a little less for me but that’s a story for another day!)

Anyway, we are spending 4 months in Indonesia because what other country could you spend that much time in and still not cover even half of it?! Indonesia is an interesting country made up of over 17,000 various-sized volcanic islands! It also happens to be the home of more endemic birds than any other country in the world. Over the course of 4 months we are hoping to put a dent in this country’s endemic bird population.  Indonesia is currently home to 600-ish endemic species of birds, but with taxonomy being kind of a mess (to put it bluntly), this number could be drastically different once it is all sorted out and we learn exactly what constitutes as a species. (Technically the number is already drastically different depending on which authority you base your list on, but that’s a whole other argument.) Either way, Indonesia is among the most biodiverse regions on earth and new species are still being described. For those unfamiliar with the distinct (and likely most famous) biogeographic boundary known as Wallace’s Line that runs directly through Indonesia, I would highly recommend reading up about the fascinating split between the wildlife on one side of the line compared to the other. But in case you choose not to, I’ll just quote Wallace himself from his book The Malay Archipelago, “In Bali we have Barbets, Fruit thrushes and Woopeckers; on passing over to Lombok we see these no more, but on Lombok we have an abundance of Cockatoos, Honeysuckers, and Brush-turkeys which we do not see in Bali or further west.”

Essentially somewhere in the mid 19th century, a British explorer/naturalist/scholar, aka Wallace, discovered a line separating two totally different faunal worlds. Indonesia happens to show this firsthand with Bali and Lombok being separated by only 22 miles of ocean and yet having totally different mammals and birds from one another. If that isn’t enough proof that this country is a must visit for anyone working on their life list, then I don’t know what is.

Clearly I find this stuff fascinating, but in case you don’t, let me just get on with why you came here in the first place, to read about the first part of our Indonesian trip, Sumba!

This shows the island of Sumba for those not familiar with the location of all of the islands!

When we first arrived on the small island of Sumba we coordinated two motorbikes to drive us to a nearby bridge so we could flush a buttonquail and then take us to the middle of the island where we would be staying. Transportation is a bit more expensive than we had expected, especially since coming directly from the Philippines where transportation is oddly very cheap. We haggled over the price a bit and eventually agreed to pay Rp500,000 (~$35) for the rest of the day for two motorbikes.

The motorbikes drove us to the bridge and we began our walk up a grassy hillside hoping to flush our small endemic ground bird target. We quickly flushed several Australian Bushlarks before almost stepping on a Sumba Buttonquail! The birds are notorious for staying hidden on the ground for as long as possible and flushing only when they have to. In about an hour’s time of walking the grassy hillside, we flushed 5 Sumba Buttonquails!

 

We hopped back on our motorbikes and for the next hour and a half rode to the town of Lewa and found our basecamp for the next few days, Johnnie’s Homestay. The room was very basic, and I mean BASIC. We had a bed, a single lightbulb, and a plastic chair in the room and nothing else. The room wasn’t much, but it was doable.

There are a few main birding sites in Lewa, Km 51 and then the National Park. Km 51 is fairly close by so we headed there for the afternoon to get our bearings and figure out the area. It took a bit of searching to find the right trail, but we soon located Pale-shouldered Cicadabird, Spectacled Monarch, Black-naped Fruit-dove and Sumba Drongo. We stayed until after dark as a few of our main targets in the area were night birds. The night was productive with excellent views of a perched Mees’s Nightjar and Little Sumba Boobook. It was hard to be disappointed with that kind of finish!

 

We headed to bed and opted to come back to this area early the next morning. To say the morning was productive would be an understatement. The area was very birdy and we easily picked up nearly all of our targets. We were very fortunate to have found Red-naped Fruit-dove and Sumba Green Pigeon so easily, both birds that can be tricky to find if they are perched quietly in a tree. We also managed to find Sumba Flycatcher, Sumba Flowerpecker, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher, Wallacean Cuckooshrike, and Chestnut-backed Thrush,­ leaving us with one main target for the area Sumba Brown Flycatcher. This drab brown flycatcher isn’t much to look at, but it was the last target for the area still alluding us. We walked up and down the trail several times playing the sound and were wondering what to do. We continued walking back and forth along the trail stopping in areas that looked good seriously thinking about giving up but eventually we found a responsive Sumba Brown Flycatcher perched in a tree that we had walked under no less than a dozen times! With such a productive morning, we only had 3 day targets left for the island, a hornbill, a lorikeet and a cockatoo and 2 more night targets, a barn owl and another boobook.

 

We decided to head back to town, grab lunch, and check out the National Park. By National Park, I don’t mean any kind of fancy “park.” I simply mean a protected area with a highway that runs through it. We hitched a ride in a car and got off along the highway and proceeded to walk along the road. The road goes through forest and can be a good site to see a few of our remaining targets. Unfortunately we never did find the hornbill, lorikeet or cockatoo, and before long the National Park rangers found us. We were informed that we had to have permission to be in the national park, something we found strange because hundreds of cars enter every day without permission. We spoke to a guy who told us we had to pay a fee if we wanted to look for birds, so we simply told him we were walking as a form of transportation and after Ross put his camera away promising not to use it, he left us alone. Unfortunately not long after another park ranger came up and talked to us. We again told him we put the camera away and were just going to walk the road. We weren’t sure why this was such a big deal and proceeded to have a man on a motorbike follow us for the remainder of the afternoon which was slightly annoying. We believe they wanted us to pay a fee (an exuberant one at that) and yet the roads were covered with trash and the only place to walk was along the highway with trucks and motorbikes wizzing by every second. Km 51 was a much more enjoyable place to bird than this so we were very happy to have most of our targets in the bag.

 

We spent the next 4 hours walking the road back in the direction of Lewa, and saw very few birds. Eventually, just before dark, the man on the motorbike left since we were now out of the “park”. Along the road in a good patch of forest, we played tape for Sumba Boobook and quickly had one fly in to a nearby tree. We fired off a few shots with the camera but the flash wasn’t working! We had no idea why and after trying to sort it out and failing, the bird gave up on us and flew out. We never did manage to get him to come back despite hearing it call from nearby. We then attempted to try for Least Sumba Boobook that we had had the night prior and again had one perch in a tree. It took another failed photo attempt to realize the flash was in the wrong setting. We finally got it sorted out but thanks to our mishap with the camera gear, couldn’t manage the greatest photo. We finished up for the night and started on the walk back to town hoping to hitch a ride. As we were walking we had a Barn Owl fly over, one bird we wanted to see just in case the taxonomy is ever sorted out and this becomes a separate species. We joked because we had hundreds of people pass by us over the course of the afternoon (9 of which stopped and asked me to take a photo with them) and when we were finally looking to hitch a ride out, traffic ceased to exist. Of all people, the man whose restaurant we had eaten in for lunch came looking for us because he wanted to show us an owl. We didn’t really care to see the owl since we were so tired and had already seen all of the owls, but we were happy to not have to walk the remaining 7 kilometers back to town. We tipped him for his services, ate dinner at his restaurant, and scheduled for him to pick us up the next morning at 4am to drive us to Km 88, a site where we hoped to get our last remaining targets.

We woke up super early the next day wondering if we could manage to see the last of our three remaining targets. We had GPS coordinates for a trail along Km 88 and managed to find the point with no difficulty. It was still dark when we arrived at our lookout point, so we waited around until daybreak hoping that from this vantage point on the grassy hillside overlooking the forest we could scan and find our targets in a tree. Ross had a great morning and had a very brief look at two Orange-crested Cockatoos flying by. I on the other hand only managed to hear them. Ross then found Sumba Hornbills perched in a very distant tree half obscured by leaves and as he was watching they flew off. Finally as he was scanning, he found a perched raptor and just as he was about to zoom in two Marigold’s Lorikeets flew into the field of view and he was able to watch them in the scope as they flew off. Seriously I didn’t see a single one of these targets! Thankfully all was not lost on me and we soon found a closer, although still distant, pair of Sumba Hornbills in a tree that we both could see in the scope! And then as I was scanning I likely got on the same two Marigold’s Lorikeets that Ross had seen earlier flying back in the other direction! I then had another flock of 2 and another flock of 4 lorikeets fly by again bringing our total of lorikeets up to 8 for the morning. Although Ross had “seen” the cockatoo, the look was so brief and so distant that he hardly wanted to count it. We spent the next hour scanning and eventually decided to walk up to the other side of the hill to see if there was any other vantage point from over there. Of course Ross left the recording gear behind and when we walked over we had fantastic views of a Sumba Myzomela singing in a nearby tree. Technically I still needed this bird so finding one here was clutch! Of course Ross wouldn’t have the recording gear when a cooperative bird is nearby. He decided to go back to where we were standing to retrieve it. Before long I hear Ross scream my name. I came running already knowing why he was calling me because I had heard them too – cockatoos! I sprinted back to where we were standing and we finally had nice looks at two Orange-crested Cockatoos perched in a nearby snag. You just have to laugh because in all of the commotion and wanting to run there as fast as possible, the scope was left at the other location. We stood from this location scanning for two hours and just when we don’t have our scope the birds fly in?! You can’t make this stuff up! Ross sprinted back to get the scope and just before he got back the birds flew off! Uncanny how they knew to come and go at just the right times!

 

We had come for a few targets and our morning was a success. Our best looks at the cockatoos were at 8AM and after that we spent about 15 more minutes with the myzomela before walking back out to the road and hopping in the back of a pickup truck to ride the 30 km back to town.

Overall, Sumba was amazing. In just 2 days we were able to find all of our targets! We had originally allotted 5 days and thus put ourselves a bit ahead of schedule. We managed to talk to the airline about our scheduled flight and for the price of rp44,000 (aka approximately $3.00), we were able to change our flight and head to the island of Timor 2 days ahead of schedule.

We hopped on a plane and hoped we could be as successful on Timor as we were on Sumba! Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Sumba – Indonesia – Where Everything Went Just Right

  1. Good job!
    As I will visit Java and central and southern molucas next november I will defenetly follow your trip. All in all 4 months seems no long enough to cover all Indonesia.

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    • Exactly! 4 months wouldn’t be long enough at all! We are spending 4 months, but only covering East of Wallace’s Line, except for a quick trip to Bali and East Java! The rest will have to be on a different trip!

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